| INTERVIEW WITH AFTAB KAMAL PASHA, INDIA'S PREEMINENT SPECIALIST ON THE MIDDLE EAST AND TURKEY
In parallel with the growing economic potential of India, her power in the international politics is also increasing. During our visit to Sochi, Russia, for the Valdai Forum, we had the opportunity to make an interview with Aftab Kamal Pasha, India's Preeminent Specialist on the Middle East and Turkey. Among Pasha's many books is Turkey-India relations. During the interview we made with Pasha, who is the Director of the Centre for West Asian Studies in India, we talked about the Arab Revolutions, the Indian outlook on Arab Revolutions, the Syria Issue, and lastly about the Turkey-India relations.
Interview: Hasan Kanbolat, Oytun Orhan
ORSAM: How do you define the latest developments in the Middle East? Some call it a revolutions, and some call it as uprisings. What is your opinion?
PASHA: The area, which constitutes Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Arab countries is known in India as West Asia and North Africa. This region historically has been the oldest inhabited area. It has produced many civilizations from the Nile to the Mesopotamia, apart from three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Of course, in the Islamic era, we have the Umayyids, Fatimids and the Abbasites. Then the Arabs were destroyed by the Mongols in 1258 AD. The Ottomans dominated Syria. The most dramatic impact on the people has been from the European domination. The British and the French. The British dominated this region from India. They had made various promises to Sherif Hussein of Macca for a united Arab kingdom, which they ignored. So they divided this region into small states from Kuwait to Egypt and Syria, Jordan so on and so forth to contain Arab nationalism, to protect the oil reserves and to strategically control this region and because of the promises they made to the French and the Jews. So the creation the states in this region has been artificial. The Arab nationalism, which was growing. The British used everything possible to use the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire. The state structures are based on artificial borders, the division of the Arab tribes so on and so forth. Some became monarchies like Egypt, Iran and Jordan. The first monarchy was of course Egypt until Gamal Abdulnasser toppled it in 1952. The wave of Arab nationalism struck this region, culminating in the Iraqi revolution in 1958 and the Yemeni revolution in 1962. Then of course the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1967 led to the overthrow of some of these republican nationalist leaders. These leaders, who also promised democracy and political participation, involvement of the people, could not live to their promises. So there appeared a time that the incompetence of the local leaders, the foreign intervention and the creation of Israel, all, created a very explosive situation. This led to coup d’etats, wars, revolutions and the end result has been the failure of the Arab nationalism and Arab socialism and the creation of authoritarian states over a long period of time, and the creation of republics of fear, where human dignity was not respected. Human freedoms were not allowed to freely express and articulate their aspirations, expectations so on and so forth. Manipulative nature of the foreign powers, especially the United States, double standards on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran and also the protection of Israel created this explosive situation. The culmination of economic factors, the poverty of ideas in terms of creating employment for the people to productively use the human resources in this vast area, where people were willing to work, willing to support the economic system. But the type of neoliberal policies did not allow them to come out of poverty, unemployment. I talked about the domestic situation. There is economic, social and suppression of the Islamic groups by Nasser for example the Ikhwanul Muslimin or in Tunisia or in Jordan, Syria, Yemen, all of these gave an opportunity for people to express their grievance. These grievances have been accumulating for a long period of time as seen in internal, regional and global levels. So they all coalesced and this role of fear was broken first by the Tunisians and the Egyptians followed. There was no containing of these explosive situation in Yemen, Libya and now in Syria, Bahrain. Much more serious demands in those countries, which have not seen this kind of so called spring. It is basically an assertion for the Arab peoples’ rights to be heard, listened to the grievances and the long pending earning of freedom and they can contribute the best of their potential.
Do you think the Gulf states will witness revolutions or uprisings at least?
Very important question. This Arab spring protest movements are not confined to the republics. It crosses the borders and barriers, the Mashrek-Maghreb divide. I don’t think the monarchies will be immune to this wave of protest, which are sweeping like a tsunami from one border to the other. Nobody can escape. This is a human desire to freedom to express themselves, to articulate their needs. That is already seen in Bahrain, which has been suppressed by the Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia in particular. Also we saw Oman, where the Sultan had to dismiss sixteen ministers. Then in Saudi Arabia, in the eastern part, where the Shias are the majority. This protests have reached there also, where the bulk of the Saudi oil is located. Then in Kuwait you see that the Arab spring has led to the downfall of the government. The disillution of the nationalists and the elections have brought the opposition into power. Therefore, they are two-thirds majority in the Assembly now, which is unprecedented. I attribute this to the Arab spring, which has reached the Kuwaiti shores in the Gulf. In that way it had reached in a limited extent. The Al Jazeera doesn’t point out the protest movements in Qatar, which also took place. I’ve been there and I’ve seen the intellectuals, who have given petitions for reforms. The Emir has promised elections in the National Assembly for the last twenty years. He’s been power for sixteen years. He came to power in 1995. In that way, the Arab spring protest movements have reached the shores of the Gulf. Many say this is inspired in the East by Iran. This is not true. Of course the Iranian revolution, the Iranian political system, elections made an impact on the Gulf and the Arab citizens. But it is basically internal, it is genuine Arab anger and protest that has exploded after many years of empty promises, failed policies and foreign domination and humiliation. The Arabs feel that their identity has been suppressed and humiliated by their own elites, leaders. They have become puppets subservient to Israel and foreign powers. Their sense of dignity is very deep rooted.
