“Flying blind” western Islamism policy flaws, with Dr. Jonathan Spyer

By | Rachel Brooks

February 8, 2021 

Image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0, Jonathan Spyer speaking at the India Foundation.jpg, Created: 21 September 2017

Editorial Note: Republic Underground news sat down with Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a veteran reporter and security analyst of above 30 years, to understand the nature of the political relationship between the western world, and the states where Islamism has risen to political power. Dr. Spyer provided insights on why the western outlook on combating political Islamism is flawed, what the broader reality of Islamism and its collaboraters is, and how the western world could proactively seek to counter it.

Brooks

First, perhaps you’d like to tell more of your background to my audience. 

Spyer

I’m a journalist and a Middle East analyst based in Jerusalem, I’ve been based here for 30 years.  I’m originally from the U.K, and am an Israeli citizen also. I focus on Syria and Iraq in particular, and also on Iranian regional activities to some degree as well. I’ve spent a lot of time reporting in Syria and Iraq. 

Brooks

Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about your book Transforming Fire? 

Spyer 

Sure. So about a decade ago, I wrote the book Transforming Fire. It’s about the decline of secular Arab nationalism and the rise of political Islam, and the impact that was having and has gone on to have on the politics and the reality of the Middle East region.

I focus a lot on the book on Iran, Hizbullah, and on Shia political Islam, but also talk about Sunni political Islam via the Israeli experience of the Second Intifada, and via the European experience of Sunni jihadi terrorism on European soil, and of course 9/11, a paradigm changing event, which introduced a lot of those issues to the broader Western world.

I’m pleased with the focus of the book because when I published it, in 2011, a lot of people said to me, ‘Well, don’t you think this is a bit outdated now, because now the Arab world is becoming democratic? You know, there are these revolutions and uprisings taking place, which are showcasing Arab civil society, representative government, and so on. 

I think as it’s turned out that they were wrong. They were mistaken to suggest that I was out of date, because, of course, political Islam ended up being the big winner of the collapse and fragmentation of a number of Arab systems and states, from 2010 and the decade that has followed it. So I think the book was correctly focusing on a lot of the trend lines that have turned out to be of very profound significance. 

Brooks 

Right, because of the collapse in Yemen, and various other places? So, your book aged very well.

Recap: Republic Underground’s guest appearance on Peer Talks

Republic Underground’s media vice president discussed  U.S. Iran policy issues on Peer Talks. 

Spyer

That’s right because we saw in the uprisings in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, and also in Libya and then with Syria, and then subsequently Iraq, that political Islam, and specifically insurgent political Islam, turned out to be maybe the main player in a period that I would suggest may now be drawing to a close, but which has dominated the best part of the last decade. 

I would say that Islamism in the Middle East via a knock-on effect also transformed European politics. Because, I would say, that the Syrian refugee crisis may well have produced Brexit and the British decision to leave the European Union. 

It may well have produced also the rise of far-right populist/ far right-wing politics in Germany and France, and so on and so forth. So I think that these were profoundly important events, and not in any way limited in their importance to the Middle East. 

Yemen, and Syria and Libya, and in a different way Iraq, are examples of countries that were kind of torn apart, with Islamist forces playing a very central role in the process,  and they have not yet come back together again, and may well not come back together again. 

There are two examples of countries that were hit very hard, but they did manage to remain intact/reconstitute themselves –  Egypt and Tunisia, for reasons that we could discuss. But the point is that there’s been a lasting and profound long term fragmentation and partial collapse in Yemen, in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and in another way you could argue also Lebanon. Palestinian politics too are split in two between Islamism and nationalism and that doesn’t have a likely fix any time soon. So the destructive impact of political Islam has been profound. 

Brooks 

How do you believe that those politics affected the immediate area around Iran such as the Caucasus, its immediate neighbor nation is Azerbaijan and Turkey?

Spyer

That’s really not my main area of focus. I am looking closely at Iranian efforts to move westwards in the direction of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which is the area of main focus for this specific type of subversion of Iran, namely the use by the IRGC of proxy political and military organizations. 

I think that there is an interesting parallel between Iranian efforts to gain advantage in these broken spaces, and similar efforts by Turkey.  

