Islam, Democracy and the Arab Spring: An Interview with Raphael Israeli

by Jerry Gordon and Michael Bates (January 2012)

Professor Raphael Israeli, retired Professor of Islamic and Chinese History at Hebrew University spoke at a private luncheon and a formal talk in Pensacola, Florida on January 5, 2012. The formal presentation was before an audience at B’nai Israel Synagogue on the topic of Jews and Muslims in Arab Lands. The private discussion focused on the issue of whether the “Arab Spring was wintry for Jews and Christians.” That was couched in the context of whether Islam and democracy are compatible or not as reflected in recent elections of fundamentalist Islamic regimes in the Arab heartland of the Ummah.

Professor Israeli, a native of Fes, Morocco who immigrated to Israel in his teens, is a graduate of Hebrew University in History and Arabic Literature and earned a PhD in Chinese and Islamic studies from the University of California at Berkeley.  He is the author of 30 books and some 100 scholarly articles in the fields of Islamic radicalism, Islamic terrorism, the Modern Middle East, Islam in China and Asia, and the Opening of China by the French.

At the Pensacola talks, Israeli revealed something about his family background that adds to his academic and scholarly credentials in discussing these topics. On both sides they were Berber converts to Judaism. Despite the Arab conquest of North Africa, including Morocco, in the 7th and 8th Centuries, some Berber tribes in the 16th Century were still fighting Muslim overlords. As a protest against Arab occupation of ancestral lands they opted Judaism, the religion of the recent Jewish arrivals who had been expelled from Catholic Spain. The Israeli family took the name of Israel after conversion and only added the ending “i” when they immigrated to the Jewish State of Israel.

At the B’nai Israel Synagogue presentation, a mixed audience composed of mainstream and Evangelical Christians, Reform, Conservative, and Messianic Jews with a sprinkling of religious skeptics listened attentively to his discourse on the broad sweep and diversity of Muslim demography across the Ummah, the EU and potentially here in America. He revealed how Jews and Christians fared in the wake of the Islamic Jihad conquest across northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. Israeli explained the Islamic system of dhimmitude for subjugated peoples in conquered lands under the oppressive creed of Islam. These conquered lands were predominately Christian with Jewish minorities in North Africa and the Middle East, Hindu and Buddhist in other realms. Israeli’s presentation showed how rapid conquest and occupation of settled communities by rampaging Islamic Arab nomads evolved into a system of Islamic Sharia laws. This system pressured indigenous captured populations survived to accept the choice of conversion, living in a despised status without human or civil rights, or fleeing. Over time, the Islamic system turned once non-Muslim majority countries into majority Muslim ones. He addressed examples of the contemporary eruption of fundamentalist Islam that appears poised to further deplete the remnants of ancient Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East who suffered centuries of depredations from jihad conquest, subjugation and persecution. That is evident in the continuing pogroms against the Coptic community in Egypt and the Assyrian Christian one in Iraq. Like the one million Jews who fled Arab and Muslim lands and found sanctuary in the Jewish State of Israel and the West, the surviving Christian communities are now seeking refuge in their respective diasporas in the wake of the “Arab Spring.”

Against this background “Your Turn” host Mike Bates, of radio station 1330AM WEBY of Pensacola, Florida and Senior Editor Jerry Gordon of the New English Review interviewed Professor Israeli.

Also you may watch this earlier interview with Professor Israeli at the 2010 NER Symposium in Nashville.

Bates:  Good afternoon and welcome to Your Turn.  This is a special edition of Your Turn.  This is Mike Bates.  Jerry Gordon, Senior Editor of the New English Review and its blog the Iconoclast is with me in the studio.  Jerry, welcome.

Gordon:  Good to be here Mike.

Bates:  Jerry Gordon, a familiar voice to those who listen to this program regularly.  He is our resident expert on what is happening in the Middle East. Joining us by telephone is Raphael Israeli, Professor of Islamic and Chinese history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Raphael Israeli, welcome to Your Turn.

