Ghaidaa Hetou, the founder and CEO of i-Strategic LLC in Oceanville, is a Syrian Muslim who consults with corporations and government agencies on Middle East geopolitics, economics, health care, and foreign policy issues.
Born in Damascus and educated in Germany and Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States in 1998, she holds a PhD in political science from Rutgers University.
When she speaks at Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 12:30 p.m., Hetou will discuss “Three Syrian Scenarios and What Each Means for Israel.”
In a Dec. 14 phone interview with NJ Jewish News, she spoke on a wide variety of topics, including her views on coping with terrorism in her adopted country and her native land.
NJJN: What was it like being a woman in school in Saudi Arabia?
Hetou: It is very, very conservative, but I was lucky to be at a private school that had a conservative title, but it was very liberal, and there were members of the royalty among my classmates. The quality of the education was not bad.
NJJN: If one were to go to Syria today, what would one see on the ground?
Hetou: My sister lives in Damascus, which is the safest part of Syria. She wakes up in the morning, gets her kid to the day care center, and goes to work. There is a very awkward sense of normalcy. Sometimes the electricity goes away. Sometimes you hear bombings. And you live with it. But in other parts of Syria there is total devastation and terrorism with a lot of territories carved out among the warlords.
NJJN: You are part Kurdish. There is an impression they are more democratic, more egalitarian, than some other nationalities in the Middle East. Is that accurate?
Hetou: The Kurdish sentiment and culture is more inclusive toward women, for example. They provide equal opportunities for males and females in their families. Women can be what they want to be, and to me that is special. I hope that sentiment could be adapted by the Arab community in general.
NJJN: Is that a realistic possibility in the world of burkas and honor killings?
Hetou: It is absolutely possible, but the conservative culture is very entrenched, and it will take a lot of generations of women to be given a little bit more opportunity and more education and financial independence. Then you will have the culture of oppression and segregation diluted. That is the best you can hope for because it is so entrenched that it is painful.
NJJN: Are Americans viewing ISIS and the notion of establishing a Middle Eastern caliphate in a rational way?
Hetou: You cannot contain ISIS. It is the worst thing you can do. You cannot reconcile that dogma and that ideology with anything around it.
NJJN: So what do you suggest?
Hetou: There must be elimination. I don’t see anything else.
NJJN: How would you solve the problem of the Syrian refugees? Should we let them into the United States? Do you think terrorists will sneak in with them?
Hetou: You can’t take risks anymore, especially at the borders of the United States. You have to vet everyone, and since that might be unrealistic, you have to stop this program until you know who you are letting into the country. Are they sneaking in with refugees? Of course they are. They will be dressed in jeans and T-shirts and look normal — no beards, nothing.
NJJN: How do you feel about what the presidential candidates are saying about this issue?
Hetou: There isn’t somebody who can really speak to this. Obviously, the populist rhetoric can rally a lot of people, and that’s part of the political discourse. But you really have to move on from the populist view and people’s anger. We are all frustrated. But the security issue should be at the top of everybody’s list and stay there.
NJJN: How do you factor Israel into this equation in terms of ISIS?
Hetou: ISIS is in three points: in Lebanon, in Syria, and in the Sinai. Would I see Israel as part of a coalition that could end ISIS? I really hope so. I don’t buy into peace and love. You want that, but realistically, in the short term we have to work on mutually beneficial steps that would increase Israel’s security and maybe lessen the existential threat of ISIS that is threatening everyone.
NJJN: Without going into the substance of your upcoming talk on Israel and Syria, what message do you have for those who might be interested in hearing your presentation?
Hetou: I hope this discussion will give us some kind of a break from the grind of the news of daily bombings and refugees and rebel groups and governments and give us a vision toward where things might end up. It will give us a way of thinking a few steps ahead.