The Islamic State and the Aftermath of Paris

The Islamic State and the Aftermath of Paris

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
from Religion and Foreign Policy Webinars

More on:


Radicalization and Extremism


Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, discusses the global response to the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Egypt and policy options for addressing the Islamic State moving forward, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.


Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, CFR


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program & Outreach, CFR 

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,

We are delighted to have Steven Cook with us today. In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Dr. Cook will begin first with an overview of ISIS and talk about the response to those terrorist attacks, and then pivot to the Group of 20 Summit in Turkey and the political climate in the country following parliamentary elections earlier this month.

Dr. Cook is CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, and he’s the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” which won the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gold Medal for the best book on the Middle East in 2012. He is also the author of “Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey,” as well as the CFR blog “From the Potomac to the Euphrates,” which can be read by visiting And you can also follow him on Twitter @StevenACook.

So, Steven, thanks very much for being with us today. It would be great if you could talk a little bit about ISIS in light of the terrorist attacks of Paris.

COOK: Great. Thanks so much, Irina. It’s a real pleasure to be with you all. I’m calling in from Washington, D.C. I hope everybody’s doing well.

It’s a pleasure to be here. And as Irina indicated, this call was supposed to be about Turkey in the—after its November 7th elections, and that’s a topic I’ll get to—I’ll get to soon. But I know that many people have Paris and the Islamic State on their minds, so I’ll spend a few minutes talking about ISIS as a phenomenon, though without getting too much into the weeds of what’s going on in Paris or Belgium or now, apparently this afternoon, in Hannover, New Jersey—Hannover, Germany, apologies.

And I think it’s important to understand ISIS as a phenomenon, and step back a bit and understand why what’s happening now is happening now. Why is it that ISIS has been as—and I put this in air quotes; I realize you can’t see me—why ISIS has been “successful.” And I think what’s lost is the fact that this is an organization that has been around under one heading or another since the late 1990s. It was actually founded in 1999. But it has not had the same kind of success that it has had up until 2014, and I think the reason for that—there’s multiple reasons why ISIS has emerged in the way that it has over the course of the last couple of years. And let me just go through a series of failures in the Middle East and then talk a little bit about how to fight ISIS and what the appropriate response might be, and I’ll tie it all together.

But the first failure that I think has contributed to this phenomenon has quite obviously been the failure of the Iraq project between—that began in 2003. The violence that we’re seeing in Iraq right now are not some effort to hold onto Iraq as a unified, federal state, but actually are Iraq’s wars of dissolution. And in these wars of dissolution, the Islamic State has moved in and has quite obviously taken over territory, but has been successful in taking over territory for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into. But it’s important to understand that this process of dissolution in Iraq has been going on for 12 years, and it has provided an opportunity for the Islamic State.

The second failure in the region is the failure of the Arab republics. We saw—this is something that’s been a long time—a long time in coming, but we saw it actually before our eyes beginning in late 2010 throughout 2011, and stretching into 2012, with uprisings around the region. And you know, when we think about uprisings now we think about Tunisia, we think about Egypt, we think about Libya, we think about Syria. But there were uprisings throughout. I was just in Oman a few weeks ago. There was an uprising in Oman during what people call the Arab Spring. And Oman is not a republic, but Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria certainly have called themselves that. In those countries, the social contracts at the heart of those republics that were to—that were a way of establishing political quiescence and allegiance became frayed over a long period of time, or actually were torn—didn’t really exist over a period of 40 and 50 and 60 years in some cases.

The third failure is coming on the failure of the Arab republics are the failure of the Arab uprisings. And that is the inability of would-be revolutionary forces to outmaneuver defenders of the old system and actually build a decent political order in these countries. What we see in Egypt is resurgent authoritarianism. We see in Libya a disintegration of the country. Syria has fallen in this vortex of violence that is spinning out instability throughout the region. Even Tunisia, which has been, you know, held out as a—as a great success story, what’s really happened in Tunisia is a soft restoration of the—of the old political order. It’s not necessarily those forces representing specifically the deposed dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but certainly his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba. I think that Tunisia needs a lot of help to get to the place where people have assumed it already is or the way in which they talk about it.

