Global Review had the honor of interviewing Thomas von der Osten-Sacken about the history and developments in the Greater Middle East. Thomas von der Osten-Sacken (born August 6, 1968 in Göttingen) is a German journalist and freelance publicist who has focused on the Middle East since the early 1990s. He studied at the Wolfgang von Goethe University in Frankfurt and worked for a year as a visiting scholar in Jerusalem. Von der Osten-Sacken has been author for the journal Konkret for many years, where from 1999 to 2004 he published texts on the subjects of Israel, Palestine and the Middle East. Since then he has reported for the weekly newspaper Jungle World and for Die Welt on recent political developments in North Africa and the Middle East. He has been running the Hurriya Blog on Jungle World since 2011 and is co-editor of several books on the Middle East. Osten-Sacken is the managing director of the aid organization Wadi e. V., Association for Crisis Aid and Solidarity Development Cooperation, which is active in the Middle East and especially Iraq and based in Frankfurt am Main.
Global Review: Mr. von der Osten-Sacken, how do you remember the attack of 9 11 and were you surprised that Islamists attacked the USA in the center of their world symbol, the World Trade Center? Did you believe in MIHOP or LIHOP, which triggered and legitimized the invasions of the USA based on Cheyney’s energy ellipse study and Netanyahue’s Blue Plan for the reorganization of the Greater Middle East? What do you think about these theories?
Thomas von Osten-Sacken: On September 11th, 2001 I was in Suleymaniah in Iraqi Kurdistan and was playing backgammon with a friend in his garden when the first pictures came on television. The next day I had to drive to Jordan via Syria. Back then, those were pretty arduous trips and of course everyone was completely speechless. It was only in Jordan that I was able to get some information again. Well at that time I said to Iraqi Kurdish friends: „This is the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein.“ They often reminded me of this saying. At that time Kurdistan was already outside the control of the Iraqi regime, under indirect protection of the USA and the people here were always quite pro-American. A few days later, the land border was closed, I flew from Amman to Israel and there I witnessed how 9/11 was received.
Of course, I was shocked by the dimensions of this terrorist attack, until then one could not have imagined that Al Qaeda would be able to plan and carry out something of this magnitude. That I directed the terror against New York and among other things the World Trade Center, however, surprised me less, since there have been attempts to blow it up before. New York as a symbol of a “Judaized” global capitalist system, the “belly of the beast” has always kindled hatred. Hitler’s tirades against this city hardly differ from statements made by Al Qaeda. Precisely because it hit these symbols, there was a terrifying wave of sympathy for this terrorist attack worldwide, which is now easily forgotten. This ranged from certain left-wing circles in the West to fascists and neo-Nazis and far into the Islamic world, where at that time, for example, these Osama figures made of rubber could be bought. All this conspiracy rumor is part of such reactions. No matter whether it was then said in left-wing newspapers, yes that is bad, but after all, children in the Third World starve to death every day or all these theories that this is an insider job or initiated by the Israelis. What is to be made of it? Well, 9/11 brought to light the fault lines between people who, for whatever reason, reacted from glee to sympathy with the perpetrators and those who were horrified and shocked and often understood for the first time ever the dimensions of the Islamist terror. So far, as usual, it had was somewhere far away.
Global Review: Islamism has made itself felt since 1979 at the latest as a result of the Iranian revolution by the fundamentalist Khomeini Shiites in Iran and the almost simultaneous occupation of the mosque in Mecca. What significance do you attach to 1979 and what was the prehistory that allowed such revolutions to be brewed?
