Raymond Stock is Middle East Specialist: Scholar, Writer and Arabic-English Translator
1) Is the arab youth in the Middle East facing a critical dilemma with westernization and its values? Do they really want to live under an Islamic mindset and be open to westernization without any conflict? Is Arab activism of Muslim secularism growing against classical Islamic laws?
RS: Arab youth appear to be completely in flux. In recent years, there has been a growing trend of both secular and Islamic influences, along with a rising Islamist trend overall. But the extreme overreach of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt alienated millions of previously sympathetic citizens of all ages, and especially the youth, who are exposed to more information (of varying quality) via social media and the Internet, and typically have a keener sense of outrage at injustice and hypocrisy. A similar phenomenon is playing itself out in Libya and Tunisia, and apparently even in Gaza and elsewhere, though not yet on the same scale as in Egypt.
As for secularism vs. "classical Islamic laws," in my view, the two are incompatible, particularly when a literalist interpretation of the Islamic texts prevails. Yet even traditional, mainstream Islam does not recognize the equality of all citizens according to gender or religion, and even condones institutions like slavery, which still persists in a number of ways in parts of the Muslim world. Only if Islam as a whole experiences the equivalent of the Enlightenment, as fortunately occurred in the West, will be there be any hope of a healthy degree of secularism becoming the norm, and the vicious ideology of Islamism (in which there are no genuine moderates) becoming a rarity instead of the constant and growing monster (despite its major setback in Egypt), that it now is in both the Muslim world and beyond.
2) Is an Islamic State a better path to increase financial growth, politics and rights to the land for Arab countries in The Middle East, than for say a state ruled by dictatorial regimes?
RS: Your question assumes that only those two negative paradigms are possible in the Middle East. They are certainly the dominant ones on the whole, as Israel remains the only stable democratic state in the Middle East. The Arab Spring, which primarily empowered the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists throughout the region, has not brought genuine democracy, because that requires a separation between mosque and state. Nor can Islamism deliver economic prosperity–it is not focused on life in this world and material prosperity, but on imposing shari'a and recreating a supposedly perfect Islamic order that never really existed fourteen hundred years ago. It is also at war with the rest of the world, and hence can never provide a safe environment for investment.
The overwhelming rejection of Mohamed Morsi's Islamist dictatorship, which came to power in a close and disputed election, probably wouldn't have happened if he had placed the same priority on economic development that he did on exerting the MB's control and and inserting those loyal to his ideology in every branch of the state and society. Perhaps if he had followed the initially softer, slower, craftier approach of Recep Tayyip Edorgan in Turkey, whose decade of increasing economic boom has masked the creeping encroachment of his very radical beliefs and his ever-more heavy handed approach to dissent, Morsi might have lasted a lot longer in power. However, even Erdogan's real goals and character have finally been exposed to the point where a serious mass revolt broke out in Istanbul's Taqsim Square and around the country in April. I very much hope that Turkey–where the formerly Ataturkist military has now been purged through a series of bogus conspiracy trials, forestalling an intervention such as that which happened in Egypt (driven by the largest demonstrations in history, demanding Morsi's removal)–is able to change away from Islamism, preferably through elections, in the not-too-distant future.
3) The United Nations seems to be faced with a big dilemma and so is the U.S.. Bashar Assad, seems to be clamming radical Islam is a cancer for Syria, (but could be using that as an excuse to remain his personal wealth in power). But should the U.N. help Assad combat radicalism or help the FSA fight the SAA? Aren't both problematic?
RS: If the U.S. and the West had decisively intervened to aid the Syrian opposition much earlier in the uprising–when the secular liberal elements were more dominant in the rebel forces–either directly or indirectly (through arms and training, etc.), then it perhaps could have more likely led to the creation of a new, democratic, non-Islamist state in the Arab world. That would have been a stunning achievement, in fact. Instead, the Obama administration has been covertly aiding primarily the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated forces via arms bought by Qatar and Saudi Arabia shipped into Syria, facilitated by the C.I.A., and possibly through arms gathered from Qaddafi's vast arsenals in Libya by Islamist militia and shipped through Turkey as well, again with the involvement of the C.I.A.