The fourth failure is the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiment in governance in Egypt in 2011 and 2012 and part of 2013 that led to the July 3rd – July 3rd, 2013 coup d’état that brought Mohamed Morsi, the elected president of Egypt who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, brought his short tenure to an end. And it is true that those forces representing the old order in Egypt made things as difficult as possible for Morsi and an Egyptian parliament that had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s part before that parliament was closed, clearly an indication that the forces of the old guard were seeking to undermine them. But at the same time, the Brotherhood proved itself to be authoritarians. They proved themselves to be what social scientists call high modernists; that is, that they have a particular majoritarian view of politics and believed that they had a mandate to transform the country consistent with their own vision, regardless of what others believed was the right path for Egypt. And they also proved themselves to be not very good, largely incompetent, and it all came to a very unhappy end. And this had an effect on the rest of the region. The entire region was looking at Egypt at this time—the entire world was, in fact—and there was a belief that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups around the Middle East had an appealing vision that would help reorder politics in the region. And that clearly did not happen.

And then the final two failures—and I apologize before I get into them; they are somewhat contradictory, but hear me out.

The first is the failure of the United States to take action in Syria before that conflict became what it was. There was a moment in late 2011 and 2012 where one could imagine that an intervention would have saved us from the humanitarian disaster that we currently confront, and it might have made a positive difference. There are, of course, no guarantees that it would have, but there was the possibility. Since that time, this is a conflict that has evolved from an uprising—a peaceful uprising among people who were seeking to change government in their own country—this was really an uprising about who got to govern Syria, and how. And the present leadership militarized that conflict, and it evolved into not just a civil war, but a zone of extremist violence, proxy wars between regional actors, and now a zone of great-power competition. After 2012, certainly by 2013 and the infamous red line and chemical weapons—the revelation that the Syrians were using chemical weapons, it was hard to see how the United States can intervene and make the situation better. But there was that moment, and the failure to do so I think has had a profound impact on the region and a profound impact on this rise of ISIS—or not just the—not really the rise of it, but its success at this moment.

And then, finally, the failure to actually foresee events in Libya the way it was—that the intervention in Libya, and the way in which it was conducted and its aftermath, set in motion a process in which this country would disintegrate, in which the result would be ungoverned spaces and chaos in which extremist organizations tend to thrive.

And I think that when you take all of that together, what you have is an environment of failure and an environment of dispossession, of uprootedness, of people not having anything on which to grasp. The alternative to the republics was seemingly the Muslim Brotherhood. The alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood was what? The failure to develop more decent and open and democratic societies have left people disoriented.

And take those things together with civil war in Syria, the dissolution of Iraq, and people, they’re—what I’m trying to get at here is that there is an identity component. And the Islamic State has moved in and has offered people a sense of belonging, a sense of identity, a sense of citizenship, a sense of being part of a grand religious project, whether you agree with their religious interpretations or not. And there are very few that do, but they do offer that. And it has resonated with a very small number of people who have gone to Raqqa and Mosul, and who are fighting in the Sinai Peninsula and Libya. And the violence is coming to—has come to Paris and other places.

But it is—there is what’s—and I think what’s missing in the debate and the discussion of ISIS so far is that it does—whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, everybody thought it would offer this appealing vision; that in this environment of failure, the Islamic State offers an emotionally appealing vision for the future that resonates for certain people. And that’s why they have been successful at times they haven’t been before. As I said, this is an organization that was founded 16 years ago.

So the question is really, what do we do about it? Well, we have a responsibility to our allies, and that means that the United States will be engaged in combat against the Islamic State. It may be from the air. It may be by missiles. It may be by small numbers of Special Operations forces. And the—and the United States can bring a lot of force to bear, along with coalition partners. The French have obviously stepped it up. Now it seems the Russians are. After they have finally admitted that the Islamic State brought down that airliner over the Sinai Peninsula, they have now started targeting the Islamic State. Although, interestingly, a lot of the Arab allies who are part of the coalition have drifted away because they’re focused, really, on Yemen. But needless to say, the United States can bring a significant amount of force to bear on the Islamic State.

