ISIS as a ‘Problem’ for Europe but a ‘Solution’ for the Middle East

Written by | Wednesday, January 13th, 2016

INTERVIEW with Professor Shlomo Avineri – The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel


EUBULLETIN: The current geopolitical developments, namely the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, are really of a great concern to many Europeans. But again, many European citizens feel that the EU does not seem to be doing enough, particularly when it comes to dealing with the ISIS threat as well as the influx of refugees. How do you see the prospects for the EU to get its act together to try to solve what I would call its whole complex security predicament?

Avineri: Well, not all ‘problems’ have to be solved and not all are ‘problems’? What for Europeans are problems, is for some people in the Middle East and in southeast Mediterranean a solution. I think there is a little bit of a demonization of Islam in Europe, which has something to do with the fact that there are radical groups in Islam, which are murderers – we have seen it in the case of ISIS and, of course, the 9/11 events – so I understand the fears in Europe. But the idea that Europe is going to be taken over by Islam and you hear, especially from European right-wing organizations, the idea that the whole of Europe is going to be Islamized and France is going to be an Islamic country – this is, in my mind, an irresponsible non-sense.

EUBULLETIN: It looks like you are suggesting that the ‘ISIS’ and ‘Islam’ threat is largely an artificially inflated problem in Europe.

Avineri: In fact, Europe itself is a ‘problem’ also because the constructions of the European Union out of idealism overlooked some very simple issues that have to do with internal borders. The idea to do away with internal borders in the EU is a wonderful idea of unity and certainly of solidarity. But I don’t think that anybody at that time when the EU Member States agreed to introduce Schengen realized that one of the consequences is that if somebody gets into the Island of Lampedusa off the Italian coast, he or she can go in the end, without any passport control, all the way to Sweden. Nobody thought about this. So, some of the EU structures were inspired by certain ideals but were not looking at the reality of those different countries. The other issue is that the EU has no foreign policy – you have foreign policies of different countries but there is no effective European Union’s foreign policy. I am not sure what Europe can do about it but Europe was not thinking about the consequences of its unification project.

EUBULLETIN: And what about the threat that ISIS poses not only to Europe – as the recent terrorist attacks in Paris demonstrated – but also to Turkey, which has been hit by a series suicide bombings, and the whole region, including Israel, that could be further destabilized?

Avineri: As to the ISIS threat, well, I think this is not Israel’s problem because Israel has been threatened by strong armed militarized states and the fact that some of these states are now disintegrating is not making Israel less secure but then even more secure. On the other hand, terrorism is a different issue. Terrorism is very nagging, terrorism is dangerous for individuals, but terrorism does not pose a strategic danger for a country. But this is not an Israeli issue. As to ISIS, in the West, usually one identifies secularization or secularism with the enlargement of globalization and democracy. However, the expansion of secularism in the Middle East and some other Muslim countries has taken a very different trajectory.

In the Middle East, secularism has been a system imposed by autocratic rulers on traditional societies. The Shah in Iran, Atatürk in Turkey, Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and in a very bloody way the Assad family in Syria – they are all seculars but they are also authoritarian. So secularism goes together with authoritarianism and ISIS is a response to a very dictatorial form of secularism. Unlike in Europe where it has been more of a natural, gradual process, when secularism is imposed from above, you have the Iranian revolution, you have the AK party in Turkey, and you have the bloody ISIS. So, this is not just ISIS being a very bloody organization, it is a response to what was the hegemonic mode, to the peculiar blend of authoritarianism and secularism in the Arab world – but these nuances are not so obvious, especially when seen from the European perspective.

EUBULLETIN: While the EU and other Western powers still like to criticize various Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia for their perceived lack of democracy and alleged human rights violations, one Asian politician has recently posed an interesting – and almost philosophical – question: ‘You, Europeans, like to criticize our respective democratic systems, but despite their various shortcomings, would not you prefer to have Southeast Asia at your doorstep rather than the war-torn and instable Middle East?’

Avineri: This is an interesting point but, still, first of all, one has to understand each society in the context of its own history, its own institutions, structures – one cannot believe that there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’. Not is Central and Eastern Europe and not in the Middle East. I don’t know about Southeast Asia but again the idea to look at any country or any system of countries and use them as a model for the other countries is very, very difficult. I mean, in the Middle East, you have got, on the one hand, more than 20 countries, which are part of the Arab world and have a lot of things in common, in culture, in language and even religion but, on the other hand, each of them has its different history. And certainly North Africa and Morocco is very different from Tunisia and Algeria, so what happens in Southeast Asia is Southeast Asian-specific – and yet again there are differences between Malaysia and Indonesia. Therefore, I don’t think this is really relevant to what is now happening in the Middle East.



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