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It’s Complicated: Ethnic Politics In The Middle East – Interview


Dr. Michael Izady has been a professor of history and political science since 1991 at various European and Ivy League universities, and has provided in-depth lectures on the Middle East for NATO and US military and policy planners. He received his PhD from the Dept. of Middle Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Columbia University.

The following interview was conducted by Russell Whitehouse, a freelance social media manager, producer and political policy essayist for the Eurasia Review, International Policy Digest and Pressenza.


Russell Whitehouse: With the declining health of Saudi octogenarian King Salman, how would you characterize the pros & cons of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

Dr. Michael Izady: He [Mohammed bin Salman] is a radical like his father. In fact, as the end of that autocratic, increasingly violent regime looms, they are becoming more radicalized with fear of the what shall be. All non-democratic systems will ultimately fall. They can look around the Middle East and see what is in the store for them, sooner or later.

RW: With the renewed crackdown of the Shia in Saudi Arabia, combined with the Saudi-Iranian Cold War, what do you expect in the long term for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority? Can we expect to see a real national reconciliation, or will the situation dissolve into apartheid and insurgency?

MI: There will be no “national” reconciliation because there is no “nation” in that country. The Shia territories on the Gulf were conquered and absorbed into the Saudi sheikhdom of Nejd only in 1913. On its 100th anniversary in 2013, Sheikh Nimr declared the place independent from the Saudis. Two weeks ago, they beheaded him for that.

Iranians are out to get the Saudis. That is obvious. And they know how, being an oppressive regime themselves.

RW: Assad has labeled himself as a protector of minority rights in Syria. If his regime were to fall, what do you think the regional ripple effects would be in terms of Sunni/Shia and Christian/Muslim relations?

MI: He Is the protector of the minorities in Syria because he represents one (the Alawite minority). That is why he is supported by the 40% of Syrians who are non-Sunni-Arab against the 60% who are Sunni Arabs and want Assad be gone.

Middle Eastern societies and mindsets need to enter into the modern, liberal state by adhering to the universal rights of all people not just the ones identical to their individual self. Women, minorities, other religions, other lifestyles, other political and social beliefs… etc. need to be accepted and respected equal to one’s own. It took us here in America until last year to accept the LGBT people as equal. Well, how long do you think would take the Middle Easterners to achieve that? But they will. They have no choice. They are as tired of the head cutters as we are.

RW: If ISIS were to prevail, how do you think it would interact with Israel? The Jewish State has long viewed Assad as a serious threat, but ISIS wouldn’t exactly make for good bedfellows, especially given the Golan Heights issue. Do you think ISIS would ignore Israel for the sake of not picking the wrong fight or jump on the anti-Zionist bandwagon to boost foreign recruits?

MI: ISIS is like the old Anarchists. None of those violent, punk-run organizations ever prevail. How? They have no knowledge of the mundane that runs a society: collecting the garbage, providing bus systems, putting out forest fires, protecting the coral reefs… you know, the usual mundane that every society needs. These folks do SLOGANS, and want big jazzy revolutions, commanding from the top, not how to collect and recycle trash, protect the fisheries and blah. ISIS has already learned that sad fact in the one year time “running” the society they have occupied. They have beheaded and crucified everyone who asked for anything. So now they have no one to blame for not being able to take care of the simple, basic needs of the society. They are on their last foot.

But, be careful not confuse ISIS with the Sunni Arab military officers in Iraq and Syria who run the heavy war machineries, make strategic plans and implement them from behind the ISIS façade. That is a common mistake done by the media and their reporters.

RW: How would you characterize Recep Erdogan’s juggling act with Kurdish separatists and ISIS? Do you think he sees the Caliphate as a convenient proxy that both attacks and draws away attention from Kurdish nationalism?