But let’s be clear about something: this won’t defeat the Islamic State. I’m sure everybody on the call remembers the name Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Qaida in Iraq was a forerunner of ISIS. It really wasn’t al-Qaida. It was—they called themselves al-Qaida really for branding purposes, to put it bluntly. Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, and people went along afterwards blithely believing that somehow we had defeated al-Qaida in Iraq when we actually hadn’t. And my point is, is that you can bring a lot of force to bear on the Islamic State, you can kill a lot of people in the process, but what’s at the heart of the ISIS phenomenon is this—these ideas, and these ideas in this environment of failure.

And this is a political—and in ways—and this is all of yours expertise—a theological fight among Muslims; and that, where the United States is going to provide a tremendous amount of firepower because they are a threat to the United States, its allies and its interests—not just in the Middle East, but around the world—Washington—American policymakers don’t really have a role to play in this political and theological fight. The big question that people have are, who is actually going to undertake this fight on behalf of the Muslim world? If you look at some of the things that the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia has been saying, there’s a lot of concern that they’re creating ISIS militants in the process.

I think the good news is—and my colleague Farah Pandith knows quite a bit about this—but that there is a blossoming of Muslims in social media and other places who are directly taking on the Islamic State and challenging—and challenging what they have to say. It’s not coordinated. It comes from many different directions. But I think over time—I hope over time it will be effective. But that’s over time. In the meantime, it is very hard to take care of this problem by force alone, which means that we’re going to be living with this problem, I think, for an extended period of time.

That’s my ISIS talk—at least, a brief version of my ISIS talk at a 30,000-foot level. I’m more than happy to engage on that issue. But let me—since we promised you a little bit of analysis on Turkey, let me just offer a few thoughts on Turkey after the elections. As Irina pointed out, the G-20 summit in in Antalya, Turkey has wrapped up. And you know, as it began, there were many Turks, many Turkish journalists in particular, who took to social media to ask President Obama, and Secretary Kerry, and other senior American officials whether in the president’s bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would bring up the issue of press freedoms and other political and personal rights that they feel are under threat in Turkey.

And I think that’s the big story in Turkey after the elections. I think that the very fact that there were elections in Turkey on November 7th indicates the extent to which President Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have hollowed out Turkey’s political institutions. Just think about this sequence of events. There was a national election in June. President Erdogan did not like the outcome of that election. In the outcome, the Justice and Development Party only won 40 percent of the vote, which is—which is—you know, it’s hard to say only 40 percent of the vote, but it was a defeat by the yardstick of their previous success, which had been in 2007 47 percent of the vote, 2011 49.9 percent of the vote.

So President Erdogan sabotaged coalition talks between the Justice and Development Party and other parties, and after 45 days called for new elections. In between this time when there was what was called a hung parliament and elections on November 7th, he helped create an environment that was more conductive to the Justice and Development Party winning back some of those votes. And, lo and behold, on November 7th, the Justice and Development Party won 49.4 percent of the popular vote, regaining its parliamentary majority. Those kinds of things don’t happen in a democracy. The president of a country can’t say, you know what? I don’t like the—I don’t like the outcome of these elections. We’re all going to have to do it over again. And you’re going to vote the right way the next time. And I think this speaks to the fact that 10 years after the European Commission recommended that Turkey begin formal negotiations to join the European Union that Turkey looks less like a European liberal democracy, and more like a Middle Eastern autocracy.

So the question is, how then—how did he go about doing this? How did he go about, you know, the 49—going from 40 percent of the vote to 49 percent in this short period of time? Well, there was a stepped up effort to put pressure on the opposition press. Opponents of Erdogan in the press were shut down. Journalists were jailed. Virtually the only thing that people saw, and heard, and read in the run-up to the November 7th elections was the pro-Justice and Development Party line. And this is a story—this is the extension of a story that’s been going on in Turkey for quite some time, in which the Justice and Development Party has forced changes in ownership of media companies in order to create this kind of virtual ministry of information in Turkey.

