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'US should get to know Arab world better to avoid past mistakes'

The US should rethink its attitude towards Islam and the Arab world and take a more respectful stance, Tunisian intellectual Mustapha Tlili told RT, stressing that otherwise it will nurture enemies, as it did in Afghanistan.

America needs to re-assess the results of the Arab Spring and its relationship with the Islamist parties which came to power in its wake, the writer and director of the New York University center for dialogues told RT.

RT: So I am going to start off with a quote: “It is only a slight overstatement to say, that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists by the United States.” It’s a quote by the American intellectual writer of Arabic dissent, Edward Said. He said that over 50 years ago, stating that Western thinking of Islam has always occurred within a framework sculpted by passion, prejudice and political interests. Do you think that at this point today things are different?

Mustapha Tlili: Unfortunately what Edward Said objected to might be a kind of truth today for one simple reason. The hopes that we saw at one point through what is called…the Arab Spring risk to be dashed now, because what happened since then – certainly through democratic means, through elections. We have seen the Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Ennahda in Tunisia, taking over and attempt to roll back most of the freedoms and to impose an interpretation of Islam on a very secular society – the Tunisian society. If that happens, and if that happens in Egypt, I think the metaphor of oil and terrorism might have significance beyond simply its status as a metaphor.

RT:We are talking about two separate things here. You are saying your general feeling and overview of what has happened after the Arab Spring. And in your opinion, as I understand, the whole revolution in the countries radicalized those countries rather than liberated them. Am I correct?

MT: The elections that took place, took place in a context in which there were hopes by the people who were suffering from economic deprivation, from being socially left out. And they voted in a truthful democratic way for those who were offering them a hand of solutions to their social and economic problems. They did not vote for them to transform the country into a religious state. And what we are seeing since then within Egypt or Tunisia is precisely a shift in the Islamist parties that took over from real focus on the economic and social matters to other preoccupations, mostly identity preoccupations, Islamic values, respect for religion.

RT:We know that the new government in Tunisia is within an Islamic tent. Tunisia has been cut up in a wave of anti-Western protests, where protesters were actually tearing down flags from embassies, four people died, some buildings were looted. And now we hear that some of the government members want people who took part in those protests executed. That’s a very bold decision, if that is to happen. Do you think that it could actually put an end in the future to an extremist of protest or on the contrary it would steer more anti-American and anti-Western feelings?

MT: I think if that happens it would be an opportunistic way of handling the problem. Why do I say ‘opportunistic’? Simply because if the present government – and particularly the Islamist majority in the government, who really lead the government – do these things, it is because the pressure of the United States has been such that they had no other choice. I remind you of what happened. If the United States government and Hillary Clinton didn’t call the president of Tunisia to tell him, if the same thing that happened in Libya, the killing of the ambassador, would happen in Tunisia, you would be responsible, Tunisia would be responsible. So the president of Tunisia had to send the presidential guard to extract the ambassador and his staff and to bring them to safety. And so a catastrophe was avoided. Now they have to do something in order to somehow set an example.

RT:But what would the consequences be?

MT: I think this would enflame more feelings amongst the groups – which are in fact parts of the Ennahda, they are not outside of it. You see, what we have in Tunisia is an Islamist party that speaks double language, that speaks double discourse. It speaks a discourse to its internal groups and a discourse outside.

RT: Outside means to the Western world?

MT: Yes, and to the Tunisian secular society. They say, we are moderate, we are very modern, we are open to the world, we want to respect all the freedoms, and so on. And then inside they say different things. For instance, I give an example. Two days ago – and this is a big debate now in Tunisia – a video was discovered going back to this October, or in other words, about the time this things were happening. And Mr Ghannushi, the head of the Islamist party, was speaking…

RT: He doesn’t occupy any post in the government…

MT: Yes, but he is really the source of authority for the government. Without him nothing would happen. Now the video shows him in conference, in discussion with chief Islamists in his office. What was he telling them? He was telling them, look, you have to be patient. Both you and I, we have the same objectives to Islamize the country. We have to be patient… because the army is against us, the police are against us, the administration – we do not have an administration on our hands. Let’s first have the army. Let’s work, have the police, let’s have the government mechanisms and infrastructure with us. Slowly we will do it. In other words, the objectives of the extremists and the objectives of the so-called moderates, are exactly the same.

RT: Is it not ironic that we would see Islamic government come to power not only in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and every other state that has been swamped by the revolution and the Arab Spring, and at the same time they have been helped by the United States? That’s not a secret to anyone. How does it really go together? The Islamic governments and the United States? It’s almost as if the United States are making the same mistakes they did in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They created the Mujahideens, and then they turned against them.

MT: I would agree with you. In fact this is what they say publicly. What happened is that the US had no choice. They had to deal with the Islamists. They did not mean that they approve of their ideas. And as a result of what happened lately in Libya and in Tunisia, I believe that there is now a reassessment of the position from the American side.

RT: What exactly do you mean by “reassessment”? Hillary Clinton came out and said after the US ambassador was killed in Libya, how could this happen in a country [the US] had helped to liberate? Exactly where is the missing puzzle? I started with Edward Said quote in the beginning, saying that he thought that American approach towards Arabs is so simplistic that they only see Arabs as terrorists or oil suppliers. Maybe the over-simplistic approach, the stereotypes are to blame for the fact that Americans keep creating the same traps and obstacles for themselves as far as the Arab world goes? Why don’t they get the Arab mentality?

MT: I think the problem here is the lack of knowledge of the Arab world.

RT: How does the lack of American knowledge of Islam and the Arab world reflect on the decisions they are making on Syria right now?

MT: I think the same mistakes and the same approach is here to be blamed. I think Hillary Clinton went out almost a year ago, when we were just at the beginning of the unrest in Syria, and said, Bashar al-Assad should go. Like in a dismissive way, like “we should decide who should be president and who should not be president. Instead at that time there was still a possibility to find a consensus among groups to forge a new solution and a new beginning for Syria. But instead we went from one escalation to another escalation. And now it is probably too late.

RT: Should he go though at this point? Because how can he really reconcile with his people after everything that has happened? How could he rule Syria, even if he was to win, which is very unlikely?

MT: It is up to the Syrian people to decide. And Syrian people are simply on both sides. Still on both sides. How do you decide this if you do not have elections?

RT: So having experience – Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, now Syria, Afghanistan – what are the lessons the Americans have learned, in your opinion, once again talking about the reassessment of their policies? How would they re-assess, in your opinion?

MT: I think what they have learned is that you should not get into any situation that you do not know. You have first to listen to the experts. Second, to be modest and to have a sense of humility, you cannot rule the world today. You have to listen to others. You cannot decide who should go and who should stay. That is very important. Third, there is international law. There is the Security Council, there is the United Nations General Assembly, and there is the international community. You cannot go your own way to solve problems through force. That time is over. Number four, you have to be careful about those who you suppose today as your friends. They might turn against you one day. You have seen Afghanistan. You might see that now with this coziness with the Islamist parties.

So what is the final conclusion to this? You have to stick to your values. You have to stick to redlines. You have to say clearly, since you deal with these regimes, with these new parties: there are redlines, and those redline should not be crossed, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion. Take Egypt, the Coptic minority is leaving Egypt, the Coptic minority is leaving Lebanon, the Christian minority is leaving Iraq. If we do not take necessary action to reassure these minorities, the Middle East, which was rich because of all these minorities, will become a desolate landscape. It will become a wasteland.