Recently, Providence Editor Robert Nicholson sat down with Dr. H.A. Hellyer to discuss Islam, politics, and America’s engagement in the Middle East. A scholar and author focused on international relations and religious studies in the West and the Arab world, Dr. Hellyer is a nonresident senior fellow at the RH Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and senior associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Following the 2005 London bombings, he was appointed as deputy convenor of the UK government’s taskforce on tackling radicalization and served as the first Economic and Social Research Council fellow to be seconded to the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office as part of the “Islam” & “Counter-Terrorism” teams.

RN How would you describe the current political moment in the Middle East right now? What are some of the deep trends that are generating conflict and what are some of the potential bright spots for a more stable regional order?

DAH It is a little difficult to characterize the entirety of the region in this fashion. The “Middle East” isn’t exactly the smallest of geographical spaces—it’s not even a term I generally use myself. I prefer “Arab world and wider region” or “West Asia & North Africa” (WANA) for the wider region (which would encompass Iran, and possibly Turkey, though I would classify Turkey within Europe as well).

We have a number of different trends that characterize WANA. The most troubling of them is the urge toward authoritarianism as a way to, it is claimed, stave off instability. I say “it is claimed” because I think that on the contrary, authoritarian and autocratic rule is not the way in which a lasting and comprehensive stability in this region can be deepened and protected.

Such authoritarianism might have worked temporarily in other countries in the past—and that’s very much in contention—but I do not think it works in this region at this moment in history. The demographics of the region are vigorously against its success—the average age in a country like Egypt, for example, is 24 and dropping. Many countries in the region are feeling the pinch that comes from inheriting colonial and post-colonial state structures that are like straitjackets, almost bursting at the seams to keep up. Authoritarianism is meant to hold those straitjackets together. These states need to realize those straitjackets can’t be held together—and it is a choice between slow degradation, fast degradation, or creating a new social compact. I would urge the latter. This will all differ according to country, which is why I generally urge a country-specific analysis, rather than trying to flatten all differences. We wouldn’t analyze Europe like this, after all.

The most positive of these trends is that despite the challenges, I see an immense amount of creativity from the young—who are the vast majority of WANA populations. They need to be empowered and given avenues for expression and growth—not repression and oppression.

RN– Americans who want a more stable Middle East are torn. On one hand, they want to promote liberal values and human rights; on the other hand, they know that the Middle East is not the West and that by promoting Western values they could actually make things worse. Some scholars and policymakers believe that we should be more deferential to Middle Easterners and respect whatever kinds of societies they choose to create. What do you think about this argument? Should the West exercise “cultural deference” toward Middle Eastern regimes and societies, or should we continue to promote liberal democratic values in the region?

DAH I frankly find this to be a totally false choice. This isn’t the choice in the slightest—but it is a useful rhetorical tool for a significant critical mass in policy communities in the US and elsewhere. Support for “cultural deference” is oft-used as a method to support authoritarianism and autocracy in “friendly” states—which we in the West then do a lot of business with. And “promotion of liberal democratic values” is, conversely, used to support some kind of twenty-first-century neo-imperialist attitude, which, when taken to the extreme, justifies adventures like the Iraq War of 2003. A war, I might add, which was supported by huge amounts of America’s intelligentsia; and to this day, many of those same figures continue to be feted as “experts” and “insightful.”

As a Brit, I am keen that my country is aware of its colonial past, and the effects of that heritage—not hiding it, nor revising it—but admitting it in the bright light of day. Americans, as well, need to be a little humbler in this regard.

Here is the reality of what the United States in particular and the West more generally ought to recognize when it comes to engagement with the WANA region.

Firstly, that the heavy lifting, at least vis-à-vis what policymakers need to concern themselves in theory, has already been done. When we look for a common set of values by which to judge one another, we’ve already got one. There are scores of international treaties that relate to fundamental rights, political rights, and so forth which these states have already signed up to. So, a set of principles by which we can honestly and equitably work together already exists. Those principles aren’t those of “Western liberal democracy” (and I say this as an English political theorist that draws on a Rawlsian liberal tradition); rather, these are principles drawn on the basis of international treaties which we all have signed. So, when we critique each other or we urge each other to adhere to certain standards, we can do so in support of international norms on which there is broad agreement.

The corollary to that argument, however, is the interpretation of those international norms have their own cultural hues. I think we have to be comfortable in accepting that. Europe has kingdoms that are at the same time democratic, while it also has republics that have no established church or monarchy. We have members of Parliament in the UK who reject same-sex marriage and are socially conservative, while we have others who hold a different view. The range of differences across Europe is quite vast—so why do we find it so difficult to recognize that we have a similar set of differences to deal with in WANA? While it can be difficult at times—but, by and large, I think we find that if we maintain a commitment to respect for other cultures and simultaneously respect for the fundamental rights that we have all signed up to, we’ll be fine.

Let’s also be prepared, however, to face accusations in the other direction, because the United States isn’t exactly in the most morally upright position in this regard. DC has supported the occupation and siege of the Palestinians, in clear violation of international law; it has established close relationships, without much criticism, of some of the clearest autocracies in the region; and so on. Let’s not imagine that the US in particular, and the West in general, is somehow perfect—let’s try to imagine, instead, that we ought to be more honest and consistent about our critiques. I’m not interested in a new discourse where we become more critical about regimes in the region without being transparent about the Faustian pact we’ve often made with those regimes in the region, going back decades, without any concern for ethics or noble principles, other than the bottom (dollar) line.

RN When it comes to authoritarian regimes, what are the best bases on which the United States and other Western powers should seek to hold Middle Eastern regimes accountable?

