“This moment is not the time to be optimistic,” the host of CNN’s international affairs program, “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” and contributing editor at The Atlantic, told the audience at the closing event of the American Middle East Institute’s 8th Annual Business Conference.
In a 40-minutes address delivered without the aid of notes, Zakaria opined about the turbulence in the region and its genesis. Notably, he did not reference Israel as a source of the Middle East’s struggles.
Ministers, ambassadors and other visitors from the Middle East and North Africa were present for the lecture, including representatives from Algeria, Egypt, Oman and Saudi Arabia, who had participated in the business conference earlier in the day.
In discussing the Middle East, said Zakaria, he wanted to treat the subject “not as a bizarre place with people running around cutting people’s heads off,” but instead, examine the source of the unrest.
To understand the current situation, Zakaria said, one has to look back three decades, when the region enjoyed “a fair degree of stability.”
Many countries, including Libya, Syria, and Iraq, were run then by “very tough dictatorships who enforced stability,” he pointed out. “That reality kept a certain order in the Middle East,” with the dictators being not only “very repressive, but by and large, very secular.”
Problems arose when those dictators were removed, he explained, as there were no infrastructures in place to supersede the deposed rulers.
“It turned out there were very few state institutions to maintain order,” he said. “You scratch beneath the surface, and there is not much in terms of civic organizations to maintain order. There is not even a nation underneath there. You get rid of the leader and create an open chasm or cauldron.”
That void is typically filled for people, he said, by turning to their “older” identities for support, such as a Sunni Muslim or Kurdish heritage.
The modern Middle East, according to Zakaria, is a product of three factors: structure, history and foreign policy. He explained the creation of nations in the region as a consequence of post-World War I Britain and France “carving up” the former Ottoman Empire and forming new countries including Iraq, Syria and Jordan. As a result of these countries being created from the “top down,” he said, the people living there do not have particularly strong allegiances to the relatively newly formed states.
The history of the region also comes into play, he said, noting that while cities such as Baghdad and Cairo and Damascus “were storied and cosmopolitan” in the 1940s and 1950s, efforts of some individuals to advance their countries into modernity stalled when leaders became determined to create dictatorships.
“We discover that permanent rule becomes dysfunctional,” Zakaria said. And that dysfunction leads to a country’s stagnation.
Even as Eastern Europe fell in the 1980s, Zakaria observed, “Iraq, Syria and even Egypt were not really changing.”
Consequently, young people living in these countries became frustrated watching other nations progress, but seeing “no avenue for aspirations” in their homelands, he said.
“So, they go to the mosque,” he said. “The mosque becomes the place where all these frustrations collect.”
The year 1979 was a “pivotal moment,” according to Zakaria, for several reasons, including the Iranian Revolution; it was also the year the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia was seized by radical Islamists.
Both Shia and Sunni fundamentalism began to spread after that, “from Indonesia to Libya,” he said, “and the Islamic centers got more radicalized and extreme.
“Now, every society with Muslims in it has to deal with it.”
The third factor leading to current instability in the region, Zakaria said, is foreign policy. During the colonial era, “patrons” of the region were Britain and France, but during the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union became the patrons of the Arab nations. After the Cold War, however, “this begins to collapse,” he said.
“This gives you the sense of why things are so complicated and why there is so much turmoil,” he added.
What the United States actually can do to change the situation is limited, according to Zakaria. Rather, it is up to the people living in these Arab countries to take control and make changes. Americans can have the most influence through people-to-people contact, he postulated, rather than through formal diplomacy.
“America’s relation with other countries is best when it is society to society, rather than state to state,” he said, noting the positive “people-to-people ties” between the United States and Westernized countries such as Britain and Israel.
“That is what needs to happen in the Middle East,” he said. “That will encourage the forces of modernity.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.