Former al-Jazeera chief calls for empowerment of civil society
By Ameen Izzadeen
A world renowned journalist who promotes the ideals of democratic participation, an informed citizenry, multi-stakeholder dialogue and social justice, has warned that wealth and power, when they are in one hand, are scary and dangerous.
Wadah Khanfar, former Director General of Al-Jazeera now heads of the As-Sharq think-tank, said in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times that power needed to be diversified and the marginalised must be brought to the centre so that the common people would be empowered to promote genuine democracy.
Mr. Khanfar who was in Sri Lanka to deliver the Bakeer Markar memorial lecture gave a in-depth analysis of the Arab Spring and expressed optimism that the people-power revolution and the election of true representatives of the people would help bring about lasting peace in the Middle East and the world. Excerpts:
The Arab awakening was initially spontaneous, but now it is being directed from various capitals. Has it been hijacked?
I don’t think anyone can hijack the Arab Spring. It is going in the right direction. However, certain negativities are normal after the revolution. It cannot be hijacked because it is built on the people’s power. The Arab masses cannot be deceived. They are politically well informed now. So no capital can hijack the people’s power.
May be the West had hijacked our land, resources and political will during the past three decades because of puppet regimes. But those who try to hijack people’s power will not succeed.
Like in Libya last year, various foreign forces are at play in Syria. The rebels are being helped by the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries. They are being armed and trained by western intelligence groups. There are also foreign fighters among the rebels. In this sense, has not the revolution been hijacked or is it being directed by outsiders?
We have been monitoring the Syrian revolution since the beginning. It started as a peaceful revolution. The people of Syria did not resort to violence, although the regime did. This was the situation for some eight months. But when the death toll climbed to unbelievable levels, sections of the Syrian army deserted their posts and came forward to protect the civilians. This was how the revolution turned into an armed resistance.
Some world powers are trying to interfere in Syria because they have an interest. The Americans or whoever wants to find a place for them in the revolution are trying to shape the results. This does not mean that they want to hijack the revolution. Ninety percent of what is happening on the ground is determined by the people.
When we talk about the American support, I want to know what kind of support the US extends to the people of Syria. I think they are blocking quality weapons such as anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles reaching the rebels because they fear that these weapons may end up in the wrong hands — al Qaeda or those who fight Israel.
The presence of foreign fighters in the Syrian resistance is minimal. I don’t think the Syrian people are na�ve or can be deceived by al-Qaeda extremists. The revolution is essentially Syrian rather than a foreign induced one.
The Syrian revolution has also taken a sectarian turn. Are we witnessing a Salafi-Shiite conflict in the Middle East? (Salafism is a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam and is widely practised in and promoted by Saudi Arabia)
Sectarianism is a cause of worry for all of us, because it serves neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites. However, Iran’s decision to support the tyrannical regime in Syria in spite of the massacre of civilians has inflamed a lot of sectarian feelings in the region. I hope the Iranians will eventually reach the conclusion that the regime which is about to collapse is not worthy of their support which comes at the cost of worsening relations with their neighbours – the Sunni majority in the Middle East.
The Syrian people have been suffering at the hands of a dictatorship that depends on a minority – the Alawites. But the Syrian people are not against the Alawites, though we may see some angry people attacking the Alawites. Overall, the revolution is not against the Alawites or sectarian in nature. But there are disturbing signs that sectarianism is raising its ugly head in the region. This needs to be checked by finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis.
I hope that Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi’s suggestion that a quartet comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran be formed to negotiate Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power and a peaceful transfer makes headway.
If the Assad regime falls it will only serve Israel because it will weaken the anti-Israeli axis of resistance comprising Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Your comments.
There are two issues here. One is the axis of resistance against Israel and the other is the people’ uprising against tyranny. The regime of Syria is using the excuse of resistance to oppress the people. Hamas which is fighting for the Palestinian liberation has realised this and moved out of Syria. The real resistance to Israel is found in the will of the people.
I believe the new regimes in Egypt and elsewhere understand this. It is not morally right to link any resistance with the oppression of your own people. Resistance derives its moral power from its commitment to fight injustice. Therefore those who claim to represent resistance should be committed to justice and democracy.