Israeli:  Thank you very much. I am glad to be with you.

Bates:  This coming Thursday, January 5th, 7:00 p.m., Raphael Israeli will be giving a presentation at B’nai Israel Synagogue here in Pensacola on 9th Avenue that is free, right Jerry? 

Gordon:  It is open to the public.

Bates:  Free and open to the public. The title of that presentation is “Jews and Christians in Muslim Lands” and we’ll be discussing some of those issues this afternoon here on Your Turn.  A sub question on that title of “Jews and Christians in Muslim Lands” the subtitle would be, “Does the Arab Spring mean winter for Jews and Christians?” because there are certainly warning signs of that affect. Let’s talk about that. We’ll begin, Raphael Israeli with a question. This Arab Spring, is this a good thing or a bad thing for the world?

Israeli:  Well first of all, generally speaking, it’s very early to predict anything and especially in the crazy world where we are living, all of us, it is said that even the future is no longer what it used to be. I mean, you cannot make any sound predictions because you can analyze the situation brilliantly and then comes somebody like Kaddafi and turns things on the red and so it’s very difficult to know what is happening or what will happen, but I think for the time being the worst predictions or forecasts of the best experts are being implemented. For example the question of the disregard for human life. You see how much killing happened in Libya which amounted as a matter of fact into a civil war and it’s not over yet and what’s happening in Syria, already a year and it’s not about to finish. Thousands and thousands of people have died and that regardless of the Arab Israeli Conflict which the Arabs usually blame for all the sacrifices and the suffering and the refugees in the Middle East. Even when the problems are domestic, clearly domestic, that it’s to say within the country themselves without any relations to Israel, the number of victims thereof does not diminish, on the contrary, it’s much more than in the conflict between Israelis and Arabs. This is one lesson, one thing that we remember. And secondly, we have learned that paradoxically whenever we speak about democracy or liberalism we see that again it is the Muslim fundamentalists who come out on top because liberalism is to tell the people you can do and say what you wish. That is to be liberal and when they have the chance to say that and like the previous and the current regimes in the Arab world, they say Islam. Islam is their choice and you see for example, Egypt, first free elections more or less after the dictatorship of Mubarak, and before that Sadat and before that Nasser for the last 50 years you see that the majority of the Egyptian people freely come to the conclusion that what they want is Muslims to govern their country. This in itself is a signal to all of us that the present so called Spring does not all go well for the West or for Israel. It may be good for them but that is not inevitable either because we were moving toward the same thing in Iran when the revolution took place there 30 years ago. They got rid of the Shah, who was corrupt admittedly, no question about that, but what came after the Shah were the Ayatollahs. Now we have Mr. Ahmadinejad developing nuclear power and his quite oppressive regime and conduct towards his own people. That is to say that when you have a revolution that replaces the previous regime it is not necessarily democracy as many people very naively think. These are I think the main lessons that we have learned so far from the ongoing disruptions in the Arab world.

Bates:  You had autocratic leaders in Egypt, Iraq and Libya, Hosni Mubarak, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Kaddafi. They were not the nicest people that ever walked the earth; however, they did keep the radical Islamists in check. For example, witness the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, talk about oppressing the people. 

Israeli:  That is the paradox and the tragedy because the choice has always been for the West, between either democracy with the rise of Islam or autocracy. As I said before when you are democratic you vote for whom you want and they obviously want Islam. Sixty percent in Egypt voted for the two major fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties; or doing what Mubarak did before for 30 years in conjunction and in cooperation with United States who sheltered him but then it’s not democracy. So you have to decide, do you want this or that? There is no democracy so far in the Arab-Islamic world which necessarily engenders anything but an oppressive regime of one way or another. Democracy as we understand it in the West is not part of the Arab or Islamic tradition. They always had an authoritarian regime one way or another. Incidentally that is the situation in Russia too. They had either the Czars or the Communist party and one was worse than the other. Now when Russians had a little democracy there was chaos until come Mr. Putin, who is also authoritarian, restored the an autocratic regime. You give them freedom they don’t know what to do with it and therefore they want somebody strong and authoritarian who tells them, who guides them, who orders them, who disciplines them and then you have peace and order but again, that’s not democracy. Apparently in these non-Western countries people who were never groomed for anything but disciplinarian and authoritarian regimes it is too early, too immature to demand or to expect that Western style democracy should be installed in place. It’s simply impractical. 

