‘Even if Islam had never existed, there would still be huge areas of potential conflict between East and West'


February 25 2008

‘Even if Islam had never existed, there would still be huge areas of potential conflict between East and West'


February 25 2008

‘Even if Islam had never existed, there would still be huge areas of potential conflict between East and West'



Q My understanding of the CIA owes a lot to The Bourne Ultimatum, but isn’t it true that if you worked in the foreign service for 20 years, you were a spy?

A: I was an intelligence officer, yes, while I was overseas. One of my great concerns about the present situation in the U.S. is that the CIA has, under the Bush administration, been shifted over into pretty undesirable and horrendous activities, such as these interrogations and torture and assassinations that were never part of normal life in the agency.

Q: How normal was it, though? Isn’t being a spy a little glamorous?

A: I don’t like the word glamorous, but it’s an ancient profession and it’s intensely interesting. You’re not sneaking around with weapons and shooting at people; you’re trying to recruit foreigners who can report confidentially on what’s going on in their country. It’s immensely stimulating because it requires a really good feel for how the country works, how the culture works, where you would be likely to find people who would work as sources.

Q: How did you wind up as an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University?

A: My wife and I fell in love with Vancouver almost 20 years ago, and kept coming back. Finally, about four years ago, we decided that we wanted to live here. On top of that, we found the environment and atmosphere

in Washington completely distasteful.

Q: You used to be the vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA; you speak Arabic fluently; you’ve worked in Afghanistan; and you’re an expert on political Islam. What do you think of the recommendations in the Manley report?

A: I think the Manley report was curious, in that it identified, correctly, some of the huge problems that not just Canada but also NATO faces in trying to bring an end to the insurgency in Afghanistan, but in the end urged recognition of the importance of the mission and ignored the reality that it is not working. There’s no doubt that it’s a worthy cause to defeat the Taliban, and a worthy cause to build schools and help the situation of women and try to build an infrastructure, but the methods used by most of the foreign military, especially the United States, have been causing a high level of civilian casualties and naturally stirring up a great deal of anger, which plays directly into the hands of the Taliban. Canadians are justifiably proud of their past role in peacekeeping globally, as opposed to the war-fighting aspect of American troops, but I fear that most Afghans and people in other Muslim countries really don’t make this distinction. I think most locals simply view Canada as being involved in what is essentially an American project.

Q: So do you think we should withdraw immediately, or would that prove to be too destabilizing?

A: There is no stability there now. I think

in the end there’s going to have to be some kind of political solution, which means first of all working with Muslim forces that are not directly linked with al-Qaeda. The basic geopolitical reality is that the Pashtun people are the single biggest group in Afghanistan, almost a majority, and they have been largely excluded from the present Karzai government. Karzai himself is a Pashtun, but he’s seen almost as an Uncle Tom figure. So the Pashtuns feel excluded, and, sadly, Pashtun nationalist ambitions are in many ways closely linked with the future and fate of the Taliban. This doesn’t mean that all Pashtuns like or agree with the Taliban, but that they see them as fighting for a greater Pashtun voice in the country. So domestically, there clearly has to be a great increase in Pashtun participation, and this will include a lot of people who are rather too fundamentalist in our view.

And secondly, internationally, a lot of countries around Afghanistan have a great deal of concern about what’s going on there. Pakistan most directly—there are twice as many Pashtuns living in Pakistan as in Afghanistan— which has to have a good relationship with Afghanistan because they feel their back is to the wall, with powerful India on one side. The reality is that Pakistan is going to work to gain Pashtun support, whatever that takes, including working with the Taliban—moderate ones if possible, but they’re going to have to work with them. On the western side of Afghanistan, Iran has a great deal of influence; they loathe the Taliban, the Taliban

were militantly anti-Iranian. Iran has to be part of any broader solution. And then there’s Russia, which as everybody knows got badly burned in the Soviet period when they sent troops into Afghanistan, and China—neither wants to see the rise of Islamic militancy. But the U.S. isn’t talking to Iran, and has not been willing to talk seriously with either Russia or China, or India for that matter, and view them as equal partners in the settlement of the Afghan situation.

Q: You’ve written a whole book on this topic, but can you briefly describe the difference between a Muslim and an Islamist?

A Essentially a Muslim is anybody who believes in Islam, just as anybody who believes in Jesus Christ is a Christian. An Islamist is someone who believes that the Quran and the sayings and life of the Prophet have important political and moral lessons that should govern Islamic society and government. But the Quran, just like the Bible, does not spell out any system of government, so what we have is Islamists all trying to derive certain kinds of principles out of it, but there’s no clear agreement about what they should be.