He then gave some examples of conflicts or political agendas where Turkey expressed state-agenda forwarding interests. 

We can look at the mobilization by Turkey of Sunni political Islam, its use of fighters in the war in Syria, first of all, in northern Syria against the Kurds, and then in Azerbaijan  in the recent fighting. And also in Libya. We can see a parallel effort where the Turkish government is making use of Islamist forces on the ground in the Turkish state interest, in the same way (as Iran has).

Brooks   

Right, so do you believe that the two are near to clashing at any point?

Spyer

Well, it’s an interesting question. I mean, my sense is that there are these two systems, Turkey and Iran, that are quite similar in lots of ways. Both of them consist of a kind of melding of post-imperial revanchist ambition  with political Islam. 

In this respect, they’re quite similar.They do have areas where they certainly are on the opposite side. Partly because Turkey naturally backs up Sunni political Islam, and Iran tends to be the natural backer of Shia political Islam. We can see that in Iraq, in Syria, maybe  in Lebanon as well. 

So these two countries do have areas of opposition. Having said that, there are other areas where they’re on the same side. They are united in hostility to  Israel, for example, –  both of them are active supporters of Hamas. Both are building their power in a Middle East in which the United States of America, as the hegemon for the last 30 years, is now in retreat. 

In this sense, the two nations are kind of on the same historical wave, even if they may well have  significant areas of opposition.  They are quite similar systems that operate in a similar way. In this regard, I don’t believe that Turkey will be a defender or shield of the western system. Because I don’t think Turkey is interested in that at all. I think that Turkey has its own ambitions, which it has very clearly stated. I think that we need to think of it in those terms 

 It may well be that Turkey and Iran will find ways to have an uneasy modus vivendi given that broader reality. I would suggest, for example, that Turkish domination of northwest Syria is able fairly comfortably to coexist with the Iranian domination of South east Syria.

Now, those two occupations emerged from a situation in which the Iranians supported the Assad regime, and the Turks opposed it.  But at this stage,  that’s not what’s so important. What’s important is that Turkey has taken control of part of northwest Syria and Iran effectively controls a large part of southeast Syria and they are able, largely, to coexist. So the idea that Turkey’s going to emerge as this force to push the Iranians back east is I think not realistic. 

Brooks

Interesting take on that, something I I haven’t heard before. My next question is you have argued in your recent piece in Foreign Policy, now, when I say recently, I believe this was back in the winter, late 2020. But the age of Islamised insurgency has ended in the West. And your argument draws direct comparisons to the collapse of both Arab nationalism and the Soviet Union. Would you like to elaborate more on your opinions about this?

Spyer 

I am referring specifically to the Middle East.  Islamist movements are still significant and consequential with regard to terrorism in the region, and also in the West, in European countries. I suspect that will continue. But  I’m talking about political Islam as a contender for state power. Not as an irritant or a violent movement,  able to capture the emotions or energies of certain  Muslim populations, but as a contender for power in the state. 

In this regard, I have the sense that we may well have passed the highest point of political Islam. Versions of political Islam are now in power in Iran and in Turkey. But with regard to the Arabic speaking world, one of the effects of the last decade, is that for the first time,  Arabic speaking populations got the chance to see political Islam actually in power. There were two truly significant cases of this. One was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the 2012-13 period., The second was the Islamic State, the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, in 2014-19. Both of these were catastrophic failures. The Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan was that ‘Islam is the solution’ Now that was a claim that could be made and could find resonance when political Islam had never been tried in government. But it has been tried now. The Arab Spring permitted political Islam to have a turn at governance. And it was a colossal and catastrophic failure and is seen that way by many, many people within the region. 

Spyer

So there’s a sense, I would say, that political Islam now has been to some degree discredited in the Arab world in the same way that Arab nationalism was discredited earlier as a model of government and development. I think there’s a growing sense of that. We shouldn’t write Islamism off, of course, but I suspect we will find that the Arab Spring and what followed it may prove to have been the high watermark of it. 

Brooks: 

Right, do you think it’s more or less going in a different direction now than it is just disappearing?

