The Middle East that was conceived after the Great War no longer exists: those states have disintegrated and their societies have been wounded almost irremediably

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The Middle East that was conceived after the Great War no longer exists: those states have disintegrated and their societies have, by now, been wounded almost irremediably. Beginning a century ago, Islamism has entered a phase that, in combining an extreme rationality with a fanatical millenarianism, is producing a self-destructive cocktail. Territories considered sacred, such as places of worship, cemeteries and women’s bodies, are being systematically violated and the co-existence of differences is being destroyed along with them.


Hamit Bozarslan interviewed by Michele Brignone


During the last century, we witnessed a process in the Middle East by which states were constructed and then disintegrated. How are we to explain this phenomenon?

 This is a very complex matter. We have the impression of having a good command of this history but at the same time we know very little about it. On the one hand, we know that the Arab world was carved up after the first world war, and that this division was not wanted by the Arabs, as is demonstrated from the 1920s onwards by the great Iraqi revolt, the Syrian revolt and then the Palestinian revolt. On the other hand, we also know that the areas thus formed already had an identity, however badly defined it might have been. In any event, during the 1920s, an Arab nationalist current emerged that was widely influenced by the revolutionary Right and the radical Right in Europe. This movement failed, however. It managed to win over the Intelligentsia but not to dismantle the old aristocracies that were a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Things began to get moving, above all, with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, when a certain Left managed to win over the Intelligentsia and conquer the political space. It was a very complex Left, being both nationalist and progressive and having a real social foundation. It succeeded in triggering processes of transformation but at the same time it brought to power an army that was more or less supported by a civilian current. Although it also raised the social question, it concentrated primarily on the national one. The political formula it proposed was authoritarian: the nation must be powerful in order to stand up to Israel and what was defined as imperialism. For this reason, the question of democracy and the legitimization of conflicts and differences was not raised. Society was perceived as an organic body and the cult of the leader and the single party was practised. The regimes born of this season gradually became either military dictatorships, as in the case of Egypt, or dictatorships that were the expression of a particular denomination or section of the population, as in Syria and Iraq. The failure of this Left was confirmed by the Six-Day War in 1967. Then there was a move from left-wing politics to Islamism. The 1980s and 1990s were marked by great violence. At the end of the 1990s, the authoritarian regimes were still there. They were detested and considered kleptomaniac but the alternative was just as detestable: Islamism, violence… In short, there were periods of great political mobilization but, instead of becoming consolidated, the societies fragmented, breaking up along existing ethnic, regional, religious and even tribal fracture lines.


What “responsibility” have the Arab rebellions in 2011 had for this process of disintegration, in your opinion?

 The structural factors that caused the states and societies to disintegrate were already present when the rebellions broke out. The collapse of the regimes born of the contestation in the 1950s and 1960s has been evident since the 1970s. War ruined the Middle East during the 1980s: the Iran-Iraq war; the war in Afghanistan that, albeit not fought in the Arab world, saw the participation of 35,000-40,000 Arabs; the Lebanese civil war, which was atrocious; the repression of the Kurds and the Shi’ites in Iraq; and the repression of the Sunnis and the Muslim Brothers, in particular, in Syria. And then there was the civil war in Algeria and the guerrilla warfare in Egypt during the 1990s. The states were already greatly weakened well before 2011 and this fragility took different forms. In Libya, but also in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, it assumed the form of provinces that were either not integrated or integrated by force. In Tunisia and Egypt, on the other hand, cartel-states formed around kleptomaniac families whose legitimation was based solely on security, but a security that was utterly lacking any political project. The state withdrew from all the areas that were not linked to security: health, education and so on. In other countries such as Iraq, Syria or Yemen, the denominational issue already existed. Which is not to say that the whole of the Middle East’s history is about denominations but during the 1970s, Saddam Hussein clearly represented a part of the Sunni community, against the Shi’ite majority. In the same way, it is a recognised fact that, in Syria, the Assad family’s power imposed a sectarian dictatorship that was the expression of the Alawite minority, even though it did not represent all the Alawites. All these structural factors were already present, widely present, and the Arab rebellions in 2011 – which really did have a democratization plan in the beginning – have done nothing but radicalize dynamics that were already in motion.


