Anssi Kullberg is a Finnish diplomat, currently with the rank of counsellor. Mr. Kullberg served in Pakistan, Syria, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and latest in Ukraine. Also, Anssi Kullberg has published books on conflicts, terrorism and minority issues.
Mr. Kullberg provided the interview in his personal capacity, reflecting his personal views on the issues discussed. These views do not necessarily represent those of his current or former employers.
Edward Said describes the Middle East as being ”romanticised” by the some Western truncated visions. Is the Middle-Eastern reality much more nuanced than we are aware of?
People have the tendency of simplifying things. This applies to Western Orientalism but this also applies to non-Western Occidentalism, non-Western Orientalism and Western Occidentalism. Every society is complex and nuanced. Those who write about it make choices of what they consider relevant. When describing a non-familiar environment, people tend to emphasize those factors they find „exotic”, thus easily slipping into either romanticization or demonization. In the reality, Middle Eastern societies are banal in the same sense Western societies are banal: most issues about people’s everyday life are the same, similar, or anyway not directly related to the „exotic” issues people find defining in differentiating „Eastern” and „Western” societies.
Consider this asymmetry: in the ordinary media parlance (let alone in people’s daily gossip) we tend to assume „our society” to be represented by what is „normal”, while the „Middle East” or „the Islamic World” is almost never represented by what is „normal” but rather by what is exotic, abnormal, shocking or different from „us”. How often do you hear people speaking about „the Christian World” when they actually mean the secular Western countries? Yet as soon as Islam is a part of the cultural mix of a country or a nation, we tend to emphasize that, imagining that nearly everything we find different from „us” there is somehow linked with their religion.
Religion is a part of human life, but just a part of it. Most of politics, society, culture, economy, science, arts, music, cooking, and whatever is not „Islamic” even though in each area of life you can find issues where you can see the religion had some influence: some parties use Islamic slogans, some pieces of clothing are deemed Islamic, some food is halal, etc. But if you reduce all you understand about that society to these details only, you do not understand the reality of an entire society.
To which extent is radicalization linked to the failure of social inclusions policies? Are cultural gaps in charge of this form of ideological sideslip?
Radicalization is often linked with the failure of social inclusion, whether by policy or by other factors. However, social inclusion is a complicated issue, and cannot be derived from culture alone. The world is full of example of how culturally very distinctive groups and individuals manage to integrate in a new environment. Likewise, the world is full of examples of how members of the dominant culture of the place get radicalized. In fact, both these phenomena are very relevant in Europe today, as well as in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, such as North Africa and the Middle East. There are ongoing trends of radicalization that claims the dominant culture and directs hostility against minorities – European neo-fascists, Putinists and radical Islamists have a lot in common. There are also trends of radicalization from the side of immigrants who feel alienated and excluded.
Social inclusion is a powerful tool in countering radicalization, especially of the youth. It should certainly be emphasized. Yet it won’t be fool-proof, so to say, because there will always be individuals who get ideologically radicalized, however privileged their backgrounds, however educated, and however integrated. Radicalism is a permanent phenomenon of human political life – in fact, it’s often necessary for the society to identify problem issues and develop. Yesterday’s radical ideas might be mainstream today, while some of today’s self-evident ideas may seem very radical and „medieval” to the future generations.
What the society needs to ensure is a good way to channel radical sentiments, preferably in non-violent ways. Political plurality is one good tool for this – it channels ideological difference to political competition within framework of a civilized polity. Freedom of speech is another, although a tricky one. Today we speak much about hate speech, and indeed propaganda is a dangerous weapon in radicalizing people, whether we speak about Russian state-sponsored propaganda, jihadi propaganda or neo-fascist slander in online forums. But speaking out is still better than going on a killing rampage.
Is terrorism a threat to Schengen Agreement? How can the EU maintain his functioning principles while maximising borders security?
