Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World

Apr 25, 2016

Until the mid-19th century, Islam was the sole basis of both political legitimacy and social identity across the Middle East. Islamists--a term that doesn't exist in Arabic--believe Islam should continue to be the region's primary identity. In opposition are nationalists and secularists who view Islamism as a serious threat. What will be the outcome?


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon, everyone. I am Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for spending this part of your evening with us.

Our speakers today are two outstanding individuals in their fields. We are so pleased to have them both seated on this stage. I believe you have all received a copy of their bios, so I will be brief.

Tarek Osman is a well-known Egyptian political economist and essayist, who is a regular contributor on the Arab world and Islamism for major newspapers and magazines worldwide. He is also the writer and presenter of several BBC series, including The Making of the Modern Arab World and Saudi Arabia: Sands of Time. He is also the political counselor of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in the Arab world.

Lisa Anderson, who we are very proud to have had as a former Carnegie Council trustee, is a specialist on the politics of the Middle East and North Africa. She is a former president of the American University in Cairo, having recently stepped down in December. Before moving to Cairo, she was the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia for several years, and also served as the chair of the political science department at Columbia, as well as the director of Columbia's Middle East Institute.

Lisa will be engaging Tarek in conversation about his book Islamism: What It Means for the Middle East and the World. Together, their vast knowledge of Arab culture and history, combined with their personal exposure to recent events, will provide a stimulating discussion for us all.

In much of the West, even the most basic understanding of Islamism is dangerously lacking. Oftentimes the word "Islam," which is a religion, is interchangeably misused with the word "Islamism," which is an ideology. But if we are to have a better understanding of current events in the Middle East and elsewhere, we must first come to terms with the use of these words and their meaning, not only within a historical, sociopolitical, economic, and ideological context, but also on how the use of these ideas and beliefs has become predominant in the discourse of citizens, politicians, clerics, and media pundits. On the one hand, there are some who believe Islam should be the region's primary identity, while there are others who view Islamism as a serious threat to national security, historical identity, and a cohesive society.

In the next 30 minutes or so, Lisa and Tarek will have a discussion exploring these issues and others; then we will turn to you and try to get in as many questions as we can in the time remaining.

At this time, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our two guests, Tarek and Lisa.


LISA ANDERSON: Thank you, Joanne. It is genuinely a delight to be here back at the Carnegie Council, and with Tarek, with whom I have interacted for some time now, and have always been delighted by the kind of provocative and thoughtful way he approaches the region. This book—and I don't usually flog other people's book—is an excellent introduction to the lay of the land in the region.

I thought maybe we could start with a very big-picture question to Tarek about what he means by Islamism and what kinds of elements he sees in the region. There are, in some ways, if you will, older, more institutionalized versions of this. We know the Muslim Brotherhood was established in the 1920s, and it has been an important part of the political landscape in the region for 90 years or so. And yet, clearly there are also newer, at least as far as we are concerned, threads of the politicized Islamism, particularly what many people refer to as a sort of Salafi trend. I thought it would be worthwhile to ask you to tell us a little bit about what this all looks like and, particularly, how these two features are relating to each other now.

TAREK OSMAN: Let me start with the term itself. I guess you find so many definitions. I do not think there is any one definition that is right or wrong. It is not a definition, as far as I know, that is in Arabic, which also is quite interesting. So you would not find, as far as I know, a word in Arabic that everybody would recognize as, "Yes, this is the translation of Islamism," which also tells you something.

To my mind, that has to do with what I think is a fact: Islam, up to the early 19th century, maybe mid-19th century, was basically the basis upon which almost every single state, dynasty in the wider Middle East—the Arab world, Turkey, Iran—has based its rule. It was the only basis for legitimacy, if you like. It was the only basis for legislation, and in many cases the only—in a few cases, perhaps one of many in which it was the dominant—but in the vast majority of cases it was the only basis of legitimacy, legislation, certainly identity for the vast majority of people in the region. Interestingly, even the non-Muslims were seen within the context of being non-Muslim as opposed to citizens of certain countries.

All of that changed, basically, from the early to mid-19th century. I am not going to take you into a history lesson. But basically what I am trying to say is that, from that moment on, in these three areas that I focus on in the book—the Arab world, Turkey, and Iran—you had something different, or some things that are different, that tried to replace Islam as a frame of reference for society, as a basis for political legitimacy, as an identity for societies.

From that moment on, I think you had very different types of interactions. Some of them were cordial and some of them came from within the religious establishments that tried to find a way to maintain the traditional Islam as a frame of reference for us, the identity, all of that, while not obstructing the unstoppable move towards modernity. Others at different stages disagreed with that entirely. Then, from that moment on, you had these various types of interactions, some of which are very violent—some of that we see today—some of which are, in my view, very inspiring.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the difference between Islam and Islamism is relatively new. It is probably 150 years old. That is, by our standards, very new.

Number two is that today the way I would focus on the difference between them is that Islam is a faith with so many various interpretations; Islamism is various ways—and they are really various ways—to retain these old notions of Islam as a social frame of reference, as the basis for legitimacy, as the basis for maintaining political legitimacy for any state.

