Associate News Editor
Associate Professor of Political Science Gitty Amini has dedicated her education to exploring and analyzing the political machine that turns the world.
In a recent interview she discussed why politics are important to her, her opinion on current events in North Africa and possibilities for the future of the Middle East.
Tell me about your academic history and how you arrived to where you are now.
I did my undergraduate in political science at UCLA and I had the fortune of working closely with a professor there whose specialty was Middle Eastern politics; so, by luck and circumstance I fell in with him and he ignited a real interest in the Middle East for me.
Then I went to Columbia and got my Masters Degree, again in political science—you will find that I don’t vary in my degrees, I’m not very interesting that way. There I really moved away from area studies; I moved away from thinking about the world in terms of geography and started thinking about it more globally and more theoretically. I started really looking at the world in terms of economic relationships or military relationships.
So that was sort of the phase I went through that was more of general and theoretical. Then I did not like New York so much, so I did not stay for my PhD there and went back to UCLA to get my PhD. At UCLA I was able to integrate both of those, sort of my interest in East Asian and Middle Eastern politics and then sort of the theoretical arguments I wanted to make.
I was really able to bring everything together in an exciting way for me, so it was good. My background because my mother is Chinese and I was sort of brought up speaking Cantonese, and then in graduate school I learned Mandarin, I was thinking well my area should really be China and make that my area of specialty but then North Korea, South Korea and other places in East Asia started to be more relevant in terms of the things I wanted to study. North Korea seems like such an interesting nautilus example of what I wanted to study.
That is how I expanded away from where I began in East Asia and became more of a general East Asian specialist and in the Middle East as well. Originally I would say my interest again, was Iran because I was born there. I am half Persian, I speak the language and I can read it. I can read the newspapers; I can read the real stuff coming out of Iranian politics, but there is so much more to the Middle East. The Middle East is such a vibrant, crazy place.
It is always in flux and it is always changing, so I started to realize you cannot pick just one place to specialize in, it is just too hard.
Why did political science interest you? Did you begin college knowing it was going to be your major?
Yes, I knew from the very beginning. In Persian social circles and Iranian social circles around the dinner table, at parties, it is completely socially acceptable for people to debate politics.
Politics is not one of those things we do not talk about here, or people are offended if you bring it up; at least that was the case with my family. I remember as a really small little kid, sitting around just listening to my uncles and my aunts and my parents just going at it. And it seemed so exciting.
Then I got caught up in the Iranian revolution, I was there when it happened. I remember being so excited about the protests in the streets, the waving of the flags and the chanting of ‘”Death to the shah.” It was intoxicating.
It was great being a young kid and watching that and really feeling like I am a part of history, history is being made right now and I am right in the middle of it. So actually it was not like I decided it at 18 or 19 as a freshman, it seemed like it was a part of me much earlier. It was already there.
Going into what is happening now, what is your opinion on everything that is taking place in North Africa?
Well, on the one hand it is very exciting and encouraging.
I mean, in particular I think what seemed to be the ease and speed with which Tunisia and Egypt fell it seemed like it was just a matter of time that the rest of them were just going to fall like dominoes.
And I think the example of Libya is giving us all pause now. Now we are starting to go, wait a minute, maybe it is not so easy. Maybe it will not be easy everywhere. So there is a real danger that Libya will devolve into a civil war, if it has not already. So this is debatable, some people would say it is already a civil war or it is already a disaster, and it is already a tragedy.
Then there are others who say perhaps it is not quite there yet, but we have a tragedy in the making. I am inclined to say that it is a civil war.
Many people are saying it is a move toward democracy, but others are saying it may be a religious takeover. Which do you think it is?
So those are the kind of things everyone is asking. What does the future bring? And I think it is too dangerous to try and generalize it across the region. I think protests are occurring in different places for different reasons.
So I think for example in Bahrain, it is really a situation of sectarianism. It is the Shīa majority, which is really chafing again about being ruled by the Sunnī minority. So that seems to be a democratic impulse; the idea of we are the majority, why are we letting you guys dominate?
So there is that sort of democratic impulse towards self determination that Bahrain represents. Whether that is the same thing in Libya, I do not know. One could make the argument that in Libya it is really tribal sectarianism, it is the in tribes and the out tribes. So there were the in tribes that were supporting Gaddafi, and now you have those guys who have been out in the wilderness for the last 41 years who are like it is our turn.
So they are attacking the other tribes and they are saying we want to control the nation now. Is that democratic, is that self determination? Maybe. I guess it depends on what they bring once they takeover. Like if we are just exchanging this group of tribes for that group of tribes, but nothing really changes, where are we? We have not really changed anything.
In Tunisia and Egypt they were successful, so what do you see happening in Libya?
Well, look, my fear really is that what this has now taught the other totalitarian or dictatorships in the other countries is the lesson do not give up, and do not go away peacefully.
