The War on Terrorism: Is There an Alternative?
This public debate took place in Logan Hall, Institute of Education, London on 15 May 2002. The speakers were Tariq Ali (TA), Christopher Hitchens (CH), Anatol Lieven (AL), Onora O’Neill (OON) and Jacqueline Rose (JR). The moderator was Andrew O’Hagan (AOH).
AOH. I want to start with a question about the title of this debate, ‘The War on Terrorism: Is There an Alternative?’ Onora O’Neill, what does this phrase mean? Bush has called this a ‘war’, a ‘war against evil’, a ‘war against terror’? The media likes these phrases; is this though in any sense a war and at any rate is it possible to have a ‘war on terrorism’?
OON. Like many people, I’ve been puzzled since the very beginning as to why the metaphors of war and police action were constantly being mixed. But I think one thing that those two images have in common is the supposition that the background against which we’re making these distinctions is a world of states. A world of states in which one can legitimately distinguish proper use of police power from vigilantism and between which one can distinguish what counts as war, aggression, invasion and so on. In fact, it’s not a world of states for lots of reasons, and in particular what’s gone on this last year is not a world of states, not merely because not all protagonists have a state or a recognised state, but also I think more fundamentally, because so many of those coloured patches on our maps with boundaries are not in any serious sense states.
AOH. Not a world of states, Tariq Ali?
TA. Well, I agree with some of that. I think that essentially what took place on 11 September was an act of terror not of war. It was an act of terror carried out by a group of individuals, presumably – according to what we’ve been told, although no real evidence has come forward – instructed by a leadership of another terrorist group to carry out these actions. Now when acts of terror are carried out in any country, by whatever group, the basic response is to try and find the people who carried this out and bring them to trial and present the evidence in a court of law and try them. And it sometimes takes a long time to do that, but in my opinion that is the best method. That is the way in which in a previous attack on the World Trade Center in the 1990s, the person who carried it out was caught. And the only person from the al-Qaida leadership who has been caught has not been captured in Afghanistan but in a Pakistani town by the FBI and the Pakistani police.
The main aim of this war, we were told right at the beginning by the thinker-President, was to capture Osama bin Laden ‘dead or alive’, and his confederates. When asked in Saudi Arabia by the Saudi Prince Sultan, Donald Rumsfeld said the aim was not to get rid of the whole of the Taliban regime: ‘some of them we could work with’. Which was a fair statement because they had worked with them for a long time before. (Laughter) If you judge by what they themselves said, they have neither captured Osama bin Laden; US Intelligence have no idea where he is, and his main confederate, Mullah Omar, this bearded one-eyed cleric (wounded, according to reports), when last seen was on a motorbike in the Afghan desert heading towards the sunset. No one could find him: with all these surveillance works no one could find him. So neither Mullah Omar nor Osama bin Laden nor Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy of Osama and the most intelligent guy within the outfit, have been captured – and basically what we’re seeing is a wild goose chase. So, even from its own point of view it has so far not been a successful operation.
AOH. Christopher Hitchens.
CH. Well, I’ll try and avoid casuistry then, as well as prolixity. (Laughter.) Oh, I didn’t think I’d get a laugh for that but thanks anyway. Afghanistan was a state; there is an argument about whether it’s a country or even a nation, but it was until this time last year a state and it was a state possessed by the Taliban and by al-Qaida and in that state and in the hinterlands of Kabul and Kandahar was being readied the most appalling series of assaults on civil society, only one of which was successfully brought off last September. That’s no longer the case: the Taliban don’t have a state, al-Qaida don’t have a country; they’ve reverted to being a crime family with some connection to the Saudi oligarchy and the Pakistani secret police. But none of these happy outcomes, which are happy for us as well as the people of Afghanistan, would have occurred if anyone had listened for ten seconds to anything recommended by Tariq Ali in the whole course of this discussion. Okay, that’s an opening statement. I don’t mind the language of morality, I don’t particularly care for the good and evil dichotomy, but I sort of feel I know it when I see it. I think it would have been immoral on our part not to recognise that we owed the people of Afghanistan a debt for allowing them to be governed by the Pakistani secret police occupation that had the indulgence of our Government and that of the United States for far too long. It was too difficult until recently to create outrage and shame about that collusion. It’s much easier now. I find that a morally advantageous position to be in.