Some say that Arab spring has started and ended in Tunisia. At first the reasons fort he revolutions were the things you mentioned, the dignity, the legitimacy problems and so on. But day by dat the the sectarian nature of the uprising is much more significant. Do you think that this might create problem to reach a real democracy in the region?
You see the urge for freedom is not confined to one group or one country. It crosses the religious and ethnic divides. The polarization cannot subdue the urge of the people to live a life, where they are free to think and write and speak and analyze without fear. So the Shia-Sunni is an outside element brought by the West particularly. For example, when the Iranians brought about the revolution was never highlighted as a Shia revolution. That is because, basically- the Islam as an ideology which were mobilized by the clergy people. About the Shia-Sunni sectarianism, we are hearing more after the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, because Saddam were dominating the Shias, who were the majority. But it is the same. The Sunnis are dominating the Shias in Bahrain. When you empower the Shias in Iraq, the Shias in Bahrain will also demand similar empowerment. They are also facing similar situation. This contradiction is now coming to haunt the Americans. In that way, this will not arrest the growth of the demand for freedom. It will grow among the Sunnis, the Shias, the Kurds and all he people. This ignition will spread from one group to the other. Although it has also very dangerous implications. It leads to more fragmentation. If the Christians in Syria feel unsafe, they will demand separate state. Or if the Christians in other places feel unsafe, they will live in their own communities like the Maronites in Lebanon. Or the Kurds, who are being empowered through the No-Fly zone for the last twenty years, so on and so forth. The British used the Kurdish card. On the one hand, we see them as supporters of the Republic and at the same time they support the Kurdish people in the southeast of Turkey. The outside powers have this double policy. They try to hijack the local issues. This is one more aspect of the Shia-Sunni sectarian split, which is being highlighted as a great significance. I don’t think in the way of demand for protests, this will have valid results.
The second concern regarding the so-called Arab spring is the rise of Islamists. In North Africa, they won the elections. This process increased concerns amnong some gruoups in the region. Do you think that these parties will become more responsible and act pragmaticly when they start to rule?
Because they have to deliver goods to the people, employment and stability. They cannot escape from the realities. Egypt is not rich like Saudi Arabia. They have to pursue policies to generate employment. The larger army of the graduates will come out of colleges and universities. They will need jobs. You have to have industrial policies, which will have exports. You cannot rely only on tourism, which is uncertain. You cannot rely on the remittances of the Egyptians. There must be credible base of productiveness. The Islamist groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, all of these have to follow policies which will be responsible towards the people, because their legitimacy will not remain on the basis of Islam. People cannot live on the basis of religion alone. They have to have the economic means
You know Turkey is a shining example. They can have a secular constitution and an Islamic party. But you have to create an economic basis. The masses in the Arab world if the Muslim parties don’t deliver. They have a huge responsibility, not only to be Islamic but also to be productive, to deliver the goods to the people and to follow an independent policy. Turkey is a member of the NATO, but many Arabs see it as a country, which pursues an independent policy, by not allowing the American troops in its country to invade Iraq in 2003, for example. You are not giving in to the pressure by the Americans to withdraw from Cyprus, because you feel strongly that your national interest is involved. You feel your national interest dictated you to pursue a different policy towards Palestine and Israel. These are signs that Turkey is willing toı pursue an independent policy dictated by its national interests and also a larger social justice and morality. You feel the pain of the Palestinian people. They deseve better life and facilities. They should not continue the humiliation they feel at the hands of not only Israel but also the so-called protectors of human rights in the United Nations Security Council. They have double standards. On the one hand they want Iran, Libya, Egypt to adhere to the last word of the UN Resolution. But when it comes to Palestine, they know that more than fifty four United Nations Security Council Resolution have been passed against Israel. The American used veto twenty eight times to protect Israel. You can see the long record, in the General Assembly, hundreds of resolutions, in favor of the Palestinians. And more than a hundred and twenty two countries support Palestine and its cause. It is global and there is unanimity among the prominent members of the Security Council on the creation of the Palestinian state. But still they find ways and means to neutralize the road map, the two-state solution, the UN Security Council Resolution, the international public opinion. See how cleverly they maneuver and try to neutralize the global pressure. Now they try to project Islamist threat, the Al-Qaeda threat. The Arab people are conscious that the Israel threat is more important. In the 1950s and 1960, the British and the Americans told Nasser that “You must be with us against the Soviet Union”. But Nasser said “The Soviet Union has not invaded our countries, Russia did not kill the Arabs, it is the Israelis, who used weapons, the British, who dominated the Egyptian monarchy”. They feel affected from what Israel pursues. This is my take. The Arab Spring is the accumulation of all these domestic and economic factors.
What do you think about the ongoing crisis between Iran and Israel?