Why is the struggle for democracy in Bahrain not getting the same sympathy or the attention of the Arab media that the Syrian conflict is getting?
The Bahraini situation is different from most of the other revolutions in the region. Unfortunately, the sectarian nature of Bahraini society, which is half Sunni and half Shiite, is a stumbling block for the progress of the revolution. The revolution in Egypt was inclusive of all segments of society.
People from across the spectrum — the Muslims and the Christians — took part in the movement that eventually overthrew the Hosni Mubarak regime. It was same in Libya and Yemen. But in Bahrain the dichotomy has created some kind of a stalemate with half the population supporting the regime and the other half opposing.
But in Bahrain, the Shiites are in the majority, aren’t they?
It is not a huge majority. We are talking about a considerable split within society. I want to deal with the second part of your previous question. Revolutions succeed not because of the media. They succeed because of the dynamics on the ground — both social and political. It is not the media coverage that made the Egyptian revolution a success. Neither did the lack of media coverage make the Bahraini uprising a failure. It is the ground situation that determines the success or failure of a people’s movement.
We see the United States’ continued and unstinted support for Israel as one of the stumbling blocks for peace and justice for the oppressed Palestinian people. Yet most Arab rulers are pro-US, though the Arab masses are not. How do you view this contradiction?
Simply our leaders in the past few decades were not representative of the will of the people. That was one of the major reasons why the people in the Arab world revolted. The revolution was not only because of immediate socio-economic issues, but also because of the accumulation of frustration and anger against regimes that were seen as puppets of the West. The new regimes are much more aware of the people’s aspirations. They would not engage in international politics against the will of the people.
The Americans have to realise there is a paradigm shift in the region. If they try to meddle with it, the consequences would be very risky. They must realise that the Arab Spring has created new dynamics. They do not have a Hosni Mubarak or an Omar Sulaiman on whom they could depend to continue their agendas. They have to deal with the true people’s representatives. If they don’t try to accommodate this new reality, they will make a lot of misjudgments. They must understand the new rules of the game in the region. The Palestinians, the Arabs and the Israelis must all learn to play the game according to the new rules to achieve peace.
Does this mean the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime in Egypt could give hopes to the Palestinian people?
One of the major shortcomings in the previous relationship between the Arabs and the Israelis is that the Arabs did not have leaders truly representative of the people. Now we have leaders representing the people in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries. It is indeed great news for the Palestinians and the Arabs because the hope for peace will be based on a sound condition that there are leaders who are truly representative of their nations instead of fake leaders who are puppets for foreign powers. So yes, I agree with you. Now we have a much better chance of achieving peace in the Middle East because those who are truly representative of the people will not take decisions that go against the aspirations of the people.
Some analysts say the rise of Iran as a regional power is not to the liking of pro-US Arab states and Turkey although Iran is standing up to Israel and the US and winning the applause of the Arab street? Do you agree?
The Arabs’ relations with Iran need to be differentiated at two levels. The fact that Iran is building nuclear capabilities is not a major source of worry for the Arabs. But the Arab people have serious worries about Israel’s nuclear weapons. We know Israel has at least 300 nuclear warheads. We believe that Iran is a rationalist state and, therefore, will not go ahead and make nuclear weapons.
But the major concern for Arabs as far as its relationship with Iran is concerned is Iran’s hegemonic designs. It is expanding its influence in the region beyond reasonable boundaries. The way the Iranians manipulated events in Iraq and supported the Shiites to form a so-called national unity government, the way they have been supporting the regime in Damascus and the way they have been developing their relations with some groups in the Gulf states are not actually very promising. Iran’s sectarian approach has a negative impact in the region. This is creating some kind of restlessness in the region. This is why the West and Israel have worries about Iran. This does not mean that we share the same foundations of worries. The Arabs have their own worries about Iran.
But I would say the Iranian nuclear issue and its rise as a regional military power are still a major concern for some Arab states. Didn’t the Saudis ask the Americans to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as a leaked US embassy cable posted on the WikiLeaks website claims?
Whatever the WikiLeaks cables have said, I must say Iran has been our neighbour for the past 3,000 years and most likely this would not change. We will not wake up one day and see Iran’s border extending upto Africa or Central Asia. Iran is, essentially, an integral component of the Middle East. Without reaching some kind of agreement with Iran, the Arabs cannot balance their interests. In the absence of such cooperation, the region will continue to suffer a lot of consequences.
