Insurgency Expert Gerges: ‘Turning Point’ Occurring in Muslim World, With Growing Hostility Toward Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda

December 5, 2005

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Fawaz A. Gerges, an expert on the insurgency movement in Iraq and on the jihad movement in the Muslim world, says the bombings at three Amman hotels last month have produced "a turning point in the Middle East." He says the overall disgust with these violent policies has also led to what he calls "the beginning of a civil war within the Sunni community in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world," in which Sunnis are planning to defy Zarqawi and vote in large numbers later this month to have a role in the new Iraqi government.

Gerges, a Lebanese-born professor of International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, says "many Islamists and former jihadists are saying Al-Qaeda is doing a great deal of damage to the ummah, the Muslim community worldwide, but also to the Islamist movement. Public polls, a very important indicator in the Arab world, tell us we are witnessing a shift away from being sympathetic to Al-Qaeda to being inhospitable and even hostile to Al-Qaeda’s global ideology."

Crucial to all this, he says, is a decision by the Bush administration to signal to the new Iraqi government that it is planning some kind of phased withdrawal from Iraq "sooner rather than later." Gerges says, "I think the administration must act on the momentum that exists now in Iraq and try to convince Sunni public opinion that, ’We are planning to leave. We are planning to leave in a year, a year in a half, and allow Iraqis to run their own affairs.’" Gerges was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 5, 2005.

In a Washington Post article on Sunday you make the point that the Zarqawi-ordered bombings in three hotels in Amman, Jordan have amounted to a turning point in the Middle East war on terrorism. Could you expound on that?

Yes. I think we are witnessing a turning point in the Middle East, because I think more and more Muslims are having a closer look, not only at the [Abu Musab] Zarqawi network but also at the parent organization that is al-Qaeda. As you know, the basis for al-Qaeda is that it must wage jihad against the United States and its Western allies. What has happened in the last two or three years in particular, is that now al-Qaeda is waging its war in the heart of the ummah, the Muslim community worldwide. I think the overwhelming numbers of victims are Arabs and Muslims. These include Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis, Indonesian, Turks, Moroccans. And I think many Arabs and Muslims are saying...

And Iraqis of course.

And the Iraqis of course. Many Arabs and Muslims are saying "Hey, you are killing Arabs and Muslims. You are killing innocent Westerners, who have nothing to do with American foreign policy." And I think in this particular sense Arabs and Muslims are getting a closer look at the brutal tactics used and abused by al-Qaeda, particularly by the Zarqawi network in Iraq and elsewhere.

Now, of course, all the Arab countries outside of Iraq are predominately Sunni Muslim. Zarqawi took the position inside Iraq that he wanted to kill Shiites. Are the Shiites now getting some sympathy from these countries?

Yes. I think what we need to understand is, not only is there a great deal of opposition in Sunni-dominated Arab and Muslim countries to Zarqawi’s tactics, but we are witnessing now what I call the beginning of a civil war within the Sunni community in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world. Let’s remember Zarqawi is not just killing Shiites and Kurds, but he is beginning now to kill Sunnis, those Sunnis who have opposed his indiscriminate terrorism against Shiites and Kurds in the past few months. Several leading Sunni clerics and politicians have been assassinated, allegedly by the Zarqawi network.

Many Sunnis in the Arab world are realizing Zarqawi doesn’t give a damn about Sunnis or Shiites iff they disagree with him. I mean, the killings in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, in Jordan in other places have really shed a great deal of light on the Zarqawi network, at least in Arab Muslim eyes. I think many Sunni Arab clerics and politicians and civil society leaders are saying, "Hey listen, you’re not just waging a war against Shiites, but you are also waging a war against anyone who disagrees with you, be he Sunni, Shiite, Kurd or even a Western civilian."

I know there were public demonstrations in Amman in the days following last month’s bombings. But what are you basing your general opinions on about the turning point here, the opposition to Zarqawi? Is the press in these countries being more outspoken? I’ve noticed for years that since the American invasion of Iraq you’ve rarely seen any criticism of the insurgents, the terrorists, or Zarqawi in the Arab press.

I think there are several indicators that tell me we are witnessing a turning point or a new momentum against Zarqawi and al-Qaeda, the parent organization. I think more and more Arabs and Muslims are becoming vocal, as opposed to just being silent, in their condemnation of Al-Qaeda’s global jihad ideology. More and more Arabs and Muslims are going to the street and protesting against the jihad ideology of al-Qaeda. More and more Arabs and Muslims as saying they will no longer support by word or deed the indiscriminate tactics of Zarqawi.

We are witnessing a soul-searching, not just among Arabs and Muslims, but also among Islamists and militants. If you really, as I do, follow the writings of radical Islamists very closely, many Islamists and former jihadists are saying al-Qaeda is doing a great deal of damage to the ummah, the Muslim community worldwide, but also to the Islamist movement. Public polls, a very important indicator in the Arab world, tell us we are witnessing a shift away from being sympathetic to al-Qaeda, to being inhospitable and even hostile to al-Qaeda’s global ideology.

