Middle East Expert Discusses Islamic Extremism

Sean Markey
National Geographic News
December 11, 2002
American author and freelance journalist Sandra Mackey moved to Saudi
Arabia in 1978 and lived there four years with her physician husband,
reporting on the boom and bust of the country's new oil economy and its
impact on a society moving from a tribal past to modernization.

In the decades that followed, Mackey has returned often to the Middle East to report on the region. She has written about the civil war in Lebanon, traveled in Iran despite government restrictions against American visitors, and, most recently, traveled in Iraq. Her fifth book, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, was published earlier this year. In November, National Geographic Books issued Cradle and Crucible: History and Faith in the Middle East, which includes a chapter by Mackey on the origins and consequences of political and military conflict in the Middle East during the 20th century. In a phone interview with National Geographic News from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, Mackey discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Islamic extremism.

How does Israel impact the Middle East?

Israel has had at least two effects on the Arab world. One is simply because of the War of 1948 and the 700,000 Palestinian refugees [that] were created. This totally destabilized the area. Essentially, it's never been stable since. You've had wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973, and the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982. This constant turmoil that has gone on through this whole period has kept Arab governments somewhat distracted from what they really need to be about.

Secondly, Israel has been much more successful at nation-building than the Arab states have been. The Israelis have prospered so much more economically than the Arabs have. Israel is seen by the Arabs, speaking from their perspective, as another imperial power that the West put into the Middle East. The fact that the Israelis have benefited from enormous Western financial and diplomatic support really has held Israel up almost as a mirror in which the Arabs see what they perceive as their failings. That has been a very big problem for this whole region. The Arabs had these problems to begin with. They were exacerbated by the situation with Israel.

Do you think a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible?

The Palestinian-Israeli dispute is almost paralyzed right now because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can deal with each other until they resolve their own internal conflicts. [Taking] the Palestinian side of it first, the Palestinians have got to accept the fact that Israel is a reality. They are not going to be able to bring back everybody that was expelled in 1948. There are too many people. There's too little land. The Palestinians have got to define what kind of government they want. There are great differences within the Palestinian community between those who were the landed class before 1948 and those who were the refugee population. Which of those groups really has the moral authority to govern the society? Are they going to be secular or are they going to be religious?

When you look at the Israelis, you have a similar situation: How do you define Israel even just territorially? Is Israel a secular state within the 1967 borders? Or is Israel a theocracy? Many Israelis feel that Israel is only complete when it has annexed the West Bank and essentially has rid itself of the Palestinian population. This is a real moral issue with the Israelis today, and one which they haven't settled themselves. If anything, I think [the conflict] is getting worse. The real hard-line Israelis are gaining in strength. The more secular-minded are losing in strength. Where that's going to go and what it's going to mean to the future of the state of Israel is one of the critical questions that will be faced, I think, rather quickly.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11 came from Saudi Arabia. Why do you think that was?

The dilemmas of Saudi Arabia [that crystallized during] the oil boom of the 1970s have never been resolved. If you look at the Saudi involvement in September 11th, that all has come up from the dislocations caused by the oil boom. We in the West tended to look at the oil boom in Saudi Arabia as this fantastic thing that happened. They were just awash in money. And it was true: In the material sense, the boom was a great thing for them. But ideas of [identity]—who am I, what is my worth, where do I fit in the world—were just totally knocked out of kilter by this. The Saudis have been caught in this dilemma since 1973. Do they want modernization? Or do they want to follow their more traditional life? They haven't made up their minds.

We keep talking about fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, but we really haven't paid much attention to the other side of it. There is also a huge element of people wanting to push forward with modernization. How are you going to balance these two so that you can accommodate a majority of the people?

Iran's cultural heritage is Persian. How does this distinguish the country from the rest of the Arab world?

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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