The agency may also have been training anti-Asad Islamists with al-Qa'ida affiliations in Libya for insertion into the conflict in Syria. In my view, such actions are disastrous, and unfortunately of a piece with Obama's support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab Spring. Tragically, he appears to be following the advice of pro-Islamist advisers that the MB has penetrated and otherwise influenced in our security and diplomatic establishments, as well as Erdogan, who is said to be his closest friend among the world's leaders. In reality, without a serious effort to find, assist and help enlarge the surviving secularist elements among the rebels, it really would be better not to intervene in Syria's conflict now, because there is no happy outcome otherwise. Even on the issue of chemical weapons, whoever really has used them in Syria, it is certainly a worry that if Asad falls, the Islamists could take possession of his vast stockpiles of WMD (both chemical and biological), and they would be much less hesitant to use them overall than the current vile regime. Then again, Asad is a vital ally of Iran, which is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Syria, too, is among the largest. It is worth trying to change this dynamic, but it would require a complete re-orientation of Obama's pro-Islamist approach, which sadly does not seem likely.
4) If the United States entered the war in Syria, as observed by the Department of Defense, would that benefit in any way, shape or form, U.S. interest on the region? In other words, is the main reason why the U.S. intervenes in foreign wars to only spread democratization plus capitalism to invest and fructify financially overseas or is it really to help those in need?
RS: Until the election of Barack Obama as president, the U.S. has historically intervened militarily in the Middle East to protect international stability and the free flow of commerce. That was true of America's first military action in the region, against the Barbary Pirates in the early 19th century, and more recently in various actions to ensure the free flow of oil, given its importance to the economy of the United States, her allies and the rest of the world equally. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. also sought to spread democracy in the Arab world, beginning with the war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Obama, however, at first set out to end American military involvement in the region, beginning with Iraq, where he unfortunately undid much of the progress made by his predecessor by supporting the Iranian-backed Maliki over the secularist Allawi in forming the government after the 2010 elections, though Allawi had won by one seat.
The result has been the return of violent sectarianism, a revival of al-Qa'ida in the country, and Iran's indirect control of much of the nation's leadership. His intervention in Libya, as it has in Syria, also came relatively late, and in addition was largely indirect ("leading from behind"), and consisted of a deliberate outreach to Islamists, some even openly allied with al-Qa'ida. Elsewhere in the Arab Spring, the Obama administration, the mainstream media and much of academe also supported the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in Egypt and the throughout the region due to the delusional idea that they are actually moderate and thus a bulwark against al-Qa'ida, when in fact they share the same ideology. (The greatest difference between them is in strategy, with AQ and most of the Salafis demanding immediate change through jihad, and the MB preferring a more gradualist approach that can also include violence when expedient).
Thus Obama has turned traditional American Middle East doctrine on its head, from his early, clumsy attempts to put daylight between America and her closest local ally, Israel, to his support in a variety of ways for her worst enemies in the world, the Islamists–all in the mistaken belief that it would make both himself and the U.S. more popular in the Muslim world. The net result is that he is actually much more unpopular in the area than the oft-derided Bush. Though he has somewhat backtracked on these policies in Egypt particularly in fear of losing both the peace treaty with Israel and U.S. privileged access to the Suez Canal, along with vital anti-terrorist cooperation with that country, on the whole it has not changed. And that can only mean catastrophe for us all.
5) Russia and Iran are allies with the Syrian regime and consequently support it with military hardware. Is their interest exclusively directed to strategic oil-route-exports or is Iran just scared of having their own revolution and therefore has to support Assad?
RS: Syria's primary state allies are Iran, Russia, China and North Korea (which supplied Syria with its nuclear program, attacked by Israel in 2007, and has been selling al-Asad missiles for delivery of chemical weapons and providing other assistance to his WMD programs too). Russia wants to maintain its warm-water port at Tarsus and maintain its own toehold in the region, which, as the former Soviet Union, it nearly dominated; China is anxious to establish its own presence in the Middle East and relies on Iran for much of its oil. Iran, which hopes to the regional hegemon, relies on Syria for its own outlet to the Mediterranean, to connect with the Shi'a community in Lebanon and to pass weapons and other materiel to her ally Hizbollah, and as its portal to the Arab world overall. If al-Asad falls it will indeed seriously weaken the Iranian theocracy–ironic, given the generally secularist nature of his regime.