I think we are witnessing several patterns of behavior on the part of Arabs and Muslims,which tells me we are beginning to see the beginning of the end, if not the end, of this global jihad ideology—not just in Iraq, but also in the Arab and Muslim world. Of course, this depends on many factors. Having said so, if the war continues in Iraq, I would argue that Iraq continues to be a radicalizing impact in the Muslim world. Iraq continues to be a recruiting ground for militant jihadists’ causes. As long as the war continues in Iraq, as long as citizen fault lines continue in the Middle East and the Muslim world, I think the global jihad ideology will find a way to survive below the surface and above the surface as well.

What if the White House called you in and said, "President Bush wants your advice on what to do in Iraq." He gave a major speech the other day outlining what he called the Strategy for Victory in Iraq. Somebody I interviewed said it’d be better if we simply said "Strategy for Success" instead of victory. In your article you suggest the best thing for the United States to do sooner rather than later is to begin to set the stage for withdrawal. Is that your thesis?

Yes, in fact I would argue a plan for success has to take into account that the United States, and particularly the Bush administration, must convince Arabs and Muslims it plans to leave Iraq sooner and not later; that the United States is not interested in staying in the Iraq permanently; and that it is genuine about having a timetable for leaving Iraq. The reason I say this is because the American military presence is the greatest gift to al-Qaeda’s global jihadist ideology. The American led invasion/occupation of Iraq has given al-Qaeda a new lease on life. Al-Qaeda was in a coma before the American invasion/ occupation of Iraq.

Whenever I travel in the Middle East people no longer talk about crimes perpetrated by Osama bin Laden against American civilians on 9/11 and the Arab-Israeli conflict. People are now talking about the Iraqi causalities, the American bombings of Iraq, the American invasion of a Muslim land. The point I would really like to get to the American reader is that in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims, regardless of the justification for the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, a Muslim land is occupied by a foreign power.

I keep asking and talking to Arabs and Muslims and say "Listen, Saddam Hussein is out, the United States did a great favor for Iraqis, it got rid of Saddam Hussein." And they say, "As long as Muslim land is occupied by a foreign land, this is unacceptable." So in this particular sense the most effective tool the administration has against al-Qaeda is to basically find a way to convince Iraqis and Sunni public opinion the administration is genuine about leaving Iraq, the sooner the better. Also I think we need to understand now—and this is really a major point—that Sunni public opinion in Iraq appears to be prepared now to confront al-Qaeda, to confront the Zarqawi network. This is a major turning point in Iraq, and not just the Arab world.

In this particular sense, I think the administration must act on the momentum that exists now in Iraq and try to convince Sunni public opinion that, "We are planning to leave. We are planning to leave in a year, a year in a half, and allow Iraqis to run their own affairs." It seems to me Sunni public opinion is not yet convinced the administration is planning to leave Iraq. Many Sunnis I have talked to say the United States is planning to have bases in Iraq, permanent military bases. This is why I said it’s essential the administration not only impress on the American people, but also impress on Sunni public opinion, that we are leaving, and we’re leaving sooner and not later.

I was impressed by the fact that the Arab League seems to be finally showing some support for the Iraqi government. What do you think?

This is one of the major developments in the unfolding Iraqi struggle, and I don’t say it because I think the Arab League has been abysmal. Why? This is the first time that Iraqis met and sat together [in Cairo last month], all Iraqis—Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, secular, Islamists. They sat down, argued, debated, and at the end of the day they basically had a consensus. A consensus that says they would like to have a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

This is a point the administration must understand. The reason why Iraqis succeeded in Cairo in agreeing on a platform during the Arab League-sponsored reconciliation conference is the Shiites and Kurds accepted the Sunni community’s major demand that a timetable must be set for an early pullout of foreign forces. The administration should work on this particular development, because after all, here you have more than one hundred Iraqi leaders of all communities saying, "Yes, we would like to have a timetable for an early withdrawal of foreign troops out of Iraq." Why not embrace this particular consensus by the Iraqi community? Why not build upon this consensus? Why not, in fact, empower the momentum and allow the Iraqis to begin the process of healing and of basically creating a functioning government, a government that will stand up and defy and hopefully defeat the terrorists, like Zarqawi.

Do you agree that this election in the middle of December is a very important one?

Yes, absolutely. I think this is a very important watershed for Iraq and Iraqis for a variety of reasons. The first is, the government which will emerge out of these particular elections will serve for four years. It will have tremendous impact on the future of Iraq. Secondly, you have now a majority of Sunni Iraqis who boycotted the elections in January and are deeply engaged and involved in this particular election. And why is this important? It is important because Sunnis are defying Zarqawi and they are saying, "It’s our future. We would like to gain a measure of political influence in Iraq. We would like to play a role in the development of the new vision in Iraq."

This is why if the elections succeed, I hope the Bush administration will take the necessary steps and say to the Iraqis, "Here, you’ve succeeded in electing a government. Here is a timetable for the early pullout of American forces." Of course, this should be in stages, no one is telling the administration it must have an artificial timetable. We’re saying the administration must have a realistic timetable for the early withdrawal of American troops. This is in order to convince Sunni public opinion and Arab public opinion the United States is not there to stay permanently. This should empower Sunnis to confront the Zarqawi network, and hopefully rid Iraq and Iraqis, including the Sunnis, of this particular terrorist cleric, who has been doing a great deal of damage to Iraq and Iraqis and Arabs and foreigners alike.

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