I don’t think terrorism is a threat per se, but I do think that we very much make it one. Border control is not a very effective tool in countering terrorism. If an organization wants to employ terrorism against the EU countries, it can use many kinds of people for that, including citizens of the EU countries. Much more crucial to effective counterterrorism would be strengthening intelligence and police capacity, including cross-border cooperation.
The Schengen Agreement is threatened by those Europeans who do not want to see immigrants. Terrorism is just a welcome argument for them. In the big picture of the challenges mass immigration poses, terrorism is a minor issue. It is the big picture that needs structural reforms. Trying to build higher fences around Europe won’t work – in fact, it may even be counterproductive as it subjects the millions who want to seek a better future in Europe to various illegal networks while excluding them from the integrating effects of work and studies.
Europe should reduce the harmful pull effects and replace them with better managed pull effects. Why, for example, the Europeans prefer to fund idleness by distributing generous welfare to foreigners who managed to get in, while trying to keep those out who would wish to come for work or studies? It would make more sense to liberalize immigration for studies and work, and reduce welfare spending to foreigners. What would also be helpful, is reducing the push effects in the countries of origin, i.e. for example ending the ongoing war crimes against the people of Syria, and similar issues.
I give a concrete example: Europe could have taken in thousands of college and university students from Iraq and Syria, and within a few years they would have learned the language and integrated into working, tax-paying residents, while now the overwhelmingly easiest way for these same people to get to Europe is through the asylum system, which lands them in welfare-receiving idleness, keeps them out of the labour market, and subsidizes them with a flood of cash and rights extended to each new relative they manage to import.
Islamophobia is one of the brand-new instrument of far-right political parties and media. How subversive is this phenomenon, taking into account that terrorism is refuted by Muslim believers, catalogued as being a sideslip from ”right faith”?
I don’t think it’s particularly brand-new. It’s been around for a while. However, we see a massive utilization of the wide „islamophobia package” (with its own mythos, narratives, conspiracy theories, and a lot of it amplified by the Russian propaganda machinery) since the 90s in the far West, and since the early 2000s in Finland and other such countries where large-scale extra-European immigration is a newer phenomenon. The fear of Islamic terrorism is just one trope in it. After all, terrorism was a big issue in Europe in the 70s and 80s, but back then most of it was linked with leftist movements – including the emergent Palestinian and other Middle Eastern groups. If there wasn’t Islamic-inspired terrorism, islamophobia would exploit other negative narratives about Islam, Muslims, or people of certain geographic origins.
I think islamophobia has been highly subversive, which is manifested in the scale of content this mythology has gained in European far-right movements. And not just far-right movements but in the mainstream opinions of Europeans. Much of it results from the hybridization of islamophobia with the anti-immigrant movement – islamophobia became a core mythos for the anti-immigrant political groups, and this has led to a massive misorientation of the entire discourse over immigration.
As a result, any discussion on the issue of immigration or integration turns into irrelevant „cultural” rant, and leaves the operationally and structurally more important economic or law-enforcement factors neglected. It also ushers in a highly polarizing and divisive propaganda of hatred, which subverts the foundations of what we know as Western societies, such as pluralistic democracy, freedom of speech, human rights, and privacy.
Terrorism is generally presented as a form of radicalization because it involves hate speech and the desideratum to neutralise the alterity. Also, Islamophobia and terrorism do share a set of common features. Should we call islamophobia a radicalised answer to terrorism?
I disagree. First of all, terrorism is action. Radicalized opinions are not automatically transformed into acts of terrorism. There are jihadist terrorists just as there are leftist, nationalist, and islamophobic terrorists.
Islamophobia is an ideological phenomenon, based on slander and hatred of a particular group. It is in essence similar to anti-Semitism, which was widespread in Europe long before the Nazis came around (and instrumentalized also in state ideology, especially in the tsarist Russian Empire). Neo-fascists today employ islamophobia much the same way as many (if not most) of the original fascist and national-socialist parties employed anti-Semitism. There are similar ideological trends of demonizing the West, or the Western culture, which are commonplace in anti-Western ideologies such as radical jihadism, but interestingly, the issues they use in the demonization of the West are very much the same that Western neo-fascists use in demonizing their internal enemies of the liberal and tolerant West.