I don’t promote political tension with Iran; Iran should realise the boundaries of its powers and should moderate its ambitions if they contradict the profound interests of the people and the region. If Iran realises this, then I think having an agreement with Iran is not difficult for the Arabs. This is the only way forward.
Islam and modern state
Some promote Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey as a model for post-revolution Arab states such as Egypt – a model that blends liberal values with Islam. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Salafi-led rebels in Syria are much more inclined to strict Shariah-based governance. Your comments.
I think political Islam as a phenomenon is not an accomplished one. It is not something you could say that this is political Islam with specific criteria and definition. Political Islam is a living project, an evolving project. At this stage we have witnessed the arrival of Islamists into power in Egypt and Tunisia. But with it has come a major debate within Islamic circles as to what form of political Islam we are going to implement.
The Turks started this discussion may be some 20 years ago. So they have developed paradigms of thinking about the relationship between Islam and modern state much earlier than the Egyptians or the Tunisians.
The Erdogan government could represent the final quest for a balance between the modern state and Islam. In this balance, you believe in a democratic process, you work for a prosperous economy and you do not interfere in the personal preferences or commitment of the public. This is quite in contrast to the Taliban and other Islamic models. This might be the way the Islamic movements are heading both in Egypt and other places. The state will be different from what the Islamic tradition might dictate to the public. Islam itself is dynamic and could grow inside society but the state has its own interests with many other agendas. The modern state cannot be Islamised. But could inject to it universal values based on Islam such as social justice. But to say that the state could be Islamised in a way that brings to us historical models that we had in the Ottoman, the Abbasid and the Umayyad civiliastions, I am not sure that this could happen.
But the values one finds in Islam and the liberal modern states are sometimes contradictory.
There are areas of conflict. But there are areas of cooperation like social justice, redistribution of wealth and individual freedom. There are ways of transcending contradictions. I don’t believe that any ideology or any philosophy if it forces itself on the people would do a lot of good for itself. Using the state to dictate religious values on the people is very scary. Because once the state owns this mammoth weapon in its hand it might use it against the people. I do believe in the separation of the state and religion for the sake of religion. Do not allow the state to use the religion. It might become a huge dictatorship that could be anti-freedom.
Do you mean that the early caliphates which are based on Islam were against freedom?
No, not at all. The khilafah (the Islamic caliphate system that existed after the death of Prophet Muhammad) is different from the modern state. Within the khilafah there were checks and balances between civil society and the centres of power. The caliph and his court did not monopolise power. The judiciary and the scholars who were independent from the state checked the caliph’s power.
But the modern state has the tendency to control. It wants to be in control of society much more than any other previous governmental model. I have never seen in history more centralised model of governance than the modern nation state. So what I am calling for is empowerment of civil society. Dismantle or redefine centres that have monopolised power in democracies for the past several decades. Wealth and power are scary when they are in one hand. So we need to diversify power and spread it around and bring the marginalised into the centre to create the balance.
I wonder whether it is morally right to ask you a question regarding Al-Jazeera because you have left the station. Al-Jazeera is run by funds from the Qatari government, an ally of the West. The Orwellian question is: Is Aljazeera real?
Yes, Al-Jazeera is real. It is performing a balancing act between the aspirations of the people and the necessities of the institution within the framework of independent journalism. We are enjoying great independence that no other network in the region enjoys.
The type of journalism al-Jazeera practises has created a new phenomenon in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera is a trailblazer. When the region was witnessing the public uprising against tyrannical regimes, al-Jazeera was there in the moment of history. Public interest is its priority. You may call its role as activism-based journalism. We are balancing the professional standards in journalism with activism. We have paid a huge price. The type of journalism we practise has led to our bureaux being bombed in Afghanistan and Iraq and our journalists being killed, wounded or jailed.
I don’t dispute it. But I believe of late the channel has compromised its independence and is practising what is widely called in the media circles as ‘embedded journalism’ whereby you discreetly serve the rulers and their cause.
No. I do still believe my former channel is maintaining the highest professional standards in journalism.
(This interview first appeared in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 16, 2012)