I am saying different interpretations because, as Professor Anderson mentioned, you have quite old interpretations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; relatively new interpretations, such as, for those who follow the Middle East, the Ennahda party in Tunisia; such as, of course, the AKP party in Turkey, which has been in power now for 10 years; such as the Islamic Republic of Iran in the last 30 years. All of these, in my view, are various interpretations of Islamism in the way we identify them.

But there are other interpretations that are not political in any way, constituencies, large segments of people, in the wider Middle East who are very, very pious, very conservative. They see their interpretation of the religion as their identity, as the only way to live life. Very few, until 10, 20 years ago, really had a direct connection between this piousness, this conservatism, and politics, as we know it, in terms of parliaments, presidents, constitutions, what have you.

One of the words we tend to use to describe these highly pious people for whom religion is the key factor governing their lives is the word "Salafist," which means nothing, by the way, in Arabic, more than "people who refer to the predecessors." It's such a generic term, right?

In order not to talk too much, I guess the point I am trying to say is that you have a new phenomenon, with various interpretations, that has been politicized by different groups, and only in the last 10 or 20 years has it become politicized almost by everybody, including groups that did not really link before their faith to the politics of their countries.

LISA ANDERSON: I think one of the things that you highlight that is important is the extent to which piety, just plain religious observance, is incredibly important. It continues to be incredibly important for everyone in the region. You have a base of just comfort and "this is the way I live my life, I live my life according to the rules of the religion that I observe." That is the vast majority of people, the Muslims, but it is true of the Christians. It is true of everyone. This is the world in which there is a kind of comfort and enthusiasm for a life that is informed by religious observance.

So you have a base on which you build there of saying, "Well, if that is true about my ordinary life, then should that not also inform how I think about politics or how I think about my life in the public sphere and how I should think about myself as a citizen or a participant in a larger community and so forth?"

The question really is, how does that become as politicized—because it is a natural way for many people to think about that their interactions with each other, with their community, with their family and their business associates and so forth. And then it becomes politicized. How does that happen?

TAREK OSMAN: I guess one of the key points that, to me, makes the politicization an issue is that the Arab states, if you like, or even the Turkish state or the Iranian state, from the moment they started to open up to modernity—again, mid to late 19th century, and up to only 30 years ago or so—they did not like what you just said. Their view was—and "their" here is a very wide "their" because there were many "they" in this case, and many of those didn't like each other as well. But they probably agreed on something: Islam is a faith, as opposed to the frame of reference, the basis for legislation. Of course, probably all of us have heard or know quite a lot about the Kemal Atatürk example in Turkey, for example. Some people would invoke the shahs of Iran; certainly the dynasty that established modern Egypt and then, after that, Nasser of Egypt.

What I am trying to say again is that in the last 100 years or more, from that moment in which the Arab world and the wider Middle East opened up to modernity, immediately there became an issue at the very top, not at the largest segments of society. You are absolutely right. In terms of people, it wasn't really a dilemma. It is just how we live our lives. But the state, whether in most of the Arab world—not in the Gulf, but in most of the Arab world—in Turkey, in Iran, saw an issue with retaining the old models inherited of Islam as the basis of all of that with their march towards modernity.

To give you only two examples, in the Arab world, let's say from the 1870s, 1880s up to 1940s, 1950s, a period I refer to as the "Arab liberal age," that was in many ways quite an inspiring period, in my view at least. It was vastly different from what came after that, from the early 1950s probably to the late 1970s, which is probably the heyday of Arab nationalism—vastly different, in terms of ideology, in terms of how they ruled, in terms of even the characters of the main trends here and there. Yet both of them very much agreed on detaching the state from religion. By the way, religion here is absolutely not just Islam, also Christianity.

But I think you put your hand, Lisa, on the exact issue. For the vast majority of people, that detachment, that distinction, was not there. It was more or less imposed from the top. Some people related to that. Some people totally ignored it. Some people had an issue with it. Some people were very antagonized by it. So it depends whether you look at the state as opposed to the people.

Again, I am not going to speak too much, but for me one interesting example that just jumps to my mind is Turkey—a highly secular state, top-down imposition of secularism from roughly the 1930s up to the end of the 20th century. Then, after that, for the last 10 or 15 years, you have a party that four times now, four consecutive times, wins elections with relatively decent comfort, and that party has quite an unambiguous Islamic frame of reference, after 90 years of top-down imposition of secularism. To my mind, that is a clear example of a state that operates in a certain way, as opposed to large constituencies of the people who relate to religion in a vastly different way.

The experience is different in different parts of the Arab world, certainly different in Iran. But the connection between Islam to the state, Islam to the people, I think is a very interesting point that has played in different ways in the last century and a half.

LISA ANDERSON: Somewhere around 30 years ago, things began to change. That sense of modernity being secular and so forth and so on began to erode a little bit in the region, and you began to see more explicit references to Islam in politics and so forth. You point to a number of apparent factors in that change—the influence of the Gulf via the migrant workers that went from many of these larger, more, if you will, secular—certainly government secular systems—off to the Gulf, which had always been somewhat more conservative, the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There were whole sets of things that happened. Talk a little bit about what it was, or what multiple things, that began to turn the tide a little bit so that you saw the erosion of this confidence in secular nationalism.