What is in fact going on right now is a multi-front assault on the foundations of the liberal, pluralist political culture that has been strongly identified with the West. In this conflict, European neo-Nazis, Russian imperialists and Muslim jihadists are on the same side, even as they employ each other as the preferred enemies while seeking to subvert and destroy liberal political pluralism.
Do interfaith disputes still represent an insurmountable obstacle for functional statehood in states like Pakistan?
What strikes me about Pakistan is the resilience of this country. For decades there has been a monotonous stream of analysts and talking heads forecasting Pakistan as a failed state or a nuclear disaster, yet it has not only persisted but it has maintained its multi-party democracy and its federal, decentralized structure. True, it has not been a model country for democracy, but it surely has been more democratic than most of the Arab countries, regardless of having to cope with nearly constant armed conflicts on several fronts, including one against a far stronger adversary, India. Given all this, I find Pakistan’s continued functionality more of a news than its repeated instability.
The main interfaith conflict in Pakistan has been between the Sunni majority and the Shi’a and Ahmadi minorities, notably the repeated periods of sectarian violence in greater Karachi. However, if you only look at it from this angle, you miss the real source of constant conflict, which has been between domestic Islamist insurgents and the rest of the country. The Taliban represent the same Sunni majority as the majority of Pakistanis, including the ruling classes. Can you can speak about a conflict within Islam rather than an interfaith conflict, but even that would miss the political and ethnic divisions on the background of the Taliban phenomenon.
How would you characterise the post-war reconstruction of Afghanistan?
I would question the term „post-war” in this respect, given the repetitive nature of armed conflict in Afghanistan. In any case, a lot of reconstruction has taken place, while it hasn’t prevented the conflict from continuing, transforming itself and again continuing. Perhaps I can tell more by „showing” than by „explaining”.
When I first time landed in Afghanistan, it was in 2002, soon after the country had been liberated from the totalitarian rule of the Taliban, which had followed the totalitarian rule of the Soviet-backed Afghan communist regime, with a short and rather chaotic interlude of power struggle between them. The country was in ruins. Tens of millions had fled abroad, most of them to the neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran. Yet there was nothing but hope. The first Loya Jirga was held. Millions of people returned. Kabul boomed and its population multiplied in a very short time. Most of the people were cheering at seeing Westerners. I could freely move on land-route from Islamabad, through Peshawar and Jalalabad, to Kabul, and in most of the parts of Afghanistan. I was free to live in a normal guesthouse in Kabul centre. People were hopeful, enthusiastic, they saw change and prospects of a constantly upward trend ahead of them.
Ten years later, in 2012, I returned to Kabul again. It was hard to recognize the city: where there had been ruins, there were now large urban houses, shopping malls, vibrant economy. Billions and billions of foreign aid had been poured into Afghanistan. The Western countries had sent their best boys to fight there, for the future of Afghanistan – a nation without oil, it’s important to mention. Afghans had learned English, and not just English, they had learned the jargon of development cooperation very well. Yet the mood in the country had totally changed.
The main narrative was now that of constant complaint. „Nothing had changed”, repeated many, although it was easy to see the dramatic change in the material sense to 2002. In spite of all the billions, Westerners were no longer liked with the kind of sincerity I had encountered in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. Instead of walking and driving in the country freely, the Westerners had themselves imposed self-made prison conditions upon themselves, fortifying their aid efforts behind barbed wire, concrete walls, and private security companies. No matter how much money was spread left and right, it was never enough, and nobody ever seemed to be happy about anything the Westerners did. Anti-American conspiracy theories run almost as rampant as the usual anti-Pakistan narrative.
