By Kathy Carlson
Barak Barfi, a Middle East scholar researcher and noted journalist, will speak on “The Arab Spring – One Year Later” on Thurs., June 21, at 7:15 p.m. at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. He has written extensively about Libya and spent six months there during last year’s civil war that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
The event is part of the series “Increase Your Israel IQ: From Argument to Advocacy” funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation of Nashville’s New Initiatives Fund and organized by the Federation’s Community Relations Committee.
Barfi grew up in Detroit and studied at the University of Michigan and Columbia University. “I specialize in Arab and Islamic affairs,” he said in a telephone interview. “I travel a lot in the region (and) get to talk with decision makers and people on the ground. … I’m on the road most of the time.”
His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and other publications. He is also a frequent commentator on CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Fox News, and France 24, and has testified before Congress about the threats posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Barfi said he’ll talk about how the Arab Spring movement in the Middle East is affecting Israel, particularly as secular, pro-West Arab regimes are being replaced with regimes that are more Islamist, more regionally focused and not so sensitive to Western concerns.
“We’ll look at how these Islamic groups that have traditionally been hostile to Western influence in the Islamic world, how their coming to power will change the equation” in their relations with Israel and the West, he said.
Libya, he said, has 6.5 million people and the capacity to produce 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. Currently, there’s a security vacuum in Libya, a lack of the rule of law, he said, referring to a recent incident in which a group of militiamen, after their leader was arrested, took over the airport in Tripoli in a bid to get him released. “People take the law into their own hands and create spectacles” to gain leverage to get what they want, Barfi said. The militia and the government eventually negotiated their issues and the airport was open and operating the next day, according to news reports.
“Libya lacks technical capacity and has weak government institutions, problems the United States can help it address,” Barfi said. Long-term, he is optimistic about Libya’s future because of its natural resources, relatively small population, and a lack of the history of violence that nations such as Yemen have experienced.
Barfi said it’s important not only to examine the statements Islamist leaders make, but also to examine what they do. Egypt’s leaders, he said, “control a population of 85 million people and they have to feed this population every day. (They) have bigger things to worry about than the Israeli blockade.”
“Should we take people at face value for what they say?” he asks rhetorically. “In this situation we probably shouldn’t take them at face value. We should see how power sobers them to the realities of governing.” He says he’ll offer “specific examples and nuances” to better understand how the words of the Arab world’s new leaders compare with their actions.