Thomas von Osten-Sacken: I think 1979 was a turning point, even more so than in 1989 with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Almost all lines of conflict in the Middle East, which in recent decades the region was enormously important geopolitically, and thus global ones, go back to 1979. Let’s start with an event that you don’t even mention: In December 1979, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in support of the regime there. This resulted in an enormously bloody war in which the USA and NATO supported and armed various Afghan mujahideen fighters via Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Afghanistan soon turned into a jihad against Soviet communism, attracting fighters from all sorts of Islamic countries. Al Qaeda later emerged in this context, and these Afghans, as they were soon to be called in the Arab world, formed the core of jihadist organizations in innumerable later conflicts. At the same time, as extreme anti-communists the perceived themselves, they were allies of the West and were supported as such. The fact that they had just as little with any liberal ideas played just as little a role as did Pinochet at the time, the contras in Nicaragua or other very bad groups and were somehow allies. Yes, conservatives in the West even emphasized the similarities, values such as family, home, belief that one shares. That too is almost forgotten today, people are constantly talking and writing about the Left and Islam, just as if there had never been such massive support from the US Republicans and CDU for these fighters in Afghanistan, for example. So that was an important event in 1979, at the same time the Sandinista took power in Nicaragua and thus fed the western paranoia of a global advance of the communists at a time when the Anglo-American world was economically and otherwise not particularly in a good shape .
Until then, in the logic of the bloc conflict, Islamists did not pose any real threat to the West (Israel is an exception, but it also has a history of its own). On the contrary, Islamists were viewed more as allies, partly due to the close alliance with Saudi Arabia. And these Islamists were themselves declared anti-communists and were often in open opposition to the regimes in the region like Egypt under Nasser, which leaned on the Soviet Union. In short: Political Islam did not appear to be a great danger until 1979, when the revolution took place in Iran, which more or less completely surprised everyone in the West and a pillar of western geopolitics in the region, the regime of the Shah of Persia, was overthrown in an astonishingly short time.
With the Islamic Republic, a completely different Islamism entered the stage of world politics, one with countless references to anti-imperialist, cultural-revolutionary third-world movements, some of which had previously been enriched with ideological pieces from the New Left. This is what the person of Ali Shariati stands for, who, influenced by the French left, tried to combine Islam and some form of socialism. An Islamic revolution did indeed take place in Iran, whereas Islam was previously associated with some reactionary sheikhs in the Gulf. And this revolution, which was mainly carried out by an educated, young urban class, shook conditions not only in the Middle East, but globally and made them dance to Marx’s effort. Because this revolution was directed against the West and the East, even if many in Iran had initially hoped otherwise: Khomenei was also an anti-communist washed up in the wool, which Iranian communists, who helped bring him to power, soon suffered even in front of execution squads and in torture cellars.
The Iranian revolution no longer fit into the logic of the block conflict;in other words: it anticipated its end,. Millions upon millions with the encrusted conditions of dissatisfied people in the entire region followed with shining eyes what was happening in Iran. Sure, the Islamic revolution can only be understood against the background of the very specific Shiite history of Iran, which in many ways differs fundamentally from that of Sunni-influenced countries, but despite everything: there it was after centuries of humiliation by colonialism and the West, After all the lost wars against Israel – so the perception – succeeded in overthrowing a hatred pro-Western regime in the name of Islam and in making a very genuine revolution! This triggered an earthquake, the consequences of which the “old” regimes in the Middle East naturally had to fear first and foremost.
