Reflections on the Middle East, Islam, and Foreign Policy: An Interview with H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer FRSA is an academic, think-tank analyst, and media commentator who researches the interchange between public policy, international relations, security studies, and religion. His work is focused on the West and the Arab world—the two worlds that he is originally from by heritage and by upbringing.

A scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Dr Hellyer is fellow of Cambridge University’s Centre for Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and Senior Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

In this interview Religion & Diplomacy editor Judd Birdsall asks Hellyer a range of questions pertaining to the Middle East and to Western engagement with the region.

Judd Birdsall: You have been skeptical of the recent normalizations between Israel and some Arab states. Some observers took the normalizations as signifying that the Palestinian issue is now less of a flashpoint in the Middle East, but you disagree. What are you seeing in the region?

H.A. Hellyer

H.A. Hellyer: For decades, the main reason for the lack of normalisation of relations between the Israelis and the peoples of the region—Arabs, Kurds, Berbers among many other groups in the wide tapestry of the region—has been the lack of a just resolution to the ‘Palestine Question’. In the absence of that resolution, the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, a lack of agreement on the status of the city of Jerusalem, and the refugee issue, have all remained.

I do not think this has fundamentally changed. Public opinion among the populations in the wider Arab world continues to be deeply sympathetic towards the Palestinians, and that’s not likely to change very soon. The ‘normalisation deals’ were precisely that – deals, between political elites, for different political reasons. But none of them were based on a people-to-people desire to draw closer together – i.e., normalisation. Cairo and Tel Aviv have had a peace deal for four decades; normalisation hasn’t taken effect, as the people-to-people element is absent if the Palestinian crisis remains. The same when it comes to Amman; and I daresay this will be the same for the vast majority of the region, until there’s a solution.

I think what we are seeing is less about the deals signifying a great difference in terms of Palestine’s importance. Rather, there’s a shift in calculus among certain political elites seeing there’s something to be gained by stepping up relations with the Israelis. The UAE is keen to develop a new security architecture in the region, and this move was a part of that; Morocco, as another example, saw an opportunity for Rabat’s claim over the Western Sahara to be recognised by DC, with relatively little being done in terms of relations with Tel Aviv; Sudan was placed in a terribly difficult position, due to the crippling situation it was in, and increasing relations with Tel Aviv—though, again, not particularly much—was a way, and perhaps the only way, out of that situation. And even so, all the capitals that stepped up their relations account for a small percentage of the Arab world, and less so the region—which is why I noted this is thus far about political elites. The grassroots are needed for any normalisation to be genuine.

Now, does any of this mean that Palestine is a priority, politically speaking, in the region? No, and it hasn’t been for years, even before the Arab revolutionary uprisings of 2011. The peoples of the region have had crisis after crisis come upon them. And the tumult of the revolutionary uprisings, followed by the counter-revolutionary waves thereafter, have made many in the region simply exhausted, trying to keep up with their own issues and problems. But normalisation is not simply the lack of war, even when combined with elite relationships; it’s the absence of confrontation, and the presence of people-to-people interactions. And in spite of everything that came about pre-2011, remember: the Palestinian flag was still raised in the protests from Morocco to Tunisia to Egypt to Syria. The symbolism of that struggle has resonance still, and I reckon will continue to have in the future in the hearts and minds of broad swatches of different populations.

Birdsall: In 2018 the TPNRD published a policy report arguing that the language of FoRB—e.g. “religious freedom”—can be foreign or even threatening in a variety of non-Western contexts. The authors argued for the use of terms or concepts—e.g. harmony, dignity, equality, tolerance, respect—that may be more culturally congruent. As a scholar of Islam and of the Middle East, how do you see this issue of articulating the concept of FoRB?

Hellyer: So, I want to make it clear I’m not dismissing the observations the report had, nor the utility of it. Its empirical base is on specific grassroots organisations in two places in Indonesia and India. I’m more concerned about the discussion on a wider policy level with governments, and also within the broader Arab world. And in that regard, I’m a bit conflicted about this point, to be frank.

In that policy space, I’m not sure it’s about the language being used, per se, and more about the overall context. Without necessarily talking about the religious freedom point specifically, my own experience with autocratic and authoritarian regimes leads me to conclude that the ‘cultural congruent’ argument for many of them is simply a distraction tactic. “You’re being culturally imperialistic, by daring to talk about Western Human Rights! Shame on you! We are a free, independent nation!”, say officials or defenders of these regimes. Of course, it’s nonsense. I led a project at the Atlantic Council a few years ago which resulted in an edited book entitled, The Islamic Tradition and the Human Rights Discourse, and one of the things that our workshops discussed was this distraction tactic.