I don’t think Israel can attack Iran. There might be an attack only to the nuclear plants. They will try to harm the targets. Then it will survive. But if there is a second wave involving the oil terminals, refineries, pipelines, infrastructure, then it will not survive. Israel is capable for the first wave not the second wave. What Iran can do in return? Nothing much in the Iranian territory. They can do much more beyond. But in terms of preventing the planes and the bombarding they can’t do much.
What is India’s approach to the Arab Spring? Does India consider it a Western plot or the legitimate demands of the people?
As you know, we became a democracy in 1950. It has been our desire to see human freedoms, democracy, multi-party political systems, periodic expression of the people’s opinions to flourish and prosper and grow everywhere. In that regard, the assertion of the Arab people to polity, which gives them a role in the decision-making process through election, through constitutions, through representative governments is a welcome development. Although it is not our agenda like the Americans have democracy promotion agenda, we don’t make that a condition. But we feel that all governments should promote human rights, participation, if not in a radical way, but a step by step approach, whatever is acceptable by the societies, whatever it is acceptable. There should be a consensus. That is our broad approach of promoting democracy globally. Secondly, we found that most of the political systems in the Arab world have gradually became dictatorship, become republics of fear. Although broadly you can say, the Palestinian society enjoyed structures for a long period of time, they have not flourished. So the first sign was in Tunisia. It spilled over to Egypt, and so on and so forth. We saw this is a positive development. India has been supporting consistently from Tunisia to Egypt. In that way, the Indian response has been in line with our aspirations. What we want for our people, we want the same for other people as well.
Is this the official position of India?
Yes, because we believe that the best of human capability will come out in freedom, liberty, where people can think. The scientific capability of the people can be cultivated and incrased. It was the huıman ability to bring the best for the culture and civilization. If people live in fear, they get frozen. It is the dictators, police and security forces, which try to dominate, suppress, oppress and crush them.
Can the same concept be applied to Syria?
We have opposed to outside promotion and regime change. We don’t want like Libya for example. Peaceful transition should be internally induced, not externally.
How can this be achieved in Syria?
From the very beginning we have been asking for the amendment of the Syrian constitution, which sets the ruling party forever. They are telling us that there is a provision in the constitution, which says secular. But we say that even that sentence is not deleted you can involve other groups, even former Ikhwanul Muslimin can be a responsible party in Egypt like they have been elsewhere in Morocco, in various other countries. We feel whatever genuine aspirations of the people. And the majority of the people in this region are Muslims, which the basic fact we have to reconcile, whether in Iran, Turkey, among the Palestinians or in Algeria. They are basically Islamic people, Islam is a way of life.
Lastly, what do you think about the current situation of India-Turkey relations? What can be done to improve it?
India and Turkey started on different trajectories. India followed the non-alignment polcy and was a friend of the Soviet Union and China. India did not participate in the Cold War, in which Turkey was a member of NATO and CENTO, the Regional Cooperation For Development with Iran and Pakistan, earlier with the Baghdad Pact until July 1958, so on and so forth. Then you became close with Pakistan for a long period. India also did not have very good relations with America. We were on different pacts. But I think 1988 was the turning point when Rajiv Gandhi visited Ankara and Turgut Ozal came. I wrote all these in my book on India and Turkey, “Past and Emerging Realities”, it is published recently. There is a turning point. Then the economic liberalization from 1991 both in Turkey and India brought these two countries closer, because of many economic opportunities and also challenges from Afghanistan and Kashmir and various other countries. We used to support Makarios in Cyprus and ask for the withdrawal from the Northern Cyprus. All those issues have been mutually resolved, even Bulent Ecevit, when he came to India, refused to go to Pakistan, he said “No, my focus is India”. Pakistan should not come in the way of growing India-Turkish relations. The economic ties are growing. The political ties are stable. Almost all Indian prime ministers visited Turkey. The ties are growing. Trade has been growing and there is a great potential. But what India finds interesting in Turkish foreign policy is its new approach towards Asia, China, Japan, Korea, India and various other countries from its heavy dependence on the European Union, NATO and America. We appreciate Turkey’s stance in the regional issues. Turkey has an important role to play in Central Asia, Afghanistan, West Asia and Arabistan. In that way, we feel that the real potential of Turkey is coming out, which remained hidden because of Western domination. Secondly, we feel that the AKP has been able to control the growing influence of military in the political system, because the Turkish military has assumed the role of guardians of the Turkish nation, secularism, Kemalist principles. They had taken upon themselves more role than what is says in the constitution. The AK party has done remarkably well in a peaceful, constitutional and acceptable way to keep the military as a professional force, not dabbling in the politics, which is also what we want. Civilians should have effective control over the military. That is because once the military is involved in politics, it has a tendency to perpetuate its own rule and role in the political system. Then also it gradually increases its economic role, like in Egypt. The forty percent of the economy is one way or another controlled by the military. In that way, the constitutional validity and sanctity of the people’s power is important. They should not assume a role greater than the people of the country. We see Turkey is moving on the right track.
Thank you very much.
* This interview was made on February 18, 2012 in Sochi, Russia where the Valdai Forum was held. The interview was conducted by ORSAM Director Hasan Kanbolat and ORSAM Specialist Oytun Orhan.