MI: The Kurds are not separatists. That is what Erdogan or anyone else in Ankara who wants to have a fight with them would say. About two-thirds of the Kurds in Turkey live outside the traditional Kurdish regions. How can they be “separatists”? It is like proposing a separation between African Americans and the rest of America. How would that work? But, it has become a political tool for any populist politician in Turkey whose popularity is sagging, to instigate bloodshed with the Kurds and ride high as a “nationalist” and the protector of Turkey’s territorial integrity. Until 2014 when Erdogan began losing popularity, the Kurdish issue in Turkey was not even an issue any more. It had ceased to be since 1999.

RW: How do you think Turkish-Iranian relations will evolve in the years to come? Do you think that they could overlook their differences to unite against the Gulf monarchies?

MI: At present, they all consider Kurds a menace, an ally of Israel and he main element in the US “hidden” agenda in the region. So, they love Turkey for beating the daylight out of Kurds.

Turks and Iranians are ancient rivals. Their interests have always clashed when they concern the Middle East. They were friends because Turkey basically abandoned Middle East in the past 95 years and concentrated on Europe. Now they are back. The two old empires are natural rivals. And to their chagrin, one is perceived as the protector of the Shia and the Turkey the protector of the Sunni (no, not dinky little Saudi Arabia)

RW: How threatened do you think the Sunni Arab world feels about the US’ increasing cooperation with Iran and Iraq?

MI: Plenty. They have come to believe that Middle East is just a Sunni Arab place with a bunch of minorities of this or that. Since 2003 they have been rudely awakened to the fact that: 1) Arabs are a minority in the Middle East; 2) there are 3 Shia for every 5 Sunnis, that is, IF we count largely Sunni Turkey as well. Without Turkey, the Sunnis are a minority in the Middle East, just as the Arabs are. That is not a nice realization. As such they blame us, Israel, Martians, bad mushrooms, heavy rain… but not their own faulty and biased educational system and politicized media.

RW: When it comes to Islamic extremism, the West has continually underestimated the importance of sub-Saharan Africa, dating back to the 1998 attacks on the US consulates in Kenya and Tanzania. With the rise of Muslim militants such as the Séléka in Central African Republic and the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, Boko Haram, how do you see the cocktail of international terrorism and Muslim identity politics playing out in sub-Saharan Africa?

MI: Of the “Sub-Saharan” Africa, only the Sahel has a Muslim majority. The rest is either Christian or Animist. That is where the trouble lurks, not outside. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa lays outside the Sahel, and is not Muslim. East Africa has localized Muslim regions, but none coming even close to form a majority. Only Somalia does, and the island archipelago of the Comoros. But they are concentrated on the [East] coast, from Mombassa to Cape Delgado. And that is where the Islamic terrorists find basis and operate from. The rest is outside the pale.

RW: If Pakistan can get its act together, do you see it playing a bigger role in Middle East politics? It’s a nuclear state whose GDP totals around a quarter trillion dollars, so it could logically play a key role in the Muslim world.

MI: No. Pakistan is not in the Middle East, but in South Asia. India is more than counter balance to Pakistan. Pakistani’s attention will forever be focused on its huge rival, India. Today Pakistan utters support for this or that malignant regime in the Gulf because it has millions of worker working in those places, sending back billion in remittances. Pakistan also rents out it military to the same countries, like Saudi Arabia for money.

By the way, Pakistan population is [almost] 5 times the size of the entire Arabian Peninsula. Its GDP, however, is barely 1/3 of Iran. Pakistan is dirt poor, which is why it is selling its soul for cash to the entities like the Saudi family, for now. The only place Pakistan can have an influence is terrorism –namely, producing & exporting them. She can also try to threaten people with her nuclear bombs, but no one would believe her any way. With nuclear powers like US, India, China, Russia, Israel (and Iran potentially) in the immediate neighborhood, Pakistan using her nuclear “threat” would cause laughter rather than fear.

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Russell A. Whitehouse

Russell A. Whitehouse is a freelance social media consultant, photographer and global policy essayist for sites like Eurasia Review, International Policy Digest, and Modern Diplomacy.​

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