You were talking about the Islamist mobilization that began in the 1970s and 1980s. Can we interpret the rise of the Islamic State as the final consummation of this dynamic?

 I think so but, at the same time, this reading needs to be toned down. There is a basic contradiction in the history of Islam that Leïla Babès analysed very well in her book L’Utopie de l’Islam. On the one hand, Islam imposes an absolute duty of obedience towards tyrants, whether they be princes, sultans or caliphs and even if they are wicked. This in order to avoid the atrocious experience of the first civil wars. On the other hand, there is the “just society” requirement. Now the two requirements are fundamentally contradictory and explain why Islam produces obedience and contestation at the same time. Obedience means that the tyrant can become extremely violent. Contestation and the demand for justice mean that the opposition can become extremely violent in its turn. The two alternatives exclude any democratization. To the extent that Islam dare not face up to this contradiction, it keeps reproducing it over time, even today. Furthermore, one needs to consider how Islamism evolved during the twentieth century: there were various phases. The first phase is the birth phase: Hasan al-Banna who, on the one hand, put forward a plan for the re-Islamization of society and set up a political organization and a sort of paramilitary force but, on the other, still respected the ban on the use of violence on Muslim soil. The second phase is that of Sayyid Qutb, who held that this prohibition was no longer valid because Muslim society had ceased to be Islamic, having fallen back into ignorance – into jâhiliyya. For this reason, it was necessary to use violence to impose the process of Islamization. Thus Islamism became truly revolutionary. The third phase is marked by the figure of ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, who championed the doctrine of jihad. His was an ex-pat jihad, conducted in Afghanistan. It resulted in al-Qaeda, which founded its interpretation of Islam on a decidedly self-sacrificial reading: the body, in order to be purified, must become the battlefield of the fight between good and evil and the purified body must be sacrificed to the cause. Then, from the logic of jihad à la ‘Azzam one moves – and this is the fourth phase – into a logic of sacrifice and self-sacrifice and suicide attacks. We have now entered the fifth phase, which is the phase of the Islamic State. This time, jihad is no longer an ex-pat affair. It has been repatriated, it has its own territories and has become rational, aiming at constructing a state with its own ministries, currency, territory and borders. The other side of the coin, however, is that the nihilistic axiology has not been abandoned, so that extreme rationality and the destruction of rationality go hand in hand. Thus we have a genealogy of which the movement nevertheless frees itself through constant re-organization; a fact that poses enormous problems for those trying to understand it. We know everything about these organizations as of 1928, when the Muslim Brothers were founded, right up to the Islamic State. But the fact that we know about them does not mean that we truly understand them.


Have any other factors influenced the evolution you have described? Sociological or generational factors, for example?

 Most certainly. Take Hasan al-Banna or Sayyid Qutb, for example. They were men of letters, not religious men. Al-‘Azzam was a religious man but Bin Laden was not. At the same time, these people represented the Arab nation’s elite. Today, al-Baghdadi signals a rupture at a class level. Moreover, Zarqawi, who founded the Islamic State (although, at that time, it still was not called that but, rather, “al-Qaeda in the Country of Two Rivers”), does not come from the same socio-economic environment as Zawahiri. Zawahiri was born into one of Egypt’s most prestigious families. Zarqawi, on the other hand, came from the city of Zarqa in Jordan and was a common or garden criminal. Baghdadi does not have the profile of Bin Laden or Zawahiri. One therefore also needs to consider a plebeian factor, which is very marked. In the second place, there is a generational element. All the al-Qaeda leaders, without exception, were trained in Afghanistan. They were all born between 1957 and 1968 and followed a line of continuity with Sayyid Qutb. Al-Baghdadi, on the other hand, belongs to the generation born of Iraq and the civil war in Algeria during the 1990s. In 2014, Baghdadi was the same age as Bin Laden in 2001. When al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate in 2014, he was 43 and had 15 years of experience behind him, exactly like Bin Laden. Thus there is continuity and a constant reorganizing that are very difficult for us to understand.


The Islamic State is calling for the building of a state, but this project feeds on sacrifice and therefore the self-destruction of its militants. How can this contradiction be explained?

