"Ignorance is reigning supreme": Rula Jebreal on Charlie Hebdo, Bill Maher & our inane foreign policy

Foreign policy analyst tells Salon why only cooperating with Muslim communities will thwart extremism and hate

Published January 16, 2015 11:58AM (EST)

Rula Jebreal, Bill Maher                (HBO)
Rula Jebreal, Bill Maher (HBO)

"Where are the moderate Muslims?" It's a cry you're guaranteed to come across, not only on Fox News or in the pages of the New York Post, whenever there's a horrible attack like the one in Paris last week. But as countless others have repeatedly noted, during these moments and the times in between, the voices of the many Muslims in the West — and indeed throughout the world — who value pluralism, nonviolence and liberal democracy always seem to fall on deaf ears. As Rula Jebreal, the Palestinian-Italian journalist, author and foreign policy analyst has argued, there are no shortage of moderate Muslims out there, striving to be heard. But a problem is that, in the West, many are not inclined to listen.

Recently, Salon spoke with Jebreal over the phone to discuss the attack on Charlie Hebdo and how a constant heightening of rhetoric, stoking of  fear, and drifting toward embracing a false "clash of civilizations" narrative is exactly what terrorists like the ones in Paris want. We also touched on the inextricable role U.S. foreign policy plays in the rise of Islamic extremism — and why the accusatory demands that moderate Muslims apologize for jihadist atrocities that come from figures like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher only make the problem worse. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Aside from the natural sadness and revulsion, what has been your response to the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath?

The whole [jihadist] strategy behind what's been happening, this global trend of the rise of extremism, it's a phenomenon that's been picking up. We knew they would target Europe; everyone who's well-informed knew that this was going to happen, unfortunately, so it was really a question of when.

I was not surprised by the attack but I was surprised by the massive intelligence failure in this case. What happened to the idea of cooperation between nations after Sept. 11? The idea that we are all Americans, we are all Europeans, we are going to cooperate together? That didn't happen ... It's time nations put whatever they're doing aside when it comes to [intelligence] competition because it's a question of international security. They need to cooperate more when it comes to these extremists, and I think we've seen that it isn't happening.

What kind of things do you mean?

There needs to be more coordination and cooperation [from governments] with Muslim communities. The strategy behind these attacks, as it's happened in Iraq, is polarization and radicalization. This is the strategy. [Islamic extremists] want to divide society. When a Muslim community is discriminated against, is marginalized, and is segregated, it's easier for al Qaeda to recruit and it's easier for al Qaeda to exploit the grievances and create a common identity — which they don't have now.

There's a model that succeeded in decimating al Qaeda — and that's the Petraeus model. What did Petraeus do in Iraq? He separated the extremists from regular Muslims, he separated al Qaeda from the Sunni tribes, and he won. He won because he had the cooperation of the Sunni tribes in fighting al Qaeda. The American surge in '08 was not an American surge but was an Iraqi/American surge.

Petraeus succeeded because he cut a political deal with the Sunni tribes, with the ordinary Muslims, who helped him fight Al Qaeda. Abu Mus'ab az-Zarqawi was killed because Americans had information on him given by regular Iraqi Muslims. This is what we need to do in Europe. That local model of success needs to be applied internationally.

At this point, we don’t know for sure exactly how the attack will affect French and European politics —

No, we know. I think we know that the response will be probably from the extreme right wing in France, in Italy, in Germany. They're already exploiting the episode, calling for segregation…

When you say that every Muslim is guilty, what you're doing is excluding a group of people who can help you in fighting terrorists and actually making these kids — young people who are borderline radicalized and with crises of identity — vulnerable targets to these extremists.

Is there anyone in Europe that you think is finding a way to integrate Muslim communities into the rest of society? Or at least doing a better job of it than France?

I think the best model we have today is the UK model. They go within the communities everywhere and bring local leaders [into] parties and government. If you look at the Foreign Office, there are three floors of Muslims working there on these issues on a daily basis. There are people on the internet on a daily basis countering the narrative of extremism ... They go from mosque to mosque, from school to school, from place to place; and I think this is a great model because [with it] we stay united against these extremists who are hurting both sides.

Is this a problem best solved locally or will it also require a more coordinated, global response?

It's important to target and monitor locally and have your community helping you, but there is also an ideology that's out there that needs to be struck ... The root of it is Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism. [Saudi Arabia is] exporting more extremism than oil. Every mosque that's been opened [by them] has a Wahhabi imam behind it and Wahhabi money and Saudi money and support.

In fact, while Saudi Arabia was publicly condemning what happened in Paris, they were lashing a [liberal blogger] because he dared to criticize Islam. But we don't say anything about Saudi Arabia! We don't dare to criticize them or even to demand reforms.

Foreign policy matters, in other words.

Nobody stands up to Saudi Arabia, nobody stands up to Egypt. These are the two countries who gave us the ideology of political Islam, but they continue to be our allies. This contradiction needs to end now. I can't blame an ordinary Muslim in the suburbs of Paris and not blame Saudi Arabia.

Which would make more of an impact, if the U.S. were to significantly change its relationship in order to force (or allow) reform: Egypt or Saudi Arabia?

Both, because they are connected to each other. Do we need to choose? They both are our allies; they both depend on the U.S. for protection and aid. When you are negotiating and dealing and you have trade agreements with these countries, you can't look the other way when it comes to their violations and what they are spreading because this will come to haunt you for decades. We can't ask them to reform during the day and at night ask them to torture for us or do the dirty work we don't want to do.

We have to be coherent somehow, today more than ever because everything is visible. There's no privacy anymore. Sooner or later, things will be known, and these things that will be known didn't have consequences but today the unintended consequences will immediately build a terrible reaction. In the short and long run, if we want to win the war on terror, we have to demand for these regimes to reform and for the Muslim communities to collaborate with us, but in return we need to give back and correct our foreign policy.

Our foreign policy cannot be one in which we close our eyes when people are tortured in Saudi Arabia or in Egypt or even in Palestine. We can't apply double standards anymore because they will be applied to us.

Speaking of double standards, I couldn’t help but notice that you sent a tweet the other day to Bill Maher, who himself tweeted that Muslims who condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack were not doing enough — and that anyone who won’t go so far as to endorse the right to blaspheme is “not a moderate Muslim.”

Why do I need to endorse anything? Is it my freedom to endorse whoever I want? Is that the definition of moderation? Is he setting the criteria of who's moderate and who is not? Really?

I don't want to say what [others] want me to say, I want to say what I want to say, [including] dissenting from what they say! Isn't that what democracy is about? That we all have the right to dissent or to be offended? It's not a justification for anybody to go out and kill! But do I have the right to disagree? Do I have to agree with everything? Or am I moderate only if I follow exactly what Bill Maher is telling me to say? It's ridiculous!

I don’t quite understand why Maher or his fellow-travelers think they have a right to decide who is and is not a moderate Muslim.

Exactly! He has his side and he rules on exactly who is moderate and who is not, and if you don't follow exactly his words then you're not moderate? Is that really the criteria? I have a feeling that ignorance is reigning supreme; ideology is becoming mainstream.

If we continue to ignore the voices of moderates, we legitimize the oppressors who are killing on both sides and throwing us under the bus. I'm talking about moderates, people who are fighting against extremists, calling out Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism and actually risking their lives! We come here and because we criticize foreign policy or the way we're looked at or talked to as not constructive ... And then you hear the question asked more and more, where are Muslim reformists? They're in front of you and you don't listen to them.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

MORE FROM Elias Isquith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Qaeda Bill Maher Charlie Hebdo Islam Muslim Rula Jebreal Terrorism