The second thing he did is he attacked very hard—President Erdogan attacked very hard to the nationalist right. And he stole votes away from the Nationalist Movement Party, which could not capitalize—as a result of how far to this nationalist end of the spectrum that Erdogan and the AKP went, this prevented the Nationalist Movement Party, which had previously occupied this space, though not exclusively, it couldn’t capitalize on the resurgence of violence between the Turkish state and a terrorist organization called the Kurdistan Workers Party, known more commonly by its Turkish acronym PKK, that has been waging a war against Turkey since 1984, but it has kind of waxed and waned over the course of the last 10 years or so, especially since Erdogan himself as prime minster launched a peace process with the PKK.

And then, of course, there was the conflict with the PKK. I would never go so far as to suggest that President Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party created the conflict with the PKK, but they certainly took advantage of it politically, much to their benefit when Turkish voters went to the polls on November 7th. And this—you know, very often when people are talking about Turkey these days, they’re talking about President Erdogan, President Erdogan, President Erdogan, and what he’s done, and so on and so forth. Let’s not forget the fact that there is a core constituency—a very large core constituency for the Justice and Development Party that has responded to what is an impressive track record for the party.

Whether you like their politics or not they have given Turks better infrastructure. They have given them better transportation options. They have given them health care. There is something called Erdogan-care. Turks are—after 13 years of Justice and Development Party rule—are wealthier than they’ve been before. And also, the Justice and Development Party has an appealing version for Turkey’s future, whereas the opposition parties have never been able to generate a kind of excitement or appeal based on a vision, because they don’t really have one. Their vision has basically been anti-Erdogan, anti-Justice and Development Party.

So what are the implications of the outcome of this election, now that the Justice and Development Party has its parliamentary majority back? Well, they are a number of seats short of having—of being able to change the constitution themselves, or through a referendum. But those seats can be purchased. I put purchased in air quotes. And I think Erdogan, now that they have a parliamentary majority for the next four years, sees that he has time in order to kind of work the political system so that he gets what he wants, which is to alter the political system from a mixed parliamentary presidential system, where most of the executive power flows to the prime minister, to a new system which Turks refer to as the executive presidency. And that’s his goal, and it looks like he’s going to continue to seek that. Now he has a bit more time order to make that happen.

I think we’ll see in Turkey going forward instability—not only political instability, a kind of continued opposition. There were these Gezi Park protests in 2013, they really haven’t ended. And the country is quite polarized. One of the astonishing ironies about Erdogan and the AKP is that he rode to power in 2002 and then rode to power again in 2007 on a kind of inclusive message. There was a broad coalition that returned—that elected him. Since that time, he has seen his political future and political success in dividing Turkey, in polarizing Turkey. And he’s been successful in doing it. So you’re going to see that kind of instability, and then you’re also going to see a continuation of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state.

Overall—and I’ll end here because I’ve certainly gone well-beyond the time Irina has allotted to me—overall I think what you will see in Turkey is an authoritarian political system, and an unstable—and an unstable Turkey, where there is bloodshed, where there is a war with the PKK, where they are targeted by the Islamic State. It’s unfortunate that I can’t share with you any really good news about anything going on, whether it’s in Turkey or the region, But unfortunately that’s the world in which we live. I’m happy to open it up to questions and hear what’s on your minds. Thank you so much.

FASKIANOS: Terrific. Thank you, Steven. That was a great overview and also very sobering. So let’s open it up to the group for questions and comments.

 OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Currently holding for questions.

COOK: I scared everybody into silence.

OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Association.

Q: Yes. Hi, thank you for the talk. Sorry, I’m in a very loud place. But my question is, what leverage does the United States and the European Union have on Turkey? Is there anything we can be doing to foster a more democratic outcome than the one that you’re painting?

