Editor of the International Editions of Newsweek and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and host of a current affairs programme on CNN, Indian-American journalist and author Fareed Zakaria is one of the most influential commentators in the US today. In a wide-ranging interview with Ezzat Ibrahim, Zakaria explains how his identity as a Muslim has affected his work and his views on Middle Eastern and US politics
Your name is often the source of speculation across the Arab world. Tell us about your youth in India and how you managed to move to the United States in the late 1970s?
I grew up in India as an Indian Muslim, but not just as an Indian Muslim as my father was a politician. So, I was deeply involved in the struggle to create a viable Indian Islam because for my father it was like a life story — I mean to find a place for Muslim Indians in India that would allow them to maintain their religious identity, but at the same time contribute to the pluralistic and secular democratic polity or political system. In cultural terms, and in political terms too, I was deeply imbued with the struggle for a secular India that has a space for Indian Muslims.
In some ways, it is a unique struggle that Indian Muslims have had because in most places Muslims are the majority and the question is how to deal with the minorities. In India, of course, Muslims are the minority, and the question is how they will be treated and how they will find a voice. This has given me an appreciation for both sides of that struggle, the majority and the minority. I think I probably have been influenced as much by being Indian as by being Muslim. These are two different parts of my identity, not just one. I grew up observing all the major Muslim holidays. Nevertheless, I was not a deeply religious person and my family was not deeply religious. I grew up in a kind of Westernised liberal household.
The successful ascent of the young and ambitious Fareed Zakaria into the American public sphere fewer than 20 years after graduating from Yale University seems to go against stereotypes of American society as less than friendly towards Muslims, especially in the media industry. When you look back on your early days in America, what do you remember most?
I was looking around for places where I could get a better education than what was available in India. It was the late 1970s. I was looking for any kind of funding as the economy and political system of India were in a bad shape. This was the time that we had a two-year suspension of democracy, and we witnessed emergency rule under Indira Gandhi. In a situation like that, America seemed like a fascinating, attractive and open land of opportunity. I went there not thinking I was going to stay, of course, just to get a great education. But I found that American society is just so extraordinarily open, dynamic and vibrant that it became very seductive and very easy to imagine being able to have an impact and to fulfil myself in much greater measure and in a much greater fashion in America.
In those days, particularly pre-September 11, 2001, the fact that I was a Muslim was totally irrelevant in America. In one of his speeches, Ronald Reagan said, as I remember from when I was a kid going there, that “America is not interested in your origins, but interested in your destinations.” This nicely characterises the America that I came to. I remember I rented cars and did not even have an American driving licence. I showed my driving licence from Bombay, which I think may be technically not allowed. There was a real openness and looseness to the system. I worked as an intern in a couple of places and nobody cared to ask me to fill in papers. I still think that some core of that remains very true, which is that America remains fundamentally a place that is more interested in your destinations than in your origins.
One year after Obama’s speech in Cairo, little has changed and there is still the same gap between the US and Muslim societies. The president himself has recognised that he was too optimistic about the conflict in the Middle East. How do we get out of this stalled situation? And how do you diagnose the current situation in the Middle East?
I think it is important to recognise something in the heart of the Arab problem, namely that if there is frustration one year after Obama’s speech it is because Arab governments have not done enough to secure greater opportunities, prosperity and chances for their people. The Arab world must focus its energies on why it has not been able to lift its people up and stop constantly asking the US to interfere. Obama cannot magically transform the Arab world. What he can do is send as many signals of friendship and support as he can and try as much as he can to jumpstart certain political processes and open up certain avenues. But, fundamentally, the Arab problem is going to require an Arab solution.
On the Palestinian issue, you have two big problems that I do not think there is an easy solution to. The first is that the Palestinians are divided, and as long as that is true it is very difficult for them to present a unified position that can be the basis for any kind of deal. The second is that the Israeli public has come to the conclusion that it can live with the current situation. The building of the wall has effectively ended Israel’s terrorism problem. Israelis now believe that they can live with it for a long time for all the difference it makes. It is an unfortunate and wrong perspective to have, and I do not think it is going to be true in the long-term. But this is what Israel is and what the Palestinians are.
