An Interview with Professor Malik Mufti

Interviewer: Han Sung Lim

Malik Mufti is a professor of International Relations and Middle East at Tufts University 

Q. Could you give a short introduction of yourself?

My name is Malik Mufti and I teach political science at Tufts. My father is from Jordan and my mother is from Turkey, so I have a natural familiarity with the Middle East. My father was a diplomat and we lived in many countries both in the Middle East and outside, so from an early age I was surrounded by and attracted to political questions. I think that’s what led me to this position for sure.

Q. Reading through your works, a consistent theme is Pan Arabism. One of your books particularly is Pan Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq, and there you mention King Abdullah I of Jordan, who had the dream of uniting Syria, Palestine, and Jordan under one leadership. Do you think that the vision of a united Arab world is possible?

It seems very unlikely that the Arab countries today – even though they are parts of one Arab nation – will integrate into a unified state any time soon. That’s been a dream of Arab nationalists since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and there is a strong sense that Arab unity was unfairly prevented by the post-World War I powers Britain and France. There’s a lot of bitterness associated with that. At the same time, practical obstacles – such as which leaders would be willing to give up power in favor of others – remain prohibitive as well.  That was really the topic of my first book, to understand how the various Pan-Arab unity attempts came about, and why ultimately nothing came of them. In that way, I was trying to understand the dynamics of political development and state building in the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and that fundamental question has remained a consistent focus throughout my subsequent research. I want to know how this situation in the Middle East came about, and where it’s headed. So my first book looked at the establishment of the state system, especially in the Arab world. My second book looked at the strategic culture of Turkey, which is not an Arab country but of course another successor state to the Ottoman Empire, to analyze the ongoing debate between a narrower republican understanding of Turkish nationalism and a broader civilizational attachment to other former regions of the Ottoman Empire.  And my third book, which I hope will be published this year, goes back in history to see if older Islamic political thinkers have anything of value to contribute to contemporary debates in a Middle East where the entire political order in place since World War I appears to be under serious stress and crisis. What does this crisis consist of? Where is it headed? What are the major available political alternatives? My own sense is that we’re heading ultimately toward a kind of democratic liberal system, but what will happen along the way, and what kinds of challenges will arise? I believe the great Muslim political philosophers of the Middle Ages, who considered different types of regimes and tried to distinguish between virtuous and defective regimes, have much to say to us today.

Q. And I think one of those thinkers is Ibn Khaldun?

That’s right. I wrote an article about him, which has now grown into a section of my latest book. It’s called The Art of Jihad: Realism in Islamic Political Thought. In it, I argue that medieval thinkers such as Ibn Khaldun, and before him Ibn Rushd, Farabi and others, promoted reason and the freedom to inquire. The ways in which they attempted to do so in the context of the kind of regimes they lived under at that time – regimes that were neither democratic nor liberal – offer valuable lessons for us today as well.

Q.  Ibn Rushd, known as Averoes, promoted Aristotelian ideas, and in my understanding Aristotle believed that a state should be governed by virtue and as an extension, good citizenship. Do you think that his ideas would still be relevant today with the clash between secular liberalism and populist religious movements?

I think very much so. We have a lot to learn from the great thinkers of the past, both the ancient Greeks, and the Muslim thinkers who followed them and who believed that philosophers have a duty to be good citizens and to try to reform their societies.

Q. And the problem is, it’s very hard to implement. I think in one of your articles you talk about how the democratic movements in the Middle East got stomped down by the authoritarian regimes and one of the lessons learned is that violence isn’t the mechanism to bring about change. But then again the premise that you stated was that these secular authoritarian nationalist governments are too powerful to overcome by force. How do we implement, liberal ideas, if that’s the best way to go, when these governments are too strong to push out?

That’s the question that everyone is confronting in the region today. One aspect of the argument I’m trying to make is that because they were unable to overcome by force the secular nationalist regimes, mainstream Islamist movements in the Arab world and Turkey are coming to understand that their only alternative is to win popular support through electoral politics. So it’s not that they started out democratic, but that they are becoming democratic by necessity. At the same time, many secularists in the region are also coming to the realization that they cannot crush and suppress majority sentiment – generally religious, generally conservative – indefinitely, and so must come to some kind of accomodation with it. The point is that the recognition by both sides that they can’t win by force will hopefully lead both of them into an increasingly democratic kind of politics. I suggest that despite all the setbacks and detours in Turkey, that’s basically been the story of Turkish politics since 1950. In the end, the only hope for democracy is for these two two sides, the secular nationalist and the populist Islamist, to agree to play within the rules of the democratic game. As you mentioned earlier, the Arab Spring has to a large extent been crushed. But that doesn’t mean we’re at the end of the story – we’re just at its beginning in the Arab world, in Turkey, and in Iran.