We owe the Afghan people a debt, I repeat; we have partially discharged it. Second, it would have been very alarming – morally, and in other ways too – if an attack of that nature, the 11 September attacks, had not aroused in us and in our governments and societies the spirit of self-defence. If that had not been one of the responses it seems to me there would have been very grave cause for concern. Third, it would have been very distressing morally and politically if there had not been a tendency – which should be sharpened and increased and intensified – to rally to the defence of civil and secular society against theocratic terrorism of all kinds, in particular this kind, this specific kind, the cited kind, the one we’re talking about. Had there been any failure of nerve on that point it seems to me that we would all be in some moral and political danger too. So I don’t mind calling this a war because it is global, it’s to the knife, it’s to the finish and it’s a very strenuous combat. Now there’s some easy sneering but perhaps we’ve heard the last of it – I knew we’d get the first of it – about taking your tune from President Bush. I don’t happen to have taken my tone, as I hope you can tell, in anything I’ve just said, from him. Actually, the Bush family is new to this struggle. On 14 February 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini, hoping – as bin Laden has since hoped – to put himself at the head of theocratic affairs, offered a bounty in his own name for the murder of a writer of fiction living in this city, for the offence of writing a novel when this person was not a citizen of Iran, an unprecedented assault on civilisation, there were a lot of false notes sounded on the Right. One of them was by President Bush Sr, who, asked that day for a comment, said he couldn’t see how any American interest was involved in it. I think he maybe still does not. Susan Sontag, who was President of PEN that year, who’s been I think unfairly criticised sometimes this year, made the rather clever reply: ‘Well, Mr President, we would be contemptible if we said that Mr Rushdie’s wife is an American and has had to go into hiding with him. But perhaps you might say a word about the general interests of the United States or the West in preventing death warrants being issued by theocratic fascists for the writing of fiction.’ Answer came there none. My view is that you can drop the easy jokes about George Bush. Some of us have been in this struggle against theocratic fascism for longer than the Bush family and we are of course perfectly happy to welcome them to the struggle.
AOH. I want to hold, Jacqueline Rose, to this question of rhetoric for a second. I want in fact to nail this question of rhetoric if we can. Is the whole ‘war on terrorism’ a rhetorical manoeuvre? Jack Straw, George Bush, Ariel Sharon use this phrase and many like it, and I wonder if it’s possible that this war is being conducted in fact on the basis of an abstraction?
JR. I think we have to respond to what Christopher Hitchens just said, specifically what has been aroused by 11 September. One of the things that has been aroused is the particular use of language, and if I just give you a few quotations I want you to guess who says which one. ‘A wind of change is blowing to remove evil from the peninsula.’ ‘The ways of the wicked will not prosper.’ ‘Those who promote evil will be defeated.’ ‘Out of terror will come good.’ ‘The shadow of evil will be followed by good in the world.’ ‘We will either be defeated or we will defeat.’ Now the point is that one of those is Osama bin Laden, one of them is Tony Blair and one of them is Ariel Sharon, and they share a vocabulary. And I think it’s very important to just register the extraordinarily proximity of this language and, obviously, its apocalyptic tones. So where we are being encouraged in the West to believe that we’re dealing with a pure antagonism, we’re actually dealing with something more like a marriage made in hell. The second thing to say – whatever one thinks about what Christopher has defined as theocratic fascism – is that this apocalyptic language is the language on which fundamentalism prospers. It is rooted, as Karen Armstrong has pointed out many times, in a fear; but it also thrives on the prospect of annihilation. So we have to think very carefully about what we’re doing by using this vocabulary. And although the Taliban have of course fallen, I think we need to pause and ask about the longer-term prospects for Afghanistan. It is not clear what the long-term effects of that hundred days of bombing – relentless bombing – is actually going to be on the people and the future of Afghanistan. With the warlords at each other’s throats in the north-west of the country actually risking undermining what’s happening in Kabul. But the final thing that I want to say about the language, is that when Ariel Sharon says, as he did this week, ‘He who rises up to kill us, we will pre-empt him and kill him first,’ it just needs a little shift and what he’s actually saying is that ‘if you kill me, I’ll kill you back.’ And it seems to me that at best that is two boys in the playground, and at worst it’s two dead men talking. So I think this language is ineffectual, very exciting and very dangerous. (Applause.)
AOH. Anatol Lieven, I want to quote something from Samantha Power’s book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide. ‘They target civilians not because of who they are. To earn a death sentence it was enough in the 20th century to be an Armenian, a Jew or a Tutsi; on 11 September it was enough to be an American. In 1994, Rwanda, a country of eight million people, experienced the numerical equivalent of two World Trade Center attacks every single day for a hundred days. When on 12 September the United States turned for help to its friends around the world, Americans were gratified by the overwhelming response; when the Tutsi cried out, by contrast, every country in the world turned away.’ Could you just talk about that?
