Roundtable discussion: European challenges - the Middle Eastern crisis and the Islam

Roundtable discussion with Máté Szalai (Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade), Dr. Péter Szilágyi (Kodolányi University) and Dr. Zoltán Prantner (Kodolányi University). Moderated by Tamás Dudlák (Corvinus University Budapest). Organised by Kodolányi János University in cooperation with the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy. The discussion’s main focus was the current crisis in the Middle East and its challenges towards Europe.

Number of participants: 41

Date: 3 May 2016 | Tue | 6 pm

Venue: Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences (1139 Budapest, Frangepán u. 50-56.)



On 3 May 2016, the Institute for Cultural Relations Policy in cooperation with Kodolányi János University held a roundtable discussion with the topic of the current Middle East crisis and its challenges towards Europe. The discussion, moderated by Tamás Dudlák, was between Máté Szalai, Dr. Péter Szilágyi and Dr. Zoltán Prantner and took about 1,5 hours with additional time at the end for the audience to ask questions, which were answered by the experts.
The first two questions of the discussion were aimed at the topic of the Arab spring in general, the outcomes of the uprisings and the characteristics of the crisis.
According to Dr. Zoltán Prantner, whose expertise is the case of Yemen, the Arab spring started out as a series of uprisings to topple the ruling regimes. The series of events in Yemen were not too violent at first, but soon they started to become more and more severe and violence has reached its climax in 2015. Dr. Prantner believes that the consequences of the uprisings in the country considered to be the urgent need for humanitarian aid, the rising rates in poverty, which led to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases and a great rise in mortality rates, destroyed infrastructure (especially effecting the water supply in the case of Yemen), a very high number of refugees, and the ports have been taken under blockade, which is not allowing the humanitarian aids to reach the country. The crisis is primarily considered political and societal, because the protests were aimed to improve the youth’s position in both political, both societal life. In Yemen, for instance, the protests demanded the establishment of a new political system, which allows the youth to have a bigger say in the country’s affairs.
According to Máté Szalai the crisis is constantly changing, therefore the reference points are always different, thus what we consider as most important changes. Today the focus is on the catastrophic conditions in the region. Despite of such conditions, Mr. Szalai believes that the ongoing events can be considered a turning point in Arab history, which can be seen as a positive beginning of a long-term process, as we experienced with the French Revolution. The crisis, according to Mr. Szalai is not only political, societal and economic, but it is a crisis of identity as well.
Dr. Péter Szilágyi, who is an expert in the case study of Libya, believes that looking at the outcomes of the Arab spring we cannot talk about any positive, but only negative results. In the case of Libya, before 9/11 the country’s situation was characterised by welfare. But with the unfolding events in 2011, the U.S.-led humanitarian intervention and the execution of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country became a failed state, which is namely governed by two different regimes. Nowadays, there are multiple attempts for nation-building and takeover in the country, but what everyone seems to forget is that Libya has never been a unitary state: it consists of three provinces.
The third question was concerning the topic of the Western powers and their influence in the current Middle Eastern situation.
Dr. Szilágyi stated that the French played a big role in the case of Libya even before the United Nations Security Council gave mandate to carry out the intervention. Soon, multiple countries joined France and started bombing the forces of Qaddafi. The international community played a great role in Libya, but it is partly because of the Western powers’ actions that Libya has become a failed state: after Qaddafi’s regime was toppled and he was executed, the Western powers left the local forces to deal with the situation alone. When the U.N. Security Council was voting on the humanitarian intervention, Russia, China and Germany abstained from voting. When Russia decided to intervene in Syria, its main objective was „to avoid another Libya”.
Dr. Prantner defined the current situation as a „proxy war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran. He also stated that the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion in 2003 can be considered as a blowback, which has led to the establishment of the so-called Islamic State (IS). After the Iraqi regime was toppled the United States made a number of attempts, such as nation-building and establishing a new political system, which is based on democratic values, but these were not as successful as they should have been. Eventually, the Iraqi mission has ended in 2011, when the self-proclaimed Islamic State had the opportunity to emerge and gain strength in the region.
According to Mr. Szalai, in the case of the crisis in the Middle East we can differentiate between three timelines. The first can be considered as a historic one, which consists of all the events before December 2010. Every problem can be linked back to this time interval, when the responsibilities of the Western powers in the region were unquestionable. The second timeline is the unfolding of the Arab spring in the different countries. At that time there were no external actors which have influenced the events. The final timeline is when the local and other forces have started to realise the need of their role in the situation and started to intervene.
