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Saturday, February 28, 2015

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‘New’ Middle East not so new: scholar

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Mordechai Kedar

MONTREAL — The Arab Spring is more like an Islamist winter, says Arab-world scholar Mordechai Kedar, with countries degenerating into fragmented, tribal strife, violence and Islamic fundamentalism.

But in some ways that could be to Israel’s benefit, Kedar, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who is associated with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, argued at the Canadian Zionist Federation eastern region’s recent annual Zave Ettinger Memorial Lecture in Montreal.

 “The Syrian state is fragmented, so that’s good for Israel,” Kedar said to an audience of about 100 at Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation.

The Syrian regime under Bashar Assad, who is now reportedly killing his own people because they want his ouster, failed to create any sense of “awareness” of one peoplehood that could have helped the country move toward independence, instead of continuing on as an Iranian client-state.

“Assad was seeking legitimacy, but that is not going to happen,” said Kedar, who speaks Arabic fluently.

Kedar said he recently launched another research centre at Bar-Ilan that will require scholars to have knowledge of Arabic and other languages, because that is essential for proper understanding of the Arab world.

He is still asked about his controversial 2008 interview in Arabic on the satellite TV news channel Al Jazeera  – still viewable on YouTube – in which he asserted that Jerusalem belonged to the Jews, “when your forefathers… were burying girls alive and worshipping pre-Muslim idols…”

During his synagogue talk, Kedar was less polemical but still characteristically blunt. The Arab Spring and the democratic “new Middle East” that was supposed to come about after the Egyptian government fell about a year ago is obviously not going to happen, in Kedar’s view.

“This, of course, became the mantra of journalists,” but, he asked, is the “new” Middle East really new?

In Egypt, he said, three-quarters of the Egyptian regional council is “very Islamist.”

In Libya, leader Moammar Gadhafi is dead, but “everyone is fighting each other.”

In Morocco, there are now free elections, ostensibly a positive development, but that is tempered by the success of Islamists in those same elections. In Tunisia, Kedar said, tribalism abounds, as does Islamist encroachment and influence. Iraq, he noted, has 74 tribes, with its many clans fighting among themselves in a relatively small country, not to mention the ongoing strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

 “It’s not like Canada,” Kedar said, “where you have 20 rivers every 10 kilometres. Iraq is a failing state.”

In spite of the influence of modernism from the West, Kedar said, the vast majority of the Middle East has not budged from the mores and traditions that have kept the Arab world prisoners of its past.

In this environment, he said, Israel remains the only real democracy in the Middle East, and a society where issues like women sitting in the rear of public busses pales by comparison.

“Israel is a bastion of stability and sanity,” he said.

Even if you think Israeli-Arabs are “second-class” citizens in Israel, “they would prefer to be second class there than first class somewhere else in the Middle Eastern alternatives,” Kedar said.

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