For example that in Saudi Arabia,e.g.. the ruling Saud family with their close ties to the USA and their traditional bigotry. Just think of the princes on the French Mediterranean coast, indulging in luxury, whose extravagantly decadent lifestyle had and has little to do with the values preached at home. However, until 1979, Saudi Arabia was by no means the prudish, religious society that it later developed into. In 1979 a group of particularly devout Wahabites occupied the Kaaba in Mecca, and the House of Saud has seldom faced such an existential crisis. These radical Wahabites were very popular in some regions of the country and the regime only managed to recapture the Kaaba with force and with the help of French gendarmes. You have to imagine: This is occupied by devout Muslims, whose leaders saw themselves as the Messiah (Mahdi) the holiest place of Islam and the house of Saud, the guardian of the holy places calls unbelievers to help! Is it going to get worse? And all of this in the year in which an Islamic revolution was successful in the neighboring country? At the end of the year, the House of Saud and neighboring states found themselves in a comprehensive crisis of meaning and legitimation. But we know the answer: Among other things, it was Islamization internally and externally. Since then, only billions have flowed from Saudi Arabia into global jihad, and internally the country has been transformed into this strictly puritanical-religious state, which has only been undergoing careful reforms for a few years. The first place to show how serious you were with Islam was of course the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
1979 was also the year in which Saddam Hussein became the most powerful man in Iraq and a year later the war against Iran was to begin, the consequences of which can still be felt today. Unfortunately, the effects of the events of this one year are far too little known, and there is hardly any literature that deals with this historic turning point. Almost all of the conflicts, problems and fault lines that concern you every day in the region go back to this year, regardless of whether it is Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Islamic State in Iraq, the wars in Yemen or the Taliban in Afghanistan, to name just a few. Without 1979, none of them would exist. And yes for modern Islamism, regardless of whether it is Shiite as in Iran or Sunni as with the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, Al Qaeda or IS, 1979 is a very central year.
Global Review: Many people say that Islamism was a reaction to the advance of secularism in the Muslim world. There was also a backlash against pan-Arabism, which pushed back the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and other parties and organizations and created a relatively free society compared to previous regimes. Was pan-Arabism, which was fought by the West, especially with the help of the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, the alternative to Islamism?
Thomas von Osten-Sacken: First, I am extremely careful with the term secularism. This is one of the many concepts that only really make sense with regard to European history, more precisely the history of the Latin-Christian West, and which explain little in the Islamic context. More precisely: Actually, this is a Protestant concept, while laicism is more the correct word in Catholic countries. First of all, there needs to be a clear separation between state and church,e.g.. a church that is really an institution. Such a thing does not exist in Islam, even where there is a more independent clergy like in the Shia, one cannot speak of something that resembles the church. There is also no tradition that separates secular and religious worlds. Only when one speaks of secularization, i.e. the nationalization of religious institutions, there are parallels, such as the takeover of the Al Azhar mosque by the Egyptian government in the 19th century or the establishment of the Diyanet in Kemalist Turkey. In order to really grasp this development, one would have to find new terms. For example, I find the “civil state” that emerged in Egypt after 2011 very helpful, a state that is neither controlled by the military nor based on Sharia law . Because the latter is the real problem here, i.e. the question: Who makes the laws, people or God? Islamism, as it emerged in the 1920s with the Muslim Brotherhood or in the Indian subcontinent, was a reaction to modernity, as it is increasingly gaining ground in this region, yes. But he was also a reaction to the end of the caliphate, which Ataturk swept away in Turkey with one blow. And it was always about the question: Why are we so inferior to the West in the Islamic world, why are we lagging so behind when we were so far ahead of Europe during the heyday of Islam? Why is that? And then this idea always comes up that you have to go back to the origins in a past that is imagined as golden era. Just like Italian fascism, for example, Islamism was and is, on the one hand, very much a child of modernity and yet completely backward-looking.
In this respect, Islamism is similar to the Panarbism or Arab socialism you mentioned, which developed at the same time and which I actually consider to be a twin brother. The Pan-Arabists only asked themselves: Why were we Arabs once so successful and are no longer so successful today? If Islamists dreamed of a great ummah, Pan-Arabists wanted to bring the old Arab empire back to life. In doing so, they borrowed ideas from Germany and the entire national movement: They wanted to create an Arab people, so to speak, and to rid them of all „impurities“, such as Persian and Turkish influences and of course Western colonialism. Even if Pan-Arabism was based on the glorious Arab tradition, which is an Islamic one, from the beginning, it also included Christians as long as they define themselves as Arabs, which they never did before. It is often pretended that Panarbism and Islamism are about real opposites, but that was never the case. Jamal Abdul Nasser, for example, was close to the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth. Both movements shared a lot: their rejection of the West, both are structurally anti-Semitic and totalitarian. And they both recruited their supporters from the new urban middle classes, especially the military, and stood in opposition to the old ruling elites, who usually cooperated with the colonial powers. And these new layers admired the Italian fascists and National Socialists in the 1930s and hoped for support from them against the British, French and of course the Jews in Palestine. Wherever they came to power, whether as Ba’ath parties in Syria and Iraq or with the army in Egypt, they set up dictatorships that initiated certain modernizations, also in line with the zeitgeist of the time, and above all disempowered the old elites, But nowhere did they create, as it is so often said, secular states. On the contrary, Sharia continued to apply in matrimonial law and civil law.