The fact of the matter is that these governments and regimes, autocratic and all, have signed up to certain international instruments, openly and freely. Do those instruments emanate from a western philosophical frame? Often, I would argue they do; and certainly, there are discussions to be had about how truly universal these are. So, when the objections are expressed on that level of intellectual and ideational consistency, I think there’s a legitimate discussion to be had. But all too often, the objection is just a way to get away from upholding what are basic, common denominator minimum standards, which are shared by all—because they impact on the autocratic and authoritarian structures that exist.

My more immediate concern, to be honest, is that Western governments and politicians often discuss ‘religious freedom’ in such authoritarian states, to the exclusion of a much more comprehensive concern for human rights. The most blatant example is Syria and the Assad regime, where so many Western politicians have been willing to essentially whitewash the regime’s awful record, because they figure the Assad regime is ‘good for Christians’. A colleague of mine, Georges Fahmi, and I, commented on this, in reference to a report that was coming out:

[Identitarian populism] is bound up, for example, with unethical calls for alignments with dictators and autocrats in the Arab world, who presumably “defend” Christians. But as members of minority communities and scholars that look at the threats facing them from extremist groups, we recognise that the future of Christians in Arab world and the wider region cannot be [examined] independently from addressing the challenges facing the region as a whole ― including, most certainly, anti-Christian sectarianism.

That kind of discourse is dangerous, and deeply immoral.

Birdsall: In the years after 9/11 and subsequent attacks in Europe a number of Western governments framed new diplomatic initiatives around “engaging Muslims.” What advice do you have for diplomats and other foreign policy professionals who want to build bridges with Muslim communities without somehow essentializing or exceptionalizing their religion or privileging religious identity over other forms of identity?

Hellyer: I think that’s primarily about literacy. The Berkley Center and I had a discussion about that just before the Biden administration took office, as I’ve engaged on this issue from both sides of the Atlantic. And the overriding issue from my standpoint is to ensure that there is expertise, within the policy establishment, that can be drawn upon to understand what these communities are about. Note: ‘expertise’ doesn’t mean simply relying on interlocutors that have made it their careers to be gatekeepers. It means having genuine knowledge about the makeup of these communities, and their faith traditions.

That can, and in my opinion should, go hand in hand in resisting the creation of what Peter Mandaville describes as the “global Muslim engagement industrial complex,” in Western government establishments. Muslim communities have a plethora of challenges; they exist as majorities, and they exist as minorities; they have a multitude of languages, histories, backgrounds; you can’t reduce that to a simple set of equations. What you can do is try to ensure that where it is relevant to have specific expertise, you should have it; and not beyond that.

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that specific ‘Muslim-engagement’ exists, in different ways, in foreign policy, domestic policy, and in religious freedom issues. To use the United States as an example; in foreign policy, the US will engage with Muslim majority states, and states with Muslim minorities. There is a case for a US special envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has existed for the past dozen or so years, because that’s ‘simply another arena through which dialogue between OIC member states and the most powerful member of the Western alliance can discuss.’ But beyond that, Muslim-majority states ought to be engaged in accordance with non-religious criteria, with authoritarian states being treated as such, democratic ones treated as such, and so on.

Above and beyond that, there is an existing ‘international religious freedom architecture’ which I argue is appropriate for dealing with concerns around Muslim minorities, as well as more general religious minority concerns worldwide. If the architecture is genuinely based on taking up the issues, based on seriousness, as opposed to populist identitarian politics, then officials in office will be focusing on religious minorities worldwide. Yes, the recent US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, did an outsized amount of work on Muslim minorities, but that’s because those concerns are objectively important: the Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, and others.

Where Muslim minorities face religious freedom difficulties that are less severe, Western governments need not engage with them on a central level. That should be left to their embassies around the world, as part of their understanding of the broader national contexts and in the same way they would and should approach other religious minorities.

Birdsall: Even as the Biden Administration brings significant changes to US foreign policy and official rhetoric, what lingering impact will the Trump era have on the MENA region?

Hellyer: By and large, I suspect governments and populations will be content to let the excesses of the Trump years be consigned, in terms of blame, to the Trump administration. Until or if, of course, the Biden administration fails to correct some of the missteps. For example, on the International Criminal Court; an international body specifically tasked to uphold international law, which should be the bedrock of international order. However, the Biden administration continues to sanction senior officials of the ICC, which is a left-over policy from the Trump era that has not been overturned as of yet. More pertinently to the Arab world: when the ICC declared it intended to investigate claims in the Palestinian occupied territories, the Biden administration claimed the court was ‘unfairly targeting Israel’. That’s a missed opportunity to reset perceptions of Washington in the region.