So, I would characterize the post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan as a clash of perspectives. In conditions like those, it is usually impossible to fill the gap between the overblown expectations and what really happens. One needs a much longer perspective, and one needs to actually see it. Neither Afghan nor the Westerners working on the Afghan file seemed to be able to see even this ten year perspective from their short-sighted subjective interests. Let alone the decades and centuries of history that understanding Afghanistan and its surroundings would require.
Keeping the track on post-war reconstruction, one of the proposals for solutions the Syrian crisis is ti rebuild the state on federal principles. Is this strategy feasible?
A federal Syria would not be a bad idea, and might help to protect the interests of the various ethnic and religious minorities. A model based on safeguarding various religious communities was once implemented in Lebanon, and although not always working optimally, it has been seen as a way to channel identity-based politics in a way that serves to avoid all-out inter-community violence. There is a price on it, of course. Lebanon’s political system is still sectarian in essence. There are quotas for everything. But then again, Lebanon always failed to implement a canton-based (federal) model – autonomy was delegated based on religious community rather than on region.
However, much of this discussion might be irrelevant now, as the Syrian opposition has been left alone and isolated in its quest to change the political system in Syria. What is happening instead is a takeover of the country (and indeed, a wider region) by a resurgent and aggressive great power player, Russia. Russia and Iran are imposing their solution on Syria, and it will surely not be based on any kind of increase in freedom or democracy for the Syrians. Quite the contrary. So whether the restoration of autocratic monopoly in Syria will be nominally called a federal republic, an Arab republic, a people’s republic, Islamic republic, or whatever, it will be authoritarian.
With the victory of the Assad regime and Russia in sight, the crisis will rather be exported to the neighbouring countries and to Europe. Not solved. The Syrian democrats were betrayed, and their next chance will loom only with a wider geopolitical shift.
During the ongoing Syrian civil war, it seems that world became bipolar again, at least concerning the operations on this was theatre: Russia is supporting Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime, while the USA is backing the opposition. How is this scenario influencing the way the crisis is instrumentalized?
It is important to understand that the Syrian civil war is only one front in a global confrontation between the Western model of political pluralism, which the activists of the Arab Spring fought for, and the Russian and Iranian model of authoritarianism, which seeks to destroy the post-Cold War international rule-based order with one with power-based imperial dominions.
I would question the claim that the US backs the Syrian opposition. They never really did so. To back the Syrian opposition would have meant to seek a regime change, to impose the claimed red lines and to engage in safeguarding political pluralism in post-Assad Syria. None of this was done, and as this became quickly clear from the beginning, the results were the rise of the Da’ish and the massive proliferation of Russian aggression.
Therefore, the situation in Syria has been largely that of total asymmetry. While Russia and Iran have from the beginning of the conflict intervened to back the Assad regime, directly and through proxies, the West has retreated and left the region’s majority Sunni populations betrayed, embittered, and in the mercy of the Iraqi-originating Da’ish, whose military and intelligence power was built by Russian-trained Iraqi and Syrian intelligence officers.
The world has become multipolar, as the West is no longer united – there is a huge gap of Western leadership as a result of Obama’s professed policy of weakness – and with several resurgent great powers, among which Russia has proved the fastest and most aggressive in expanding its area of direct influence. Since Obama’s retreat in Syria, Russia has grabbed control over the Black Sea, much of the Eastern Mediterranean, sought to dominate the Baltic Sea and the Balkans, and pushed for major regime reorientations in Turkey and the major Western powers. America is losing its influence in the Middle East but also in the Pacific, where China’s power is growing.
The multi-polar world order that Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other great power geopoliticians have called for since the end of the Cold War, has become a reality of the world order, and it essentially marks a return to the great power rivalries that brought in the first and second world wars. We will see a lot of asymmetry, a lot of proxy warfare, deepening ideological polarization that is already undermining Western political establishments. A new Cold War is going on already, and unfortunately, with the current trends, a new world war is no longer unthinkable.
