Itamar Rabinovich: Muslim Anger Caused by 'Difficulty of Coping with Modernity'

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | Author: Angel Petrov |December 21, 2015, Monday // 18:05
Bulgaria: Itamar Rabinovich: Muslim Anger Caused by 'Difficulty of Coping with Modernity' Photo courtesy of Itamar Rabinovich

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States (1993-1996), spoke with Novinite last week, while he was in Bulgaria to attend a conference on education and culture and their role in combating extremism.

Mr Rabinovich is the founding president of Israel Institute, a former President of Tel Aviv University and currently a Distinguished Global Professor at New York University. Between 1992 and 1996, he was also Israel's chief negotiator with Syria.

The conference he took part in, co-organized by UNESCO and the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria, was titled "Countering Violent Extremism: New Security Agenda for Education and Culture”, co-organized by UNESCO and the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria". Far from subjects such as Israel and Palestine or the issue of a Kurdish independent state (on which his views are quite outspoken) we discuss the role of education and international bodies in fighting extremism and the use of education to address what Mr Rabinovich calls "Muslim anger".

Mr Rabinovich, the conference you are here for is dedicated to the role of education and mindset in the fighting extremism. What is wrong with western and particularly US education that raises minds prone to radicalization?

There isn't that much terrorism in the West. Of course you had the wave of terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, but I don't think it was the product of education. It was the product of unhappiness, particularly by young people who were getting disappointed by the system. Protest against the system can manifest itself in many ways. For instance, when we look at French politics nowadays, the success of radical right, of the National Front and [its leader] Marine Le Pen, part of the explanation is often that people are sick and tired of the system. Thirty or forty years ago what people did when they were unhappy with the system - they went underground and resorted to terrorism. Today many vote for radical right-wing parties and this is not so much a product of education but a product of non-education. I know that recently a poll looking at the support for [Donald] Trump in the United States showed his greatest support is among non-college educated, blue-collar workers in America. The stratum of society that feels dejected, unhappy, sick and tired with traditional politics and for them Trump represents something new. So it's not so much what you learn in school, but the fact is that often times you don't have access to higher education.

When we speak of education, radicalism and violence, people often think of the Muslim world. I'd like to stress in the strongest term, we are not speaking, not equating radicalism and terrorism with Islam, but it's currently and largely in Muslim countries and it has to do with education because of the spread of what we call Salafi education, often times with the support of Saudi Arabia, not necessarily with the government but sometimes private foundations. This is part of their competition with Iran and Shia Islam. The promotion of very conservative Muslim schools creates a certain mindset that is not conducive to the next step. Because you know we do distinguish between conservative Muslims, Islamists, and radical Islamists who are often times jihadists. Conservative Muslims and the Saudi state is in with the Wahhabi sect and it's very conservative; it's not for violence, but once it builds in Pakistan and other places very conservative Islamic schools, some of the students do take the extra step.

One prominent example is the recent shooting in California, in San Bernardino. It turned out that the wife went to such a school in Pakistan, the Al-Huda school which has a reputation for being very conservative education. It seems that she was radicalized through that school. I think when we speak about education, we have to open a second track. One is to talk about the impact of a specific form of education on the formation of minds that are receptive to agitation and to being radicalized. The second track is the weakness of modern education that is conducive to the development of science and technology.

How is this a problem?

It is a problem because societies where the education system is not conducive to science education, to innovation, do not produce people who can participate in the knowledge economy - what today's economy very much is. Take countries like Korea or Japan, where the education system was developed in a way that enables them to either be innovative or very active practitioners and to flourish. Take two countries in 1953, Egypt and South Korea. South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, and Egypt that in 1953 was a relatively developed country, with the Suez Canal and a population of over 20 million. Egypt has a population of close to 90 million, its economy is in trouble, and look at South Korea. Undoubtedly, the ability of Koreans to develop education system that creates engineers and scientists that are the engine of the Korean economy – it doesn't have to do with religion. We are speaking of Asian tigers such as Indonesia or Malaysia that have Muslim majorities. It's not the religion, it's what you do with religion.

