Middle East Expert Discusses Islamic Extremism

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Persia, which Iran became, is an ancient civilization, one with a continuous history going back more than 2,500 years. Iranians speak Farsi, of course, not Arabic. They are quite mixed ethnically. Yet they all identify themselves with this concept of Persia, of being a special place, of holding a special position in the world.

Persians, when they were converted to Islam, were never particularly comfortable with the fact that it was such an Arab-dominated religion. Shiaism, which you find in Iran now among 95 percent of the population, is in a sense the Persianization of Islam. About the 10th century, the people in what is now Iran began to look for ways in which they could remain Muslim but also define themselves as Persian. Shia Islam has an enormous amount of Persian influence in it. You definitely have a different culture, a different history, a different tradition in Iran than you have in the Arab world.

How you understand what's happened in Iran in the 20th century with the Shah and with revolution is that Iran has always worked best when you have had a balance between the Iranian Persian identity and the Islamic identity. In the name of modernization, the Shah rejected Islamic identity and pushed it toward the extreme of Persian identity. The reaction was that Khomeni came along, and he pushed it to the extreme of their Islamic identity. What you see happening in Iran today with the reform movement and so forth is this attempt to reach this critical balance where the Iranians feel comfortable with both of those identities. I think that a similar thing is happening in Turkey.

In what way?

Turkey can trace its roots back along many, many centuries. The Ottoman Empire entered its final phase because the Turks decided that their Turkish identity exceeded their Islamic identity. Certainly, since the end of the First World War and the creation of the state, Turkey has looked at a secular state [and] looked westward. What's interesting in Turkey today is everyone had just assumed that the Turks solved this dilemma of trying to balance secularism with their culture, which is so rooted in Islam. With this recent election, we are seeing that, again, the Turks grapple with the same problem as the Iranians.

Are other countries wrestling with the same problem?

The Arabs have struggled with this question ever since they've been states. How do you protect the fact that these are Islamic cultures, but at the same time meet the needs of modernization? Islam in the past has not been very successful at making the transition into the modern world. Why is it that the Arabs seem to be stuck? They're stuck because they haven't been able to make that division between the secular and the religious. At the same time, it's also very important to the Arab states that we recognize that Islam is part of their identity and is going to be part of their political system. Just like Judaism is the defining part of the Israeli state, and Judaism is certainly at the core of Israel's political system.

How do you explain the apparent rise in fundamentalist extremism in the Arab world?

I think what has contributed to the bigger picture of the communications and transportation revolution [is] the fact that the world has really shrunk. There is a homogenization taking place that is very threatening to people. I certainly think in the United States much of the rise of the religious right is coming from the same forces that have brought this rise of Islamic militancy. People feel that their identities are threatened by that larger world out there. That unless they hold on and prove themselves the true believers, they're just going to be washed aside by globalization. You see around the world these identities are becoming more militant in preserving their past and protecting their culture against globalization.

What should people in the West understand about the Middle East?

The Middle East—Iran, Turkey, the Arab world—is an area that is somewhat a tormented region partly because of geography. Everybody has come through there over the centuries.

I think we need to be empathetic with the fact that all of these people—Iranians, Turks, Arabs, Jews—are at critical periods. They are defining themselves and they are learning to operate in the international community. Culture is a very important part of who any people are. We cannot get hung up with the idea that we're looking at a bunch of religious fanatics, whether or not they're Muslims or they are Jews. What is it that these people are trying to define? What is it that they're trying to achieve? What is their vision for the future? What do they want for their children? Rather than just assume that the instability of the region is somehow directed at the United States or at the West or that it is a culture war. Because when we talk about militant Islam, we're really not talking about religion. We're talking about a political ideology. We have to constantly keep that in mind. Osama bin Laden has taken Islam and converted it into a political ideology to which some Muslims subscribe and others don't.

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