Azerbaijan is a unique culture

An interview with Dr. Mohammed Ayoob
University Distinguished Professor of International Relations
Michigan State University
Visiting Professor 
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

September 30, 2009
Baku, Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan in the World: This is your first time in Azerbaijan.  What were your expectations about the country before you arrived?  And have your experiences here changed them?  
Professor Ayoob: Never having visited or even done research on this country, it was very difficult for me to come up with a realistic vision before I arrived.  Happily, what my wife and I experienced was a positive surprise.  Baku turned out to be a much more welcoming and altogether nicer city than we imagined.    
AIW: As you know, there is a continuing debate on whether Azerbaijan is part of the Middle East or part of Europe.  Now that you have spent some five weeks here, where do you put our country on this map?
Prof. Ayoob: For me, Azerbaijan is Azerbaijan, particularly in cultural terms.  Despite a superficial overlay of Russian culture, Azerbaijan is situated between the Turkish cultural zone and the Iranian cultural zone and combines elements of both.  This makes Azerbaijan unique in many ways.  Consequently, Azerbaijan is not a part of Europe, given the Muslim identity which underlies much of what Azerbaijan is today.  Moreover, linguistically, it is far closer to Turkey and Iran than to Europe and even has many words in common with my native language of Urdu.  But at the same time, it is not Middle Eastern in the sense that it is not Arab.  If one speaks of a Greater Middle East, however, one that includes Iran and Turkey as well as the Arab world, then Azerbaijan is part of that.   
AIW: Many report that Islam is increasingly popular among young people in Azerbaijan.  Do you consider this a positive or negative trend?  
Prof. Ayoob: I don’t consider it positive or negative.  It is entirely natural.  Once the heavy hand of the Soviet empire was lifted, people began to redefine themselves and to look at those forces which had shaped their national cultures.  Azerbaijanis are simply recapturing their identities.  And consequently, Islam is bound to reassert itself.  Whether this will prove to be a positive or negative development depends entirely on who is exploiting it and for what purposes.  As I have often said, there is nothing inherently progressive or retrogressive about Islam: Rather, it is what Muslims make of it.  
AIW: You have described the distribution of power in the current international system as “a unipolar concert.”  Could you comment on the implications of that notion and on how countries like Russia, China and Iran fit into such a conception?
Prof. Ayoob: I came up with the idea of a unipolar concert because I do not think that the words “unipolarity” and “unipolar hegemony” adequately describe the world as it is.  The US position would not be as hegemonic and secure as it is were that country not supported by a consensus of the countries of Western Europe, the concert to which I refer.  The US is economically prominent because it produces more than 20 percent of the world’s GNP, but it is even more prominent in the security and military spheres.  In a way, it is now the global gendarme of the concert, acting for the concert which is generally agreed on what should be done.  States like Russia and China are on the periphery of the concert.  But there are tensions within what these countries really want to do.  In each case, they want on the one hand to become members of the concert while on the other hand working to oppose it.  Iran and Turkey are more distant from the concert: Iran for its own domestic reasons and Turkey because it now recognizes that it is unlikely to become a member of the European Union for the simple reason that it is not Christian.  As a result, Turkey is developing greater ties with the Muslim world.  But these are nation states, and while Iran and even Turkey are part of the global South, they have their own national interests and their relations with the concert are contingent on those as well. 
AIW: How do non-state actors including trans-national terrorist groups fit into the unipolar concert?  Are they the major challenge to the existing system? 
Prof. Ayoob: Some may see Al Qaeda primarily as a challenge to the system, but they forget that it was in many ways a creation of the system.  Moreover, they tend to blow its significance as a challenge to the system out of proportion to what it is capable of doing.  Al Qaeda emerged as a force during the insurgency against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, encouraged and even supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and so on.  Moreover, it would not have emerged at all had the Afghan state not collapsed after Moscow’s withdrawal.  If you take Afghanistan out of the equation, there would be no Al Qaeda.  I am convinced that 20 to 30 years from now, it will simply disappear.  
AIW: How do you assess Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions and the international community’s response to those ambitions?
Prof. Ayoob: I have always insisted that one cannot build a stable and legitimate security structure in the broader Middle East without having Iran as a part of that system.  Tehran must be part of the solution.  If you treat it only as a problem, you will not achieve that; instead, you will always have instability.  Given that many countries in Iran’s neighborhood have nuclear weapons, including Israel, Russia, and Pakistan and above all the United States in the Persian Gulf, Tehran wants to have them as well.  But I don’t think that if Iran goes nuclear, that by itself will push other states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to go nuclear as well.  That is a myth.  When Israel went nuclear – and Israel was perceived as a much greater threat – nobody in the region went nuclear.  And nobody talks about Israel’s nuclear weapons when they talk about Iran.  If you want to de-nuclearize the region, then you should de-nuclearize the region all the way from the borders of Pakistan and the borders of India for that matter to the western end of the Middle East.  
AIW: Has US President Barak Obama succeeded in overcoming the negative view of the United States the Muslim world had of it during the Bush era?  Was Obama’s speech in Cairo as historic as some have said?  And are the latest US moves in the recent likely to be effective? 
Prof. Ayoob: At a rhetorical level, Obama’s speech in Cairo represented a significant break with the past.  But at the policy level, I do not yet see much of a change.  I actually wrote an article after his speech which implied that Muslims and Arabs are not fools.  If you say something and don’t follow it up, you are acting as if they are.  I do not believe there is any expectation in the Middle East that Obama will make any radical changes in US policy in the region.
AIW: Is this because there is a lack of will on the part of the Obama Administration or are there structural constraints?
Prof. Ayoob: The will of the Obama Administration is not strong enough to overcome what you call structural constraints, including the Jewish lobby.  But that is not the only constraint.  The dominant paradigm – the conventional wisdom – that informs the American foreign policy must change, and openly so.  The US needs to re-examine the entire history of the relationship between Israel and Palestine in order to understand who the victims are and who the oppressors are.  And once that is done, there must be public recognition on behalf of the west of the catastrophe the Palestinians have gone through, just as there was recognition of the Holocaust, particularly by the Germans.  These two moves would entirely change the terms of the current debate in the Middle East.  But there is no sign that the US is going to do either of the two anytime soon.
AIW: Nonetheless, do you believe that some steps could be taken that would lead to peace in the Middle East at some time in the future? 
Prof. Ayoob: Peace is a hollow term.  What is the context of peace?  On whose terms is it defined?  In a way, there is peace in the Middle East now as well.  But it is not what Arafat called “the peace of the brave.”  I don’t think one should expect any radical change in the Middle East unless what I mentioned in my answer to the previous question happens or the internal dynamics within the Arab Middle East change, which means that the nature of Muslim regimes should change.  That is yet another dimension, and I don’t see that happening either.  So, I don’t see the kinds of changes happening either in the US or in the Muslim world that would open the way to a genuine and sustainable peace.