Islamic fundamentalism is changing, expert says
By Robert Szypko, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 22, 2009
The struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and "the forces of human rights and democracy" is largely responsible for conflict in the Middle East, Gordon Zacks, a former adviser to President George H.W. Bush and a Middle East expert, said in a lecture held in the Rockefeller Center on Thursday.
Although the lecture was titled "In Defense of Israel's Right to Defend Itself: The Case for the Fence and Preemptive Actions," Zacks was met with laughter from the audience when he began his lecture by saying, "That's not what I am here to talk about."
Zacks said he shifted the focus of his personal global viewpoint away from the Israel-Palestine conflict after the failed peace talks among President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in 2000.
"That became, for me, a telling moment. It basically said to me, this is not about a two-state solution, this is not about the creation of a Palestinian state, this is about the eradication of a Jewish state," Zacks said. "The focus from my point of view started to shift to understand not simply Israel-Palestine, but to understand the grander and global conflict in which this Middle Eastern struggle was being carried out."
The United States has created conflict in the Middle East as a result of its efforts to spread democracy by creating popularly elected regimes, rather than by instilling the value of human rights and civil liberties in the regimes, Zacks said.
"Do they have a democracy in Gaza? Hamas was elected," Zacks said. "The answer is no: not by my definition of a democracy."
The right to be different from others and the right to demonstrate peacefully, for or against the government, are integral to democracy, Zacks said. These rights, and others, are under attack by Islamic fundamentalism, he said.
"Islam, as a word, means submission," Zacks said. "Human rights and submission are in conflict, and that threat is the real threat behind the antagonism that I see being perpetrated under the umbrella of fundamentalist Islam."
Zacks noted that about 85 percent of the Islamic world is comprised of moderate Muslims, who he said are victims of the Taliban and other extremist groups.
"This is about the Taliban, this is about Al Qaeda, this is about Hezbollah, this is about Hamas, this is about Iran," he said. "Whether Shiite or Sunni, the objective of both fundamentalist groups is the same: what they want is to recreate a caliphate from Spain to Indonesia."
The rise of the computer, cell phone and other communications technologies have increased the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, Zacks said. Those in power in nondemocratic states in the Middle East once could manipulate media and information to maintain power, but modern technology has thwarted these attempts, leading the states to resort to terrorism.
"Today, new ideas about human rights penetrate the barriers that were artificially created over the past 50 years," Zacks said.
Without the ability to manipulate ideas, leaders and religious fundamentalists now use terrorism to stay in power, he said.
"The enemy is not terrorism, the enemy is not Muslims, the enemy is fundamentalist Islam, utilizing terrorists and terrorism, and utilizing potentially nuclear weapons," Zacks said.
Zacks linked his conclusions about Islamic fundamentalism to the Israel-Palestine conflict, noting that the problems with Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East are far greater than the issues surrounding Israel and Palestine.
"The issue is beyond Israel and Palestine," Zacks said. "To me, Israel is the canary in the coal mine."
The United States must gather information on the fundamentalists who want to "destroy our way of life," precisely define who these enemies are, and then reallocate resources accordingly, Zacks said.
The two countries whose populations pose the greatest threat to the United States are Pakistan and Iran, which both possess nuclear weapons, he said. Pakistan has a substantial Taliban presence and Iran controls the Straits of Hormuz, through which roughly 27 percent of the world's oil supply passes, Zacks explained.
"It may be that we're better off [holding off on the Israel-Palestine conflict] for a while, focusing on Pakistan and Iran, hoping that there is some stabilization and lessening of the nuclear threat," Zacks said, suggesting that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries may ally with Israel against Iran. "We need to understand the nature of our threats."