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?

Continued on Next Page >>




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