COOK: Well, it’s a great question. And I think that historically, you know, the incentive of European Union membership has helped Turkey in terms of providing—there was enough support in Turkey that it allowed the Justice and Development Party in the early 2000s and the government that preceded it to do some important reforms that would—that would bring Turkey into line with European Union norms. And that’s what ultimately led to this invitation to begin European Union membership. Since that time, because the Europeans weren’t actually so interested in Turkey joining the European Union, I think the Europeans haven’t yet made up their minds whether the European Union is a group of countries that have come together based on a set of ideals and principles and norms, or whether it’s a geographic place coterminous with essentially Christian countries.

And as a result because they haven’t resolved that question among themselves, they’re kept—despite opening negotiations with Turkey they kept Turkey at arm’s length, and immediately closed or froze chapters of the treaty that needs to be negotiated before Turkey can join the European Union members—join the European Union. And this had a profound effect not just on the way in which Turks viewed the European Union, but the willingness of Turkish governments to continue to undertake reforms. So that’s one part.

I think now, actually, Turkey has some leverage over the European Union. And we saw that recently in Angela Merkel’s pre-election visit with Erdogan, in which she said to him: Here’s a number of things that we, Germans, and I will do my best to deliver the rest of Europe—we’re willing to do for you if you help on the refugee issue, because we’re totally overwhelmed. And so what did she offer? She offered to pay a big chunk of what Turkey’s already spent on the 2 million refugees it hosts. She’s offered visa free travel to the Europe Union, something Turks have wanted for a very long time. And a variety of other things.

And those were things that Erdogan was willing to pocket. It seems—it seems craven, but certainly rational, on the part of Merkel to offer that, given the refugee crisis that they’re facing. So I think it seems to me that the leverage that the European Union once had may now be lost.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Homi Gandhi with Fezana.

Q: Thank you. This is Homi Gandhi from Fezana.

Thank you very much, Mr. Cook, for articulating the vacuum which has been created in ISIL, or for the growth of ISIL. And you mentioned quite a lot of failures on the part of the U.S. and the West of going into Iraq, then helping out to remove the Libyan head, and then finally not taking action on Syria. But there have been other reasons why ISIL has progressed. And fundamentally, it is one of the infighting which has also been taking place in the religious groups or Islamic groups, which is—which led many Arab states and other states to pour in money in helping ISIL. And that created a financial help to ISIL in stabilizing whatever state it has created. Can you enlighten us on that aspect?

COOK: Well, sure. Certainly the failures that I outlined were not specifically just failures of the West. And there’s certainly failures within the Arab World. I think, though, that the idea that the conflicts among states in the region have directly supported—that they somehow directly supported the Islamic state as a result of these conflicts, no one’s ever provided evidence of this. It’s certainly the case that the Saudis, the Qataris, and the Turks have used resources at their disposal to fund or to turn a blind eye to different extremist groups in fighting Bashar al-Assad. But no one has yet ever uncovered evidence that any of them have coordinated with or provided financial assistance to the Islamic State. Perhaps individuals may have, and that certainly seems entirely reasonable, but these governments? No.

But when we do talk about the chaos of Syria, in particular we’re talking about a proxy war that has been carried out among Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar in particular. And we just have to add the Russians to that as well, and the United States to a lesser extent. This chaos has provided an opportunity for extremist groups, in particular ISIS, to thrive. But I think it’s ahistoric to suggest that this is just a function of the fact of infighting among religious groups or people in—or different governments in the region. Remember, the Islamic State existed in one form or another beginning in 1999. So there’s, I think, something more to it than just that.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the Tereska Lynam with the University of Oxford.

Q: Hi. Can you hear me?

COOK: Yes, I can.

Q: OK, fantastic. Thank you so much for this excellent talk. And I just wanted to say, I am the Lutheran daughter—descendent—or daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of both Nazi and Russian concentration camp victims. And I bring this up to make the point that in no way is Europe also a stranger to religious extremism. And what we also learn from World War II—Gerald Posner in his excellent book, “God’s Bankers,” talks about the various religious infighting between the Catholics and everyone else, and the money that was involved.

