Wars in the Name of Islam: What Comes Next?

19 september 2017

Vassily Kuznetsov has a Doctorate in History; he is Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: Is the Middle East turning into the area of total war? What will the Sunni and Shiite rivalry end in? How to defeat terrorism?

Is the Middle East turning into the area of total war? What will the Sunni and Shiite rivalry end in? How to defeat terrorism? — Vasily Kuznetsov, Director of the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, RIAC expert, answers these questions within the framework of «World in 100 Years’ Time» project with Gazeta.Ru.

Do you know that the number of atheists in the Middle East is greater than, for example, in Latin America or in Southeast Asia? It is growing, and it is an amazing fact that no one is talking about... According to some relative data, the number of atheists in Saudi Arabia, or rather people calling themselves atheists, is about the same as in the United States.

It is true that we are very fond of talking about Shiite-Sunni conflicts. But one can also talk about Sunni-Sunni conflicts, about the war of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and so on. All of this gives the plot a bit of romantic tinge. And it feels like we are talking about the «Game of Thrones» or something of the kind. But in fact, the problems are not religious. The instrumentalization of the religious factor certainly exists —internationally, regionally, and locally. There is an issue of religious identities, there is an issue of radicalization. Let's remember the world in the 1950s. We had the same level of radicalization, though it was not religious, when leftists were killing each other in exactly the same way. Leftists, rightists, and so on. I think that the conflict potential of the religious factor is close to being exhausted. The societies have got fatigued from this. Moreover, unfortunately, the events of recent years discredit religious political forces. And we observe the growing interest in secular projects in Arab societies.

Will Shiites and Sunnis bombard each other with atomic bombs? This is not a Shiite-Sunni issue. This is a matter of having atomic bombs and someone's desire to use them against others. As for religious issues, the role of the religious factor will certainly remain in this region. At least, Islam will remain as a framework for identity, as well as for values. But what kind of Islam it will be — that is a question. And this issue will be solved, not from the perspective of Islam’s internal potential that can be very archaizing and, very modernizing at the same time, like any other world religion. It will be resolved on the basis of socio-economic and political factors.

What should Russia do in the Middle East?

It will depend on how Russia will be changing. But we’ll skirt contentious issues. For Russia, as well as for all regional players, it is very important to avoid deep involvement in the political conflict processes that take place in this region. Remember the film «The Pokrovsky Gate»: «Believe the historian: you cannot make someone happy against his desire!» It's time to clarify, that it is impossible to construct a region, its map, and political systems from the outside.

What values can Russia broadcast there? Probably, there are some. But first there should be a process of discussing these values within Russia to determine them. I suppose Russia has a very good ability to build relations with all countries of the region. This is something that no other global player has. Russia is in good relations with Iran, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. There is not a single state in the region that Russia would have a conflict with today, and this ability to be friends with everyone should be preserved and developed.

Secondly, as I said, we should not go deep into these problems, not to try and be an honest broker to solve them. Russia can function as a mediator when there is a need in this mediation. But Russia cannot act as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as they do not ask for that at all.

Thirdly, this is pragmatism, of course, with a hint of guile. The Russian leadership and experts like to talk about pragmatism, and this is right, but by and large the behavior of absolutely any player in any situation seems pragmatic. There is no person to say: «I am not being pragmatic». And that is why pragmatism is connected with a very good reflection over our own global and strategic interests. So far, Russia's only obvious interest in the Middle East is security related to the southern regions of Russia. This is the only thing you can talk about with confidence. All the rest are the interests, more or less opportunistic, that come and go. If Russia is interested in security, then it is also interested in a stable, prosperous, and developing Middle East. And if it is interested in a stable, prosperous, and developing Middle East, then it is interested in resolving conflicts, strengthening the state, and economic development. And if Russia is interested in this, then it is interested in cooperation with the West, to help it happen, and we face again the problem of Russia– West relations.

Total war: a negative scenario for the Middle East

The negative scenario is that the whole story with Syria, Libya, and Yemen ends with the collapse of these countries. Later on, no capable states arise on the wreckage of these countries, there are small effective zones, where all resources are concentrated. In Cyrenaica, Libya, and in Damascus, Latakia. And a huge area of empty land, where terrorists run around, where violence becomes the main economic resource, when killing someone becomes natural. Later these zones will become sources of the spread of new conflicts to neighboring states. Syrian — to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. The Iraqi can also flow somewhere, first of all to Saudi Arabia. All the time the region is fragmented — total, endless fragmentation. When fragmentation and civil war occur, social archaization begins, the institution of state is destroyed, and therefore everyone immediately remembers what tribes, clans, and confessional groups they belong to. This identity becomes the main one. People are enthusiastically beginning to build new caliphates, emirates, or some tribal empires. All intellectuals and more or less educated people flee from there. Of course, they are accepted in the West and in the East, because this is a good intellectual resource. If we talk about the world in a 100 years’ time, then by that time it should already end. New political structures will begin to form on the wreckage.

No matter how much we lament over what is happening today, let's be realistic. There is a civil war in Syria with many victims, but the state institutions have not collapsed, they show that they can do something, manage it somehow. In Libya, the state institutions are not so successful, but there are fewer victims. In Yemen, the external factor plays a fundamental role in the conflict. We always talk about the dangers and possibilities of these conflicts’ spreading to neighboring states. Of course, this danger persists. Nevertheless, about one million Syrian refugees live in Lebanon. This is between 20% and 25% of Lebanon’s population. This is about the same if 50 million Ukrainians came to Russia. However, thank God, there is no new war in Lebanon, the situation remains the same there. The conflict is not spreading.

They will come to terms: a positive scenario for the Middle East

There is an absolutely opposite, positive scenario. What is happening now in the Middle East is similar to the Thirty Years' War. The Thirty Years' War will be over, the people of the Middle East will understand how bad it is to kill each other and how hard it is to live after that. A new Westphal, for the Middle East, will emerge which does not mean that it will be similar to Westphal in its essence. The sides will agree on some rules of the game, there will be a new balance, there will be mechanisms for resolving conflicts in a non-violent way. Conflicts end, the states preserve, and the processes of regional integration begin and activate. These processes already exist, for example, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, although the events related to Qatar, show that there are some issues with integration. Nevertheless, these problems are being resolved. In addition, interstate integration at the local level can be a way of solving potential conflicts, which is connected with the Kurdish problem, by the way.

There is a Saudi Vision 2030 project — a strategic plan to reform the economy, that should lead to the country getting off the oil needle. It is being successfully implemented, and Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are getting off their oil and gas needles. The region still has its rather peculiar and archaic decor. With monarchs, Islam, and interesting clothes. But common objective problems, such as water scarcity, poverty, and economic development, become a ground for interaction and provide the basis for finding solutions to common challenges. I would say that such a forecast is positive. This does not mean that everything will be fine. This means that this forecast is more likely to happen than the absolutely negative forecast. But it is not the most possible. The most possible scenario is somewhat in between.

How to defeat terrorism?

What is terrorism? This is a philosophical question. I would prefer to talk about opportunities for Middle Eastern societies to radically reduce the level of violence and political violence as a way of solving social or political problems. I think that this would be more appropriate. Though to solve this, it is necessary to develop statehood, institutions, it is necessary to build more kindergartens, schools, leisure centers for youth in neighborhoods, to form socially-oriented economy, change the management system, move away from clannishness, and fight corruption. Generally speaking, the recipes are pretty obvious and well-known. And when we talk about some other recipes and say that there is no need to do all this, but live somehow in a place where violence and terrorism persist, then it feels like we want to re-paste the wallpaper in the building that requires major repairs. This applies not only to the Middle East.

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