Given those realities, what kind of magic wand can Obama wave? The answer is he can do very little. He has appointed a very senior special negotiator and put a lot of time into taking on the Israeli government by asking it to stop settlement building, the first American government in 20 years to do so. Ultimately, you have realities on the ground that are very difficult.
Where is the grand strategy that Obama and his team promised?
These are the biggest stumbling blocks: can the president of the United States make the Palestinians agree on one common negotiating position and make Hamas and Fatah agree to come together? I do not think so. He also cannot convince the Israelis that there is a dire security threat to them, when they have concluded that there isn’t one. These people on the ground are shaping events in a way that makes it difficult for somebody in Washington to. If you have leaders in both places who are credible and willing to present common negotiating positions, the American role can be to bridge those positions and bring them together in the way Bill Clinton tried to. I share some of the frustrations, but I do not know what kind of American strategy would make this more likely, given the reality on the ground.
In a recent Newsweek article, you pictured a gloomy scenario in the case of an attack on Iran by Israel or the US and you asked for “a robust containment strategy” against Iran. Is there a chance of that? Last week, Elliot Abrams, the well-known US neoconservative, said in another interview that a limited and quick air strike would be useful and that people in Iran would recover from the shock very quickly.
The neoconservatives have always had a view of military intervention that is almost antiseptic — easy, quick and clean. In a sense, it is easy to take that view when you live in Washington DC, 6,000 or 7,000 miles away from the problem. You do not have to live with the consequences on the ground.
I think a military strike would basically play into Ahmadinejad’s hands. This is what he has been preparing for. He is preparing for an American or Israeli strike, which would end up inflaming the Arab street and would provide Iran with a pretext to expand its activities with Hizbullah in Lebanon and with militant groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it would also, of course, have the effect of raising oil prices because tensions in the region would rise tremendously. Remember that Iran is one of the three largest oil exporters in the world. So, I think this is why Ahmadinejad has taken on the Palestinian cause.
People in America do not understand. They think that he is mad. But he is not mad at all. He is using a very shrewd strategy of adopting a great Arab cause as his own. He is now promoting the Palestinian cause precisely because he is trying to make life very difficult for the Egyptian, Saudi and Gulf states governments to oppose Iran because, after all, people will turn to their governments and ask, “why are you turning Ahmadinejad into our enemy? He is a great supporter of our cause.”
The Iranians are playing a very clever strategy. A containment strategy, in my opinion, is important precisely at this time of great emotionalism, fear and panic. This is precisely what happened with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. In those days, lots of American rightwing conservatives were talking about bombing Russia with nuclear weapons, rolling back containment and liberating Eastern Europe. But the wise calls that followed said, no, we can keep these people in a box, and we can check them.
What I am struck by is that there is a broad alignment of interests in the region, with the moderate Arab governments, the United States, Western Europe and, to some extent, Russia. Iran is being isolated, and we should try to expand and increase the pressure and the sense of isolation. The Iranians will come to realise that there is a real price to pay for this. For example, one could use the IAEA’s last report that stated that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons to greatly expand the isolation of Iran.
I do believe that there is another Iran. There is an Iran that wants to have a place as a proud nation in the world and does not want to fund militants all over the region. I think the people who want to create paranoia and tension are precisely those people who would say in such an atmosphere “we must strike.” But I say that war is a very complicated business, as I hope Washington has learned from Afghanistan and Iraq. You never want to start it with the theory that it is simple and cheap because you always forget that the other guy has a vote. You may start the war, but he gets to decide how he will respond.
Have you experienced conflict inside the US administration concerning Iran policy?
I do not think that on the Iranian issue there is any kind of conflict. The administration is quite sensible in terms of understanding the dangers of the US initiating an attack against Iran, which Al-Qaeda would portray as the third war against a Muslim country in one decade. I think it is conflicted on another issue, which is a genuinely difficult issue, in that there is a desire to try to cut kind of a some deal with Iran to resolve the nuclear issue. It is possible to do, but there is a search for some kind of negotiating position.