Gordon:  Rafi, you grew up in Fes, Morocco and you left.

Israeli:  Well no one is perfect you know.

Gordon:  (Laughs) but you also left as a teenager for what is Israel. At the time the State of Israel was declared there were approximately about a million Jews in Arab and some Muslim lands who subsequently left. Why did they leave? What forced them to leave?

Israeli:  Well look, I think it’s an exaggeration to say that they were all forced to leave those countries.  There were close to a million Jews who lived in the Arabic and Islamic lands, who left. In some cases like in Iraq and Libya they were literally forced out, but Morocco where I came from, nobody came and said oh, you have to get out from here. On the contrary they raised a lot of obstacles to whoever wanted to go. However, if they made life impossible by oppression, discrimination and by all kinds of other systems of governments they don’t want to live under that kind of regime. I think the good question to ask is if it were so free and so harmonious as many Arab and Islamic Governments said, then why did the Jews leave? When they left, they left in their totality. That means that something was wrong with the countries. You see the Jews in America live in America and they don’t leave because in America there is freedom, prosperity and nobody bothers them. However in Europe now there is mounting antisemitism, Jews leave. In Morocco and the rest of the Arab world, not only was there antisemitism and discrimination there was also active persecution. Back in the Middle Ages, Muslim-Arab dynasties in North Africa even forced Jews to convert as happened during the Christian Inquisition in Spain, which ultimately also expelled all of the Jews from Spain. Those things happened and Jews have a long historical memory about what happened to their forefathers. How many were eliminated physically by those dynasties in Morocco and the rest of the Arab world, or were forced to convert or were simply expelled or ran away for their lives. So, they had no more desire to stay in the countries where they grew up, where they were born, where all of their tradition was. My community of the Jews in Morocco for example, had been there for more than 2000 years. That was before the Arab conquest of the 7th or 8th century of North Africa, so they were taken over by the Arabs. It is not the Jews who ousted the Arabs and Muslims as they claim today regarding Palestine. Nevertheless, when they viewed that their lives were made impossible they opted to go and they went. That is the reason why in the entire Islamic world where about one million Jews used to live, there are very few. You can count them on the fingers of one hand how many Jews remained in those countries and most of them went to Israel. Now why didn’t they leave before? Because they had nowhere to go. Remember what happened during the Holocaust in Europe? The Jewish life was made impossible, but nobody accepted the Jews of Germany or the rest of the Jews of Europe. Now, there is fortunately Israel. Any Jew who is persecuted in Europe or in the Arab world has a place to go. Israel absorbs and helps them resettle, get a job, become educated, and find housing and food. That is the ultimate shelter for the Jewish people.

Bates:  How much responsibility does the United States bear for the occurrence of the Arab Spring?