Q. Do you think that Erdogan is doing a better job than his predecessors in pushing forward this democratic dynamic?

Erdoğan’s AK Party began with the promise of a truly democratic Islamist movement. Then it was confronted by some serious challenges, such as the opposition of the Gülen movement and the coup attempt in 2016. As a result of all this, we now see a much more authoritarian turn in Turkish politics. It’s very dispiriting for those who hoped that the AK Party would propel Turkish democracy forward. I suppose it remains possible that this turns out to be a temporary reaction to the coup attempt and that the AK Party will return to its original democratic and multicultural principles. But the signs don’t look good.

Q. It was fascinating to read about Ahmet Davutoğlu’s book Alternative Paradigms and his questioning of Western political views. It raises the question: Why should liberalism and democracy hold sway, and why should they be models for the Middle East?

That’s a big question. We live in a democratic age. The prevailing spirit of our age is democratic. It started with the Enlightenment in Europe but it’s become hegemonic worldwide. It’s hard to imagine an alternative to democracy as a preferable political regime. Like it or not, we live in an age where people feel that they have a right to political representation and want to hold their governments accountable. I think that’s generally a positive thing. But it brings with it certain challenges as well; challenges that were identified already by al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd. While they both had positive things to say about democracy, they also noted that it tends to promote the private good over the public good. It tends to promote selfishness. These are problems that need to be corrected, to be addressed by each generation. I think that’s the way to approach the issue: not seek some preferable alternative to democracy, but to address its flaws.

Q. Do you think that in a more modern interpretation of Islam would serve as a complement to the problems that liberal democracies have?

I don’t think by itself. Ultimately, the shortcomings of democracy are a political issue and have to be addressed politically. I don’t think you’ll find answers in religious texts. One of Ibn Rushd’s main points is that Scripture does not answer all our problems, because its interpretation varies so widely. So we have to exercise human reason and political wisdom instead in order to find solutions.

Q. All our discussion so far has been on principles. Do you think that Syria poses a counter-example?

I think it’s much too early to reach any conclusions. What happened in Syria and other countries reflects an upheaval of popular desire for a freer form of government. There’s no question about that. Due to all kinds of reasons the regime has withstood these demands so far. But in the long run, it will not be able to. I don’t think the powerful yearning for freedom and representation – for which half a million lives have been sacrificed – is going to go away. I don’t think the story of Syria is over by any means.

Q. I know there’s a lot of issues surrounding refugees in Europe. From my understanding there are two types of jihad: struggling within yourself…

Jihad means struggle. Traditionally, a distinction is made between the “greater jihad” – which is internal or spiritual – and the “lesser jihad,” which refers to military action. However, both are components of Islamic doctrine. It would be a mistake to say that it’s just one or the other.

Q. Then, how should western societies understand the rise of terrorism – if it can be called that way – in the name of Jihad? Would it be simply a phenomenon of countering cultural clashes? What’s your perspective?

It is unfortunate that the concept of jihad has become associated with the terroristic actions of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaida. In fact, jihad is comparable to the idea of just war in the Christian tradition. Sometimes, you need to fight a war to correct an injustice or for self-defense. In other words, there are legitimate reasons in Islam for the prosecution of warfare. That does not mean, however, that anything goes. There is a whole library of scholarly debates on what is allowed and what is not allowed under the rubric of jihad, and certainly the terrorist acts we see today wouldn’t be considered acceptable.

Q. In your observation of trends so far, what’s the core issue the Middle East must settle in order to move forward?

Precisely the question of political regime: of identity and representation. These are the key questions. Who are we as a political unit? What is our identity and how do we govern ourselves? Is our primary political identity national? Is it religious? Is it ethnic? All these alternative conceptions are competing with each other today. At the same time you also have debates on what kind of government people want: from the liberal to the ISIS models, and everything in between. Ibn Khaldun integrated all these notions of identity, representation, and consent into his concept of asabiyya. It means “we feeling” – what makes us a community. We see the political order established after WWI collapsing. The upheavals of the Arab Spring and the erosion of states and borders are all signs of that collapse. What is going to take its place? Which direction are we going to go? This is still up in the air, and all kinds of alternatives – hopeful as well as terrible – lie before us.