Spyer:  

I think it’ll be around in some form for a long time. We should remember that Arab nationalism also is still around in all kinds of semi-fossilized constructs. After all, al-Fatah is still the major party of the Palestinians. Syria is still  ruled by a thing calling itself the Baath Party.  Egypt is still formally ruled by the same  nationalist officers’ regime that appeared in 1952 et cetera, et cetera. So Arab Nationalism has survived in the form of various quite ossified political-military structures. I have no doubt that political Islam will survive in one form or another at some level. But as a serious contender for government –  I sense that the wind is now blowing in a different direction. 

Brooks 

Right, that makes perfect sense. 

Now, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to. But you mentioned in October at the Jewish News Syndicate that you had effectively been exiled from America, and you believe the PKK and Turkish Islam and Islamism excuse me, has something to do with this. Would you maybe like to elaborate on that?

Spyer  

Yeah. First of all, I’m very happy to say that the ban has now been rescinded. So I am very happy that I can travel to the U.S. again.

I have a sense that the Turkish authorities and their influence may have some responsibility for the ban. I suspect that it may have been due to meetings of mine with senior PKK officials.  But I dont know this for certain.  

Brooks  

It’s good that the ban was lifted for you, I wasn’t aware that it had… But I think this sort of ties into another question I had. If you believe that the western tendency to alienate journalists is sort of empowering these Islamised movements?

Spyer  

I think they have their own channels of support. But I do think that is very important for us, as journalists to defend our ability to travel freely in the region and meet the people who we think we need to meet.

 I think there is a need to preserve this possibility  because  if we don’t, there is the possibility that western publics will be flying blind with regard to political developments in crucial parts of the world. Governments have their own sources and structures for the acquisition of information. But at the end of the day, for publics, the free media plays that role.

We’ve talked a lot in the West about the fake news phenomenon as a result of the social media revolution of recent years. I think there needs to be ways to guard against (fake news) and the practice of free journalism, in the field, over time, and with a base of knowledge is an  antidote for that. 

Brooks   

Yes, that makes sense. Okay, my final question, and again, thank you for speaking with me. What do you believe the new U.S administration that is more lenient on the IRGC will do to reverse Trump’s foreign policy in the nations where Islamism is present? 

I mean, there’s a certain opinion in the western world that Joe Biden is more lenient with the Islamist states such as Iran and Qatar. Do you believe that Biden’s policies reversing Trump-era policy will sort of clash and create more problems?

Spyer  

I mean, we’re still waiting to see how it shakes out. But with regards to Iran, there is a growing sense that the new administration is very keen to reverse much of what the previous administration did. Specifically, to get back as quick as possible to the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. 

If you’re going back, if you want to get back to that agreement, back to rapprochement with Iran, the temptation to try to tempt the Iranians to play ball, by removing sanctions may well  be too much to resist. especially when we think of such individuals as Robert Malley taking up key positions. These are people who have supported a very soft line with regards to Iran and the IRGC. And once the money starts to come back online for Iran, we know from experience that a great deal of that money will then be pointed in the direction of support for Islamist client organizations and proxies.

These movements have been starved for money and resources in recent years, and that has impacted their ability to operate. So, if money starts flowing back in their direction, the net result must surely be completely negative from the point of view of those who are concerned to oppose the Iranian advance

 As I mentioned before, Turkey in some ways, as I see it, is a parallel system to Iran. The Biden administration does appear to intend to be more tough on Turkey.

Brooks 

Is there a possibility that if Biden is tough on Turkey, but more lenient with Iran, that that could sort of keep Turkey’s rivalry from fencing Iran out through its territory, do you think?

Spyer

If we look at the areas where Turkey and Iran are active, whether it’s Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon. For the most part, they uneasily co-exist, (and sometimes cooperate).  Turkey’s not really interested in being a shield against Iran in those areas. So, I think it’s a bit of an illusion to think that Turkey will do the job of resisting Iran. Turkey doesn’t want to do that, doesn’t say it wants to do that, it doesn’t act as if it wants to do that. I think we need to be  clear on that.

If we want to resist Iran, we need to find allies that want to do it. The Republic of Turkey is not going to be one of them, I think.