The fourth question was aimed at the rising of the so-called Islamic State and the actions which might be considered effective in stopping the terrorist organisation.
Mr. Szalai answered the question by starting with an explanation, which stated that nowadays not the „core organisation” is what considered as the greatest challenge, since such groups are working in a network and different organisations are emerging in different countries, which later on join the „core organisation”. According to Mr. Szalai, the effective way to defeat IS is finding solutions to the local problems, which, he believes, is impossible.
Dr. Prantner answered by asking another question: how do people identify with the organisation? He stated that the ideological perspective is not enough for understanding such question, adding, that the strategy to defeat IS should be aimed to the support group, by convincing them that what the organisation believes is not true. This should also be carried out locally.
Dr. Szilágyi agrees with Mr. Szalai when saying that these terrorist groups are loosely organised and they should be dealt with on the local level. In the case of Libya the goal was to prevent the spread of Islam radicalism in the country, because when it is evolved, it cannot be stopped. The reason IS gained such strength is because it has strong ideological ties, financial income flowing from different areas (there are countries who support them and they also have income from human and drug trafficking), and it provides different services to its followers. The solution lies in the leadership of each country: every state needs strong political elite, which is able to step up, deal with and defeat organisations like IS.
When asked if the international community should get accommodated with the idea of living with IS in the long-term, the experts said the followings:
Dr. Prantner strongly believes that the international community should not worry about living with the so-called Islamic State in the long-term, because the main aim of the organisation is to establish an autonomous caliphate, which is acknowledged and accepted by the international community. Despite its efforts, the international community is not willing to acknowledge the organisation as an independent actor. This response to the question raises further threats, caused by the dissolution of the organisation: even if the „core organisation” is defeated, the other terrorist groups are still able to operate; the survivors are either able to assimilate, or go abroad where they continue on fighting, giving opportunity to IS to re-emerge. Therefore the question is, will the survivors be able to integrate into society, or not. This is what will decide the long-term fate of the organisation.
According to Dr. Szilágyi, the international community needs strong will, force and well-organising to establish a long-term strategy and a roadmap, which will make it possible to defeat the so-called Islamic State.
According to Mr. Szalai it is possible to defeat IS and the international community will manage to do so, as it did in the case of Iraq. The reason for the continuous rise of such organisations is that there were no effective solutions to deal with the roots of the problems. In the Middle East what causes the problems is that numerous people feel like they are not involved in the political life, therefore the solution is to allow them to freely participate and have a say in the states’ affairs.
The final questions of the discussion were aimed at the topic of migration, the perceptions and how do the societies of the Middle East deal with the situation.
Dr. Szilágyi believes if the states are strong and well-functioning, then there should not be any problems. In the case of Libya there is an ongoing discourse with Italy, which allows the migrants to be sent back to the North African country. When a state is weak and it is not able to provide the basic needs of living, and on top of all there is war going on in the country then it leads to migration. If the EU wants to achieve effective results it needs to focus on cultural discourse, economic cooperation and on foreign policy. The latter is difficult to achieve, since it is not easy to establish an effective common foreign and security policy due to different values and interests. In the case of Libya the international community is trying to prevent another Syria-like situation.
Dr. Prantner stated that the causes of migration are the persecution of people and economic aspects. According to statistics, the ratio of nationalities is primarily Shite-Iraqis and Afghans. In the case of these nationalities the solution is for Europe to intervene more effectively, by providing aids which allow the possibility of investing in the countries. There is also a great necessity for reforms in the EU’s migration policy. In the case of Yemen the neighbouring countries have implemented a number of reforms to stop the flow of refugees: the border security has been seriously enhanced, for instance by using retina scanners.
Mr. Szalai emphasized that migration is caused by economic and societal challenges as well, it is not only the result of terrorism. Unfortunately it is not clear what the European Union’s main objective is concerning migration, but it is important to mention that the EU’s foreign policy has started to develop as a result of the migration crisis. Looking at the history of the region, migration has always been a great part of the Middle East. According to a survey, the societal differences between Qatar and Iraq are greater, than between Hungary and Iraq.

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