DAHSo, the question is whether or not we’re looking for a furthering of Pax Americana, or if we’re looking for the establishment of a proper world order based on respect of common principles of law. And again, the United States is hardly in the best position: the most significant international tool, the International Court of Justice, is one that the US rejects—along with very few others. Nevertheless, treaties are treaties, and there are many treaties that provide the basis of a good and solid critique of authoritarian states. But we have to be consistent on this. Instead, what we often find is that some authoritarians are bad—if they are our enemies—and other authoritarians are good—if they are our friends.

RN How does political Islam inform the ongoing political turmoil in the region? How should we in the West deal with it? Are there Islamic political arrangements that we should be prepared to accept or does political Islam present a threat by definition?

DAHI’m a little dubious about the framing of this. Firstly, we need to be more specific about what we mean by “political Islam”—a phrase I really do not like very much. “Political Islam,” as a phrase, implies a politicization of what we consider to be normative Islam. Yet, most “Islamisms” are precisely not normative in the first place. In the case of Muslim Brotherhood, the intellectual underpinning, historically, is a type of modernist Salafism (à la Abduh et al)—and the MB is basically the mothership of modern Islamism. None of this is normative.

At the same time, we also see that many states in the Arab world and the wider region that rely on a normative theological understanding of Islam are *also* weaponizing that understanding for power-relevant politics and interests. See Turkey, Jordan, or the United Arab Emirates, for example—their politics are very different, but they rely on very similar theological histories (which is mainstream Sunni Islam). Is this not another type of “political Islam”?

Both these points—the issue of how normative or mainstream most “Islamisms” actually are, and how we conceptualize the “political Islam” of other states or movements—need to be addressed.

Now, in terms of how “the West” should “deal with it”—the reality is this: Most countries in the Arab world and the wider region have majorities of Sunni Muslims who are socially conservative—even if that does not mean (and it does not mean) that they are broadly supportive of MB-Islamism or purist Salafi-Islamism. It is really quite unlikely that any genuinely free part of the Arab world is going to ditch religion in terms of politics—so some kind of religiously inspired or religiously related political arena is inevitable. Unless we’re keen on some kind of “Ataturkian” or French laïcité style project—which, frankly, I find rather dubious to assume.

Again, the main point here is standards and common principles. We’ve all signed up to the vast majority of these international treaties that underpin the idea of international law. Let’s ensure that in our dealings with each other—whether Muslim majority countries or otherwise—we uphold that. But then, we also have to uphold them ourselves—and not pretend that we already do.

As to the question of threat—many are fearful about certain types of Islamism. And the reality is that most Islamists are neither al-Qaeda nor are they mostly the Muslim version of the Christian Democrats of Germany. There is a broad range, and that diversity should be acknowledged. And when we recognize it, we also do not let anyone get off the hook. Arab nationalists of the Nasserite version believe in breaking down certain nation-state structures—I’m not going to accuse them of being “un-Egyptian” or “un-Syrian” because of that theoretical commitment to a supra-national order. And while I may not be sympathetic, I’m not going to accuse different Islamists who also believe in another supra-nationalism of being a threat to the modern nation-state and being “un-Egyptian” or “un-Syrian” when they express the same sort of sentiments as ultra-leftists.

Rather, I think we ought to be clear about these contemporary commitments to international treaties—for all types of movements in the Arab world and beyond. Be they pro-Islamist, anti-Islamist, pro-authoritarian, etcetera. And, again, we should be clear about our own commitments to that kind of order too.

RNTo what extent can specifically Christian engagement with the Middle East be a good or bad thing? What could be done in the realm of Christian-Muslim relations that could help ease the political tensions between the Middle East and the West? 

DAHSupra-national religious solidarity sentiments are natural enough, and I am not sure we should find it unusual that Muslims in Europe feel an affinity with Muslims in Africa or Christians in America feel an affinity with Christians in the Arab world. But—and here is the big but—I am deeply concerned that, thus far, “specifically Christian engagement” with the region has been predicated on demeaning the worth and lives of the non-Christian majority. I’ve seen Western Christian figures make the most outrageous defenses of authoritarianism in the Arab world, purely on the tribalistic basis of defending what they consider to be “Christian rights.”

It’s frankly appalling—they would never make these arguments if these populations were Christian, but as they are not, then the autocrat or dictator can be excused, so as long as he claims to protect Christians. If that’s the nature of Christian engagement with the region, then it should exit immediately. Christian rights in this region will and should be defended on the basis of all fundamental freedoms and rights being upheld—for Christians, for Muslims, and for everyone else.

You cannot segment these populations like that—it is impossible to really have, simply practically, a situation where minority Christian populations are protected, while others are not. If it is to be genuine, then all populations should enjoy fundamental freedoms and fundamental rights—that is what will lead to a comprehensive security arrangement for all. If Western Christian religious leaders are keen to be involved, then that is their entry point. There is no other.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer is a scholar and author focused on international relations and religious studies in the West and the Arab world, and a senior associate fellow in international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London and at the RH Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. He is also senior fellow in Islamic studies at Cambridge Muslim College and an adjunct full professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation in Malaysia. Following the 2005 London bombings, he was appointed as deputy convenor of the UK government’s taskforce on tackling radicalization and served as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s first Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) fellow as part of the “Islam” & “Counter-Terrorism” teams. A public intellectual in and on both the West and the Arab world, Dr. Hellyer’s insights on current events are regularly sought by the international media networks such as CNN and the BBC.

Dr. Hellyer was previously a nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution and a research associate at Harvard University. He is currently on the steering committee for a multi-year EU-funded project on “Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion,” which brings together European, North African, and Asian perspectives with a consortium of a dozen or so universities and research institutions.

Dr. Hellyer held degrees in law and international political economy before completing a multidisciplinary PhD in international studies and religious studies at the University of Warwick as an ESRC scholar and researched Islamic thought in the UK, Egypt, Malaysia, and South Africa.