One had the same enemies and it was often difficult to distinguish the hateful tirades of the Pan-Arabs from those of the Islamists. Sure, when the Muslim Brotherhood questioned Pan-Arab rule, like in Egypt or Syria in the 1980s, they were brutally persecuted – just as any opposition was brutally persecuted. As long as they did not do this, they were allowed to do their thing, so that they could expand their entire social network in Egypt and both Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein could become safe places for just about any terrorist organization. We have seen how quickly ideological cloaks can be exchanged after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, whose rule was based primarily on the Sunni minority in Iraq, who also had the most to lose with his end. Many ex-members of the Ba’ath Party then first joined Al Qaeda and then helped found the Islamic State.
No, Pan-Arabism is not an alternative to Islamism, but like this expression of a terribly destructive development in the region. The alternative to both was always either something like a bourgeois nation-state or, until 1989, the programs of left or communist parties. Both liberals and communists were then usually also the declared enemies of both the Pan-Arabs and Islamists – unless they submitted to the ruling regime, as in Syria as a kind of block party.
Global Review: Some people say one should support Pan-Arabists and secular dictators like Assad, Hussein, Al-Sissi against the Islamists and an Islamist dictatorship, as there is no democratic alternative in these countries and the so-called Twitterevolutionaries were too chaotic, undisciplined and inexperienced were in order to represent a power-political-democratic alternative at all. Shouldn’t it be better to rely on secular despots to prevent the Islamists from seizing power?
Thomas von Osten-Sacken: Quite apart from the fact that I am not a politician and fortunately I do not have to make such decisions and never wanted to make them, i.e. to support any torturer as a supposedly „lesser evil“, I hardly believe that this policy will ever be anything but more of a disaster which was produced before. Who wasn’t all the „lesser evil“? Sometimes Saddam Hussein against Iran, sometimes the Taliban against IS, then Assad against Al Qaida, Hamas against Fatah and / or vice versa in the 1980s. And what alone is the question about Assad supposed to be? Who is his biggest supporter in the Middle East? The Islamic Republic of Iran and with it Hezbollah! Aren’t they Islamists? Or are they better Islamists than any Syrian jihadists? Assad is completely dependent on Iran and Shiite militiamen can do whatever they want in the country. The scenario became even more absurd after 2014, when the US and other Western states de facto fought side by side with Iran against the Islamic State. But all cutthroats in the region also know that they only have to warn of an Islamist threat at any time in order to be considered a minor evil.
In part, this went as far as in Yemen, where the then President Saleh de facto encouraged Al Qaeda to take over parts of the country and then warned of an impending Islamist danger, when in reality it was about getting in the saddle in the face of mass protests . No, this policy is not only cynical but also stupid and reproduces the same mistakes over and over with the same results. This includes the talk that there is no democratic alternative. Well, certainly after decades of persecution and repression, there are no such parties anywhere in the Middle East, that is correct. And the millions who took to the streets against their regimes were not organized. That is also correct. But that does not mean that there were and are no possible alternatives. In addition, the equation is actually a very simple one: all the regimes and systems in the region are completely bankrupt, in every way.
