James L. Gelvin, The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
James Gelvin (JG): I had published the second edition of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, in 2015. At that time, the uprisings and their after effects were core concerns to both experts and non-experts seeking more information about the region. Since then, policy makers, journalists, and others have increasingly used the term “New Middle East” to describe the dramatic events that have taken place in the region since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the uprisings. Writing a book on the topic seemed to be the next logical step—one that would contextualize the uprisings and add in other elements that have defined the region since 2003: state collapse in Syria, Libya, Yemen; the seeming victory of the forces of reaction elsewhere; the rise and fall of ISIS; the polarization of the region between Saudi Arabia and its allies and Iran and its allies; and the repositioning of the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Israel. Perhaps most important—and most overlooked, since they do not fit into the twenty-four hour news cycle—are the expanding threats to what the United Nations calls “human security” in the region: “those intense, extensive, prolonged, and comprehensive threats” to life and freedom. Among those threats are population increase, global warming, violence and bad governance, food and water insecurity, inadequate healthcare and educational infrastructure, and the like. The book addresses all of these issues.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JG: While the book addresses all of the above, it does so from a standpoint that is not commonplace. I am a historian by training and trade. Over the past two decades I have focused increasingly on “contemporary history”—a phrase that seems more of an oxymoron than an established subfield of history. I believe historians have a unique perspective and a unique ability to address issues as they unfold. The great historian, Fernand Braudel, put it best: Anyone who tries to understand current affairs by focusing only on today and the immediate past “will continually have his eye caught by anything that moves quickly or glitters.” However (he continued), a knowledge of history enables us “to know whether what one is witnessing is the rise of a new movement, the tail end of an old one, an echo from the very distant past, or a monotonously recurring phenomenon.” The past is embedded in the present, and so to understand the latter it is essential to have a firm grasp of the former.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JG: I have written this book for both an academic audience and the general public. Like my previous book for the series, I have purposely avoided academic jargon and present the material in a straightforward, question-and-answer format. The book is my intervention into ongoing discussions about the state of the Middle East and its future. As such, I would like to see as wide a readership as possible. I have already heard from colleagues who have used it successfully in their classrooms, and, having found it at an airport bookstore, I am proud to have attained the holy grail of authors everywhere. I am under no illusions about its impact, however. The book will not be a Silent Spring or The Feminine Mystique. The Saudi tail will continue to wag the American dog, governments in the region will continue to jail prisoners of conscience, and Syria and Yemen will continue their descent into hell. However, to paraphrase former Czech dissident Václav Havel, appalling circumstances demand clarity, accuracy, and directness from those equipped to provide it. Also, when I refer to appalling circumstances, I am not just referring to the killing fields of Syria or Yemen, but to the onslaught on clarity, accuracy, and directness currently taking place in the United States.
J: What do you mean by the “Saudi tail will continue to wag the American dog”?
JG: When Barack Obama became president of the United States, he believed that the United States had spent too much blood and treasure in the Middle East. The Arab Middle East is the second least globalized region on earth with proportionally the highest concentration of regimes classified as “autocratic.” Obama wanted to “pivot” the United States away from the region and focus American policy on East Asia, where, he believed, the twenty-first century would be made. To accomplish this pivot, the United States had to lighten its footprint in the Middle East. The United States would make this lighter footprint in two ways: First, the United States would attempt to resolve or tamp down conflicts in the region. Hence, the American withdrawal from Iraq, its participation in the JCPOA, and its attempt to restart Israeli-Palestinian talks. Second, the Obama administration attempted to return to the cold war policy of “offshore balancing”: American “partners” in the region would act as American proxies to maintain the status quo, while the United States would act as the ultimate guarantor of their sovereignty and territorial integrity. The problem was, after two decades of free riding, none of America’s partners—particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel—wanted to return to the old ways. Also, Saudi Arabia was particularly incensed by Obama’s statement that the Saudis would have to learn to “share the neighborhood” with Iran. In the end, the Obama policy failed because it was both blindsided by events it could not predict (the Arab uprisings) and those it should have (Israeli and Saudi resistance), and by poor execution.
Enter Trump. Trump bases his Middle East policy on being the Un-bama: See what Obama did and do the opposite. He therefore embraced the partners that the Obama administration had attempted to hold at arm’s length, in the process making American policy in the region a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have convinced the gullible Trump that the biggest problem in the region is “terrorism,” and that the biggest purveyor of terrorism is Iran. Hence, under Trump the Saudi tail will continue to wag the American dog.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JG: I am currently working on two projects. In February 2018, I helped organize a conference at UCLA titled, “Understanding the New Middle East.” We brought together an outstanding group of experts from academia, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations. I am currently editing the conference volume, which I would like to see out in 2019. I would then like to return to a project I began several years ago which traces the emergence of the contemporary discourse on human rights during the 1970s and its diffusion to the Arab Middle East. The term “Arab Spring” that has been applied all too often to the events of 2010-11 is a misnomer, not only because it set expectations too high, but because it implies that what happened between December 2010 and March 2011 was a “one-off”—a unique event that took place within the span of a single season. The book I am writing traces the impact of human rights discourse on the region from the founding of the Ligue Tunisienne des Droits de l’Homme in 1976 and the Berber Spring in Algeria in 1980 through the 1994-99 Bahraini intifada, Syria’s “Damascus Spring” in 2000, the 2004 Kifaya movement in Egypt, Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” of 2005, and Kuwait’s 2002-5 and 2006 “Blue” and “Orange” revolutions, among other upheavals. The fact that the “Arab Spring” was hardly a one-off event has obvious implications for reassessing the future of the region.