TAREK OSMAN: I think you touch on a beautiful word, "confidence." It is a big topic, but I will try to put it in bullet points, if you would like.

If we go back to again the early moment of that exposure to modernity, you had a number of visionaries, in my opinion, who came out—actually, many of them not from the Arab world, such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, for those of you who are familiar with the region, Muhammad Abduh from Egypt, and others—who, in a very rational way and with, I think, a very tolerant and open and inquisitive way, tried to marry this idea of retaining our old heritage with modernity. But they lost confidence, not because of outright failure, although some would say that they failed; but, to a large extent, the state marginalized them.

The state here, by the way, was not just the Arab state. It was also the Ottoman Empire, to a large extent, and I would even say the European states. Some of these people went to France and spent some time trying to more or less engage the West as very liberal Muslims, if you like, in the early 20th century. But nobody was paying too much attention to them, for one simple reason, that many people correctly assumed that their constituencies back home were really limited, and therefore there was no need to engage with them. So that project lost its confidence.

I mentioned Arab liberalism, this drive for about 40 or 50 years to really, as the Egyptians, as you know very well, used to say, "create a Paris on the Nile," and many examples of that across the Arab world. That certainly has failed or did fail. Why? It is a long story, but I argue that Arab liberalism, after 40, 50 years—and I think an inspiring example in many ways—failed. Arab nationalism certainly failed. It raised many dreams and failed.

So this confidence of trying to find some sort of a match, some sort of a compromise, between Islam as the traditional, all of that, and modernity, successively under different projects lost confidence. Then, as you rightly indicated, at that moment in which Arab nationalism falls, a number of things happen.

One is that oil comes to the scene, not just in terms of the rise of the Gulf states geopolitically in the Middle East, though that is important, but socioeconomically, basically. In the largest Arab countries, be it Egypt, Morocco, Algeria—the largest in terms of demographics—you saw literally tens of millions of Arabs from the middle- and lower-middle class emigrate to the Gulf, at a time, by the way, when the Gulf was by far more conservative than it is today. It wasn't Dubai as we see it today. It wasn't Abu Dhabi as we see it today. New York University did not have a campus in Abu Dhabi at that time. During this period, extremely conservative societies that did not have a single experience of trying to match modernity with our traditions absorbed tens of millions of people from different parts of the Arab world, especially from the middle and lower-middle class.

To move the story faster, I think—and there are by far better qualified economists than me who wrote about this—that effected a real change over 20, 30 years in the middle classes of a number of larger Arab countries, and with that, the absorption of certain value systems, certain ways of life, that again—not just conservatives. They were not enriched by exposure to modernity, as other parts of the Arab world, as Turkey, for example, as Iran, had experienced much before that.

Then you add to that, in my opinion at least, that you had certain geopolitical events that happened. All of them strengthened—they did not create, but strengthened—the highly assertive voices within Salafism, within these highly conservative groups.

By the way, I said assertive, not necessarily violent. Absolutely, some of them were violent/militants. Those were groups that saw not just the West but saw their own societies as infidels, as people who have strayed out of the "real" Islam, and therefore they have to fight them. But I argue that these were not really major constituencies or major groups within that huge trend of highly conservative Muslims. Actually, they were small. They dominate the news because they wreak havoc, they are very violent.

But many were not violent and yet very assertive. I think that contributed a lot to this change in the value system, in the composition of the middle class. One example that many people invoke—it is not new, I'm sorry, but I think it is really telling—is the headscarf and the predominance of the headscarf in Cairo, in Casablanca, now in Istanbul and many other places.

What I am trying to say is that you had for about 40 years—basically in my lifetime, which is quite sad, because I have not seen the liberal side of the Arab world—in the last 40 years, you had various factors, socioeconomic, political, and others, and geopolitical, that strengthened a lot the sides of the Islamists who did not necessarily try, or were convinced of trying, to find this match between modernity and our traditional ways of looking at Islam.

LISA ANDERSON: What's interesting if you are in Cairo is to go to some of the new cities, particularly on the eastern side of Cairo. They are called new cities, big suburbs. Some of them are enormous, self-contained towns, for all intents and purposes, 200,000 people, half a million people, kinds of places.

The cultural and social life there is, on the one hand, very, very conservative, but materially very modern. The way they are reconciling this is to say, "I have all the material goods. I have the great car. And I feel prosperous, because I worked in the Gulf or I worked in Saudi Arabia," and so forth. But at the same time, the intellectual life is actually very Gulf-like, very politically conservative, socially conservative, intellectually conservative, I think it's fair to say. So there is a reconciling, but it is not the liberal age reconciliation that you are thinking of. It is just a different way of doing it, I think. But it makes it more complicated, because these are populations and societies who think of themselves as very much modern, very much "this is the way life should be led." They don't feel to themselves reactionary.

TAREK OSMAN: But you would know better, because many of them go to the American University in Cairo.

LISA ANDERSON: Well, they can afford it, is the point.