How can international bodies such as the United Nations contribute to this process of improving education in such countries?

They cannot do it directly in the sense that UNESCO cannot undertake such steps. But it can inspire and it needs to communicate on two levels. One is with the political leadership, and it should persuade the political leadership that they have to invest in education, and in the right kind of education, and secondly to work directly with people who run the educational systems. You know in my own country [Israel], which in many aspects is very advanced, we have a sizable segment of the population, what we call the Ultra-orthodox part of the Jewish community, that send their children to religious schools without core subjects such as mathematics or English and do not prepare them to be a productive part of the society. It is a phenomenon we are combating in society. It takes two elements. It has a political element, because you have to, in a way, persuade or even sometimes force the leadership of that community to accept it. And second is the professional one – how do you enter a segment of society that has for centuries only been exposed to traditional education and help them to make the leap to a modern education. It's not necessarily difficult, because somebody who has sharpened his mind in deciphering religious texts can make the adaptation to working with algorithms. It's not a pie in the sky. Once you exercise your brain you can train your brain to deal with different subjects but there have to be the two elements - the political decision and power to do it, and the political know-how to convert traditional system of education to be a modern one.

Terrorist organizations like Islamic State are also into education now - with so much propaganda videos, magazines, leaflets, messages, etc. Do you think counter-propaganda works against them?

But that's propaganda, not education - it's education with a very small "e". It's really about brainwashing and yes, the struggle is not just about territory but, maybe even more importantly, about hearts and minds. You cannot do it just at a superficial level by saying "Islamic State is wrong" and so on, you have to go deeper and say what is it that makes most Muslims angry and than easy pray to an organization like Islamic State.

So, just going to Syria and Iraq to destroy Islamic State there physically won't solve the problem.

Well it will facilitate. The fact that IS has a territorial base makes it more effective. Also, its image of success makes it more attractive. Of course, if it is defeated and loses territory, it will weaken and will be less influential around the world, and Muslims will be less impressed. But the fundamental problem of Islamic anger at the West, the difficulty of coping with modernity, that needs to be resolved and this is where UNESCO can make a big contribution by speaking to political leaderships and to educators and about these fundamental issues.

You mentioned Trump. Do you think with this Trump-style rhetoric around the elections there is any risk of inciting radical Muslim sentiments among the US Muslim population?

Yes. I use the term "Muslim anger", because there is Muslim anger in the West. And of course if you are a Muslim somewhere and look not just at what Trump says, but the popularity he has, then it's easy to persuade you that America is an enemy. But people have to remember that Trump is Trump and America at present has a black president. Somebody who actually came from a very poor background. It also depends on what you choose to look at. And yes, and the Americans created a whole TV network to fight the influence of Al Jazeera, at the time not that effective. Moreover, it is difficult for me to imagine that even if Trump wins the republican nomination, he could win the Presidency. The American demography says that if Hispanics and Blacks are against you, you cannot be elected President. And eventually there will be a President I think will be different from Trump. But of course it causes a damage in this point in the relationship with the Islamic world.

Speaking of what the West should do in Syria, do you think there should be an operation or something like that?

There has to be a combined strategy. A political solution combined with helping the right people. I doubt Western countries will send soldiers to fight, and I don't see Middle Eastern soldiers coming. The one country that could certainly do it is Turkey and it will not do it. I don't see Saudi Arabian or Kuwaiti soldiers going.

The United Arab Emirates said yesterday [Tuesday] it was forming a coalition.

Yes, but that's a political part of the solution. I myself think that, first of all, you cannot separate the Iraqi from the Syrian problem, you cannot solve one without the other - you need to address both at the same time. And the solution in both places is federal. I think countries can be put together again but it has to be a very loose federal structure that will allow for the different communities a great deal of autonomy in a sense of security and participation. Just to reestablish a unitary state with a strong central government will not work in either Syria or Iraq.

Yes, but Iraq already had something close to a federation.

It was divided into three, but there is a way of formalizing the status quo and turning adversity to advantage.

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Tags: Israel, Islam, Muslim, Islamic state, terrorism, extremism, Itamar Rabinovich, Syria, Iraq, education, UNESCO
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