Israeli:  Well there is a combination of many things. First of all I hate to put blame on others. I mean, when you examine a complicated situation like what we are facing now it's better to try to understand its source and not to throw the blame on this or that. Nobody can say that America is responsible for anything about the Arab Spring. If you mean direct responsibility or if you mean that America planned it or concocted that with some kind of sinister accomplices in the area then no, certainly not. However, what you can say is that America didn't know how to handle it once it occurred. One has to say that America for years, not only under Obama, President Bush also and Condoleezza Rice before Hillary Clinton now as Secretary of State, had pressured Mubarak for years to clean up his act regarding elections. It was known that every election was rigged. The presidency in Egypt could never be contested by more than one candidate who was sure to win it, that was Mubarak. That's the reason why he was “elected” in Egypt six times in a row and therefore he ruled for six times five years which makes it 30. Now that's not exactly democratic, however Mubarak provided some stability. He provided some economic progress to be sure with great American help, economic and military. He held together those obscurantist forces which were likely to undermine the stability of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Now we are sure of it after the Arab Spring overthrow happened. This popular uprising in Egypt occurred in January of last year and people there said that they wanted democracy. In America and in Europe they thought they saw an open door for democracy the way we understand it. My friends the Middle East is not the Midwest. The Middle East, with the exception of Israel, has authoritarian rule. They don't know what democracy is. They even give it all kinds of distorted meanings. For example Mubarak with his entire authoritarian regime has always repeated to interviewers, from Israel and from the West, that his country is more democratic than Israel. Now anybody who understands politics would not believe that kind of statement. It is utterly ridiculous because they simply do not understand what democracy means. Those young people in Tahrir Square in Cairo were shouting “democracy, democracy.” That doesn't mean the democracy that we understand. That is the reason why Obama and Hillary Clinton from the beginning said, “Oh they are shouting democracy so we don't support Mubarak who was our (client) for 30 years. We should let him go and then there will be democracy.” Their naive view was that shouts of democracy by protesters in Tahrir Square must be pro Western liberal democracy. That is not exactly what happened. When you let them have democracy, and I'm not criticizing them, because if you say democracy ok, then let the people decide what they want. Then if they want Islam so let it be Islam. However, they say, oh well foul game. They want democracy, provided you don't win. That kind of democracy is ridiculous. Nobody will accept it. This is happening today.

Bates:  Well and the democracy that Egypt got in the most recent elections the Muslim Brotherhood got two-thirds of the Parliament

Israeli:  Yes.

Bates:  And that number is likely to increase in the next election so it's one of those situations of be careful what you wish for, you might actually get it.

Israeli:  That's right. That's right.

Bates:  Let me ask a clarifying question of your previous answer Raphael.  It was very obvious that the United States supported the uprising in Libya. Heck, we bombed the place. Did we do much in Egypt other than cheerleading from the side when it became apparent that Mubarak was going down we wished him farewell and sided with the protestors. Did we have any active role in the uprising in Egypt?

Israeli:  The short answer is probably no. However, one can characterize the foreign policy of Obama, since he was inaugurated as President three years ago, as a policy of appeasement. Appeasement invokes in our minds all kinds of sad memories from the past, take the case of Iran. Bush, although he didn't do much either, at least stressed that he would not let Iran get nuclear weapons and they would face a strong America if they did. Obama said from the beginning that he is embracing a policy of engagement rather than confrontation and this engagement was played against him and made a mockery of his policy. Every month he said,”oh next month we’ll offer them another negotiation, another meeting” and so on.  He wasted three precious years which allowed the Iranians to advance so far in their nuclear technology that it would be very difficult now to reverse. Because of that policy of engagement rather than confrontation the American administration, when this Arab Spring occurred, started to engage the Muslim Brotherhood. The military regime which rules Egypt today since the Arab Spring began is trying to make sure that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is preserved. America promised to continue to lend security, military armaments and economic aid to Egypt, despite the Arab Spring. They wanted to preserve what exists and are afraid they will lose even though things that existed and became problematic. In Libya because of oil, it was a European enterprise first of all, so Obama backed it. Backed it from the rear not being up front like the leader of the free nations to take on Libya. So he pushed Europe to do it while he gave support. You see the interests were different in both countries and therefore the American attitude was different.

Bates:  Raphael, you said that preserving the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is paramount. There was an article in Sunday's Jerusalem Post that quoted Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Leader Dr. Rashad Bayoumi, as saying that they will not recognize Israel. They call it “an occupying criminal entity” and that they will absolutely take legal procedures towards cancelling the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel and the whole Zionist entity, all the standard propaganda nonsense. They were plainly stating they do not intend to recognize Israel, they do not intend to abide by the peace treaty. If that is paramount, it sounds like this is going to be a colossal failure.