TAREK OSMAN: I totally agree with that. I guess one of the things I personally find very important to try to—I don't like the word "analyze," (a) because I'm not qualified to analyze and (b) because I don't think it is analyzable—which is art. I think it is really interesting to look at Arabic cinema, for example, to some extent, Arabic music, but cinema especially, and theater and literature. If you treat it just as an observer, not as somebody who writes for The New Yorker or something, but in a very layman way of looking at it, certainly you would see trends that were very powerful in the 1920s, 1930s, up to the 1960s, that were very brave, very entrepreneurial in terms of their thinking, very skeptical. The frames of reference were not necessarily New York or London or Paris, but they were very exposed to New York and London and Paris, and more than willing to look there and say, "Oh, I like that; I don't like that."

That exposure, I think, was lost for at least the last 30 years or so. I joke: I say, as society, not just in Egypt, in different parts of the Arab world, we turned our antenna, if you like, from Europe—sorry, I don't say the United States; for us, Europe is closer—towards the Gulf, at the time when the Gulf itself actually turned its antenna towards the West and became in many ways far more liberal than other parts of the Arab world, certainly much more exposed. What I am trying to say is that, for me, the art is one of the best ways to really trace the trend that you mentioned.

To end that comment on a positive note—and I think it is promising, in my mind—the Arab world today demographically is extremely young, and the same with Turkey and Iran. If you look at the art, the cinema again, if you look at the theater, the literature, that young Tunisians or Moroccans or Egyptians, or even Saudis by the way, write or produce, I think it is trying to connect with the 1940s, with the 1950s. In a way, some people say that is sad, because you have a generation that is more or less rejecting the last 50 or 60 years, rejecting the generation of their fathers. And yes, that is sad.

LISA ANDERSON: Oh, we all do. [Laughter]

TAREK OSMAN: But it is systematic, to a large extent, in the Arab world.

But I think there is also the promising dimension of it, which is that if a significant percentage of the young generation, especially those who are influencers, if you like, through art, are by far more liberal than the previous generation, and in things that are really connecting with people, such as—not really this book; very few probably would read it in the Arab world, sadly—through films, through music, I think that is very promising.

LISA ANDERSON: We could go on in this direction, obviously, all evening. But there is a section in the book that I think many Americans particularly would be very interested in. So I want to turn us to much more contemporary politics.

One of the things that I think still remains a puzzle for Europeans and Americans particularly is how our governments dealt with Islam in power in the Arab world, particularly the Morsi era. The Muslim Brotherhood produced a government, and it was elected, free and fair elections. Morsi was elected by Egyptians to be the president, and within a year he was gone.

One of the puzzles that Egyptians had was why it was that the Americans seemed to be so—"supportive" may be too strong a word, but certainly content to work with the Muslim Brotherhood government, with Morsi, so forth and so on. It didn't seem at all daunting to the American government at the time. Egyptians particularly were very surprised by that. Tarek has a very, very interesting discussion of that in the book, which obviously I think you should read. But maybe you can give us a little précis of that, of how it was that Americans and Europeans thought about that government, thought about the Muslim Brotherhood in power, thought about what that meant, and, therefore, to some degree, how they reacted to his departure.

TAREK OSMAN: Let me start by putting it in context, at least the way I saw it.

As you mentioned at the beginning, I spend a lot of time in Europe. It was very interesting. In almost all discussions, whether with politicians or, more interestingly, with journalists or professors, they always draw a trend. They say, the elections in Morocco, the Islamist PJD (Justice and Development Party) won; the elections in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda; in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, in different elections—presidential, but before that parliamentary; in Kuwait, the Islamists took 80 percent of the parliament. Of course, people say, "Don't forget that the AKP in Turkey has won four elections." Whatever you think of the Islamic Republic of Iran, you can argue that there is some sort of electoral process that goes on there that is lacking in many other parts of the Arab world. So the trend that many people were saying is that political Islam wins elections.

What I am trying to do in the chapter that you are referring to is to say that, first of all, in my mind, and I think based on quite decent research, the Europeans interpreted that in a very different way than the Americans. Let me tell you—and this is probably very bad to say, especially as it is recorded—I did my homework in Europe far better than I did it in America, to be very honest, so I am much more qualified to say I know and understand how the Europeans saw it. My interpretation of how the U.S. saw it was based on many meetings I did in Cairo, in the Arab world, in Europe, but actually not here, which probably is bad of me. I'm a bad student in that sense.

Based on my understanding, in Europe the rise of the Islamists was an outcome of what they saw as the Arab Spring. Of course, even the word is telling. "Arab Spring" is very similar to the Prague Spring, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was very much contextualized as, "This is the moment of democracy coming into the Arab world," very similar in the European mind to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism. There were so many examples I heard firsthand of comparing certain Egyptian or Tunisian or other leaders to leaders of Central and Eastern Europe.

From the European perspective—and, of course, as all of you know, Europe is highly, highly secular, probably much more than big parts of the United States—the hope and expectation was the rise of liberalism, as it is defined in Europe. It is secular. Of course, when the Islamists, from their point of view, won all of these elections—not many people said it, but it was very clear—it turned to some sort of a winter, more or less. And yet, it is a winter that "we," as Europeans, have to deal with.

I think many people in the United States saw it in a different way. Historically, the United States has far more experience dealing with political Islam than Europe. The United States has extensive relationships with regimes in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia, that I think have a component of political Islam in them. The United States has a long experience with dealing with a number of Islamist groups, whether in Afghanistan or in different parts of the Arab world.

