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Middle East 101, continued
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In your opinion, do most citizens of the Middle East desire democratic government?

That is an important question. Prior to 9/11, nonprofit and citizens' groups were really working very, very hard to push governments in the direction of democracy. And some steps had been taken — relaxing censorship of the media, allowing in television channels and newspapers from outside the country.

    Nezar AlSayyad
'I do not speak for Arab-Americans, or even associate myself with being an Arab-American. I'm of Middle Eastern origin, but I am an American. I have never accepted having my identity hyphenated.'
—Professor Nezar AlSayyad, CMES chair

The problem is that after 9/11, the U.S. decided to crack down on its own citizens, and also on Arab citizens coming to this country. In the Middle East, this has enabled the fundamentalist forces and the more repressive government forces to say, look, the U.S. is doing it, so why can't we? The other thing we're seeing in the Middle East is that people are starting to question whether democracy is the best form of government for cultures and societies that have always privileged tradition and group affiliation over individual association or belief.

This is one of the greatest losses that occurred as a result of September 11: the regression of the opposition. Now there are fewer people in the Middle East willing to fight to establish democratic institutions than there were before September 11, either because they have become disillusioned with democracy, or because of the overall retreat to a more traditional system.

Here is the problem: the more that we in the United States start talking about ourselves as "us" versus "them," then the people referred to as "them" become very aware of being different. I think the fact that we have so many people out there, mainly in the Muslim Middle East, who see themselves as fundamentally different from us is very, very dangerous. We cannot communicate equally; there's a wall between us.

However, I do not speak for Arab-Americans, or even associate myself with being an Arab-American. I'm of Middle Eastern origin, but I am an American. I have never accepted having my identity hyphenated. In fact I was not aware that people thought of me as an Arab-American until 9/11, when suddenly I was asked questions like, "As an Arab-American, how do you feel about…" I am American. And that's all.

Arab states condemn the government of Saddam Hussein as cruel and unethical. Yet they also oppose a potential U.S. attack against Saddam Hussein. Why, when there is such great diversity among Middle Eastern governments and among their relationships to the U.S., do you think that they are united on this point?

It's very simple. If they agree that the U.S. can remove any government in the Arab world, then their own government could be next.

The other reason has to do with Arab pride. Despite all the differences between the Arab states, they all still believe in a sort of pan-Arabist ideal. Yes, maybe it is an old idea; it goes back to the 1950s and the dream of Abdel Nasser, the late president of Egypt, to create a United Arab States. That dream never really materialized, but it's enshrined in Arab culture, part history and part myth. In a sense, the unwillingness of the Arabs to give up this legitimate dream makes it very difficult for them to accept a situation in which Iraq, with no act of overt aggression on its part, can be attacked and possibly decimated in the process.

That is what marks the difference between this moment and the Gulf War. In 1991, with Kuwait, Iraq violated a major rule of engagement within the Arab world: it occupied another Arab state. You just don't do that. It was a difficult moment for so many countries, but all of them decided to join and liberate Kuwait, not out of sympathy for Kuwait but almost from the same concern as now — that is, "We could be next. If Saddam Hussein takes over Kuwait, he could take over Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or another Gulf state."

So if they feel the need for self-defense, why don't the Arab states want to see Saddam Hussein eliminated?

Because Saddam is weak right now, and he poses no threat to Arab countries. He doesn't have the resources, the interest. Perhaps left on his own, he could develop such resources and interest again, but it doesn't seem likely at the moment.

All the talk of nuclear weapons is greatly overhyped. If indeed the U.S. can in fact provide convincing proof that there are in fact nuclear weapons in Iraqi hands, I don't think there would be much opposition to attacking Iraq.

In addition, many Arab regimes fear the reaction of what is often called the "Arab street." It is very likely that ordinary people in places like Damascus, Cairo and Casablanca will really feel like their Arab brothers are being killed for absolutely no reason whatsoever. And that would be an avoidable mistake on the part of our government.

If there is to be any military action against Iraq, I hope that whatever we do, it will be part of an international coalition and that we will exhaust all possibilities of trying to get the weapons inspectors back in Iraq. I think the Iraqis will finally yield to that demand, and that the inspectors will succeed in reporting on what is going on in Iraq.

But the Arab opposition is not only about Arab self-interest or pride, it's also the fact that many in the Arab world know very well that this is about oil. It was about oil in 1991 and it's about oil again. That's a problem.

So, given the long history of conflict in the region, do you believe that it's possible for Islamic states to coexist peacefully with states that are nonreligious, or secular?

Hmm … There are two qualifiers necessary here. It depends on what you mean by "Islamic" and "secular." Iran, for example, is an Islamic state. Can Iran exist peacefully in the world with other secular states? Well, it has for the most part. Maybe people in Iran are oppressed from our perspective, but Iran has in fact matured quite a bit since its revolution.

    Nezar AlSayyad

'We must accept in the west that Islam is not going to go away. Islam is going to be a major player in the next hundred years. There's no way out of it. Do some of us crave a more secular Middle East? Of course.'
—Professor Nezar AlSayyad, CMES chair

When it comes to so-called secular states, I would say there are none. One thing we have been reminded of since September 11 is that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian nation, and the current administration and its courts have been quietly reinforcing that. The government of Egypt, for example, also claims that it is a secular state. And clearly its constitution is not solely based on the Koran. But Islamic Sharia [law] is recognized as one of its main legal sources. In some sense this is exactly like our invocation of the term God in the Pledge of Allegiance, on our currency, and by our president, who refers to God in every speech. And the God he invokes is not a generic god or Allah, but a very specific one that is meant to remind us of our Judeo-Christian tradition and heritage.

Many countries in Western Europe are governed by parties that have "Christian" in their title, like the Christian Democrats in Germany. None of these parties are truly Christian anymore, but they have a history of using Christian principles. My hope is that with the maturity of political structures in the Islamic world, we will get to a similar situation where we have Muslim Democrats, Muslim nationalists, and Muslim Republicans, liberals, etc.

The real problem here is that many people in the Middle East are using Islam as a way to redress the history of colonialism and Western hegemony in their part of the world, and Islam provides a tool for engaging in this resistance and identity struggle. The question should be whether their use of Islam as a weapon to fight the legacy of colonialism, and to deal with the institutional heritage of Western domination, if you will — will allow the world to be at peace. No one knows, but my tentative answer is no.

What do you think we can expect from the Middle East in the coming years?

Again this is difficult to predict, but I fear that the political landscape of the globe at the beginning of the 21st century seems like that of the Middle Ages around the time of the Crusades. The rise of the Internet and the new information technology, while supposedly making us all better connected, is also allowing for the creation and maintenance of ideological enclaves that use religion to dominate and spread fear. This is happening in both East and West and is likely to accentuate what some call the "clash of civilizations." Although I do not accept this simplistic framework, I am equally skeptical about the possibility of a dialogue of civilizations among nations and communities that are reverting to religion as a main definer of group identity. This is where we may be heading.

We must accept in the west that Islam is not going to go away. Islam is going to be a major player in the next hundred years. There's no way out of it. Do some of us crave a more secular Middle East? Of course. But history is not the product of individuals' wishing things to happen. It's the product of generations of people giving their lives for a cause. At the moment, nobody's fighting Islam in the Middle East. Indeed, many in the Arab world seem to be jumping on its bandwagon. I believe Islam is likely to dominate the political scene in the Middle East for the near future. We in the West have to come to terms with this reality and ready ourselves to deal with the repercussions of this "Medieval modernity."