Saudi-Iranian feud unleashed sectarian war on the whole Middle East - anti-extremism advisor

There are too many players in the Middle East, and each for their own goal: a clash of Sunni and Shia, of East and West - and of course, there’s a full-scale war with Syria and Iraq in the center. Islamic State, despite being a tyranny of morbid terror and barbaric atrocities, attracts thousands of volunteers, of both sexes and all ages. We again ask ‘why?’ And with radicalism spreading across the globe like wildfire, the bombs and drones powerless, what can stop the chaos? Sophie is joined by a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and senior advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Ed Husain, on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Ed Husain, senior advisor for Tony Blair’s Faith foundation, the Middle East senior fellow at the council for Foreign relations, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us today. So, Ed, in 2012, you’ve warned that the war in Syria may end helping a terrorist group, whose goal would be to build an Islamic State. That’s exactly what has happened, and you were not the only one to see it coming. Were these ominous ignored? Who would benefit from chaos in the region?

EH: There are many beneficiaries from the chaos in the region, Sophie, not least the Assad government, not least some of our Gulf allies, and not least government in Baghdad, in Iraq. So, there’s a whole host of beneficiaries and as we’ve seen, those events have come to pass, but I think the most important beneficiary in all of it has been the rise of Salafi-Sunni Islamist extremism. For decades they’ve been nothing more than rhetoric and vigilante action. Now, what we see is an entire landmass, a territory larger than the UK, under their control. So, thus far, they have been the greatest net beneficiary of this tragedy.

SS: My question, precisely, is about that. Everyone saw that coming, and no one did anything about it. Why?

EH: I don’t think everyone saw it coming. I think lots of people, when I was working in America, often thought that the Assad regime would collapse within 6 months. I remember taking, quote on quote, bets with american analysts, who thought this was a one-year show. I’ve lived in Syria, I know the country well and I’ve travelled to it frequently since 2003, and my hunch was always that Assad has popularity, however much we may dislike it, but that’s the reality on the ground. And the beneficiary would be those who oppose him, and those who do so violently and in the name of the ideology which is extremism.

SS: It is widely believed that the Gulf States - Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia - they’ve propped up the IS as an anti-Shia movement in the region. So, are those states more anti-Shia than anti-terrorism?

EH: I think that the states you mentioned have had a longstanding problem with the Iranian government, in other words, what came in place from 1979 onwards. There’s been a long Sunni-Shia rivalry in the Middle East now for at least a millennium, but it has never manifested in what we’re seeing today, in the sense that you’ve got entire governments whose foreign policy is based on being anti-iranian, which we often interpret as being anti-Shia. Many of those governments in the countries that you’ve highlighted, also have significant Shia populations. If I were to place blame anywhere at this point, it would be at the intransigence and the sectarianism promoted by two governments: one, the Iranian government, and two, the Saudi government. And as a result of extremism and sectarianism advocated by civil society and governments in both of those countries, what we now see is the overspill of that and entire countries and communities being caught up in this sectarian fight.

SS: The IS has no problem paying its fighters by weapons, even providing social expenses in the areas it controls. Where does the money come from? Apart from oil sales and extortion, obviously?

EH: Well, the money comes from several sources of revenue. One is as you currently highlighted is oil sales, two - weapon and oil sales on a wider regional black market, three - support from dealing with other governments, for - the revenue they raise through taxation. Those are the general sources of revenue for the so-called IS.

SS: But, you know, such funding, especially the third type of funding that you have mentioned; that would no doubt be covert. Is it possible to trace the funding of Islamic State?

EH: Yes, it would have to be covert, but much of it is overt. Don’t forget that this huge flow of people between this territory they call “the Islamic State” - I don’t think it’s “islamic” nor do I think it’s a “state”, incidentally, but it is what it is - and this overflow of people and smuggling of currencies both hard and otherwise between this entity and Iran, this entity and Iraq, this entity and Saudi Arabia, this entity and Turkey, and other neighbors in extension to that. I mean, the Iranians, the Iraqis previously have sustained their economy despite the sanctions.

SS: Why is it so impossible to cut the funding?

EH: I don’t think it’s about funding at all. I mean, even if you starve them, it’s not about funding. There’s a wider problem here, and that problem is about the mindset, the philosophy, the outlook, the extremism, the determination to stand defiant to fellow muslims in the region and to the rest of the world, with this extremist mindset of creating of this so-called literalist Islamic State that they think is upholding their view of Sharia. It’s a minority reading within Islam and that’s the problem: all of these are consequences.

SS: We’re gonna go in detail about the mindset in just a bit, but I think, money is still important, funding is still important, and even U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden was upset at what he called “pouring Saudi money into terrorist groups in Syria”, other than Islamic State. Why has this not impacted on the UK and America’s relationship with the Saudis, while they fund terrorist groups like Al-Nusra?

EH: That line of questioning, while interesting, I think, ignores the wider problem: if we’re looking at the impact between Saudi Arabia and its relations with Americans and the British government and others… I think, there has been an impact, there have been very critical, unpleasant discussions, and one of the reasons why you see the Saudi delegation now go  to Moscow on multiple occasions, is because of this difficulty with the Western government. So, there has been critical conversations that have taken place, but that’s not the point. The point is that the only reason why they can fund these groups and others - and by the way, I don’t think it’s a Saudi government that’s fuding Al-Nusra and others, I think funding comes from other sources in the Gulf, and even if we were to cut off that funding, what you have is a group of people who are hell-bent, because of their reading of Scripture perverted, and minority it may well be, but it’s how you deal with that mindset of “come hell or high water”, no matter how many of them you kill, unless you deal with the mindset, whether you take the money away, you take landscape away, you take their weapons away - this people are hell-bent on destruction and destruction will continue.

SS: Yeah, but I think funding and going into relationship of Saudi Arabia and the Western countries is still important, even if they come to Moscow lately. For instance, David Cameron was just recently grilled on Channel 4 about these secret deals Saudi government made with the UK government. He said, in the end he was like “Hey, guys. Saudi Arabia is very important to the security of the UK”. How exactly is Saudi Arabia contributing to the UK security?

EH: I’ll tell you. Saudi Arabia is… I’m not a spokesperson for Saudi Arabia, but I’ll tell you that Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the UK security, and I’m sure, to security of other countries including Russia, is paramount, and it’s as follows: inside Saudi Arabia we have gatherings of many extremists on a regular basis. Saudi Arabia has been on the forefront of arresting many extremists and terrorists on a regular basis. Saudi Arabia has been on the forefront of providing the UK, the U.S., the EU and Russia and other countries in the region with absolutely vital intelligence that leads to arrests and leads to saving of lives. You put that on one side of the ledger and then you put other difficult conversations on the other side of ledger and I think we come to a net balance of that strategic importance of keep excellent ties with Saudi Arabia - and you’ll see that that’s something that government in Russia has continued to do, and that’s the reason why President Putin and others have received Saudi delegation after Saudi delegation for that very reason.

SS: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are vigorous backers of the Syrian opposition, whether it’s extremist or moderate, and surely, the Gulf monarchs aren’t in this because they want democracy in Syria, right?

EH: Let’s not be moralising on one side against  the other. I think both sides are wrong, I think we’ve lost enough human lives and I think it’s vital that both sides come to the negotiating table, rather than play the blame game here.

SS: I don’t think anyone would argue with you on that. I think what people are trying to do, actually, is to consolidate their efforts to try and fight ISIS, but it’s not always working, or is not working as of now. According to the Guardian, you’ve mentioned Turkey, Turkey is said to be doing actual business with ISIS, buying their oil and tolerating their presence and attacking the Kurds who are fighting ISIS. Why take such risks?

EH: I don’t think Turkey is attacking the Kurds. Turkey is rightly attacking the PKK, a Marxist-Communist terrorist faction that wants separatism from Turkey. Turkey has excellent relations with Iraqi KRG government, so Turkey’s relationship is complicated when it comes to other countries in the region. I don’t think Turkey is supportive of ISIS. Turkey has to fight, like every other country has to fight, on first priorities, and an imminent threat posed to Turkey comes from a Marxist terrorist PKK breakaway group, and that’s whom its fighting.

SS: The last terrorist attack in Ankara was definitely claimed by the IS and not by the Turkish Kurds. Just let me reiterate my question: you do not feel like Turkey is being half-hearted in its effort to fight ISIS?

EH: Turkey has been on the forefront of stopping extremists, whether they are from the UK or Germany going into ISIS-held territory. Turkey has been at the forefront of threatening and when necessary booming parts of what ISIS called its “state”. Turkey can be faulted for being not as vigorous and as rigorous in attacking ISIS as it has been with PKK targets. But I can turn this question and say to you that when Russia has been bombing over the last two weeks, during that, most of those aircraft operations have not been against ISIS. So, this allegation goes both ways and I’ll take you back to my first principle, which is the fighting and bloodletting in Syria is not harmonious to any side, other than the benefiting of global islamist extremists being on the rise. And that’s the question that we should be addressing, the ideological underpinnings of that and these tactical consequences of this regional fight.

SS: So, you wanted to talk about the mindset - groups like ISIS, Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda call for a caliphate of slavery, death and destruction. Yet, the manage to attract vast number of supporters. What’s so convincing about slavery, death and destruction?

EH: It’s what the slavery, death and destruction are based on, and they derive their legitimacy based on a reading, a powerful reading, a minority reading, a perverted reading of Scripture. Just as in the Old Testament, there are references to slavery, misogyny, pedophilia. You have similar references, although not to that extent in all religious scriptures that reflect the worldview of a certain time in history. The literal application of that, especially with ISIS referring to what they call hadith literature, not all of this is verified and agreed upon by the vast majority of muslim, but it is that reading of Scripture that leads to a literalist interpretation of that, that allows others to think that they’ve actually been Godly and good, rather than being evil and murderers.

SS: But, do you think they’re being very honest in believing that they’re being godly and good? Or is it, you know, like a loophole to just do whatever you want to do.

EH: I wish it was that case, but I actually think they are very sincere, it’s what is they believe and the problem goes back to the first part of that conversation. Many of the Gulf governments have been facilitators of that extremism. Many of the curriculums in key universities and schools in many countries supported by many of a Gulf allies, have promoted this understanding of religion: a literalist, black-and-white, venomous, hell and heaven worldview that lead to this problem today.

SS: So, yes, exactly, why is it okay for Saudis to behead people, and we say “Oh, well, you know, it’s their rule of law in their country” but it’s not okay that ISIS does it?

EH: It’s not okay when Saudi Arabia does it. I beg your pardon, it’s just not acceptable…

SS: But everyone seems to be okay with it.

EH: Well, no, I don’t think everyone is okay with it. I mean, some of the most vocal human rights organisations have been at the forefront of condemning the Saudi government for those actions…

SS: David Cameron seems to be okay with it.

EH: I’m not David Cameron spokesperson, David Cameron is wrong to be okay with it. It’s just not right to accept the beheadings or the punishment by stoning or by lashing or the semi-slavery status that many people from South Asia and the Far East, such as Indonesia, currently undergo in Saudi Arabia. It’s just not right, and it’s got to stop, and I think many governments around the world have been at the forefront of making that very argument and I think, it’s also incumbent on our friends in Russia to make that very argument when the Saudis go to Russia for arms deals, as is the current negotiation being underway. So, I think, it’s incumbent to all of us to say it’s not acceptable in Iran, not acceptable in Saudi Arabia, and most definitely not acceptable in proud and noble pluralist country such as Syria.

SS: Now, you were a senior advisor to the inter-faith, anti-extremist foundation. Do you fear the IS influence radicalizing British muslims, preying on their grievances and insecurities?

EH: Oh yes, absolutely. Absolutely. You’ve touched on something that’s very important. Many British muslims, as well as French, German and Danish and other European muslims feel out of place, because many of them are second or third generation muslims in this country and feel as though they don’t belong here, and what ISIS and other extremists messaging offers is a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and a sense of mission and now, a direct sense of worldly attachment to what’s called, the so called “Islamic State” - as I said, it’s neither islamic nor the state, but it is what it is, and there’s that attraction that migrating from the land of disbelievers and going into the land of believers is somehow reward. But, it goes back to what we were discussing earlier, Sophie, a false reading of scripture that’s not supported by the vast majority of the world’s muslims or scholars, or muslim history that goes back 1.400 years - so it’s a real problem that such extremist, literalist puritanical confrontational mindset is gripping millions of people around the world, and I think that’s the issue that’s causing these geopolitical problems that we’ve now got to turn our collective attention to, including Russia and the U.S. and others - the old East-West conflict, between China, Russia and the rest of the world has got to end, because we face an enemy that does not see that demarcation and unless we understand the mindset of the enemy, we will continue to fall into many traps that it sets for us.

SS: Now, why do you think Western government are failing to stop this flow of recruits? Is it a failure of intelligence services? And I’m asking you about the West, because I’m asking the same questions to my government, concerning these issues, but, you know, you represent the West in the case, because you always seem to turn the table around to me - so that’s why I’m asking about the West.

EH: So, what was the question about the West? What Western governments do…

SS: Why do you think Western governments are failing to stop this flow of recruits? Is it a failure of intelligence services? What do you think it is?

EH: Part of it is definitely to do with the failure of intelligence services and I think intelligence services are overwhelmed by the need and the supply to the Islamic State and Islamist extremists around the world. Don’t forget, we’ve got challenges on multiple fronts: you’ve got Boko Haram in Nigeria, you’ve got Al-Shabab in Kenya and Somalia, you’ve got Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa,  you’ve got Al-Qaeda in Arabian peninsula, in Yemen - and they’re recruiting in Western countries, or they are dispatching their recruits to Western countries, and it becomes hard for their intelligence agencies to monitor everything that’s going on all of the time and to disrupt or to stop the flow of recruitment going both ways. The problem, of course is, and the sad reality is that we only require people on the other side, the dark side, the evil side, to be successful once and we have to be successful all of the time. So, it’s a question of time, I fear, before we see another terrorist incident on the scale we saw with Charlie Hebdo earlier this year, or Copenhagen earlier this year. So, we’re constantly held hostage by the extremism and violence that’s  about to be unleashed on, again, not just the West, but also Russia.

SS: Tell me something. I had an extensive interview with a Yezidi girl this morning, who actually helps women who somehow got out of sexual slavery, from ISIS controlled territories. There are not only men, but there are also young women, from good families, good Western families, who are willingly going know, they’re becoming “jihadi brides”. A couple of British teens that run away from Syria, later contacted their families, and they said, you know, “we’re not coming back” - why are girls willing to give up themselves as sex slaves?

EH: Again, excellent question, but they don’t see themselves as sex slaves. They see themselves as going out to help the fighters, the mujahideen, the jihadists, so they “serve” the cause of God and in that process, the so-called “service of God”, requires sexual services, and for that, in the afterlife they will be rewarded. One of the mistakes that we make over and over again - and I speak as a muslim and a Westerner, I fully believe in Islam and I fully believe in values that we uphold in the civilized world - and the problem is that we look at this through materialistic lenses, we look at this just through this lifespan. These girls and others look at it as this life and next life, and they’ve been brainwashed, indoctrinated, forced to accept a reading of Scripture that says: “For these services to men of God in this life, they will be rewarded in the next life.” And that’s what we got to get to, to say: “You know, these are not men of God, they’re cruel, evil murderers who are not martyrs going to heaven, but going to Hell, and serving them you are complicit to that.” And our call should be, and I hope people watching your channel and this interview will know, that we care for them and we want them back in our countries, and we love them for who they are and we don’t want them to be terrorists and serve as glorified prostitutes to these evil, cruel, murdering individuals.

SS: Now, you, Ed, if I may say, you were attracted to radical thinking at one stage of your life. You denounce radical Islam and changed your views, but you never went anywhere to wage Jihad, right? What about those Western fighters that return from IS territories that you've just spoke about - should they be helped back home? Can they be reformed?

EH: They should, absolutely, return home, because, I think, this government, that does not want to welcome them at home, the Cameron government is wrong. Bringing them home poses a significant terrorist risk, as far as the government is concerned, but I think, and I think many others think is that by bringing them home and allowing them to say that they've made a mistake... and a kind of testimony that you talk about the Yazidi girl that you’ve interviewed is important for millions of muslims in this part of the world to listen to and then use the testimony of these individuals who went and fought with extremists, served the so-called "jihadists", to warn others not to go, because it is not Islamic and it is not a "state", so "don't go - we've been there, done that, got the T-shirt". That message needs to be sent loud and clear. And, also, these people, they are Muslims, they are Westerners, they are British, French, American nationals: they deserve to come home, this is their home, these are sons and daughters of these men. They've made a mistake, they've gone to the wrong country, they've had negative experience, they want to come home - we should welcome them home. If that means putting them on the leash, if that means having 24-hours scrutiny, if that means putting them on de-radicalisation programmes - they do work, they have worked; sometimes, they don't work, but the net benefit of having them home is much higher and stronger and better, than leaving them out there in the hands of these butchers to think that your government has abandoned you, because our government should not abandon us.

SS: UN officials say that Islamic State is offering its loyal fighters up to $10,000 for each person they recruit to wage war against the West, Syria and Iraq. It's not a small sum, but are those... are some of these people actually in this for money?

EH: I think people who are in refugee camps in Syria or in Turkey or in Jordan or Lebanon - many of them are in it for the money. Many of them last year were fighting with the FSA, this year fighting for ISIS - and they're mercenary fighters, many of them were with the Ba'ath party previously. So, those individuals are there for the money, absolutely, but most people left the comfort of the West, or the comfort of Russia to go into fight with ISIS and others. Those are, therefore, not for the money. They are there because of their world view and they are there because they think they're doing the right thing by the God and religion. And, it's important that we discredit and we inform them that that's wrong historically and scripturally. They're not set up to go to Heaven, if anything, they are going to Hell. Unless we get to that point, no amount of offering them more money will be sufficient.

SS: Thank you very much for this insight. We were talking to Ed Husain, advisor to the Tony Blair's Faith Foundation, Senior Fellow for the Middle Eastern studies at the Council for Foreign Relations. We were talking about the resilience of the Islamic State and the spread of its deadly ideas. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I'll see you next time.