Certainly, to my mind—and that is based on conversations with some policymakers in this county—there was a stronger confidence, to use the word you used, Lisa, in the United States, a much higher confidence that the United States is able to deal with the political Islamists, much more than many European decision-makers have. I think many European decision-makers were intuitively not very willing to have that interaction. In the United States many policymakers were willing to do that.

But I think for the United States it is not just these two factors. There was a very important factor. For at least half a century, there was an issue lurking, I think, in American politics, which is how to reconcile American interests in the Middle East, however you define these, and the American values, if you like, of democracy, of supporting human rights, and what have you, and somehow the idea that, finally, this part of the world has arrived at a modus operandi whereby we are able to deal with those who are in power, and therefore we are able to secure our interests, and yet, at the same time, they arrive at a state that does not make us uncomfortable in terms of our values when we deal with them. I think that was, to some Americans, probably a desired spot to arrive at.

What many people on both sides of the Atlantic did not see, which I tried to highlight very much in this book, is the social dimension. It is not just a matter of who won elections. It is not just a matter of, "I expected liberalism and now I have something different, which is something religious," or it is a pure electoral process; somebody won, and therefore he or she should lead.

What really this problem has been about is what I tried to say in the last half-hour, that you have 150 years of very different views of how the society should be, of how our identity should be, how our future should be, who we are. How can you have Islam as a frame of reference? What does that mean? You have very different views that are very strong, and therefore many constituencies, especially even ones that are conservative but not necessarily supportive of political Islam in ruling.

Because it is really a bigger dilemma, many people thought that the West's understanding is lacking. It is not just the United States here. The European understanding, from their point of view, was lacking. Many people took the superficial dimension of elections or "we expect now liberalism to come to the Arab world" and undermined really how complicated the story is because of the heritage of the past century.

I think one of the good things, to a large extent, despite all the chaos and mess we are having right now in the Middle East, is that—I don't know what you think based on your interactions—in my interactions, there is certainly now much higher appreciation of the social problems associated with the identity issue and the frame-of-reference issue, much more than it was five years ago, when people assumed it is a very simple, straightforward political process and, finally, we have democracy arriving in the Middle East.

I think now people understand very much, because of the sectarian wars we are seeing, because of the fall of the state order, at least in the Eastern Mediterranean, because of what we have seen in Egypt, a very, very turbulent period for four or five years, that many observers in the West appreciate—maybe are not convinced, but at least appreciate—that you really have social dynamics that are very fraught and complicated and the heritage of very long periods of struggles in that part of the world, and it is impossible for these struggles to sort themselves out very peacefully and very simply in three or five years.

I think getting it not necessarily right, but at least appreciating the complexity of the social dynamics, adds value to the thinking of politicians, whether it is in Washington or London or whatever. I think just getting the idea that it is much more complicated than that makes the decision-making process much more sophisticated. I think that is the gist, at least, of that part of the book.

LISA ANDERSON: Two comments on this, and then it is time to open this to you.

One of the things that I think Tarek does very nicely in this section of the book is talk about the fact that American policymakers are not uncomfortable with religion in politics. It is not unusual here. We just don't think that that is something—you know, we debate it in the country, the extent to which religion and politics should be separated and so forth. But by European standards it doesn't seem that surprising or that daunting.

Many of our policymakers, particularly those who are involved in positions of authority in the foreign policy establishment toward the region in the last, probably, 20 years, actually didn't see Pakistan as a complicated place in that respect or, for that matter, Morsi coming to power in Egypt as a complicated issue. There are other complicated issues, whether these governments would actually be good allies of the United States. But the fact that they had a religious coloration really didn't faze American policymakers very much, whereas that particular fact did faze the Europeans in and of itself. So even if they would be good allies, the fact that they were religious was disconcerting right away.

I think that is a very interesting contrast between Europe and the United States in the way we each approach issues like this.

TAREK OSMAN: It is also very interesting how the Islamists—again, that is a very, very vague term, as I try to explain in the book—were much more comfortable dealing with American policymakers, as opposed to dealing with European policymakers, because they can relate to some extent.

LISA ANDERSON: Which is one of the reasons why the departure of the Morsi government felt like the United States had betrayed the government, which we here didn't even see. The debates about whether Morsi should have been permitted to continue his term, so forth and so on, all of those kinds of debates—some of that was really, where were the Americans? Why weren't the Americans telling the Egyptian military, "You can't do this. This is an elected government. Weren't we working together fine?" Whereas there was no disappointment with the Europeans, because nobody in Egypt expected the Europeans to be sympathetic. But the disappointment with the United States around that was really quite palpable, and I think, for many Americans, they didn't understand that element of things. That element of this, I think, is fascinating.

You also say something that I think is important. It is not just that Americans and Europeans and so forth realize that this is a very complicated area in the last five or six years. Everybody in the region did, too. There was in Egypt this conviction that all Egyptians thought the same thing. One of the things that has happened in the last five years is this astonishment to find out not only do you not think the same thing collectively, you don't even agree with your brother-in-law. It has just been a very interesting and complicated and painful realization to see how varied and diverse this particular country is. And then, of course, the region as a whole turns out to be even more varied and diverse. That has been more of a surprise to everyone, I think.