Jordan and Lebanon have always been depicted as reforms-oriented Arab states as well as pro-Western, albeit civil wars and terrorism has recurrently been present. Do we distinguish any national strategies for making this actors ones of the most stable in the region?
I think with the current situation in Syria and Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are in lethal danger. I would expect destabilization and attempts of takeover. The Gulf countries have much reason to worry, too, especially as the anti-Sunni orientation of the US could be expected to go on with the pro-Russian Trump administration.
Jordan and Lebanon have been reform-oriented and pro-Western in quite different ways. Lebanon has nearly always been turbulent, and its foreign policy has not traditionally been as Western-leaning as its economy and popular culture. Jordan, on the other hand, has been traditionally very Western-oriented in its foreign and security policy, while culturally quite conservative and maintaining the strong position of the king. Nevertheless, we should commend Jordan and Morocco (particularly these two Arab countries) for their successful efforts of long-perspective reformation while maintaining the necessary stability. They have come a long way, yet through evolution rather than revolution.
For a test, you could compare how Morocco and Jordan coped with the Arab Spring, compared with Libya and Syria. There were large demonstrations also in Morocco and Jordan. Think about for a moment the refugee floods to Europe if, for example, the King of Morocco responded to the Moroccan demonstrations the same way the Russian-adviced dictators of Libya and Syria did to theirs. The outcomes in the relatively fast transition in Tunisia and the serial coups in Egypt lie somewhere between the two previously mentioned extremities.
East-Ukrainian secession has a destabilising impact on the entire region, taking into account the profound implications on different levels. Is this crisis supposed to be solved internally, externally or both?
This crisis was solved internally when the Yanukovych regime fled for Russia. Even the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which was probably the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine, formally decided to recognize the new democratic government and remain as a part of Ukraine. Since Russia’s attempt to meddle through the Yanukovych regime thus failed, Russia resorted to open armed invasion, starting in Crimea, where it already had large troops, and encouraged by the ease at which the Crimean invasion went unpunished, it decided to proceed in Donbas, seeking to establish „New Russia” in the southern and eastern territories of Ukraine.
Ukraine managed to launch its national defence and it managed to contain the Russian aggression, limiting the territorial extent of Russia’s invasion.
Therefore, I would not speak about an „East Ukrainian secession”, as there was never a genuine „East Ukrainian” separatist movement. All the known key leaders of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk „people’s republics” were Russian, not East Ukrainian. Only a few individuals with some credible political background in Ukraine, including for example a communist parliamentarian and a former intelligence officer, were in influential positions in the DNR and LNR. Local organized crime in fact played a more important role, mobilized by Russian state security organs.
If it wasn’t for Russia’s involvement, the issue would have been internally solved in 2014, in a month or two. But as Russia remains the primary motor of the conflict, there can be no local solution to this international conflict. From the beginning of the conflict, Russia has resorted to „solving” (or rather, initiating and protracting) the conflict by military means. This unfortunately also means that the conflict cannot be solved through non-military means alone. Even if the conflict gets frozen in a similar manner to Transnistria, its containment will continue to require military resources.
The captures of Ukrainian territories in Crimea and Donbas are not an isolated conflict. They constitute part in the same global confrontation where Syria figures. Russia instrumentalizes Ukraine in its efforts to dictate a new security architecture in Europe, and moreover, a new world order. One where the West would give in to unilaterally recognized interest spheres and to the right of military might.
Russia has made no secret of what it wants: vertical power and expansion of its influence. The conquest of Crimea was to herald a new Yalta. That, of course, would not be the end. Just like its tsarist and communist precursors, the new Russia wants all that it can get. In the old-fashioned great power thinking that is only logical. The question is rather, what kind of a world order does the West want, and is it prepared to back what it wants with firm policy and action.