Renowned Middle East Expert Professor Ussama Makdisi, Chair of Arab Studies, Arab-American Educational Foundation, Rice University talks to Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star and Shamsuddoza Sajen, Sr. Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star on the current situation in Gaza and the Middle East as a whole.
The Daily Star (TDS): How do you assess the current situation in Gaza?
Ussama Makdisi (UM): A massive assault on Palestinian people has been going on in Gaza. It is a vicious demonstration of the Israeli doctrine that any form of resistance on the part of Palestinians has to be crushed violently, inhumanly and mercilessly. British journalist David Hirst called this policy 'Gun Zionism.' Palestinians try to resist Israeli oppression and Israel retaliates against this resistance. Successive Israeli governments have pursued the same basic policy of trying to force Palestinian submission decade after decade. Israel did not, however, anticipate this level of resistance from Hamas. They, thus redoubled their effort to terrorise the Palestinians into submission.
The massive number of casualties among Palestinians is the result of sheer imbalance of military power in favour of Israel, which is further strengthened by all-out support from the US and some European governments. Ultimately, the Israeli attempt at complete domination over Palestinians is unsustainable. The Israeli government fails to understand the reality that the more you repress, the more people will resist. We know from history that the crushing of resistance does not usually work. Israel wants the West Bank. It does not want Palestinian bodies. It wants Palestine without Palestinians. The problem is, how can it achieve that?
Some people are saying that Israel is just retaliating against Hamas attacks. The reality is that Hamas today feel empowered because it was able to inflict losses on Israeli soldiers. But Hamas, in any case, is only a pretext for Israeli violence. Hamas, after all, was founded only in 1988, 20 years after the Israeli occupation of Gaza began (in 1967). Israel occupied the Gaza strip long before Hamas was created and long before the first rocket was launched into Israel. And in Palestine as a whole, there has been a colonial situation since 1920.
The Palestine question should be resolved at the level of morality and law. It cannot be resolved through violence. Israel's great weakness is colonial Zionism's moral bankruptcy. It is absurd to say that the land of Palestine/Israel belongs to the Jewish population alone.
TDS: What is the future of the Palestine issue? It seems it is going nowhere except for people pouring out their sympathies for the sufferings of the Palestinian people. Is there any political maneuver you can pin hope on?
UM: The actual Palestinian situation in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is far worse now than at any previous time. The only glimmer of hope in all this is in a growing international movement against the sheer injustice against the Palestinians. It is not only an Arab or Muslim awareness but awareness around the world, including in the West. There is now a movement, for example, called Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS). It is a non-violent movement, inspired by the anti-apartheid movement.
TDS: Besides the Israel-Arab conflict, we also see conflicts between Arab countries. The Middle East is gripped by sectarian conflicts. How do you explain these sectarian conflicts? What is your rationale behind branding the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East as a legacy of Western imperialism?
UM: To cut a long story short, when the British and French came to the Middle East after WWI they not only dismantled the Ottoman Empire but also partitioned what had been one Ottoman whole into various bits and pieces. They did so to suit their own imperial interests. The British invented a new question of Palestine. They, and the Zionists whom they enabled, precipitated a new conflict of “Arabs” against “Jews.” In the Ottoman period, there was no such conflict. Europe, and not the Middle East, was the home of Anti-Semitism.
The Arab-Zionist conflict has turned out to be catastrophic to the idea of a secular Arab world. Western imperialism created an anti-secular and anti-democratic frame which not only gave birth to Israel but also, because of the pivotal role of the United States, reinforced anti-democratic forces such as the Saudi royal family and Iran's Shah and so on. The repression of the Shah's regime, in turn, led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Arab leaders such as Saddam Hussein, the Saudi monarchy, Qatar, Turkey, the Syrian regime, and many religious figures have also encouraged sectarianism through their rhetoric and actions.
The sectarian conflict that has now erupted across the Arab world is doing serious damage to the idea of secular Arab identity. It is not only dividing the Arabs but also the Muslim world.
Who benefits from a divided Arab world? Various local despots to be sure. But the western imperialist powers have been instrumental in creating the conditions that have allowed the sectarian conflict to erupt. The example of Iraq makes this clear.
In the context of the US invasion in Iraq in 2003, a power vacuum was created by the removal of a government and an army. The US willfully supported the idea that Iraqi Arab identity had to be remade into “Sunni,” “Shi'a” and “Kurdish” identities. In a petroleum-rich country like Iraq, such a discourse becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ongoing struggle for power between Iranian-backed Shi'a groups and individuals and Saudi backed Takfiris has produced internecine sectarian conflict -- but it is really a struggle for resources. This has almost nothing to do with medieval history and religion as such, and almost everything to do with geo-politics. The conflict in Iraq has already spilled into Syria. Thus the US invasion in Iraq was a pivotal incident that defines today's sectarian violence across the Middle East.
TDS: Arab Spring created hope around the world of a conflict-free, democratic and secular Middle East. But it seems that it has failed to live up to the dream. What do you think?
UM: There was an optimistic beginning to the Arab uprisings. People were standing up against repressive regimes that had been in power for decades. But counter revolutions suppressed these uprisings. Libya is in chaos. In Syria, there was an initial uprising that has now become a much larger geo-political struggle.
In Egypt, actually, the army never left power. The Morsi regime became unpopular mainly because of its fundamentalist stance which gave the military a pretext to strike back at it. Though Egypt has a vibrant dynamic society, the liberals who had supported the military regime are now facing the reality of what a military regime means. The Brotherhood rule was crude but the military rule is not better. The future of Egypt still remains difficult to predict.
What is easy to predict is US policy. The US has no problem with the autocratic regimes functioning in the Arab countries as long as they do what the US wants. In reality, it completely opposes any meaningful democracy in the Arab world.
TDS: Whatever steps have been taken by the US, it seems that all are adding to or strengthening the religious discourse in the Arab world. For example, al-Qaeda is stronger than ever. Is it by default or by design? Is there no collective wisdom in the West?
UM: I think it could not be by design alone. It is more by sheer arrogance and ignorance. The combination of these two factors has been very damaging in the Middle East. The imperial powers rarely think about the long-term consequences of their actions on the ground.
TDS: How do you see rising Islamism around the world? How is this going to play out in societies like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on?
UM: As in the Arab world, Muslims are the primary interlocutors, victims, participants and movers in this debate over Islamism. Who is going to oppose the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam? Overwhelmingly, it is Muslims. It has been going on from the beginning. Wahhabism has always been challenged. It is a danger to secularism but so too are western imperialism and Zionism. All have done great damage to the idea of coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East.