TAREK OSMAN: It is that because we in the wider Arab world have lacked the openness to bring ideas forward for the past 70 years or so.


TAREK OSMAN: So you don't really know.

One of the good things about the last five or six years is that it is a Pandora's box here, so many evils came out, but also at least we know that all of that exists and we are able to discuss it, sometimes, sadly, in a very violent way, but we are able to see ourselves, I think.

LISA ANDERSON: Right, exactly.


QUESTION: Tyler Beebe. Thank you very much for your very interesting remarks.

Do you foresee in our lifetime the deep animosity between Shiites and Sunnis ever resolving itself in a fashion that would lead to some kind of acceptance on both sides and perhaps a smoother and more prosperous future for all?

TAREK OSMAN: I have two hours, right, for this question? [Laughter]

To make it very short, I am not convinced—and maybe that would not convince you—I'm not convinced that, to use your word, the animosity between Sunnis and Shias is totally genuine. I think you have a lot of political interests and financial interests in the areas that are very much flaring up these days in the Arab world, whether it is in Iraq, whether it is in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen—at least these are the prime ones. Of course, there is a lot of heritage behind that, but there is also a lot of flaring things up.

I think the sectarian dimension is there—hugely problematic, I agree. But it is also a very good tool for geopolitical reasons, whether it is Iran versus Saudi Arabia or other players, but also for some, literally, as sad as it sounds, financial—and there are a number of examples—pure financial reasons.

But to answer the macro question, if you mean there is some sort of a macro reconciliation between the feelings of both sides in our lifetime, I hope, but I would not bet on it.

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Tarek, I want to ask you about something you touch upon in the book. It is not Turkey, it is not Iran, but it is Tunisia. The conversation you were just having with Lisa about the point of view of watching this all happen from America, as opposed to watching it from Europe—I think it is fair to say the most beguiling result of the so-called Arab Spring for us was Tunisia, a country that managed to write a constitution which was not based on Sharia law; a country that has, relatively speaking, women's rights, women's participation; a country also which has a military which is not always ready to step in and change things in its own way.

I think we—by we I mean to say those of us who were wishing to find good things coming out of the Arab Spring, Arabs finding a way to get their needs met, their free speech and free kinds of activity guaranteed—we were really intrigued by Tunisia. It is still functioning and it still seems to be the best experiment going. But it has run into real trouble.

But is Tunisia not the place, following the first question there, where Islamism and modernity might find a way to coexist?

TAREK OSMAN: First of all, thank you, Warren, for highlighting this, for one simple reason: There is a tendency to usually dilute political Islam to the Muslim Brotherhood or, in some cases, to militant Islamism. I agree, by taking a look at what has happened in Tunisia—Morocco, by the way, is another very interesting example; Turkey—you realize that you have many different versions, and some of them are vastly different from each other. So the phenomenon is much bigger than one or two groups.

I agree, Tunisia is in many ways very inspiring in terms of what has happened. But I will draw your attention to two things. One, Tunisia, relative to all other Arab countries, had a real, in my view at least, openness to modernity, to secularization, that was not necessarily top-down, entirely at least. If you compare it to the Kemal Atatürk example and who followed Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, it was very much top-down. Probably anybody who visited Anatolia, the deep heart of Turkey, at any time in the last 20 years would have immediately seen that they are vastly detached from Istanbul and Ankara.

That is not the case in Tunisia. Tunisia, of course, also had some sort of top-down secularization, but for many reasons—some of them have to do with historical and social factors—the take-up, the buy-in, of large segments of Tunisians to the idea of modernity and openness to the world was much higher than in many other parts of the region.

The second point is Tunisia is very small. Tunisia is 10 million people. It has really powerful labor unions. Universities are quite advanced. What I am trying to say is that you do have the pillars that usually build an influential middle class, as opposed to other parts of the Middle East, especially the Arab world, where the middle class in the grand scheme of things is relatively small and weak.

The final point I will say on Tunisia to try to explain, in my view at least, why it is inspiring is that the Islamists in Tunisia, specifically the leadership of Ennahda, in my view—I will put it differently—did not necessarily fall into the same traps, did not necessarily make the same mistakes, that other Islamists in other Arab countries did. Some say actually that Ennahda learned from the mistakes of others, such as in Egypt, for example, and more or less avoided the mistakes of the Islamists in Egypt. So a combination of factors.

But if the bottom line of your question is: Does Tunisia make us able to envisage a better future? I totally agree.

But it is not only Tunisia. I draw attention again to some of the thinking of the young Islamists in other parts of the Middle East, some of the interesting interactions going on in the Gulf even, in some of the most conservative parts of the Arab world. Tunisia is the most prime example, but what I am trying to say is that, despite what I have mentioned before, as over a century of real confrontations and disagreements and what have you, because we have opened a Pandora's box, now we see a lot. Because of the chaos and destruction—the Arab world lost at least 250,000 people in five years. Over 4 million or 5 million people have been displaced in five years. The loss is dramatic. Because of all of that, many people now, especially the younger ones, within the Islamist camps and within the secularist camps, are trying to find a way out of this mess. Tunisia is finding its way, but it is not the only one trying to.