Israeli:  Well of course. That is what the policy of engagement does. If Obama had said “well you have your Spring and that you cleaned up your act from within then go on and do it. However, if you dare touch your international agreements, you will see America standing there in the front lines with Israel.” He didn't say that because he has a policy of engagement and therefore they can continue to make those kinds of statements. What I think Israel should do in a situation like that is say, if you cancel the peace treaty then we will  go back to square one before the peace treaty was signed, and Israel would retake the entire Sinai Peninsula. We gave it back to you only because you promised to demilitarize it and that there will be no more aggression or hostile activities against Israel. If you cancel the peace treaty your statement of peaceful intentions towards Israel is cancelled then our concessions of territory are also cancelled. Peace cannot be made only unilaterally and cannot be cancelled unilaterally. If we say that then we will make them think that perhaps going back on the commitments will not be very advantageous from their point of view.

Gordon:  Raphi, one of the latest examples of engagement by the Obama Administration apparently occurred over the New Year’s weekend. There were rumored engagements of the Spiritual Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the infamous Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to “assist” the US in negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban.

Israeli:  Well that kind of thing was heard too in Egypt. If the Americans were ready to give up their ally Mubarak of thirty years in order to please the Muslim Brotherhood whom they thought were the wave of the future why shouldn't they do exactly the same thing in Afghanistan where they have somebody like Mubarak, President Karzai, who is also corrupt and authoritarian? If they sense they are losing the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban are the wave of the future they may after ten years of war, 5,000 casualties and the trillion dollars that they wasted end up supporting the Taliban against whom they started the war in the first place. These absurd things can happen if the Administration doesn't have a clear policy of confronting and standing like Bush did ten years ago when he started the war, but instead tried to engage, that is to say to appease. I come back to that term appease. That is to give in piece by piece to all of those authoritarian dictators hoping to appease them. In the end they will be condemned to lose the battle altogether. As Churchill said during World War II when he was against the appeasement of Hitler “that for the sake of peace in Europe those who made the Munich Agreement with Hitler were prepared to humiliate themselves, but at the end we got both humiliation and war.” I am afraid this is what we are going to see occur in the Middle East, especially with Iran. An Iran who appears to have the upper hand and sees America and certainly Europe as spineless acceding to every one of their demands, having no spine to stand up and demand something from them in return.

Gordon:  Raphi, this past year in the Arab Spring in Egypt 100,000 Coptic Christians have fled persecutions, church bombings and massacres, like the pogroms in Maspero. Since 2003 a million Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christians have fled Iraq. In Turkey there are probably less than 18,000 Jews, less than 11,000 in Iran, to where are Jews and particularly Christians in the Middle East going to flee?

Israeli:  That will depend on the Christian countries. I hope they don't repeat the same odious mistake that was done in World War II where the Jews who were persecuted in Germany had nowhere to go because no one would accept them. Now the Christians may end up sharing the same terrible fate. Let me give you an example that is very close to us in Israel. Bethlehem, until about 20 years ago when the Oslo Peace Process started was 70% Christian and only 30% Muslim. It was an historic Christian city. Today the proportion is reversed. Bethlehem is now 70% Muslim. Muslim fundamentalists knock on the doors of the remaining Christians at night and force them to run for their lives. Fortunately for them there are Christian communities, Palestinians, Iraqis, Lebanese and others in the United States and South America. They have relatives in many places in the West they can run away to, receive refuge and help in order to get resettled somewhere. They simply don't have the choice. I have to point out a paradox that all these past 50 or 70 years, with the Arab Israeli Conflict, the Christian authorities, including the Vatican, didn't want to aggravate the situation of these persecuted Christian minorities. They avoided condemning the persecution of Christians because if they condemned the autocratic Arab regimes they feared that persecution would increase. Mubarak at least provided some protection to the Copts in Egypt who constitute at least 10% of the population of 80 million. Now there is no protection. The Muslim Brotherhood is dead set against the Christians. The burning of the churches in Egypt has become a daily affair exactly like what is happening in Nigeria, in Iraq and other places where there are small Christian minorities. I think in the next decade or so, especially if the Muslims come on top in the next elections, and even in black Africa, the dwindling Christian population will be more and more depleted.