Q: Does Islamism inform terrorism?

A: There’s no need for violence in Islamism unless you come from an extremely radical Islamic school of thought. “Anything that’s not Islamic needs to be rejected by force” is a very modern interpretation, and it’s come out of the violence of post-colonial Islamic societies. People here tend to look at the current situation in the Middle East and say, “Oh well, it’s always been this way, it’s a violent culture.” But suicide bombing is barely 25 years old, and was begun by the Tamil Tigers—Hindus—in Sri Lanka. When the Palestinians began fighting for their own homeland, they began by throwing rocks. Now of course they’ve moved up to suicide bombs.

The advantage the radicals have in the Middle East is that they can say, “Look, the situation is extreme, we have foreign occupation, with American troops on our soil killing huge numbers of people and trying to impose government and policies on us just as the old colonialists imposed their rulers and new borders on us. Under such extreme circumstances, we Muslims have to fight back and use any means we can find, including guerrilla warfare and terrorism.” I think most Muslims are extremely uncomfortable with this, but when they are living with massive destabilization of their societies and huge internal refugee populations, they listen much more closely and they think, “Maybe bin Laden is the only person who can stand up to the power of the West.” That’s the tragedy.

The Muslim view is that they’re simply defending themselves.

Q: Which begs the question you asked recently in Foreign Policy: would the world be more peaceful without Islam?

A: The article has a deliberately provocative title, “A world without Islam.”

Q: Which is kind of like, “A world without nitrogen.”

A: Well, if I’d called it “The role of Islam in politics,” probably 80 per cent of the people who did read it would’ve given it a pass! My point is that it’s very simplistic to suggest that all of these problems between East and West boil down to Islam.

Q: Who, beyond some neo-conservatives, is suggesting just Islam is to blame?

A: More and more, this is part of the general rhetoric and level of discussion in the United States on major networks, like Fox News. But even if Islam had never existed, there would still be huge areas of potential conflict between East and West that have to do with imperialism, with Europeans and later Americans establishing dictators to do their bidding in the region, with a Western grab for energy resources all across the Middle East, and with the whole Palestinian problem. Let’s not forget that in the case of Palestine, it was Europeans, Christians, who over a millennium persecuted and tortured Jews, ultimately culminating in the Holocaust—all of this was a European project, and in the end, from a Muslim point of view, the West then decided to give a big hunk of Palestine to the Jews to make up for what the Europeans had done to them. That had nothing to do with Islam.

Q: So how much does religion have to do with the conflict between East and West?

A: Of course religion plays a role. Whenever you appeal to a higher cause or ideal—if you’re a Communist, you appeal to the class struggle to end exploitation of man by man; if you’re a Nazi, you’re working to make the world safe for the master race—you have more licence to do terrible things in its name. Ideologies, whether secular or religious, are very dangerous. But let’s not forget that almost all the real horrors of the 20th century—Franco, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Zedonghad nothing to do with religion.

Q: Maybe that’s what particularly scares Westerners about Islamic extremists, the feeling that they’re backed up by religious belief.

A: It’s very easy to identify Islam as the source of the problem because you don’t have to do any further analysis, you just say, “Well, they have to change their culture or update their religion.” And when you can blame it all on another race, culture or religion, that also lets you off the hook. Is it impossible to think that perhaps several hundred years of

European colonialism or imperialism and now very violent American policies have something to do with the way the Muslims are responding? Many Americans act as if 9/11 came out of the blue: “Here we were, gee whiz, just minding our own business when suddenly these vicious killers”—and they were vicious killers—“came and destroyed the World Trade Center.” The fact is, there is a long history of grievances, and of course, while moderates may be deeply unhappy, it’s going to be radicals who throw the bombs and fly the planes.

Q: You just mentioned your distrust of American media. What sources do you trust?

A: To me, one of the greatest disappointments at the beginning of the war with global terrorism was to see the American mainstream press no longer a sufficient source to understand developments. At this point, I think people who are seriously interested in world

'Let's not forget that almost all the real horrors of the 20th century had nothing to do with religion’

affairs need to look at a number of different sources, consider what’s being said in England, in France, and in the Chinese and Indian press, and, though this may make people angry, al-Jazeera. You can watch al-Jazeera in English now, and you’ll see there are stories and perspectives we just don’t get in the Western press. I certainly wouldn’t want it as my only news source, but at least it’s slightly more enlightened than Fox TV News: the anchors don’t editorialize, rolling their eyes when they’re actually giving the news. And by the way, Israelis watch it all the time. M