Widening the Lens on the Arab World

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Cairo, Egypt (Photo: Nafis Safiai/EyeEm/Getty Images)

An interview with Carnegie Corporation's Hillary Wiesner

Carnegie Scholars Read more about the Carnegie Scholars program on Islam.

The decline of the strong central state in parts of the Arab region has fed borderless and proxy conflicts, while creating new roles for an array of nonstate actors. In the wave of change since Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, civil society movements have championed issues of citizenship that emphasize the social contract, human rights and rule of law, economic inclusion, and opportunities for the young majority. Meanwhile, armed conflict has empowered violent actors, including the so-called Islamic State (IS) and groups aligned with al-Qaeda.

Hillary Wiesner is Carnegie Corporation of New York program director for Transnational Movements and the Arab Region. The program connects Arab experts who are using the tools of social science to analyze the region’s varied social movements—civil or religious, militant or peaceful—and to apply their knowledge to the challenges of their societies. Wiesner recently sat down with Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for International Peace and Security at Carnegie Corporation, to discuss the program.

Hillary, you’ve spent decades examining and engaging with Arab cultures and societies, past and present. You’re not alone among Western scholars in seeking a deeper, richer understanding of the Arab world’s crosscurrents. Why the particular focus on transnational issues, and why now?

Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian made these issues a priority from the outset. When I joined his team at Carnegie beginning in 2007, we aimed to boost research on the extraordinary diversity of Muslim societies and to enhance intercultural understanding. At present, our focus is on the crises in the Arab region, and the solutions being developed by political scientists, economists, and social scientists, as well as by humanities scholars, historians, and other thinkers in the region. Failed intervention and failed governance have led to crisis. It isn’t going to be solved from the outside, not by external intervention, nor by the private sector alone, nor by the UN system and diplomatic negotiation. It will only be solved by the brain trust of the region itself, by people who are experts on their own societies. Therefore our work includes a new initiative supporting scholar mobility and policy development by social science and humanities experts.

Your background in the history of ideas: is it a useful background to have, to tackle contemporary issues?

Like everything else, the past is a controversial topic. When it comes to the Arab region, they could rightly say to us, “We are not your past. We are not a snapshot, of how you used to be before the evolution of secular institutions.” The Arab region has known plenty of secular institutions. Nor is what’s happening there now purely reactive. We’ve become accustomed to assuming everything is a reaction to U.S. policies, our media, or our political rhetoric. And therefore, it’s assumed, we should be able to have an impact through what we do or say. But I’d argue that much of what’s happening now is grounded in the region itself. The region has its own internal drivers.

Over the past five years, Islam-as-governance got unexpected opportunities. This wasn’t foreordained, or primordial. Social and political movements with their roots in the 20th century have worked to transform religious identity into political identity for political uses, as Aziz al-Azmeh has written. In addition, as you know, the U.S. has had a role since the Cold War in funding, supporting, arming, and training militias and movements which the U.S. itself labels as “extremist.” Currently, some hold territory, while Caliphate movements exist in dozens of countries—places with war economies, failures of governance, or simply a failed transaction of citizenship. People have alternatives; they might not identify with a nation state if that’s not bearing fruit for them.

The concept of “transnational” in the program—that probably needs defining. It’s easy to imagine transnational as meaning the ancient Bedouin who traveled between countries and who don’t recognize borders. It could denote questions about people like the Palestinians, onto whom borders have been imposed. Or it could just refer to historic peoples—the Kurds, the Tuaregs, etc.— who have always lived in more than one country, in the Western sense of the word “country.” How do you use the term “transnational”?

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Aziz Al-ASmeh lectures on the question, "Is Islam the Arab Destiny?" at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Watch the video.

We begin from the concept of social movements. Social movements can be movements with a cause—a liberation movement, a justice movement, civil rights movements, women’s movements, youth movements. These are civil society movements. And we’re also studying militant movements, which can be connected with conflict zones, corruption, trafficking, and criminal networks. And thanks to technology, all these transnational movements we’ve been discussing are here, right now, in your pocket.

Research and analysis on these regional trends is happening in hundreds of think tanks, universities, and institutes in the Arab region. A 2016 report by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences—an organization with hundreds of members—found a ten-fold increase in Arab research centers since 1980; they count 436 research centers today. The fastest growth was seen in Algeria, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, and some of the Gulf States.

And when it comes to analyzing conflicts, one thing that the World Bank found in its conflict and fragility study is that “extremism” often reduces to a local conflict intersecting with a nonlocal identity. A shared identity group becomes an entry point into someone else’s local conflict. The local, political, and sometimes sectarian nature of that conflict—and the economic transactions of its war economy—that’s what these young people are involving themselves in. They are often unaware of what they’re getting into. They do not understand the actual nature of the conflict in which they’re becoming combatants.