I think there’s also one other major impact that will continue to linger for many years to come, and wholly justifiably, to be quite honest. The mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric and policies—which have found a home in the Republican Party via ‘Trumpism’—has caused a lot of concern in the Arab world, and beyond. Rightly so; the United States is the most powerful country in the world, and a sizeable proportion of its population continues to be quite content to have this kind of rhetoric be mainstreamed. Even the storming of the Capitol in January, which was deeply concerning to outside observers; at least 4 out 10 Republican voters supported that, according to polls taken shortly thereafter. If that view is that impactful on domestic politics, what are the ramifications for foreign policy? These are the kinds of questions being asked by many worldwide, as well as, of course, in the United States itself. And I think they’re right to ask those questions.

Birdsall: Over the course of the past decade, new geopolitical alliances have emerged within the MENA region; alliances that are at least partially related to the role of religion in public life. How should outsiders to the region approach these alliances? Is this really about a divide in terms of the role of religion? Is this basically an ‘Islamist/anti-Islamist’ rift?

Hellyer: It’s a divide about power. There’s a narrative that one side of this divide—the Turks, the Qataris, and Muslim Brotherhood networks—is about promoting democracy, human rights, and revolutionary change, and the other—the Emiratis, the Egyptians, the Saudis—is about authoritarianism and counter-revolution. But anyone who has been watching the various conflicts in MENA since 2011 can see that doesn’t capture the entire picture.

For example, the Qataris and the Emiratis both backed the revolutionary uprising in Syria and Libya in 2011. They bothopposed the revolutionary uprising in Bahrain. All of the elements of these axes opposed the uprising in Sudan, and then scrambled to try to salvage relations with the newly emergent authorities. Qatar, Saudi, and the UAE were all part of the coalition in Yemen—until, of course, the 2017 fallout over other issues, but not to do with Yemen. And so on, and so on.

These are, in the main, power divides, based on old-school alliances and alignments about interests. Not as much about ideology as one might think, except the ideology of promoting their own power quotients.

The genuine Arab awakening revolutionary actors, pushing for more accountability, better governance, upholding of fundamental rights and freedoms, as per the 2011 uprisings and thereafter, aren’t likely to find much support among the broader MENA region powers. And I think they know that now. All of these states find all that accountability talk pretty uncomfortable, if it doesn’t match their interests.

Let me be clear—I’m not saying these axes and the states and networks that make them up are ‘the same’, or ‘equally bad’ —that kind of relativism isn’t very useful. The point is that if we’re looking for genuine state supporters of accountability and good governance – the calls that were at the heart of the uprisings – I’m not sure we’ll find any. Moreover, different states play more, or less, negative roles, depending on the crisis, and depending at which stage of that crisis – it’s not always the same actor that is the ‘worst’ actor. It depends heavily on the context, and which is why the navigation in the ‘grey spaces’ that rights activists try to engage in can be very complicated. The sands shift all the time; not in terms of principles, but in what can be done realistically at a particular time.

When it comes to religion, there’s also a lot of complexity involved. Ostensibly, one could presume that Riyadh and Doha would be on the same side; they both uphold purist Salafism. One might even assume that Ankara and Abu Dhabi would be on the same side; they both uphold a historically normative Sunnism. But, of course, Riyadh and Doha are not generally on the same side; nor are Ankara and Abu Dhabi.

Other analyses try to posit this as a ‘secular’ versus ‘religious’, or even ‘Islamist’ kind of divide. It’s probably a bit more accurate, but still off base. Riyadh, Cairo, and Abu Dhabi all have, very much, established that religion ought to play a role in the public sphere—and quite a large one at that. The same, of course, is true for the other axis – in fact, it is fundamental to that axis So, if we are talking about the instrumentalisation of religion for partisan political purposes, that’s an equal opportunity enterprise in the region, by and large. It’s why figures like Shaykh Emad Effat, who was killed in Egypt at the end of 2011, becomes so symbolic for young people and those in particularly the Arab world, who value their religion, but don’t wish it to be seen as a political tool to justify oppression of any sort.

So, does the issue of what kind of interpretation of religion come into understanding what is going on? Yes, sure, because it makes a difference in the analytical framing, whether we’re talking about a political power that draws on, or instrumentalises, religion via the medium of purist Salafism; or modernist Salafism/Muslim Brotherhood-Islamism; or historically normative Sunnism. But that’s hardly the end all and be all of anything.

What’s also fundamental here, and even more so depending on the state we’re talking about, is how the state is conceptualised, and what role the state is thus supposed to have, within these countries. And also, are we including in the framing, the temptation to engage in activities that bring about flux in the region, for better or for worse? Are we including in the framing the desire—nay, even the demand —to buttress whatever forces can hold the status quo in place, even if that status quo is inherently destabilising for the future.

As such, I have to say—it’s politics. And it’s religion… but it’s mostly politics.