There is also the recognition that what is happening inside Iran is quite dramatic. There is the evolution of the reform movement and the question of whether we should talk to these people or we should not. On the one hand, you are dealing with a very important problem, nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and you need to talk to the regime. On the other hand, you would be de-legitimising the government if you talked to the reform movement. My own view is that we need to approach Iran as we approached the Soviet Union in the past. You contain them, and keep them in checks and counter-checks, and you make sure you are vigorously engaging them politically and militarily to make sure that Iran does not increase its influence in the region.
Still, the United States wants to see if they are willing to talk about some kind of acceptable solution to the nuclear issue. We should be open to that, and we should be encouraging of it. So far, the Iranians do not seem to be interested. The problem, in terms of negotiating with Iran, is not in Washington, but in Tehran. The Iranian side seems divided and unsure, and when they say we need to talk, they take it back the next day. Maybe there is some conflict in the Obama administration, but the real conflict is in Tehran.
The day after September 11, 2001, you wrote that “Islamic extremism has its roots in the stagnation and dysfunctions of the Arab world. Decades of failure under tyrannical regimes, all claiming to be Western-style secular modernisers, have produced an opposition that is religious, violent….” Recently, you put in a different argument, to the effect that “the moderates are fighting back and the tide is turning. We no longer fear the possibility of a major country succumbing to Jihadist ideology. In most Muslim nations, mainstream rulers have stabilised their regimes and their societies, and extremists have been isolated.” Where do you stand today?
Ten years have passed, and something very important has happened. The September 11 attacks were a wake-up call not only for the United States, but also for the Arab world. I think initially there was a certain amount of denial, and then you had the publication of the Arab World Development Reports. You had many intellectuals who started to talk. One of the most important developments was that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates or associates started planning and executing attacks inside the Arab world in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For the first time, such incidents started to produce public support for the moderates and secularists in the region. People started to say, “we just do not want to give up to the fundamentalists,” and they started fighting back.
Until then, as we all know, it was really difficult to argue against the fundamentalists because they would say that they were the “good Muslims” and that you were not. This idea of the “good Muslim” was at the heart of Sayed Qotb’s writings in the 1950s. The good Muslim, according to Qotb, is the one who is the most biased, reactionary and backward. Today, there is a much greater willingness to stand up for a modern version of Islam. Nevertheless, fundamentalists still exist. This is an ongoing struggle, and I am not pretending otherwise.
However, if you look at recent polls, support for suicide bombing and jihad is way down compared to 2002. Also, if you look at the Muslim world more generally and ask how the fundamentalist-type parties are doing, then in some ways these parties look like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or even more extreme. But in Indonesia, these parties are doing terribly; in Malaysia, they are doing badly; and in Pakistan and Nigeria, things are the same. We are beginning to see a turning of the tide. It is too early to declare victory or anything like that, but I am heartened by this.
Lastly, Arab victory and real transformation will come when there is a genuinely open political system that allows all political movements free rein. We are not there yet, but even in this regard, and in their own slow ways, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are changing. In my opinion, what is happening in Egypt economically is very positive, and I think the prime minister, the industry and trade minister, and the finance minister are all world-class people.
However, there is the broader political system that is still frozen, and that is one of the reasons why, I think, that sadly Egypt, the natural leader of the Arab world, is not providing leadership in this region and is not providing forward movement. If Egypt did so, it would have a huge impact not only on the Arab world, but also on the world of Islam. Egyptians are sophisticated people, and if the system opened up, we would see a very mature political system quite rapidly. I am optimistic about the future of Egypt. It could be at the centre of the new group of rising countries.
Do you think authoritarian capitalism, notably in China, threatens the future of Western values and liberal capitalism? The rise of China could embolden authoritarian economic systems and affect advances towards constitutional liberalism, including in the countries of the Middle East.