Can these phenomena be grouped as violent extremism?

There are many critiques about the governmental framing of these issues as “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. It is a framework which generally problematizes the individual psychology, in order to dissuade individuals from mobilization to violence. This individual approach represents a gap in scale, when the conflicts are so clearly driven by large geopolitical and economic forces. Therefore, after extensive consultations, including with our leadership and board, our work is oriented toward policy-level intervention points. We aim to illuminate and clarify the existing policies that have brought us to where we are today, and the impact these policies are having.

Thus the program supports new understandings of social movements and militant movements connected with the Arab region, including their political economy, financial drivers, and the changing roles of states. What roles are states playing, and what connection do people have to states? The decline in effective governance is seen as a global trend, acute in the Arab region. Are the failing states coming back or not? Political scientists are divided on these issues. And then of course there is the goal of policy development—formulating solutions to specific problems. We’re very much looking to support social science and humanities scholars moving toward problem-solving in the longer term.

You said earlier that the Arabs are trying to say to us that “we’re not your past.” One often hears, almost as an excuse for the problems of the Arab world, “Well, Islam is only 1400 years old. Remember what barbarians we Christians were at the 1400-year mark—Crusades, Inquisition, etc.” You regard that as a false dichotomy, do you not?

Yes. That view is a kind of essentialism or Islamo-determinism. As if everything that happens is caused by religion, and as if a religion is a “world.” To construct that historical narrative, one has to cherry-pick phenomena to fit a predetermined pattern, and impose an imagined linear evolution. For example, one might imagine the West as secular, although the data on established state religion and religious practice show otherwise. And then one could contrast that false concept of the West with an imagined opposite. Yes, I definitely agree that that is a “false dichotomy.”

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A photographer holds his picture of the Temple of Bel taken before it was destroyed by Islamic State in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Social Sciences in the Arab Region: Five Years after the Arab Uprisings

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The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

The role of religion in all of this is still to be analyzed from many angles and elucidated, perhaps distinguishing private sphere religion from religion playing a role of governance. At the moment, applications of religious norms as governance are flourishing where space has been created for them to flourish. I wouldn’t call that something that was predetermined or part of a linear evolution. If we compare social patterns fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, we see neither stagnation nor linear progression.

If you had your way, and you could cast your eyes ten years hence and imagine that the Transnational Movements program has really gained traction—what does that look like? How does success for the program look to you in ten years or so?

Many in the field are now recalling the transition decades in Latin America. There was a period of transition from authoritarianism, when diaspora intellectuals developed inclusive economic models, dependency theory, and policies that would eventually expand the middle class in countries like Brazil.

In our program, if someone says to us “extremism,” we ask them to define it; for example, to define it in specific legal language or in terms of human rights violations, as well as by the conflicts it emerged from.
— Hillary Wiesner

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In ten years? We may be seeing more connection between citizens and governance in the region, and high levels of social participation. We expect we’re going to see a progression away from framing diverse phenomena as “extremism.” In our program, if someone says to us “extremism,” we ask them to define it; for example, to define it in specific legal language or in terms of human rights violations, as well as by the conflicts it emerged from. In the IS territories we see torture, mutilation, atrocity crimes, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide crimes against the Yazidis, which the European Parliament has referred to the UN. Cultural heritage destruction is a crime in the 1954 Hague Convention. Instead of undefined concepts like “extremism,” we could clarify the responsibilities of state and nonstate actors. There’s a lot of consensus around the criminal nature of this activity, and potentially some legal accountability.

In contrast, “extremism” doesn’t have a definition. So far, the United Nations left it to each member state to define extremism for themselves. In some countries, extremist means being part of the political opposition. So we think the term clouds rather than clarifies, and it’s possible to frame a problem in a way that it can neither be seen nor solved. It can also be analyzed as political violence, although today’s political violence is mixed with criminal violence and with networks resembling organized crime. “Terrorism” has something of a definition—roughly, violence against civilians for political ends.

Currently, working in the “Countering Violent Extremism” approach, we’re seeing an annual 80 percent increase in terrorism (according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace). I’d consider a lot of that to be armed conflict, fed by massive trade in weapons. But there is one thing you can say about CVE: it’s not working.

There are efforts underway to deconstruct and clarify the diverse phenomena grouped as extremism, while also questioning the geopolitical and economic dynamics that have brought us to this level of social conflict and armed conflict. Conflict prevention is also a way to prevent violent, exclusionary social movements. International Crisis Group concluded, in its global study of IS and al-Qaeda, “Preventing crises will do more to contain violent extremists than countering violent extremism [CVE] will do to prevent crises.”

Michael Moran, a foreign policy analyst, author, and geo-strategist, is a Visiting Media Fellow at Carnegie Corporation of New York.