The Middle East: Is the ‘Islamic State’ vanquishable?

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

The rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) on vast swathes of territories in Syria and Iraq, and the US-led military response to it, have introduced another complex dimension to an oil-rich but already very volatile Middle East. The old correlation of forces in support of maintaining the status quo, especially following the Iranian revolution more than 35 years ago, has been changing.

A set of new alignments and realignments along multiple regional fault-lines, including sectarian divisions and geopolitical rivalries at different levels, has come to redefine the region and possibly change its traditional political and territorial contours. IS has confronted all the regional states, from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a common enemy. Yet, it is the United States and its Western allies that have taken the lead in launching a military intervention to ‘degrade and eliminate’ IS, despite lacking a laudable past record in this respect.

This raises a number of questions. Should the problem of IS have been left to the regional actors to handle? Whilst IS may be containable, can it be defeated? Even if IS is eliminated, what guarantee is there that another extremist group won’t replace it? Can IS become a franchise, as al-Qaeda has? What is the possible best way to deal with religious extremism in the Middle East? What can be expected of the on-going air campaign against IS in terms of its consequences for the region, and the US and its allies?

This conversation will focus on these questions in an attempt to unpack the nature of the mess that is the Middle East – a region so turbulent and yet so rich from which the world cannot simply disentangle itself.

Amin Saikal AM, FASSA is Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia) at ANU.

He has been a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow in International Relations, and Visiting Fellow to Princeton University, Cambridge University and the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. He is an awardee of the Order of Australia (AM) ‘for service to the international community and education through the development of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, and as an author and adviser’, and is an elected Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.

His latest books include: Zone of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014); Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012); The Rise and Fall of the Shah: Iran from Autocracy to Religious Rule (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Islam and the West: Conflict or Cooperation? (London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003); Democracy and Reform in the Middle East and Asia: Social Protest and Authoritarian Rule after the Arab Spring (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014) - co-editor; and American Democracy Promotion in the Changing Middle East: From Bush to Obama (London: Routledge, 2013) - co-editor.

He has also published in major journals and dailies, including The New York Times, International Herald TribuneThe Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian, and is a frequent commentator on TV and radio networks on issues pertinent to his field of specialty.

Professor Saikal will be joined in conversation by Virginia Haussegger.

Virginia Haussegger AM is an award winning journalist and social commentator. With more than 25 years in news broadcasting, her work has taken her around the globe – from the Middle East, Iraq, Europe, Afghanistan and Washington - reporting for Australia’s leading current affairs programs on Channel 9, the 7 Network and the ABC.

Virginia currently anchors ABC TV News in Canberra, and hosts a variety of panel discussions for broadcast, in addition to regularly addressing business and government forums on women, power and leadership. She is an Adjunct Professor with the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA) at the University of Canberra, and sits on various Boards, including UN Women National Committee Australia, and the ACT Government’s Cultural Facilities Corporation. In June 2014 Virginia was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to women's rights, gender equity, and to the media.

She maintains a busy portfolio of charity and community engagements, including as an advocate for the Afghan/Australian NGO “Mahboba’s Promise”, and as Patron of Save the Children ACT.