And I think what we—what we learn from World War II and World War I as well, is that peaceful measures, providing that we are talking about that identity through economic security, works far better than blowing people up all the time, and their infrastructure. And I’m wondering how we as members of the Council on Foreign Relations can kind of help our various Western leaders see that it’s probably more helpful to provide aid and a more beautiful alternative to life than ISIL can provide right now.

COOK: Right. You know, I think that—you make, I think, an excellent point. And I think that there’s two obstacles to getting this message across in ways that I think readers will be responsive. First, I think it’s—making that argument is not—politically is extraordinarily difficult at the moment. And we knew this. This is a lesson that we haven’t learned post-September 11th, in that all of the political incentives for the people making decisions, even for a president entering into this last year in office, are to use brute force against the Islamic State. And I’m not saying that I think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think that we do have to answer the kind of outrages that the Islamic State has perpetrated on innocents with a certain amount of firepower. But we should also recognize that, as I said in my start, that this is not an answer because it’s a political and theological issue that is at the heart of this conflict.

So that even—your prescription is an interesting one that, you know, if people have stakes in their own societies and so on and so forth that they wouldn’t be seeking this alternative. The question is, how do we get from where we are now, where we have at least four states in the Middle East that are disintegrating, we have countries that define their internal struggles in existential ways, what tools—what diplomatic tools, what kind of financial resources do we as the United States or we as the West have available to us to have a decisive impact on these situations that seem to be beyond the traditional tools of diplomacy? And then, of course, you have an entire—you know, you have people in the United States—I was—there was a poll that was recently done of Americans who, you know, terrorism is now as high as the economy of their concerns, but still two-thirds of the American people don’t want to get involved in this part of the world, except kind of remotely.

So it is—so, you know, as with everything, and one of the reasons why I’m a political scientist, is that politics often gets in the way of really good ideas to address really difficult problems. And I think that’s something that we’ll run into over and over again. But I think the—you know, the mission of individual scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations is to use our expertise to advance ideas in a way that hopefully, you know, people will—in the government will see as wise and so on. I’ve certainly have been saying this is—you know, the more bombs you drop, the better you may feel. And you may kill some of the important guys. But you’re not going to blow up the ideas and the vision that fuels this phenomenon.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Thomas Walsh from the Universal Peace Federation.

Q: All right. I’d like to get your take a little bit more on the religious factors that are at play here, or maybe the interplay between religion and secularization. And Turkey maybe is a good example of at one point moving toward EU membership, still moving there, but having shifted dramatically, as you indicated in your presentation. But, you know, arguably there’s this broad dynamic going on throughout the region of how to find the balance between efforts at more secular states and secularism versus kind of religious counter forces, a religious resurgent that doesn’t want to go in that direction.

I’m a little bit taking off from, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this book, but Michael Walzer’s book, “The Paradox of Liberation,” that there is this twin dualism and struggle between on the one hand secular liberation movements that build resentment among the religious, and eventually that gives rise at a certain point to religious counter-revolutions. And you know, he points to what has happened to some extent in Israel, and Algeria, and India. So just to kind of see if you have any take on that, on the role and significance of how the religion or, say, the spectrum between those who have a vision of a—of a religiously guided state and a much more secular state. Thank you.

COOK: Great. And you know, a couple of responses. First let me just say that I think that what we are seeing, and actually it’s an important theme, a central theme of a book that I’m now writing, which is that identity and how people—and how people define themselves in relation to the state, what it means to be a citizen of a country, what is the relationship between religion and state and religion and society, what is the state—that particular countries place in the region? All of these things—and a series of questions that people are asking about empowerment and representation and so on and so forth.

A lot of that is part of the political turbulence, and tumult, and violence you see going on in the region right now, and the regression into authoritarianism. No leader in Egypt, for example, has been able to offer that appealing vision that makes sense to most Egyptians, that answers those questions, that satisfies the desire to define themselves in a way that makes sense to people. And post-Egypt uprising, people are not willing to just submit. And so what happens is everything is contested in that environment. And the only answer that leaders have for it are to use violence and authoritarian measures.