Do not be like Mubarak. I fear that the example of Libya is saying, see, military response works which I think is particularly troubling if you think about the Iranian example because the government of Iran already seems inclined towards cracking down.
I think they are just going to look at Libya and go, see we were right. Libya is proving that we need to crack down even more, we need to crack down now, before it becomes like Libya.
The Iranians are going to say we need to prevent this from ever happening even to the point where it becomes like Libya.
What do you think the U.S. response should be?
At the moment it seems like the big debate that is going on, not just in Washington, but globally is about the no fly zone. And I’m torn; I’m not convinced that it is a good idea. One thing I can say for sure about it is that there is no way the United States should do it alone.
If there is not a coalition that we can form for it then we should not do it. But I am inclined to say even in the case of a coalition, I am not convinced that anything good will come of it either for the Libyans or the United States. I think it is a very risky option. It is troublesome for an administration that is trying to get us out of Afghanistan and Iraq. How can we justify getting into Libya when we are still mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to get out?
Going back you said that there is always change and always something happening in the Middle East, why do you think that is?
It could be an assumption on my part; maybe it is not any more vibrant than any other region in the world. I mean, arguably, you can say there is always something happening somewhere, everywhere, all the time. So is it really any more dynamic than Latin America? Probably not.
There is a stereotype about the Middle East which is that it is always in conflict, it is always in turmoil. So clearly there has to be some truth behind that stereotype. Why is that? Well I think it is because geographically, if you look at it strategically, it is the crossroads. It is smack dab in the middle between Africa, Asia and Europe.
So that is one thing, I mean just by virtue of where it is located it is going to be in the middle of everything because it is literally in the middle of everything. Then there is the obvious thing of oil. Our economy, our energy markets are still so dependent that you cannot expect other countries to stay out when oil is at stake, it is just going to complicate every time.
Then it is not just physically the crossroads, but culturally a crossroad too. It is the place where you get east and west coming together culturally as well. You have religion, ethnicity and you have this sort of stew happening. So you have the Arabs who I think would argue that the world has not given them their due.
I think they feel that the 20th century should have been their era. When oil was dominate, when oil was at its peak, why were they not able to translate that into more successful imperial domination? So I think there is sort of a component of Arab nationalism and maybe of Pan-Arabism that always seems to underlie stuff in the Middle East.
Then if you bring Arabism into it you get the backlash of all those nonarabs. Then you get well, what do we do about all the Central Asians, the Afghanis, the Persians, the Iranians, the Turks and all those other groups that we always forget about. They are there in huge numbers, and not Arab.
So I think there is this constant push and pull between religion, culture, language and all of that ethnicity and race.
In the future can you see a Pan-Arab nation forming?
A super Arab nation? So who would that be? Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt all the way across Saudi Arabia. When you start actually listing the countries and start thinking about it, it seems impossible. This was obviously a dream that was embodied most directly by Nasser in the 1950s and 60s and then faded away.
I would say that it was not a reality at all until recently. I think the whole sort of talk about this Algiers phenomenon, that all of this is being sparked by this sense of common bond between the Arabs across borders. If you start to see that, it starts to make me think that it is possible. There does seem to be a current of Arab commonality that binds them together.
Maybe that is Arab nationalism; maybe it is possible. It seems like it is late in the game to be tapping into nationalism. Some political scientists would say that nationalism is really on the decline. That it has had its day and it is really waning now. There are other things determining what makes a nation and maybe it is not so much nationalism anymore.
It is about class, economics, trade or geography. On the one hand, there really is some sort of feeling that Bahrainis have something in common with Saudis who have something in common with Egyptians, and Libyans and Tunisians. Which makes me think it is something real, there is something tangible there.
My impulse is to say that there is a germ of a possibility there, but then the academic side of me goes really? Nationalism? I thought nationalism was dead. It sort of peaked after World War II and it has sort of been in decline ever sense. The number of nations has actually started to roll back, where at its peak we had about 220 countries in the world and now we have fewer. So the argument is that maybe nationalism as a political force is not so potent anymore.
Then again I suppose one could say maybe the Arabs are late to the game and it is still there. Just because nationalism is waning in other places does not mean it is waning everywhere equally. So it could still be that there is a strong hold of nationalism in the Middle East that we just were not aware of.
See, part of it is because nationalism does not always express itself in a convenient way. We would think of nationalism as the Egyptians who feel they are Egyptian and the Libyans who feel they are Libyan. That to us is nationalism, but a lot of these boundaries and borders were determined by the colonial masters of long ago, you know the British and the French or the Ottomans.
So maybe these divisions are not real. Maybe there is more of a commonality between Libyans and Egyptians than we are giving them credit for. So nationalism may not be expressing itself the way we would expect it to express itself.
Amanda Nieto can be reached at email@example.com.