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Is There a Future for Moderate Islamic Politics? A Q&A with Olivier Roy

Syria is disintegrating. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood government has been overthrown, and its leaders are behind bars. Iran has a new president. The debate between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia is heating up. The United States is preparing to pull out of Afghanistan. With all of this going simultaneously, I thought I would call up Olivier Roy, an expert on political Islam who teaches at the European University Institute in Italy.

Roy has written a lot about the Islamic world--from Afghanistan to the Middle East--and about Muslim life in Europe. During our conversation, we touched on all of the subjects mentioned above, starting with Egypt.

IC: In the post-coup Egypt world, what you think the state of “moderate” Islamic politics is, and how has it changed from a year ago?

OR: The first thing is the failure of the Brotherhood. Whatever the circumstances of their overthrow, they failed when they were in charge. A huge part of their electorate has left them. So, whatever could have happened without the coup d’etat, it’s clear that they have been unable to manage the government. And it’s worse than that, if I can say that. It’s clear that they have no secret underground military apparatus. There was a huge literature about them having a common underground military organization, intelligence, and, so on—and, nothing. Something which is very interesting, you know, is that the members of the Brotherhood in Europe and elsewhere, kept almost silent. There was no demonstration in Brussels, in Geneva, in Paris, in front of the Egyptian embassy. Nothing.

IC: From their time in power, did you change your opinion of them as a political organization?

OR: Yes and no. I had doubts about their ability to govern, to rule their state, 20 years ago. But I thought that they at least would have some technical know-how, that they would, for instance, put in place good technical ministers, people who know their jobs. Even the pure technical dimension of how to have a government working—they did not have that. And they didn’t care about that. They spent one year speaking about the constitution. What is the role of Islam in the constitution? But politically they have no model. I have been saying for years their normal constituency is no more than 20 percent. When they make 40, 50, it’s because of exceptional circumstances, like the Arab Spring.

IC: Do you think there is any chance that they would have grown in office if they’d been allowed more time? Or do you think that it was destined to end in failure even if not a military coup?

OR: I think it would have been difficult anyway, and they would have lost future elections, or they would have refused to organize elections. But I think that the demonstrations without the army—the demonstration would have been enough to oblige them to step down. The intervention of the army was not necessary—for a very good reason. They would have been overwhelmed by the massive street demonstrations. The problem is the myth of the Muslim Brothers. Many of their opponents, specifically among the Christians but also among the army, were convinced that in fact they were far more powerful than they are. There is a wide gap between the myth of the Muslim Brotherhood and the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood.

IC: You wrote a year ago that you hoped that Egypt and Tunisia were learning how to be democracies. How much faith do you have that they’re still learning anything about that?

OR: Nobody’s a democrat now. The liberals are not democrats. The army is neither liberal nor democrat. And the Muslim Brotherhood, if they had any faith in democracy, it’s lost now.

IC: Do you feel any more optimisn about Tunisia?

OR: Yeah. Because they have no army. And because there is no foreign intervention. The Tunisian army is very weak, you know, 30,000 military, that’s all. So in Tunisia they are obliged to speak to each other. They have no choice. And it is good that nobody cared about Tunisia—the Saudis, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Americans, Qatar, Iran.

IC: Do you think there’s anything the Americans should or could have done differently about Egypt?

OR: No. American weakness is to a certain extent a good thing. I think that we should let indigenous political professionals go at their own speed.

IC: But are we really doing that if we’re giving aid to the military?

OR: It’s good to remind the military that it’s a coup d’etat, and we don’t like coups d’etat. But no. What do we do, pressure the military? The military will not listen to us.

IC: I completely agree with you that our leverage is limited—but it does make me wonder why we’re giving a billion dollars in aid to a group that’s conducting a coup, though.

OR: In fact, the billion dollars is given to the army not to fight Israel. So it’s the first time that an army is bribed not to go to war. But it does not make sense. The army now is of the same side from Israel on many issues. Against Hamas, against the Muslim Brothers, against Iran, and so and so. The Saudis are now working closely with Israel—you know, they have the same enemies. And the sense of shame that the Saudis and Mubarak didn’t want to be associated with Israel is finished. They have, you know, close cooperation.

IC: What do you think about the current American debate, and what do you hope will happen in Syria? What’s realistically possible in the next six months or so?

OR: I think the worst thing would be a strike—a military strike—without a political or a military follow-up. What President Hollande in France said last week, that we should punish Bashar, doesn’t make sense. Punishment is not a geostrategy. Either you go to war, or you don’t go to war.

IC: Are you saying you’d be in favor of something if the United Nations or a broad coalition was really invested in going to war and trying to have a presence after the shooting stopped? 

OR: If we do a strike, it should be under an international agreement of some sort, and with a perspective of political action. We don’t have that. The UN will do nothing, and we will not send forces on the ground, so in this case the mistake was not to act before, when you have a group.