That’s not that different at an abstract level in Egypt than it is in Turkey, for example, where suddenly in the spring of 2013, people said: We have had enough of the arrogance of power, police brutality, the way in which the Justice and Development Party defines what citizenship, and identity, and Turkishness is, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, because we have a different view. And that’s something that’s playing out all over the region in ways—like, in Turkey that’s been largely contained with politics. In Egypt, where it’s broken out into violence. In places where the countries have dissolved. And I think this is extraordinarily important.

And it does—I wouldn’t necessarily define it in terms of secular or religious. I would think of it more in terms of how people view themselves and define themselves in relation to their society, their religion, governments, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You’ll have to read the book to get the full kind of thing about it. Anyway, always selling the book.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Q: Thank you.

COOK: In any event, the other—the other part of this is that I feel—these are societies—I don’t know whether these are—I don’t believe that these are struggles between religion and secularism, to be completely honest with you. There is—there are obviously secular forces in countries that view things differently, but it doesn’t strike me that these are specifically religious struggles. Certainly, the Islamic State views itself as an Islamic state, but their appeal—and that’s certainly part of their appeal. But I don’t see how what’s happening in Libya, for example, is a religious struggle. What I see in Egypt—again, although religion is part of it—I see it as a struggle over having to find oneself and what it means to be Egyptian, as opposed to a specifically religious versus secular struggle.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Well, thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Azeem Farooki with the Islamic Center of Rockland, New York.

Q: Thank you very much. Thank you. I have just two questions, Mr. Cook. In fact—

COOK: It’s one question in two parts.

Q: (Laughs.) One question in two parts. Let me ask the second part first. What is—what could happen—or, is it possible that the masses in Syria could be—could find a home in Saudi Arabia? And there is enough land out there to absorb every one of them. And my first question really is, can you imagine—can you imagine if United States left and the other Western powers left the Middle East, what would Middle East look like? Would there be a caliphate? Or will they fight among themselves? What will happen?

COOK: I’ll answer the second part first, since you asked it first. I think that people—first of all, it’s unclear to me what the Saudi policy actually is with regard to refugees in the region, but, you know, like most people who live in the Middle East, Syrian refugees don’t see Saudi Arabia as an attractive alternative to them, even if only temporarily. So you know, whether the Saudis are opening their door or not, and they’re likely not, I mean, this is one of the most closed societies on Earth. And there’s a certain kind of, I don’t want to use the word fascism, but the Saudis have a particular view of who can be what in Saudi Arabia, that it’s not—it’s not an attractive alternative and people would rather take their chances living in either refugee camps in Turkey, and Jordan, or in Lebanon, or trying to make their way to Europe, because they’re seeking a more decent—a more decent life or temporary shelter from horrific violence.

As far as what would happen if the United States left—and the West left the region, you know, this is the subject of—it’s a counterfactual that, of course, nobody knows the answer to, because we haven’t left the region. But of course, this is a huge debate going on in Washington. Has President Obama retrenched too much, and has this too much retrenchment led to this chaos? Or was this chaos bound to happen altogether? Or was this chaos a result of American actions? And I think that—you know, you can make a compelling argument from any one of these perspectives. And I think that’s because that there’s some truth in all of them.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Egon Cholakian with Harvard.

Q: Can you hear me?

COOK: Yes, I can.

Q: All right. Thank you very much for your delivery this afternoon, on target. A question: Within Turkey, what perception do they have of themselves with respect to the turmoils on both sides, on all on their borders, I should say. I don’t know—I cannot think of a situation at least in recent history whereby their borders have—a country’s borders have been consumed with activity on each and every inch of their border, on both sides of the border, I might add. From the—their internal problems to their external problems, they are just inundated with a variety of activities. How do they proceed? And they’ve got something to say about a lot of those activities—from our jets landing there and then departing there, to the immigration issues, and they’ve got everything going at one time. What do they foresee they will—their image will reflect at the end of all this? What do you think that they’re perceiving?