Yes, that makes me much more hopeful than the story in other parts of the region.

LISA ANDERSON: Can I add a very unhopeful element to this, however? I am a big fan of Tunisia. I think there are many reasons why the Tunisians are quite sophisticated about politics. I think the leadership of the Islamist party is a case in point. But Tunisia per capita is the biggest exporter of people to ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the whole region. There is something wrong. Unless the Tunisian government can confront the fact that the hinterlands have been left behind—so you have a young population that feels itself—both in the hinterlands and now in the poor areas of the capital city—that the government is investing in them, you are going to have the same kinds of problems that you have in other places.

I certainly think the Islamists looked at what happened in Algeria in the 1990s and said, "No, we are not going to . . . " The Egyptians didn't look at Algeria because the Egyptians never look anywhere.

TAREK OSMAN: I look at you. [Laughter]

LISA ANDERSON: I'm teasing, of course.

But the point is that Tunisians really saw the catastrophe that Algeria was in the 1990s. The Egyptians weren't paying that much attention to that, it didn't seem to be that relevant and so forth, so the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood party would overreach was a plausible outcome in Egypt. It didn't happen in Tunisia.

So I think there are many things to watch the Tunisians be very sophisticated and nuanced in how they are managing this and so forth. But this is also a regime that is relatively old, and the question of what is going to happen in the next generations in those parties, not to say in the region as a whole, I think is going to be crucial.


QUESTION: James Starkman.

You have pointed out that Islam's attempted reconciliation with modernity has largely failed. Modernity is defined largely, particularly in the last 75 years—more than before that, when you had monarchies, etc.—modernity is largely defined by democracy. Christianity and Judaism have solved this problem by the Reformation and by the division of Judaism into three sections of adherence to conservative law. Is there any such division in Islam, or is adherence to a strict interpretation of the Quran mandatory?

TAREK OSMAN: Let me start by the first point, just to make sure that we are on the same page. I did not mean, and I thought I did not say, that the Islamists' attempt at finding reconciliation with modernity has failed. The Arab world has failed to find that reconciliation, and, I would say, the wider Middle East. The distinction is important, because the major failures actually were not of the Islamists. The Arab liberals were not Islamists at all, and they failed to do that. The Arab nationalists were enemies of the Islamists, and they failed to do that. Some would even say the Islamists did not really have much experiences yet to try to do that. Some, for example, in Turkey are trying now, in Morocco, in Tunisia. So we'll see. But it is a very early example.

So a distinction is that the region, in my view, has failed to find that reconciliation, as opposed to the Islamists per se. In my view, the Islamists, in the small experiences they have had, have failed. But the distinction is important.

On the second part of the question, I have two points I will throw out for discussion if you would like.

The first is that there are so many different interpretations of the Quran. Islam that is practiced in Morocco is vastly different from Islam that is practiced in Saudi Arabia, that is from Egypt, that is from Turkey. I think the important and blunt point is today there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. I don't know the exact number, but probably 50 percent of them, at least, are 40 and younger, including probably the largest group of teens in the history of Islam ever. That group—we are talking at least 200 million, 300 million—has by far—and if you add the ones who are my age, then they probably come to 600 million, 700 million—they have an exposure to the world that is unprecedented in the history of Islam. No generation before had that exposure. And, again, they have inherited so many different ideas. Some of them are ones that, of course, they are having major issues with now.

The big question mark, in my view, is—which is very related to the reconciliation we are talking about—are we going to see different repetitions of what we have seen in the late 19th century, early 20th century? Some of them will be very inspiring but marginalized. Some of them will be interesting but failing.

Or are we going to see young Muslims today who really tackle the basic questions of legitimacy, of legislation, of the nature of religion itself, of how to effect that reconciliation? Are we going to see some sort of new forms of Islam as a frame for society very different from what we have seen in the last 100 years? I hope so. If we are repeating the same politically correct or inspiring, but speaking to the West as opposed to speaking to the vast majority of people back homeand, and, andthen we are shooting ourselves in the foot and, I agree with you, the reconciliation will not happen most likely, at least in our lifetime.

If within this huge cohort of young Muslims you have—and I think you will, because again, if you look at literature, if you look at art, you will find very entrepreneurial ideas right now, and very courageous ideas right now, not from political economists, and not from politicians certainly, but especially from artists and, interestingly, from some theologians, who are starting to put forward ideas that at least I have not seen put forward in the last 50 or 60 years, based on my readings. If you argue, hopefully, that you have this generation, some of those generations, because of their exposure and ability to reach the masses because of technology, putting forward these new ideas that really go to the core, then you might find something very interesting emerging.

That is a big story. The last part of the book is exactly about that, about let's widen the story, where the place of religion is, or what will be the place of religion in society, given the demographic dimension today in the wider Middle East.

LISA ANDERSON: I have to say, I wonder sometimes about myself whether where I sit is where I stand. But I have a lot of confidence in young people. I think the young people in this region are really much more inventive and thoughtful about these kinds of issues than you might expect. It is not going to show for a little while. There is enormous energy in the arts. There is enormous energy in entrepreneurialism. There are all sorts of interesting things going on among people who are younger than 35. I think that is going to begin to appear.

