This is part two of a recent conversation I had with students, faculty, and alumni at New York University just before the start of my program “Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir” on November 3, where I had the opportunity to answer some questions concerning the turmoil in the Middle East and America’s role in the world. The following is my take on some of these events and how they might further evolve over time; questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: Do you think that the next president or any other global leader will be more effective in dealing with so many crises in the Middle East?
ABM: Unfortunately we have a global crisis of leadership. I really want you to think about this very carefully. Sadly, we have not been able to produce visionary and courageous leaders who can rise to the occasion, face the challenges, and take the kind of measures necessary to change the course of events. Leaders are a reflection of their generation, and people the world over appear to be angry and frustrated with the status quo, and their sense of purpose seems to have been lost.
I challenge anyone who can point out a leader anywhere in the world who has the qualities to lead with vision, courage, tenacity, and strength and know where he/she is leading and can, in fact, change the course of history in a very positive and effective way. Where are the Lincolns, the Churchills, where are the Ben Gurions and the Anwar Sadats? The question is, will new leaders rise up in response to the people’s frustration? The rise of people like Trump may well be the product of this phenomenon—people want change and would choose anyone except another member of the establishment.
Q: What about German Chancellor Angela Merkel?
ABM: Angela Merkel is without a doubt a leader, especially in Europe, but she is limited in what she can do on the global stage, in part because she is haunted by her own history. This is why I maintain that there isn’t one single leader today who you can say is a global leader.
Q: What do you think will happen in Iraq in the wake of the defeat of ISIS, as most people speculate?
ABM: The whole world is against ISIS; in another month or two, possibly three, ISIS will be physically defeated. But will ISIS be defeated ideologically? Cells of ISIS already exist in most European communities, as well as in the Middle East and elsewhere. And these groups will continue to engage in terrorist activities without any coordination or instructions from ISIS’ leadership. This is our main concern, and this problem cannot by really addressed until we focus on the root causes of radicalization, many of which are imbedded in Arab societies. Of course the failure to integrate Muslim communities in Europe and the discrimination against them is another source of radicalization.
One major concern that comes to mind is, what will happen to the Sunnis in Iraq following the defeat of ISIS? For all intents and purposes, there’s an ongoing civil war today in Iraq. We don’t talk much about it. Sunnis are killing Shiites, Shiites are killing Sunnis, averaging hundreds each month. This is a civil war. Now, you can re-capture Mosul, but then what? What can the Sunnis expect from a Shiite government that has used them, abused them, and persecuted them for the last 12 years, even though they are theoretically part of the government?
This catastrophe is unfolding in front of our eyes, and we’re focused like a laser on ISIS, as if that is going to provide the solution to all of Iraq’s problem. We ‘defeated’ al-Qaeda, but al-Qaeda is still operating all over. We keep talking about more security, more police, more sharing of intelligence; this is all critically important but that is not going to solve the problem of radicalization throughout the world, specifically in the Middle East and Europe. The answer, the disease is within Arab states. Out of the 390 million Arabs, more than 200 million are under the poverty line and tens of millions live in abject poverty; about 200 million young men and women under the age of 25 feel that they have no future.
Of course they’re going to join ISIS or al-Qaeda or any group that will give them a sense of belonging. They know they may die in the process, but for many of them, death is still preferable over living in misery and disdain from the day they were born. It is a major problem that will haunt us for years and decades to come, because we are not addressing the root causes of radicalization. We are settling for speeches about this or that. I’m not suggesting that nothing has taken place to remedy the problem, but it’s not anywhere near enough to mitigate this horror that is unfolding in front of our eyes.
Q: I have the impression that al-Qaeda or ISIS is a symptom of a war within Islam, because Islam is about 1500 years old. When Christianity was 1500 years old, we had the Reformation, and we had a lot of religious wars. Do you think that’s also a possibility within Islam?
ABM: We must look at European history, and the history of the Christians in Europe itself. For how many centuries have they been fighting one another? You have to think about the Middle East and the Arab world as another entity which is 50 to 100 years behind. They do not necessarily have to go through the same experiences as the European community, but they’re going to have to go through some stages of political development riven with violent conflict. This may still take a few decades before they settle down on a political order with a much higher degree of freedom and human rights that are still consistent with Arab culture and Islam as a religion.
We’re also doing a horrifying disservice to the Arab world. When there was a revolution, the so-called Arab Spring, what did we do? Instead of giving them some guidance about a transitional government and the amount of time needed to prepare for general elections while political parties organize themselves, we go and push them to immediately opt for a democratic form of government, including general elections.
In Egypt, for example, it didn’t take a genius to know that if you have free and fair elections, the Muslim Brotherhood would be elected; this was just a given. They were the only political group that was fully organized. You might ask, did the Obama administration know that? Yes, it did. And yet we still make the same mistake over and over again.
Following the elections in Egypt, however fair and free, the next day people asked themselves, where is the food, where are the job opportunities, where is the health care? You have 23 million Egyptians under the poverty line; go give them all the freedom in the world that you want. What are they going to do with that freedom if they don’t have food to feed their children?
Q: What I heard was, of course, Americans are notoriously naïve when it comes to democracy in other countries. They think that, let’s say you remove Saddam, everybody else will see democracy as paradise, but it doesn’t happen that way.
ABM: You are absolutely right. There’s also a misunderstanding of the Arab Muslim culture. Unlike Western culture—and this is not a criticism of Arab culture by any means—Arabs generally like to be ruled by a strong man. But obviously they want a benevolent strong man. Do not misunderstand me. They want freedom, they want respect, they want job opportunities, and they want healthcare and better schooling like any other human being, and why not? Freedom without these basic necessities of life, however, means nothing. The Arabs have a rich and beautiful culture and have so much to offer, but unfortunately they have been betrayed by their own leadership.
Let me summarize what I am saying here by suggesting that it time for the West to understand that to help the poor Arab states realize their potential and at the same time substantially reduce radicalization, we must introduce the concept of participatory sustainable development projects on a large scale to help millions to make a decent and dignified living.
The idea here is to provide funding for sustainable development projects where communities across the Arab world choose the project they want, including land development for agriculture, planting trees, water irrigation, and animal farming, and collectively develop it. We, and especially the oil-rich Arab states, need to provide them initially with some funding, training, and facilitating, but in the main each community or a combination of communities will be responsible for their own development projects. This will empower individuals and allow communities to collaborate, learn about the importance of developing consensus, and develop a real sense of belonging and attachment to their land and community.
There is nothing more cost effective than sustainable development projects, and countries that provide financial aid to poor must insist that the respective Arab governments allocate a significant portion of these funds (15-20 percent) to these type of projects; the money should be channeled only through NGOs and foundations, both local and international, who specialize in this area. To be sure, the Arab states should end the practice of trickle-down economics and instead encourage bottom-up funding to foster economic independence and a spirit of entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately we have just run out of time, there’s so much more that can be said on this subject but we are going to leave it at that and hope that they listen and do something about it. Thank you very much indeed.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. firstname.lastname@example.org