 I don’t have an answer but I have been thinking about this issue a great deal recently. The historical experience that springs to mind – although one should mistrust comparisons – is Nazism or the Khmer Rouge, possibly. Nazism posed several questions to philosophers and intellectuals such as Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Bloch and Sebastian Haffner. The problem arises from the fact that, on the one hand, Nazism was equipped with an absolutely rational power structure (the problem of unemployment is solved, the army is rebuilt and the state is re-founded) but, on the other, this rationality is sacrificed to objectives that are purely millenarist, even nihilist, and therefore unrealisable. It’s as if rationality and rationality’s destruction go hand in hand. I would be more cautious about the Khmer Rouge, but one can observe a dynamic of construction and self-destruction in this case as well. I have the impression that the Islamic State is living exactly the same ambiguity. On the one hand, it is demonstrating an extraordinary rationality that is resulting in the creation of something similar to a state: a territory of 200,000 km2, a population of 6 million inhabitants, borders and economic transactions. And at the same time, everything is sacrificed on the altar of a millenarianism that we find very difficult to define and that finds its expression in suicide attacks or a deliberate multiplying of its enemies. A rational player does not multiply his enemies. All of this cannot last: they will have to choose between institutional consolidation or total nihilism. That said, my impression is that were Isis to disappear tomorrow, all the different societies involved would disappear along with it. It is not only the state that is at stake. What I mean is that, were we to transpose the Syrian conflict to the scale of a country like France, we would have 750,000 deaths, 32 million refugees or deportees and Marseilles, Lyon and Rennes would no longer exist. What is happening in the Middle East is often perceived as a news item. But it isn’t. Societies are disappearing and there is no guarantee that, tomorrow, we will still be able to talk about a Libyan society or that there will still be some form of society in Yemen or Iraq.


You have studied the violence in the Middle East. How did it evolve during the twentieth century?

 It changed a great deal. During the 1920s and 1930s there was an insurrectional violence at work, but it was not self-sacrificial. During the period between 1950 and 1970, there was a “positive” violence: people fought against the British or the Americans, but at the same time they tried to build a new universal, founded on a tri-continental logic (involving Asia, Africa and Latin America) against imperialism. This violence involved a great deal of adventurism and irresponsibility and many instances of drift, but it did not fall within the logic of sacrifice. Beginning in the period 1979-80, however, the logic of self-destruction gradually makes its appearance. During the 1980s, four or five suicide attacks are recorded on Arab soil, the first of which occurred in Lebanon. One of the very first was carried out by a young female Christian Communist against Israeli forces. But we still haven’t arrived at a religious logic, given that this young woman did not commit suicide in her Christian capacity but in her Communist one. In any case, there were less than 10 suicide attacks during the 1980s, whereas I believe they numbered over one thousand in Iraq alone between 2003 and 2011. What does a suicide attack mean? It means that the past is no longer a source of pride, that the future promises you nothing and that you destroy the present in order to destroy both the past and the future. A suicide attack is the destruction of the present but destruction of the present means the destruction of time, as St Augustine said. Suicide attacks mean the destruction of time and the destruction of otherness. You destroy the other person by destroying yourself and thus prevent plurality. All of this has been trivialised to the point that no one notices the phenomenon any more nowadays. For this reason, there can be no doubt that the forms of violence have greatly changed, even in comparison with the 1980s.


Speaking of plurality, the Islamic State’s presence has greatly aggravated the minorities’ situation…

 The problem of plurality has always existed. The Arab nationalism of the 1920s and 1930s was not pluralist and Turkish nationalism is openly social-Darwinist i.e. it considers that the life of societies is like a war between species. There has never been true pluralism in the modern Middle East: there survived, rather, a sort of imperial legacy that accepted the various communities to the extent that they submitted, thereby permitting a sort of co-existence. This co-existence was guaranteed by the sacred nature of three territories: women’s bodies, because it is women who allow the group to reproduce; places of worship (churches, synagogues and mosques), because communities need to be guaranteed by transcendence; and cemeteries, because communities need to feel that they exist in time. As long as these three territories were held sacred and declared inviolable, the communities could co-exist. Now (and for about the last 30-40 years) these territories’ boundaries are being systematically violated and the process is accelerating. If, before, the Taliban were not “very tolerant” of plurality, nowadays Isis or Boko Haram have embraced a logic of destruction pure and simple. For them, killing men and abducting women is simply a matter of course. Ibn Khaldun spoke of de-civilisation. That’s exactly it: we’re witnessing a process of de-civilization.