 Bates:  The autocratic secular leaders in Arab countries did not tolerate political freedom, but they didn't seem to have a problem with religious freedom. Now that these Islamists are taking over they consider politics and religion as one under Islamic Sharia law. With a rising Caliphate you have to follow Islam, they don't tolerate religious freedom or dissent at all. 

Gordon:  Raphi, there is an organization based out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It's called the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. It's an amalgam of about 57 nations that view themselves as predominantly Muslim. A few weeks ago in Washington DC, the OIC as it is called, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Representatives of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and representatives from both OIC and European Union countries. It was all about “combating intolerance about religions” meaning Islam. What is the OIC and what is its agenda?

Israeli:  Since the elimination of the Caliphate, the last one was the Ottoman Empire which fell after World War I in 1922 when it was terminated, the Muslims saw themselves for the first time in more than 1000 years with no corporate leadership for all Muslims. They are all divided into nation states instead of the ancient empires of Islam. That was the invention of the West which penetrated into their territories. In the 20’s through the 40's of the last century there were tremendous efforts made by several members of the Islamic world notably Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia to renew some kind of virtual Caliphate by bringing together all the Muslim countries. All of those attempts known under various titles such as Islamic League, or the Islamic Congress, failed mainly because everyone wanted that kind of unity provided it was under an autocrat’s leadership. Of course everything crashed and nothing came about. There was an event which did what Islamic disunity could not do for all these decades since 1922 that occurred in 1968, the burning of the Al Aqsa Mosque. It was caused by an Australian Christian extremist. The entire Islamic world immediately accused Israel of having launched the arson, which was false. Nevertheless, a call came from the King of Morocco to hold the first Rabat Conference back in 1968. It took place in December of that year with the objective of bringing together all of the Muslim countries. At that point only 20 out of the 57 Muslim OIC member countries participated. Year by year the OIC kept growing until it came to embrace in 1977 even Turkey which was supposedly a secular country. By having Turkey host the conference in Istanbul that year, the Turks declared to the world that they were also an Islamic country and they wanted to participate in the growing importance of that new block, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) (renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in July, 2011). The OIC started to play international politics. Not only did it intercede in the affairs of all these Islamic countries but even in countries which had a Muslim minority. For example in the Philippines, there was an uprising of Muslims and the OIC interceded and forced the President of the Philippines to give some kind of autonomy to the Southern Island of Mindanao in order to ensure some kind of autonomy for the Muslim minority. The OIC headquarters were settled permanently in Riyadh. The group holds a Summit Conference every few years in one Islamic capital or another, from Rabat to Kuala Lampur in Malaysia and other locations. The OIC changed the agenda in order to delegitimize Israel, which they have on the top of their agenda. They formed to a unified front and try to mobilize the rest of the world. Therefore they invented this new theme of Islamophobia to counter of course antisemitism, as Israel is arguing that there is antisemitic campaign against Jews in Europe and in other parts of the world. The OIC marginalized Israel’s antisemitism argument by stating that there are only 14 million Jews in the world. There are one and a half billion Muslims and the more important issue is the mounting disgust that many Christian Western countries are showing towards Islam. That was the priority battle the OIC argued. The group thought that if they could mobilize Europe in their campaign of battling Islamophobia, then they might get unified support from the entire world for their campaign. The OIC constitutes more than one-third of all of the voting members of the United Nations, hence their power to impact international politics.

Gordon:  Raphael Israel thank you for this important discussion on the Arab Spring turning wintry for Jews and Christians in the Middle East under the Islamic version of “democracy.”
Israeli:  My pleasure, thank you for having me join you and Mike Bates.

You may listen to all four segments of the WEBY interview with Israeli. Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

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