Just look at Lebanon right now. With these political personnel there simply cannot be a future, except one with even more disintegration, war, misery and a lack of prospects. No matter how many geostrategists are going to support whom against whom, the simple truth is: They are all, as an Iraqi friend recently called it, “system failure”.
In addition, if one wanted to support governments at the moment, which in turn support military coups or coups directed against the Muslim Brotherhood, one would have to support Saudi Arabia or the Emirates, because whether in Egypt or later in Tunisia and Sudan, it is they who are currently the biggest sponsors of the “strong man” politics in the region. This is part of a regional rivalry that has been underestimated again and again: Turkey and Qatar are more on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia fears, which is why it used to support Salafists and now it supports the military. But is Saudi Arabia now a state that offers itself as an ally?
Global Review: To what extent was the Syrian war not the product of a simple geopolitical consideration. They wanted to overthrow Assad in order to lay a pipeline from Qatar to Lebanon and thereby undermine the Iranian crescent. The Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP) also invited to a conference in Berlin, where the exile opposition of Syria including the Islamist Muslim brothers, were invited to adopt a new post-Assad Syria order, which was then published in a new constitutional order called “The Day after . To what extent is the Syrian war, like the other Middle East conflicts, not initiated by igniting western or eastern powers?
Thomas von der Ostner-Sacken: Haha. Pipelines. No sorry. And who are you? Now Germany wanted to associate Assad with the EU, the US used Syrian prisons to get rid of jihadists that were unwelcome there. Nobody wanted to get rid of Assad in 2011, on the contrary, nobody in the West really liked that people in Syria also took to the streets. How cautiously politicians reacted to this. Then a dynamic arose that no one could stop. The SWP also stuck to the concept that the young Assad was actually a reformer and that the Syrian opposition did not receive any real support. When, in 2013, despite massive Iranian intervention, it looked like Assad’s days were really numbered, a few conferences were staged and this “Friends of Syria” story was staged, while before, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were supporting the Islamization of the opposition. And then it is more the case that Assad very skillfully drew Iran and Russia into this war, while on the other hand Turkey, Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists respectively. The mass protests actually turned into an internationalized war, in which innumerable nations were involved in the end, but I don’t see that the occasion was any geostrategic or economic calculations. It all finally happened in 2011 when the entire region was in turmoil.
And to this day, I think, in Germany, people have hardly understood what these protests were actually about and why they continue to this day despite so many backlashes. Earthquakes and faults are taking place throughout the region that cannot really be controlled by anyone, at best or at worst somehow frozen or turned into civil war. That is why all these geostratical questions only arise to a limited extent, after all the chairs of the rulers are shaking everywhere, who, in view of the growing dissatisfaction of an average very young population, to whom they have nothing to offer, can think of nothing more than to become even more repressive. All of this takes place at a time when the Middle East is becoming immensely less important globally. The USA is withdrawing, the EU is insignificant and safe in terms of foreign policy anyway, Russia fills a vacuum there. Europeans now regard the region mainly as the main region of origin and transit for refugees, who must be prevented by all means from coming to Europe. But even with Russia the question arises: What does Moscow actually want to do in the long term with a completely destroyed country like Syria and how does it ever want to get out of there? On the other hand, the real question, however tenacious these regimes may be, how long will they last? Who will fall first? How long will Erdogan hold up in the face of an ever-worsening economic situation in Turkey and how long will the mullahs in Tehran, where it has long been clear that the overwhelming majority of the local population really just wants to get rid of them? And what happens then, or could it even be, that Lebanon is anticipating a development that has de facto collapsed, where nothing works anymore, not even the electricity and yet somehow nothing happens because the people are now so frustrated and are resigned that they don’t even take to the streets anymore. They did that two years ago, en masse, only after that nothing happened, the completely saluted ruling class simply kept enriching itself until the country finally slipped into bankruptcy. Something like this would meanwhile also be conceivable for other countries.