It is one of the reasons why, on the one hand, I worry about Tunisia, because that isn't visible on the surface yet of the political scene. But I think once that generation begins to come into positions of authority, we are going to see a very, very different landscape.

TAREK OSMAN: Can I add one point? This is something that is relevant to what Lisa mentioned and relevant to the point we highlighted before.

In the last at least half-century, and probably 60 years or more, the major centers of thinking in the Arab world, as well as in Iran and Turkey, were very much under state control, irrespective of the regimes, but under state control. One of the good things, in my view, that has happened, actually even before 2011, before the wave of uprisings, in the last 10 years, predominantly because of technology/demographics, is that you do not have now in the wider Middle East dominant institutions of thinking. We do not have Harvard or Yale or New York University. We have the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut, of course. But to be honest, higher education in the Middle East is not particularly great, and state-sponsored cultural production is far from great, to put it politely.

What is happening now, in the past five or ten years, in the art, in literature, in theater, in music, in theology, certainly in political analysis, you have young voices—sadly, most of them do not speak English and, therefore, you do not see them, more or less, in the international arena. But because they are not under state control and they have now platforms, very entrepreneurial platforms, they are coming up with new ideas.

It is interesting to think that a region of such a huge demographic size has not really produced any real thinking in the last half century, especially for itself. But one of the good things that is happening, I think, now for the past five or ten years is that it is starting to produce that thinking. And yes, some of that thinking is very dangerous and very violent. But some of that thinking is extremely encouraging and promising and interesting and rebellious about its own heritage, and that is touching on religion.

LISA ANDERSON: The highest per capita number of bloggers in the world is in Egypt.

TAREK OSMAN: I didn't know that. Interesting.

QUESTION: I'm Helena Finn, from the American Council on Germany, former U.S. diplomat—among others, Turkey and Pakistan, two tours in each.

My question really is about Europe and it is about Germany. With the rise of this new party, the right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland, we have seen it grow in popularity at the same time that the chancellor has welcomed in over 1 million refugees and asylum seekers. Their leadership is now making statements about no-distinction Islamism—these are statements about Islam, the religion, to the effect that because Islam, in their definition, identifies itself always with a state—they are not talking about Sharia; they are talking about a state—it is incompatible; Muslims living in Germany, including this huge Turkish population in Germany, people of Turkish origin—Muslims in Germany cannot possibly reconcile their religion with the basic law or the constitution of the country.

What I am asking is, what is the answer to that? Politicians on the other side have tried to respond to that. But what would you say is the best answer to that?

TAREK OSMAN: I intentionally in this book try to avoid going into that because (a) I'm not qualified on it; but (b), I think it is a different issue entirely, which is the state of Muslim communities in Europe, and specifically in the three big ones, in Germany, France/Belgium, and the United Kingdom. I do not cover that in the book.

But I guess the important point for me is—this is probably very politically incorrect, but I will say it—the future of how 2 million or 3 million people of Muslim origin in Germany relate to modern Germany, which has its very specific dynamics economically and related to the European project and what have you—and in Germany a new generation that is more or less finally emerging from the experience of the Second World War, so Germans of a new German identity—how these dynamics evolve I think is a very unique story, probably an extremely interesting story, to Europe. I follow it with fascination. But I think it will have very limited bearing on the story of Islamism in the real heart of the Islamic world.

What I'm trying to say is, if the question that many people in Germany have is about how the 2 million, 3 million Muslims we have would interact with us in this very specific set of circumstances, I don't know the answer. But if the question is, is Islam in general able to exist in a modern state that has a very secular constitution, the answer is very simple: That has been the case in a number of cases in Egypt, for example, since the 1923 constitution.

The big question mark in my mind is not really, is Islam able to exist in that? Of course it is able to exist in that. If you have a state that is able to define Islam in a certain way so that it fits within a very nice constitution, such as the 1923 Egyptian constitution or the 1861 Tunisian constitution, then absolutely, it is a beautiful document. And by the way, it operates. Why? Because the Islamic institutions are part of the state, and because the vast majority of people, the Muslims in the society, are peaceful, lovely, nice people who just want to live.

The big question mark again relates to the question of the society. Are you able to envisage in the current circumstances, with the demographic waves in the Islamic world, with the sets of modernity that is happening in the Arab world and Middle East, that exceeds democracy—that has to do with so many things, at least in our part of the world—are you able to find new ideas that do not just limit the interpretation of Islam to very old ways of looking at it as a frame of reference, as legislation? Or are you able to come up with new answers that the majority of the people—not everybody, but the majority of the people—will accept and say, "Yes, that relates to me"? Or will you continue to bury your head in the sand or impose a top-down model on some people that will work for 40 or 50 years and then will be rejected, as we have seen in different parts of the Middle East?

If it is A or B, then the future is bleak. If it is the scenario whereby new ideas will emerge, especially from this huge demographic, as I think and not just hope, then of course there will be a place for it. The question will be, what type of Islam will that be? What will be its tenets? How will it relate to legislation, to identity, to the society? I think these are the really interesting questions that we will have to come up with answers to.

JOANNE MYERS: Once again I want to thank you both for just a fascinating discussion.

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