Daniel Pipes, an American historian and political commentator, is the founder of the Middle East Forum and the former editor of the peer-reviewed journal Middle East Quarterly. He is widely regarded for his expertise on Middle Eastern affairs, particularly on Syria, and his analyses of extremist Islam. He was in Ottawa recently to speak to the Free Thinking Film Society on “Islam versus Islamism.” Prior to his talk he met with the Citizen’s editorial board. I’ve columnized on our conversation, summarizing some of his views. The following, however, is a longer, if edited and still abbreviated, version of that hour-long exchange.
Can you give us some introductory comments on issues of concern for you?
I cover two related but different topics, one of which is Islamism which I’ll be talking about this evening, and the other is Middle East politics.
The Middle East has not always been jumping. For 400 years, between the conquest of the Ottomans (in the 15th century) and First World War, it was about the quietest place on earth. But there was a decade (after the First World War) when everything was turned upside down. In some sense the last 90 years have been a working out of the upheaval of this period. The extraordinary volatility of the region today is due to the political boundaries and allegiances being so unsettled.
In Syria, a small post-Islamic sect of the Alawite religion which has dominated the country for 40 years is being challenged by the majority Sunni population. The process is very unpleasant and barbaric in many ways but it can get much worse.
Egypt is heading for an economic collapse unless something dramatic happens. They’re running a deficit in the order of $30 or $40 billion a year. Yemen is likewise, it’s in a pre-collapse state. As for Iraq, U.S. involvement led to 5,000 dead (American soldiers) and a trillion dollars spent, but it’s coming apart at the seems.
In Turkey we see an anti-secular revolution taking place that can take a number of directions but it’s clear it is moving away from the West.
In Iran, the headline is, of course, the nuclear build up which is reaching its end in months or maybe even weeks. Iran will either declare its possesses a bomb or it will get bombed. But there’s another story to Iran, too. It is that the people of Iran can’t stand their government. The best parallel I can draw is to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. The Soviet state was still powerful, but hollow because no one believed in it anymore. Likewise in Iran today, there’s huge alienation.
As for Israel, it is as ever beleaguered by its enemies, but at the same time it is doing very, very well. The election in January only confirmed that. It was all about domestic issues, the price of food and real estate and the role of the orthodox in public life and in the military, taxation, deficits.
What do you think will happen in the long term if the conflict in Syria continues?
In Syria, in my view, we have two parties, one of which is worse than the other. Actually, the rebels are worse than the Assad regime. I have nothing but loathing for the Assad regime so I am in no way an apologist. The only thing I can say in its favour is that it is not promoting an extremist ideology. It has no ideology, simply greed and brutality. It has no global aspirations unlike the Islamists.
My initial inclination (in terms of American foreign policy) was to stay out. But as Assad has been going down, it occurred to me we don’t want him to go down. It’s in our interest that this conflict continue. I realize this is controversial thing to say, but I look at a country like Syria from the point of view of our security interests. I’m not ignoring the humanitarian concerns. It grieves me to see that but I don’t know what we can do about that.
I think it is in our interest in the West to see Hamas at war with Hezbollah, which in fact is what happening. There’s extremists on both sides, Sunni and Shiite, fighting each other. I’d rather they fight each other than fight us.
Let’s get an historical perspective. Unlike Christianity, Islam has never been able to reconcile reason and revelation, science and religion. Is that a key source of our problems with Islamism today?
Basically, yes. The striking thing about Islam is its early success (in the 7th and 8th centuries). If you’d looked around the world at that time the cities of Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad were centres of commerce and technical development and literacy and medicine. This was the great period of Islamic civilization. Then things stopped roughly around 1200 A.D., partly as a consequence of the Mongol invasions and the dominance of the theocrats. There was a sudden hardening or attitudes toward things like philosophy and science. But because of past successes Muslims came to feel that to be Muslim is to be on a winning team, to be blessed by God in mundane as well as spiritual ways.
For about six centuries after 1200, Muslims ignored what was happening in the West. There weren’t interested in developments in Europe. Then you had the European invasions of India and Egypt. Napoleon, for example, invaded Egypt in 1798 and changed things dramatically. Muslims asked themselves “what went wrong? Why has God stopped blessing us?”
In some ways they are asking the same questions today: What is wrong with the Muslim world where it is not doing well after once having done so well? It is the legacy of their great success in the past compared to today that weighs heavy on Muslims.
They have had different answers to these questions. They have tried the secular route of the Ottoman Turks where they emulated Europeans. That has now been rejected in many ways, including in Turkey itself. Secondly, you have the apologists who say the West’s achievements are derived from Islam anyway so there’s nothing to learn. They say science is based on what Muslims developed and if they read the Koran correctly it is compatible with modern life. They ask themselves, “what we can learn from the West is what we learn from ourselves.” This is very popular and very wide spread attitude.