COOK: Well, I think the Turks themselves are quite concerned about everything that’s going on around them, and which is—you know, which was part of President Erdogan’s strategy in the run-up to the November 7th elections, which was that we—you know, vote for who you know, because we’ll provide stability for you, never mind the fact that, you know, some of the things that are going on around Turkey are, you know, a function of Turkey’s own policies, having turned a blind eye to foreign fighters seeking to wage jihad in Syria, and then coordinating with these groups, allowing a foreign extremist infrastructure to develop in Turkey. But Turks, by and large, are quite worried about everything that is going on around them.

In 2011 there was a kind of triumphalism within Turkey that Turkey was going to lead the Middle East, this is a strong, prosperous, democratic, Muslim power that had the ability to lead the region. I think they’ve been somewhat chaste as a result of a number of failures and problems. But I think Turks are really in ways turned inward, and are most concerned about their internal stability, their internal politics, and trying to keep all of the chaos around them outside of the country.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Michelle Bentsman with Harvard Divinity School.

Q: Hi. Hello?

COOK: Yes, hi.

Q: Hi. I’m really grateful for your discussion of identity in the earlier part of the talk. And you spoke a little bit about how a sense of failure and uprootedness kind of, like, leads to needing an emotionally appealing vision of the future. And I’m wondering how this translates to identity formation in the West, where we have prospective—you know, there was an attacker in the Paris attacks that, you know, come from mixed families, that were raised in Belgium, and sort of had a sort of (open-minded ?) upbringing. And even if it’s a small number of people, I feel like this is, you know, a recurring issue that we’ve seen in multiple attacks. And I’m wondering if you could speak to that a bit.

COOK: Well, I think that—I mean, that’s exactly right, that this is not a phenomenon that is specific to the Middle East. Of course, the Middle East is grappling with, you know, these huge problems—the chaos, the violence, the dissolution of states, and so on and so forth. But you do have these predominately young men—although there have been many women from Western European, even a few from the United States, who although born in Belgium or France are kind of stuck between two competing cultures in confronting non-acceptance in—is that a word? I don’t know.

But that in their alienation and feeling of uprootedness and dispossession from their societies, the Islamic State offers them something. And that’s the message that I’ve been trying to get people to listen to and understand, of why just dropping bombs on people isn’t the only answer—and it is not even the primary answer to this problem. And that perhaps in response to a previous question, someone else who asked about, you know, development and so on and so forth, that one of the issues is dealing with the bad news in Paris and so on and so forth, where these people come from.

Sure, you know, the press has made a big deal, well, you know, Jihad Johnny came from, you know, Kuwait and, you know, lived an upper-middle class lifestyle in the U.K. and so on and so forth. But by and large, these are people who are looking for something and responding to an appealing vision for the future. That’s, as I said, not something that is specific to the Middle East. It’s a phenomenon that’s happening in places—you know, in, quote unquote, “the West.” And that’s why you have people who are born and raised in the West taking—doing the kinds of horrible, terrible terrorist things that they did in Paris on Friday night.

FASKIANOS: I’m afraid we have to end just slightly early. I’m sorry to have several people still on the call with questions. But Steven Cook is now headed to our next event that I hope you will watch. We’re doing—holding a livestream on the—town hall on the attacks on Friday night. And you can watch him on at 5:30 p.m. So I hope that you will tune in there. Thank you all for your questions. And, Steven, thank you for sharing your insights today with us on ISIS and on Turkey.

COOK: My great pleasure. And very sorry I have to run out a few minutes early.

FASKIANOS: Right. You can also follow Steven, as I said at the outset, on Twitter at @StevenACook, as well as the Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and the latest CFR resources. So thank you all, again. And I hope you will tune in for the livestream in half an hour. So thank you all.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR

Palestinian Territories

The leading UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees is engulfed in allegations that twelve of its employees were involved in the Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The agency faces severe funding cutbacks, with huge consequences for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. 

United States

New U.S. Census Bureau data shows the United States importing more goods from Mexico than from China. Will the shift change the global trading landscape?