6) With all the revolutions happening in the Middle East, how is that going to resolve with Israel's future? Are the revolutions going to pay off badly for Israel in the long run?
RS: Predictions are a sucker's game, especially in the Middle East. With that caveat in mind, let's look at the what has happened since the beginning of 2011. Contrary to the prevailing (and predictable) anti-Israel propaganda both in the Middle East and beyond, most Israelis, like most people everywhere, cheered on the Arab Spring. They too wanted to believe that the popular uprisings really were about democracy and the economy, not about hatred of the "Zionist enemy." The Israelis, of course, knew that the long-time Arab leaders had, to varying degrees, used their country as the chief diversion from dealing with problems inside their own. Yet unfortunately, though few would admit it, an issue that has bound many of the disparate opposition groups, both secular and Islamist, together all over the Arab world is a hatred of Israel along with rising anti-Semitism, which have remained among the greatest motivators of revolutionary sentiment to this day. Few of them were like more genuine liberals, like Egyptian satirist Ali Salem, who–though ironically of the older, Nasserist generation–broke the taboo against contact with Israelis by actually driving his own car to visit the Jewish State on his own in the early 1990s, in an effort to reach out to meet those who long for peace there as well.
He was following the earlier courageous plea of his friend and role model, the late Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz, who suffered boycott of his works across the Arab world and even death threats due to his calling for peace negotiations with Israel beginning in 1973. In the case of Egypt, particularly, the more pragmatic military leadership has wanted to maintain the peace treaty with the Jewish State because they remember the many humiliating defeats and economic destruction that accompanied the previous wars, from 1948 to the present. Thus you see the irony of Morsi's own minister of defense and chief of the military General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, whom he appointed due to what seemed his sterling Islamist credentials, ultimately ousted by that same man, evidently because he also belongs to the military's own internal culture of intense Egyptian nationalism–which Morsi's pro-jihadi policies and destruction of the economy offended gravely. Even more ironically, Tamarod, the secularist group whose unbelievably successful petition led to the world's largest political demonstrations in history, directed at Morsi, has since circulated another (fortunately much less successful) petition demanding an end to the treaty with Israel.
So in this sense, the Arab Spring really has been a threat to Israel, because it has lifted the lid off the raging hatred of their nation nurtured by the poisonously misinformed political activists (whose views are much more intense than much of the public's) that had been repressed by the same leaders, including even Mubarak, had stoked for generations to stave off the very same revolutions that have ultimately toppled them. One can only hope that eventually this unreasoning hatred for a state demonized as the worst human rights violators on the planet (when but a casual glance at how the Arab states and terrorists have disregarded any consideration for those rights on a far broader and more lethal scale, by a factor of hundreds of thousands if not millions to one, utterly refutes this idea) will somehow diminish soon. This tragically enduring complex as well as the deeply ingrained religious and cultural issues mentioned earlier, however, mean that the region may not know either freedom within a fair and rational system, or lasting peace and prosperity, for the foreseeable future.
7) If Assad's regime succumbs, which seems likely to happen due to territorial advantage from the Rebels. Is he going to be the last dictator left in the Middle East? And what will happen to Syria?
RS: Actually, in recent months, with the huge infusion of Shi'a forces ranging from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizbollah, and numerous Iraqi factions (the latter documented brilliantly by Phillip Smyth) rushing to its aid, and the continued strong backing of Russia especially, the al-Asad regime has regained the territorial advantage. Now, unless the possibly imminent American military action really changes the situation on the ground, it does not seem likely that al-Asad will fall. The options for Syria's future if he does fall could be an Islamist state or perhaps a failed state, with no side in their various configurations able to conquer all the others.
In any case, as noted above, if the U.S.–which alone has the capability to overwhelmingly influence the outcome in a short time–does not now really focus on identifying a non-Islamist, pro-Western (and peace-oriented) opposition and, if they are large enough, make sure that they win, then the long-term fate not only of Syria, but of the whole Middle East, could well be grim. Whatever happens, al-Asad is certainly not the last dictator in the region. Apart from Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, the next one might be al-Sisi himself. Despite his pledge for a swift, new transition to democracy–a problematic promise even with the best of intentions–word has recently emerged that members of the armed forces will no longer swear an oath of allegiance either to the president or (more disturbingly) the nation's Constitution or laws, but solely to the military leadership instead: a very troubling sign.