The rise of China has made a lot of people think that there is some model called “authoritarian capitalism.” I would argue that there is no such model. There is only China. There are very few enlightened dictators who have embraced successful capitalism, and most dictatorships that did so tended to be corrupt and invested in ill-thought-through projects. The Chinese have managed their success through a series of unusual decisions, and if they continue they might not be able to sustain that. In the vast majority of cases, where you have had dictatorships try to take on capitalism, unless they have simultaneously liberalised the system, they have failed.
In the case of Egypt, the aim should not be instant democracy tomorrow. Democracy is not like coffee: you cannot find an instant version. Instead, it is a process through which you open up the system and liberalise it, and it is very important to do this in the legal system, the press and other agencies. In these contexts there should be greater democratisation as well.
How do you see the future of American global power?
Right now, we are at a moment when American power is being discounted too much. People think that America is going to collapse or is in decline. I once wrote a book called The Post-American World, and I fully believe that we are living in a very different global system in which the United States will not be the central dominating power it has been. However, it will still be the most powerful country among a group of countries.
The American economy is still four times the size of the Chinese. The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, and the Chinese are building their first. And America still spends more on military research and development than the rest of the world combined. The United States remains in a very unusual central position, but it has to recognise that the world is changing, and it will have to share power by consensus and with various countries and different groups. The transitioning process to a new global order is a very tricky one. It is not just that the Americans are reluctant to embrace it, but that the Chinese do not want to be given any new powers either, because they understand that with power comes responsibility. The complexity of the world we are living in is such that we are moving away from American unipolarity, but we are not moving to Chinese or European multipolarity, but rather to something in between where everyone is going to play a role in a responsible world.
What has gone wrong with the Obama presidency in domestic politics?
I remain a fan and supporter of President Obama. I think he should be given enormous credit for saving the global economy. When he took over, the global economy was in a tailspin and was going down very fast. The financial system had collapsed; the American auto industry was on the verge of bankruptcy; and the housing market had been destroyed. And because America still represents 25 per cent of the global economy, this was having the effect of bringing down the whole political system.
Obama has managed to stabilise the banking industry, housing market and auto industry. He also provided a stimulus package for the broader economy in a very quick and responsible way. But in a strange sense he is now being punished for bringing about success. The Republicans say, “what crisis? What are you talking about?” Once you have avoided a disaster, people can easily look back and say, “oh, maybe things weren’t so bad.”
However, I think perhaps over the course of the year he took on too many tasks and there were too many frustrations he had with the Bush administration that he tried to walk through too quickly, closing Guantanamo, taking on global warming and the cap-and-trade system, and ending torture. The political question is how sensible is it to take them all on at the same time? And how can this be done in such a way that you bring the country along with you, rather than push these things on the country?
What about healthcare reform?
Obama needed to recognise that with healthcare you’re dealing with 70 per cent of American GDP. Eighty-five per cent of the country has healthcare: what it is worried about is the cost. By going for expansion and including the other 15 per cent, Obama had to find an effective way of speaking to the whole country, and he did not do that. The reason, perhaps, was that you get compliance when you have a majority in both houses of Congress, and you begin to think you can just get all things done. But this is not how life works. You still need to persuade, and you still need to bring the other guys along, because you do not want to get everything through on a strict party vote. Obama, I think, has recognised that, and we are already seeing a course correction. I would not be surprised if Obama does better in the next six months than people think because he is a very quick learner and an intelligent guy. I think you can see that he has sensed that things are going off track, and he is beginning to try to adjust.
Do you agree that the Tea Party Movement will deepen the already bitter partisanship in America?
The partisanship in America is becoming terrible. Two things are going on. One is that it is interesting to notice that after the world’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, you still do not have the rise of any kind of powerful socialist or left-wing movements in any part of the world. In the case of countries like Egypt and India, where traditionally there were strong left-wing intelligentsias that would have screamed about the evils of capitalism, you have some such movements but nobody takes them seriously.
Frankly, we have had socialism for 50 or 60 years in both countries, and we have seen the results. Socialism has not produced anything, and people understand that we are living in a global economy and at the end of the day you have to find growth to raise living standards. The only way to find growth is through some use of the private sector, markets and trade. Of course, there is a role for government, but you cannot achieve growth without the private sector and markets. Such developments have brought stability to the system and have provided a little bit of a boost to the right-of-centre parties that were quite fearful at the time of the crisis.