J: Is there really a New Middle East?
JG: Good question. It really depends on what you look at. If viewed in terms of the big-ticket items—economic and social relations, for example—the Middle East of today is little different from the Middle East that began to emerge in the 1970s. It is a Middle East whose broad contours are defined by demographic pressures, autocratic regimes, rent-dependency, and neoliberalism, with the attendant problems (crony capitalism, income inequality, deindustrialization) that neoliberalism brings. Nevertheless, since 2011 a number of other phenomena have come to mark the region and regional dynamics. Among them are the proliferation of proxy wars and sectarianization, state exhaustion and breakdown, political realignment and bipolarity, for example. So yes, there is a New Middle East.
Excerpt from the Book:
There are two wings of the leadership of ISIS, a political/ideological wing and a military wing. The first wing can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the second to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, ostensibly at the request of an allied Afghan government which was facing a mounting insurgency. It remained there for ten years. During that time, jihadis from around the world flocked to Afghanistan to fight the invaders. They received financial and material assistance from the United States and Saudi Arabia. Among those jihadis was Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda.
In 1989, another jihadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, showed up in Afghanistan. As his name connotes, al-Zarqawi hailed from Zarqa, the third largest city in Jordan. In his youth, al-Zarqawi was a bootlegger, drunk, brawler, and, perhaps, pimp and sexual trafficker who had spent time in prison. A short while after his visit to Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi returned to Jordan where he was again arrested, this time for plotting to overthrow the government. He remained in prison until 1999, when King Hussein of Jordan died and his son, Prince Abdullah, took the throne. As was customary, Abdullah celebrated his accession by declaring a general amnesty. Released, al-Zarqawi returned to Afghanistan.
After his return, al-Zarqawi met with bin Laden, who, accounts tell us, was not terribly impressed. Nevertheless, bin Laden gave Zarqawi a seed grant to set up a training camp for Jordanian and Palestinian jihadis there, and to establish his own organization, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. After 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, al-Zarqawi fled, first to Iran, then to Iraq. When Americans invaded Iraq, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad became al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Zarqawi undertook a terrorist campaign. This campaign was unlike that waged by other insurgents: Instead of targeting the invaders alone, al-Qaeda in Iraq targeted Shi‘is as well, something al-Qaeda Central (that is, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan) had never done and, in fact, warned against.
The Americans killed al-Zarqawi in an airstrike in 2006. After his death, al-Qaeda in Iraq went through several permutations under various leaders, none of whom died peacefully in his bed. One of those groups was the Islamic State of Iraq, and one of those leaders (whether he was the second or third is disputed) was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now leader of the Islamic State.
Although his name suggests he was born in Baghdad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971. He received a higher religious education in Baghdad. He was either radicalized when he was interned at an American prison in Iraq, Camp Bucca, or when he met al-Zarqawi. After becoming leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, he permitted Syrian-born fighters in it to return to Syria. While they soon split with al-Baghdadi’s group, al-Baghdadi rechristened his organization the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”—ISIS. He and his cohort form the inner circle of the political/ideological wing of ISIS’s leadership.
The military wing of ISIS’s leadership consists of former Iraqi military officers who served under Iraq’s pre-invasion president, Saddam Hussein. Like Saddam, they came overwhelmingly from the minority Sunni population of Iraq. After the American invasion, the American pro-consul, Paul Bremer, issued two controversial orders (“pro-consul” is roughly the same as colonial administrator). Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Order No. 1 dissolved the ruling party of Iraq, the Baath Party, to which high-ranking military officers belonged (separate Baath parties ruled both Syria and Iraq). CPA Order No. 2 dissolved the army. Unfortunately for the Americans, no one thought to disarm the army before dissolving it. In effect, the Americans loosed large numbers of unemployed, armed youths and their military leaders upon the population of Iraq. A group of them went underground. Some analysts argue that this was the plan all along. They claim that Saddam, realizing his army could not stand up to the American army, ordered his generals to set up military networks that would harass the Americans after the invasion.
That which brought those military officers together with the political/ideological wing of ISIS was a common hatred of the Shi‘i-dominated Iraqi government the Americans installed. By 2012, that government was waging a violent campaign against its Sunni opposition. The officers organized resistance to the government, then engineered ISIS’s takeover of a tract of territory in Syria and Iraq the size of Belgium, as the cliché has it….
Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi both cut their teeth waging jihad in Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda in Iraq was an affiliate of al-Qaeda Central. Nevertheless, the two were very different organizations.
The strategy of al-Qaeda has been to “vex and exhaust” members of the conspiracy by goading them into debilitating adventures abroad where al-Qaeda can bleed them. The group derived its strategy from its experience in Afghanistan where, it claims, its attacks against the Soviet military led directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the reason al-Qaeda welcomed the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is still al-Qaeda’s strategy. Hence, its provocative terrorist acts abroad.
The strategy of ISIS is quite different. ISIS has sought to seize territory and purify it from foreign influences and from those it considers “unIslamic”—Yazidi Kurds, secular Kurds, Shi‘is, and the like. Overall, ISIS’s strategic vision can be reduced to three words: khilafa, takfir, and hijra.
Khilafa means “caliphate” in Arabic. According to al-Baghdadi and his followers, Islam requires a caliphate—that is, a territory in which Muslims might practice true Islam. A caliph (khalifa—literally, successor [to Muhammad]) is the individual who rules over the caliphate. His role is to protect Islam and defend and expand the territory of the caliphate. Traditionally, to be a caliph a Muslim has to fulfill a number of requirements, including piety, religious knowledge, and descent from the family of the prophet. When his forces seized Mosul in summer 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph. He burnished his credentials for the job by adopting the title and changing his name to Caliph Ibrahim (his original first name) al-Qurayshi al-Hashimi. The latter two names signify that he is a member of the tribe of Muhammad (al-Quraysh) and a descendant of the prophet.
The second keyword is takfir, which refers to the act of pronouncing Muslims who disagree with ISIS’s strict interpretation of Islamic Law to be apostates, a crime punishable by death. This is the reason for ISIS’s murderous rampages against Shi‘is—rampages that even al-Qaeda central has found counterproductive, if not repugnant. Resurrecting the concept of takfir was the brainchild of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His strategy was to spark tit-for-tat violence between Sunnis and Shi‘is in Iraq. By doing this, he hoped to mobilize the Sunni community and make Iraq ungovernable for the Americans. Al-Baghdadi has gone one step further than al-Zarqawi. He finds the concept useful in his effort to purify the territory of the caliphate which, he believes, will soon stretch wherever Muslims rule or have ruled in the past.
The final word is hijra, the migration of Muslims from dar al-harb (the abode of war; that is, non-Muslim-majority countries) to dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam). The model for this is Muhammad and his early companions, who migrated from Mecca, where they had been persecuted, to Medina, where they established the first permanent Islamic community. ISIS wants a great incoming of Muslims into the caliphate, both because it needs skilled administrators and fighters and because it considers emigration from “non-Muslim territory” to “Muslim territory” a religious obligation.
According to some commentators, there is a fourth idea al-Baghdadi brought to the table: an apocalyptic vision. They claim that members of ISIS believe that the end of days is near, a time when righteousness will achieve its final victory over disbelief. They base their claim on ISIS’s own propaganda, particularly the name of ISIS’s glossy magazine, Dabiq. Dabiq is a site in northern Syria where, according to Islamic lore, a great battle will be fought between ISIS and “Rome” (Rum in Arabic refers to the Christian West). This battle will set in motion a cascade of events that will eventually bring about the reign of justice and virtue.
It’s not too much of a stretch to attribute an apocalyptic vision to ISIS. All monotheistic religions are prone to apocalyptic visions. It is a logical explanation for the presence of evil and those who do not believe as you do in spite of the existence of an all-powerful God. At some point, He must surely act to make things right.
There are, however, reasons for skepticism. Whatever the future may hold, ISIS, like some apocalyptic Christian groups, has in the meantime proved itself so tactically and strategically adept that it has obviously kicked any end-of-days can well down the road. Further, the idea that ISIS has an apocalyptic vision discounts the importance of the military wing of ISIS’s leadership. If hard-headed former Iraqi Baath military officers think about an apocalypse at all, they probably treat it much as Hitler’s generals treated the musings of Nazi true believers—with a roll of their eyes. And if any of the principals from the political/ideological wing of the leadership were to propose acting in a way that might jeopardize the former officers’ dream of ruling over a liberated Sunni state in the heart of the Arab world, those officers might just get rid of their former comrades in arms.
According to one author who has bought into the whole ISIS/apocalypse idea, “For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need.” Or, perhaps, playing up a purported ISIS/apocalypse link fulfils a deep psychological need for those who just cannot otherwise account for the savagery and fervor of ISIS devotees. Foregrounding ISIS’s apocalyptic worldview enables us to disparage the group as irrational and even medieval. If the recent past has demonstrated one thing, it is that ISIS thrives when its adversaries underestimate it.
ISIS conquered the town of Dabiq in August 2014. Turkish-backed rebel forces retook it in October 2016. According to reports, ISIS fighters in the town put up minimal resistance, and before the final assault many stole off into the night.