IC: I know you’ve written a little about Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, which obviously has been very degraded. But that just begs the question: If the rebels win, how optimistic are you about them trying to put together some sort of government that’s relatively moderate? Or do you think that the time has passed and that the ethnic conflicts are so deep that it’s going to be bleak, no matter what happens?

OR: It will be a second civil war. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that the opponents to Bashar will be able to form a working government, unfortunately. I think that we exaggerate the number of jihadists in Syria, but it’s true that this number hasn’t changed, and that the Syrian forces are unable to check the jihadists, because jihadists are very determined. They want to fight. They don’t care about the local balance of power between groups, villages, families, clans, tribes, and so on. They don’t care about that. It reminds me of Afghanistan at the end of the ‘80s before Soviet withdrawal.

IC: That’s interesting. So, then, are you very concerned that if Assad falls you’re going to have, not a situation like Afghanistan before 2001, but a free-for-all with different groups and a real terrorist presence?

OR: I’m concerned that there will be a fragmentation of Syria along multiple lines—you know, geographical, confessional, ethnic, Kurds vs. Arabs, ideological, nationalist. The foreign powers will do nothing to help. It will be a mess.

IC: What are you, as an observer, hoping for? What do you think the best possible scenario is?

OR: I think there is no way, in the short term, to find an agreement. Because first there should be an international agreement to stop the violence in Syria. And the goals of the foreign countries are so different that it’s almost impossible to reach a consensus. The Iranians, they want a pro-Iranian regime in Damascus. For them, it’s vital. They think it is vital to keep the Hezbollah/Damascus/Tehran connection with Baghdad. It’s the only way for Iran to play in the Middle East. If they lose Damascus, they are expelled from the Middle East. And for different reasons, Iran wants to be the dominant player in the Middle East. So they will not give up.

IC: So I want to switch to Iran. What do you make of the new president, and do you think his election may bring about any sort of change?

OR: The Iranians will become more flexible on the nuclear issue [because of the election]. They will offer an olive branch on nuclear issues.

IC: I know you think it would be a total catastrophe for Iran if Assad fell. So let me ask you this: If Assad does fall, either because of an American strike or just because he loses, how do you think that affects Iran’s calculations about nuclear policy?

OR: It’s not directly linked.

IC: And what do you make of the new president, in terms of what he means for Iran aside from nuclear issues?

OR: I think that the new president has—let’s see—a mandate to mend the fences with the West as much as possible. But not the Syrian fight. The Syrian issue—either the new president is out, or he agrees about the Iranian goals. But he is not in charge.

IC: And so if you don’t think he’s in charge, I assume you don’t think he offers a possibility for sort of a new politics? A new Islamic politics in any way?

OR: No.

IC: I just wanted to ask you about Afghanistan, which I know you’ve also written about. How bad do you think things are going to be next year after the pull-out?

OR: Well, the worst scenario is the Taliban army can launch an attack against Kabul, take Kabul, and then be confronted with an armed resistance in the north—and we are back to Afghanistan at the end of the ‘90s. Interestingly enough, I’m not sure that this scenario—the worst scenario—is the most probable scenario. When the Soviets left Afghanistan in ’89, everybody—and I must say including me—was predicting the fall of Kabul. And nothing happened. It took three years. So I think Afghanistan can change a lot, in terms of population, academy, and so on. But Kabul has nothing to do with what it used to be ten years ago. The new middle class, new entrepreneurs, it’s not just corruption. Even when you have corruption, corruption does bring up an economic boom, in all respects, in constructions, which is what you have in Kabul. Secondly, apparently there is some sort of war fatigue in the countryside, in the Taliban areas. And the fact that there is no more foreign army makes all the conflicts becoming local conflicts, and not jihad against infidels. It deeply divides the domestic tensions. So there will be a lot of local fighting. It will not be a rosy peach show. But I think that the Taliban will not be able to regain control of Afghanistan.

IC: Doesn’t that also depend on whether the Pakistanis want the Taliban to control Afghanistan again?

OR: I think that the Pakistanis are less and less in charge, including of the Taliban.

IC: Interesting. What makes you think that?

OR: So we can see that there was a lot of tension between the Taliban and the Pakistanis. I have had contact with the Taliban, of course the “nice Taliban,” if we can say that. And I’ve been very struck by the anti-Pakistani attitude of the few Taliban guys I met during the last two years.

IC: That’s interesting. One needs Freud to disentangle the relationship between the Pakistani establishment and the Taliban—the dislikes and the likes and the working together—it’s all so bizarre.

OR: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. The Pakistanis have the same policy since the ‘70s. And it’s now 40 years that they wait to have the fruits of the policy. It didn’t work, and I don’t think it will work.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.