AL. Well, I must say that I had hoped that as a result of 11 September the United States, through a greater sense of its own vulnerability in the way that it had suffered, would in fact develop a new commitment to humanitarian principles in the world and a new sense of the importance of international law and a sense of the importance of international institutions and working through international institutions in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But I must say that a few weeks ago I had an intensely depressing experience at a conference in New York, where one of the most famous writers on the Rwandan genocide, who most strongly denounced it and most strongly called for international intervention there, turned out as well in public to be an unconditional supporter of Israeli policies, of Sharon’s policies in the Middle East, and completely blind to any claims whatsoever on the side of the Palestinians. And I’m afraid what that does bring out, among other things, is that – very naturally but also I think very sadly – 11 September has inflamed not just the sense of American vulnerability but also American nationalism. And this nationalism is once again very naturally far more concentrated on American needs – on alleged American national interests – than it is on any idea of the interests of humanity in general. And unfortunately the ways in which those interests are being presented to the American people are by no means necessarily either in the interests of the American people or directly to do with the war on terrorism. Because, of course, to begin with the question with which we started, I think we can quite legitimately talk about a war against al-Qaida and the Taliban, or anyone else who protects al-Qaida; and it’s a war which, with certain qualifications, I would support. I must say I also get much more worried when this idea of the war against terrorism is extended much more widely and becomes associated with other agendas, and with policies against other states in the world who are probably in no way analogous to the Taliban. Because, of course, the ‘war against terrorism’ is an absurdity: the phrase is an absurdity. Terrorism is not a movement, terrorism is not a state, terrorism is a tactic. I seem to have spent much of the past eight months reminding Americans that IRA terrorism was largely funded and protected from the United States by American citizens. And the same would be true in the past of Zionist terrorism, for example. So anything that we can do to get away from this general use of the words ‘war against terrorism’ with all the dangers that it involves and back towards a concentration on specific groups and specific dangers, the happier I would be.
AOH. Tariq Ali, a limited war against al-Qaida. Are Christopher and Anatol missing something by supporting such a venture?
TA. Well, I think, what is the aim of this war? Basically, the Taliban regime fell without a struggle, there was less fighting on the ground from October to December last year than there has been in the preceding 25 years in that country. Some of you will recall, in the first week of that war, the television commentators – briefed in the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence, no doubt – came and announced: ‘We have complete mastery of the air.’ Now this would have been a bit more impressive if the Taliban had had an air force. (Laughter.) But given that it’s basically the Pakistani Air Force which had been defending them, and enough time had been given to the Pakistani Air Force to withdraw its pilots and planes from Bagram and Kandahar, that mastery of the air wasn’t a very big deal. Then there was no fight. Basically, what happened is that the bulk of the Taliban were told by Pakistani Military Intelligence not to fight. And while a faction around Omar, very close to al-Qaida fought, the bulk of them didn’t fight. They left the country, presumably, though we don’t know the extent of this; my own feeling is that large numbers of them are back in Pakistan, working with their former sponsors and helping to destabilise that country. That’s essentially what’s going on.
AOH. Do your sources in Pakistan tell you that?
TA. Yes. I was in Pakistan eight weeks ago, and everyone knows that the Taliban people are back. They know that they want to destabilise Musharraf, they are waiting for a chance to kill him. It’s not a big secret, it’s openly talked about. They’ve tried to provoke a war with India by attacking the Indian parliament building. These are groups funded by Pakistani military intelligence for a long, long time. They’ve carried out attacks on the church in Islamabad which was in a diplomatic enclave, the most highly protected part of the city. They’ve killed an American journalist, Daniel Pearl from the Wall Street Journal. They’ve killed various French people, engineers at the Sheraton Hotel. So there’s a systematic pattern now of destabilising, but their ultimate aim is to have a war with India because they feel that the worse the situation is, the better their chance to come to power. So the effects of this business are by no means over yet. The other point that I would make is that the regime in Kabul does not represent even the armed groups of men who took Kabul. Hamid Karzai essentially is an old – and it’s not a big secret, this – is an old American agent who’s worked for them; and Zalmay Khalilzad from Bush’s office, who gives him advice, is also someone who’s worked long and hard for the United States. It’s a totally unrepresentative regime. And the minute Western troops withdraw, this regime will fall.
AOH. Anatol Lieven.
AL. The only thing is though, Tariq, and as you know very well, the Taliban and the al-Qaida-type groups who it was backing were responsible for destabilisation and appalling terrorism in Pakistan, long before 11 September. Including thousands of killings of members of the Shia minority. And I must say that, on the whole, both my secular and my Shia friends in Pakistan think that still on balance it was a good thing that these people were overthrown. In the longer run, they were in any case going to be a terrible danger to Pakistan and to other Muslim states as well. And they do after all represent a threat, not just to the West, but to any idea of Islamic civilisational progress.
TA. I don’t disagree with that; the only point I would make is this, Anatol. That in my opinion – and I hold very firmly to this view – it is far better if regimes of this sort, whether it’s the Taliban, whether it’s Pinochet in Chile, whether it’s the Indonesian generals, it is better if they are overthrown by people from within that region; and entry by the West always tends to create further problems. And that’s why I’m pointing out that the problems are by no means over, because the Taliban has shifted to Pakistan.
