The Upcoming Crisis in the Middle East: Professor Barry Rubin

Guest Speaker: Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal and Turkish Studies.

On Tuesday, October 4th, JCU students, staff and the Board of Trustees gathered in the Aula Magna for a lecture on the current situation in the Middle East from Professor Barry Rubin. Professor Argentieri introduced the speaker and the evening’s topic; he addressed the current uncertainties caused by the “Arab Spring”, and posed many questions: “Is there going to be freedom and where are these regimes headed? Will they be headed towards a human rights-friendly regime or something else?” Barry Rubin answered the questions by addressing three main issues, which are solved in the United States but not in the Middle East.

The first is the question of identity. Do individuals consider themselves Arab, Muslim or simply citizens of their State? This year has been the most important in determining this distinction since the Egyptian Coup of 1952. There are currently three groups that are trying to create a new political order – Arab nationalists, Islamists (who have the biggest following), and the (less numerous) population supporting a genuine democracy.

The second question Rubin faced is “What has gone wrong? How has the Middle East fallen behind? And how to remedy this?” The response is different from each political platform. The Arab response was that they had been divided and needed to create one ethnic Arab state, organized along ideas borrowed from communist-type economies and fascist-type leadership behind one strong leader. During their rule, they promised to expel Israel, promised to unite, and promised to get rid of Western influence. None of this happened.

In 2011, we find a “crumbling” of Arab Nationalists, but to whose advantage? Islamists turn to religion but they are divided over conservatism. Their explanation for the events is that they went too far away from Islam and their solution is to get away from Western influence and closer to the foundations of their religion. The democrats are the weakest and most complex of the groups. They have an Islamic identity and less money to create influence. They believe that the Middle East must “engage in modernity.”

Rubin used a metaphor to explain the failed politics of each group, comparing it to a person hitting his head against a wall. The Arabs have the same platform they always had, so they want to continue hitting their heads against the wall. The Islamists believe that the Muslim religion has not been prevalent enough in the platform, so they want to hit their heads harder against the wall. While the small democratic groups realize that the old political ways have not worked out so they want to stop hitting their heads against the wall.

The third issue Dr. Rubin presented is related to the organization of society. The Arabs desire a strong hierarchy, one that is dictated by the state. The Islamists want to organize society according to Sharia Law, while the citizens of the state, i.e. the democrats, want to create a new social order.

Among the topics covered in the Q&A was a question, posed by a faculty member, about Turkey and its future role. Dr. Rubin explained that many of his respected colleagues are worried about the Turkish economy. He says that the Turkish government is “consolidating power step by step”. The government just won the recent election and is going full speed ahead with its agenda. He also talked about how Wikileaks recently released a dispatch about the Foreign Minister holding a private meeting with close members of his party, saying that “they are the new Ottomans”, that there should be a single cultural space for the Middle East and that the Turks should be the ones to lead it.

Barry Rubin called Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “loose cannon” and stated that the country is in serious trouble. He also warned the audience against Turkish-U.S. relations in that the U.S. government is not well informed or oblivious to the Turkish government’s agenda, as shown when the U.S. made Turkey the head of the Counter Terrorism Organization. Dr. Rubin reminded the audience that this is the country that opposed sanctions on Iran and sabotaged them, plus has more journalists imprisoned than any other government in the world. The White House does not understand that the Turkish government is a problem.

Another faculty member asked a question about the Turkish Military. The EU undermined the Turkish military and strengthened the Islamists in order to promote civilian rule and democracy. The military also know that the American government loves the regime in power. They know that if they were to try stage a coup they would not have support and would cause a civil war.

Trustee Frank Guarini gave a special thanks to Barry Rubin for coming to the Institute and sharing his knowledge with the John Cabot community.