More recently, the fundamentalists are saying “no, if you want Islam
to be strong like it was 1,000 years ago, you have to live like we did
1,000 years ago. That means abiding by sharia, an Islamic way of life.”
Is the Islamist attack on the West going to be a multi-generational conflict? Will the situation get worse?
I think this (conflict) will be somewhere between generational and the 12 years of Nazi rule. If you looked around in 1943 you would likely have thought a 1,000 year Reich was possible. But it didn’t even last a dozen years. Islamism, I think, will be like that.
In fact, I would say Islamism is roughly at its apex. While it seems to have got stronger, the Muslims are fighting each other. In Syria, not only are the Shiite Islamists fighting the Sunni Islamists, but the Sunnis are fighting among themselves. In Egypt, the Salafists are fighting with the Muslim Brotherhood. Everywhere there are divisions, and we (in the West) want to encourage this.
Islamism is a totalitarian movement like fascism and communism. We could learn from the techniques used to fight the fascists and the communists.
First, the policy of Western countries should be always oppose the Islamists, always everywhere. It’s like opposing the Nazis. We don’t work with them. They are a barbaric enemy. They might be living among and trying to be very polite, but they are the enemy.
Second, always work with the liberal secular modern elements in Muslim societies. They are the hope for the future. They are the hope for the Middle East and the modern world.
Thirdly, work with the tyrants if you have to but always on the basis of pushing them toward more rule of law, more civil society, more political participation. Had we done this is with (former Egyptian president Hosni) Mubarak when he took over in 1981, pushed him to be less tyrannical, then by 2011 you might have a much better Egypt.
Will things get worse the longer it goes on? I don’t know. What we’re seeing in Egypt is a reaction against the Islamists. There’s some hope in this. As the Islamists show what they are, we can hope there will emerge an anti-Islamist response. I’m encouraged to see how quickly the Egyptians woke up to this problem.
But my particular concern is the growth of Islamism in the West. I see terrorism as a tactic, and not a very good tactic. On a small scale what did the Boston bombing achieve? On the larger scale, what did 9/11 achieve? If I were an Islamist I would be counselling everyone to get jobs in the media, in the law courts, in the educational system, in the political process. That’s how you gain influence and change a society your way. Terrorism is not very productive … It would be better, if you are an Islamist, to work through the existing institutions.
Islam can be democratic. It can be modern. It’s evolving but right now we’re in a bad period where the Islamists are dominant. I think this period will pass and I’m hoping there can be a modern, moderate and neighbourly form of Islam. Jihad doesn’t have to mean what it has historically meant, Muslim supremacy over non-Muslims. It can evolve.
Do you think Islamism is extending its influence in North America? How is this happening, practically speaking?
One example is what I call harems in the West. In Britain now, if you come there from a Muslim country with multiple wives, its accepted as legal. In this as in many other areas, sharia is being applied. There are parts of London where you can’t get alcohol. There’s something like 100 sharia courts in Britain, completely private courts that not only do civil law but criminal law. Muslims are told don’t go to the police if you have a problem, but come to the sharia courts, and increasingly Muslims feel pressured to do that. This is outside and, indeed, against the government. This didn’t exist 20 years ago and now it is growing.
In sports, there are demands by Muslim players for their own separate locker rooms. Ramadan has to be observed in schools. School kitchens are made halal without any discussion. Prison rooms are oriented to Mecca in some way. In hospitals, bibles and crucifixes disappear.
According to the French government, there are (several hundred) no-go zones around Paris where police don’t go. There’s also a growing movement toward Muslim-only zones where not only is sharia applied but non-Muslims are not welcome.
This isn’t terrorism, but it is the gradual Islamization of Western society.
- Europe’s Muslims Are Fighting the World Jihad War (iranaware.com)
- Islamic Cleric Calls UK Soldier’s Beheading “A Courageous And Heroic Act” (freedomoutpost.com)
- Syria Rebels Threaten to Wipe Out Shiite, Alawite Towns – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- PressTV: Israel’s goal in Syria: Prolong war, maximize destruction (jhaines6.wordpress.com)
- Why Daniel Pipes needs to be heard? (beyondthenewsblog.wordpress.com)
- Education by Murder in Boston (danielpipes.org)
- Islam vs. Islamism (danielpipes.org)
- Islam Vs. Islamism: A Case for Wishful Thinkers (counterjihadreport.com)
- When it comes to Islamist terrorism, denial – by Muslims and non-Muslims – is the politically correct preference (blogs.ottawacitizen.com)