The situation in America, I believe, is broader than that. America is going through a great deal of change. We have been globalised for the first time, and for the first time we have to worry about what is going on in other countries in the sense of economic well-being. And all of a sudden, these questions about what others are doing have something to do with the health of America, and it has been very difficult to come to terms with that.
Second, the country is changing demographically in a dramatic way with the rise of the Hispanics. It is also changing in generational terms with the rise of the young, and in other ways with more working women and gays. All these things are changing the country. Indeed, some parts of the American electorate, tending to be middle-aged white people living in the south and the south-west, are scared and angry and think that this is not their country any more and they are fighting back. Yes, there is an intellectual argument to be made against Obama’s positions from the rhetoric of the movement. But that is not why you are getting this mass of raw popular anger represented by the Tea Party Movement. These people think that their country has been stolen from them, and they are responding to all the changes I mentioned.
By the way, all these changes are symbolised by the guy in the White House who does not look like them and who does not act like them. He is an Ivy League-educated African-American who is in a quite literal sense different from them. That explains some of the raw anger behind the partisanship in America right now.
‘I think I probably have been influenced as much by being Indian as by being Muslim. These are two different parts of my identity, not just one. I grew up observing all the major Muslim holidays. Nevertheless, I was not a deeply religious person and my family was not deeply religious. I grew up in a kind of Westernised liberal household’
‘I found that American society is just so extraordinarily open, dynamic and vibrant that it became very seductive and very easy to imagine being able to have an impact and to fulfil myself in much greater measure and in a much greater fashion in America’
‘On the Palestinian issue, you have two big problems that I do not think there is an easy solution to. The first is that the Palestinians are divided, and as long as that is true it is very difficult for them to present a unified position that can be the basis for any kind of deal. The second is that the Israeli public has come to the conclusion that it can live with the current situation. The building of the wall has effectively ended Israel’s terrorism problem’
‘Iran is being isolated, and we should try to expand and increase the pressure and the sense of isolation. The Iranians will come to realise that there is a real price to pay for this. For example, one could use the IAEA’s last report that stated that Iran is close to having nuclear weapons to greatly expand the isolation of Iran’
‘Today, there is a much greater willingness to stand up for a modern version of Islam. Nevertheless, fundamentalists still exist. This is an ongoing struggle, and I am not pretending otherwise’
‘Arab victory and real transformation will come when there is a genuinely open political system that allows all political movements free rein. We are not there yet, but even in this regard, and in their own slow ways, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt are changing. In my opinion, what is happening in Egypt economically is very positive, and I think the prime minister, the industry and trade minister, and the finance minister are all world-class people’
‘Sadly Egypt, the natural leader of the Arab world, is not providing leadership in this region and is not providing forward movement. If Egypt did so, it would have a huge impact not only on the Arab world, but also on the world of Islam. Egyptians are sophisticated people, and if the system opened up, we would see a very mature political system quite rapidly. I am optimistic about the future of Egypt. It could be at the centre of the new group of rising countries’
‘The Chinese have managed their success through a series of unusual decisions, and if they continue they might not be able to sustain that. In the vast majority of cases, where you have had dictatorships try to take on capitalism, unless they have simultaneously liberalised the system, they have failed’
‘Democracy is not like coffee: you cannot find an instant version. Instead, it is a process through which you open up the system and liberalise it, and it is very important to do this in the legal system, the press and other agencies’
‘The United States remains in a very unusual central position, but it has to recognise that the world is changing, and it will have to share power by consensus and with various countries and different groups’
‘The complexity of the world we are living in is such that we are moving away from American unipolarity, but we are not moving to Chinese or European multipolarity, but rather to something in between where everyone is going to play a role in a responsible world’
‘It is interesting to notice that after the world’s greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, you still do not have the rise of any kind of powerful socialist or left-wing movements in any part of the world’