Of all the Middle Eastern minorities, the Kurds are the only ones putting up a resistance. Why?

 It is true that whilst the Arab societies are collapsing, the Kurdish societies (in the plural) are establishing themselves. Two factors need to be considered. In the first place, the Kurds conceive of themselves as a national community rather than a denominational one and that also explains why Islamism has never taken root in Kurdistan. The Islamist parties in Iraqi Kurdistan get 10% of the votes, no more. The ultra-radical Islamism in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan gets 0.5% of the votes. The second factor is that the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria thought they could build an Athenian kind of society. Half property-based, half democratic in Iraq, and half hegemonic, half representative in Syria. They thought they would be able to kick the violence out and that Kurdish cities would be able to live peacefully. The episodes in 2014 showed them that death, which had been expulsed, has returned to their cities. Everyone, from Ibn Khaldun to Baudrillard, has described civilization as the expulsion of death from the city. Today there is an inevitable need to re-organize cities along military lines. Therefore, even if the Kurds wanted Athens, they are becoming Sparta and this worries me. At the same time, the fact remains that they have the means to resist.


So we find ourselves facing a paradox: the Kurds are the only people who truly have a national consciousness but they have never obtained their state…

 The paradox can be explained by the fact that they are outcasts and that their existence has been denied. At least 250,000 people died in the Kurdish conflict during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1990 it was by no means clear that the Kurds could survive as a community. At the same time, we have seen that it was possible to get a social project up and running on a national footing as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Without them, Isis would be the absolute masters today. Everyone has recognised that the Kurds exist and everyone is helping them. But this de facto existence and its recognition cannot be introduced into the Westphalian system that was generally applied in the Middle East between the two wars.


What game is Turkey playing, in your opinion?

 An extremely worrying and dangerous one. I can give you two illustrations. The first is that Turkey has a violent empire nostalgia. It wants to impose itself as a regional superpower, by virtue of its being a descendant of the Ottoman Empire. It wants to impose Turkishness at Islam’s helm and it wants to use Islam in order to define Turkishness. A sort of Turco-Islamic synthesis became Turkey’s national ideology at the beginning of the 1970s and it has found its most successful expression in the AKP. This empire nostalgia is in no way shared by the others, however: neither by the Arabs, nor the Alawites, nor the Kurds, nor the Armenians and this fact prevents Turkey being truly influential. Iran is. Why? Because Iran has a diplomacy based on militia groups that goes back to the Revolution. The first thing that Revolutionary Iran did was to found and arm Hezbollah, which has become a sort of matrix. So Iran can count on the Shi’ite communities in order to establish its presence first in Iraq, now in Syria and also in Yemen, at this point. Turkey has no similar elements. The more it fails in its foreign policy, the more aggressive it becomes and the more it supports elements (i.e. Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis) that will inevitably constitute a serious threat to Turkey herself one day in the future. The second factor that weakens Turkey is the Kurdish issue, over which it is competing with Iran. It is quite clear that, for Turkey, the Kurds constitute both a physical area to be controlled and a threat. And it ends up supporting al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State against the Kurds.

All things considered, one has the impression that instead of asking itself about its failures, Turkey poses the question in terms of conspiracy and the hostility felt by Europe, the Jewish lobby and America. But the deeper it goes into the conspiracy theory, the more aggressive it becomes.


Does Turkey also have the ambition to become the world leader of Sunni Islam?

 Yes, but this plan has not the slightest possibility of succeeding because the Arab world does not perceive Turkey as a model. What is more, she had an ally in the Gülenist current, but nowadays the AKP and Gülen’s movement are at daggers drawn. This has two consequences: there is no longer the counterweight of Gülenism inside the AKP, which used to prevent drift. On the other hand, Turkey’s image has been greatly sullied in the world, particularly in Europe and America. As a consequence, the Turkish project has far less of a chance of success than it did in the past.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Hamit Bozarslan, “An Unstoppable March towards De-Civilization?”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 90-98.

Online version:
Hamit Bozarslan, “An Unstoppable March towards De-Civilization?”, Oasis [online], published on 31st July 2015, URL: