Faith, Hope, and Politics in the Middle East: An Interview with Rouzbeh Parsi

In this interview with leading expert Rouzbeh Parsi we explore a number of key trends in the Middle East—the legacy of the Arab Spring, declining support for Islamist parties, and the future of the Iran nuclear deal. We also get Dr Parsi’s thoughts on how Western governments should engage with the Middle East and with their own domestic Muslim communities.

Dr. Rouzbeh Parsi is the Director of the European Middle East Research Group (EMERG). He is also a senior lecturer at Lund University, Department of History and Human Rights, specializing on Iran and the Middle East. He is also Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (Utrikespolitiska institutet).

This interviewed was conducted via email by Judd Birdsall, editor of Religion & Diplomacy.


Religion & Diplomacy: CNN’s Beirut-based international correspondent recently wrote an article with this dour assessment: ‘The glimmers of hope born in the Arab Spring are now all but forgotten, replaced by the gathering gloom of tyranny, rampant corruption, and hopelessness’. Do you agree? Do you see any glimmers of hope?

Rouzbeh Parsi: I think that is probably a bit too pessimistic. Undoubtedly the reaction of those in power to the Arab Spring has shown how steep the hill that needs to be climbed is. Corruption, financial and political, are strong motivators for fighting to keep the status quo. This being said, the events in Lebanon, Iraq, and Sudan, show that significant sections of society nonetheless are willing to keep pushing for reforms and improvements. Success is in no way guaranteed and it is an unsatisfying and unthankful task to argue for incrementalism—but each step, however small, in the right direction is better than the alternative.

R&D: In April we published an interview with Michael Robbins of the Arab Barometer in which he argued that trust in religious leaders and especially in religious political parties has declined in the Arab world—thanks in part to the abuses and failures of ISIS. Have you also seen evidence of this decline? 

Rouzbeh Parsi (photo credit: Lund University)

Parsi: I think that this is inevitableeach wave of ideological novelty will eventually be slowed down by contact with actual reality. Religion has in various ways been an engine of ideological and political resistance, sometimes a substitute for the lack of others. It is important to keep in mind that we use the same label, Islamism, for a vast and diverse set of groups and schools of thought. Where it has managed to gain political power the result has varied, but it has not been a resounding success. Iran is probably the case with the longest running Islamism-inspired political experiment. It has clear problems and a significant legitimacy deficit among its population. The Muslim Brotherhood came to power through democratic elections in Egypt, but through their own ineptness and, more importantly, the hostility from the military and many others (inside and outside the country) failed. The coup in Egypt turned things for the worse (repression and economic decline) but is also consequential for how Islamism has and will develop henceforth.

What the Arab Barometer and the protests in Lebanon etc show is that people want decent and professional governance, they are less interested in labels and ideological positions and more keen on results.

In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS was from the outset a deformed and bizarre result of doctrinal extremism, repression and anti-terror wars so not an option for the vast majority of Muslims to begin with.

R&D: What implications does decreasing religiosity—or at least decreasing trust in religious institutions and parties—have for the region, and for Western foreign policy toward the region?

Parsi: It means that the poles of authority that people did or were expected to orient themselves towards have lost in influence. They have not been replaced but they now compete with others, less stable and easily identifiable ones. In this domestic political multipolarity, ideology is not the only relevant criteria for identifying what the new ones are. For a long time, some of these movements (whether cohesive or more ephemeral type phenomena) have been transnational. They are not merely national and so the multipolarity is also not part of a simplistic foreign/domestic dichotomy.

Western foreign policy towards the regions is still stuck in various simplistic gambits from the Cold War era and a complacency that easily lends itself to the ‘strong man ensures stability’ narrative that for so long has been the staple of conversations and calculations of relations to the Middle East.

R&D: Western foreign policy leaders often face a tension between realpolitik pragmatism and moral idealism. This seems especially true when it comes to diplomatic engagement in the MENA region, where hard power strategic interests seem to constantly collide with the desire to promote human rights and liberal democracy. What guidance do you have for Western diplomats as they consider these tensions?

Parsi: Your question points to the credibility gap that Western countries struggle with, as most of them are used to the status quo and fear novelty that is unpredictable and admittedly would start off with some instability. But as long as realpolitik simply means selling arms to various countries in there region for domestic use or deterrence build up (which in reality only heightens tensions), then this gap will remain. There is no single remedy for this, but a good start would be to study the countries and their social and political forces without prejudice. Don’t think in terms of ‘Islam’, study and interact with Muslims (practice rather than theory). Don’t think everything or nothing is religion, or that it is inherently separate from politics (or not!). And don’t think you can argue for political and civil rights and leave social and economic rights to the ‘market’. That bifurcation works when trying to pedagogically teach students about human rights, but that is not how actual humans live their lives.

R&D: As we have seen again recently, violent attacks committed by Muslims in Western countries lead to renewed calls to get tough on Islamic extremism and even to restrict the numbers of Muslim immigrants and refugees. This then feeds perceptions that Western countries are Islamophobic, which feeds right into Islamist narratives about the West. How can Western policymakers help to break this vicious cycle?

Parsi: They have failed quite miserably so far. For several reasons. They accede to the narrative of immigrants vs. natives in terms of values and behaviour. They avoid having to contradict the sections of their electorate that peddle rumours and lies spread through social media. In a sense their domestic failure mirrors the failure of their foreign policy towards the region: they have neglected their own underclass, instead assuming that the great shifts of a globalised economy will magically benefit everyone. This combined with a neglect of how to integrate immigrant communities has led to segmented societies where far-right nationalism mobilises the anti-elite resentment of the white population, but redirects it against the immigrant section of society. The Islamists in turn mobilise (a relatively small) disaffected section of Muslim immigrants against mainstream society and the state. Some then go further down the rabbit hole and become jihadists.

This is no longer a question of perceptions but of political and sociological realities in Western countries. And these are not issues that can be remedied through marches or proclamations. Nor will draconian legal measures resolve the tensions. It will require a sustained principled conversation about the social, political and economic contract – for everyone.

R&D: With the election of Joe Biden, what do you see as the future of the Iran nuclear deal? Do things just revert back to the pre-Trump status quo, or has too much changed in the past four years?

Parsi: The pre-Trump world is gone. While Biden has signalled that he wants to return to the JCPOA he is also surrounded by people conditioned by political calculations and schemes that are too clever by half – some argue Biden should use the ‘leverage’ Trump supposedly has amassed to extract further concessions from Iran. That is a dead end. The United States needs to return to the agreement and Iran needs to go back to full compliance. Only then can the trust in the US be restored and they can hopefully address other issues.