CH. Well, I noticed that Tariq didn’t get a laugh the second time he said that somebody in Afghanistan, that Mr Karzai worked for the United States; there’s a danger of tautology there. If everyone, from the Taliban to al-Qaida, has at one point or another been an American client, then some of the force of the point is lost. And it’s lost partly because it’s a non sequitur; and I think that we’re in danger of falling into one. If this panel was about Palestine I wouldn’t consider myself completely unqualified to comment about it. If it was about recent crimes in American foreign policy, I’ve spent the last two years trying to get Henry Kissinger arrested and we’re getting nearer and nearer to that point and I’d happily promote my own book about this. And if we were talking about Rwanda I’d think I could join in and say a word or two, but the question before us is what it is. And if you want therefore for the clarification to be – before we wander into non sequitur – what do we mean by terrorism, let me amplify what I mean when I say I think it’s Islamic fascism. Though Tariq Ali and Noam Chomsky and many others said that there was no proof yet, at the time of the bombing of Afghanistan, quite who had done the World Trade Center, they did know enough to say that whoever it was was an anti-imperialist, protesting against globalisation. That, I thought, was the first point of bad faith in the anti-war position. We don’t have enough proof of who it was, but we can tell you that it was, as Tariq says in his book, the internal foes of the empire. Well, I won’t qualify as people who are anti-imperialist those who wish to restore the Caliphate and who are nostalgic for Ottomanism. And that’s very clearly inscribed in the work of all the theoreticians and theologians of this movement. For them the disaster is the end of their own empire. They want to restore it, they want Palestine – all of it – back. They argue only about how much of Spain is theirs. These people are not anti-imperialists. Any fool on the Left who goes around saying they are is a pure sap, or worse. Second, why should it suddenly be that in Nigeria the Muslim forces have decided that everybody in Nigeria should subject to Sharia law? They know that most of Nigeria is not fundamentalist Muslim. They know that more than half of it isn’t Muslim at all. They don’t just want to impose Sharia law in the provinces they have seized power in: they want to impose it on anyone. Why? Because it’s self-evident: what is in the Koran must be true; isn’t this clear to everybody? Isn’t that also the reason why ancient synagogues are destroyed in Tunisia, a country that’s protected its Jewish minority throughout many rounds of Arab-Israeli conflict. Isn’t it also the reason why suddenly, even in the city where we sit, and in the city where the first proclamation of the emancipation of Jewry was made, in Paris, and where the Dreyfus case was fought out, synagogues are burned by people and trashed by people who claim the authority of ultimate theocratic power? That’s what we are in fact talking about: is this a conflict, is it a threat to us, do those who initiate it mean us harm or not, should we be defending ourselves? Shall I underline it any more? Does anyone have any other question that they want to intrude that will lead away from and change this subject?
AOH. Before I come to you, Onora O’Neill, I’d like to take a scrupulously planted question from the audience, from Rosemary Hollis, head of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Rosemary Hollis That was a bit of a shock because I thought you’d already addressed my question, which was about the language. But really what I’m after here is not the labelling of this phenomenon as a war, but rather that it’s a ‘war against evil’, and I would like to know how we know when we’ve won it. If it’s a war against terrorism and it’s a war against evil, how do you fight it and how do you know when it’s over? Terrorism is a tactic, it’s always going to be around; evil presumably is always going to be around; and the apocalyptic language – we’ve heard about the Islamic fascists, but is there any concern about the way some of the Christians are piling in on this war? (Applause.)
AOH. Onora O’Neill.
OON. Well, I think that the first thing to think about terrorism is it’s very odd, as Anatol has said, to have a war against an abstraction. I mean it’s even odder than a war against drugs. And when you turn it into a war against evil, it does look rather a hopeless cause. But at the same time if we’re thinking about terrorism, I think one of the things that makes it something rather specific is that – I’ll say something which may sound surprising – terrorism isn’t about violence. Yes, most terrorists use violence but what it’s ultimately about is terror, intimidation. We talk about the victims of terror and we mean that, whether on 11 September or some other time, the real victims of terror are the people who have survived and who are intimidated in one way or another and of course in very different ways. And I think that’s what is so extremely odd about talking about a ‘war against terrorism’. Because the victims are, so to speak, enormous overlapping sets of people who have to alter their lives, who have to calculate, who have to take protective and pre-emptive action of one sort or another. Now one of the few things that is really not on for most of them is to run a war: only the people who are least the victims can run it as a war. So they presumably are doing it on behalf of other people, all of us maybe, the people who are really intimidated. And at that point I think one has questions to ask, very simple questions: are these moves going to help those victims? They won’t help the ones who were killed.
AOH. Are these moves going to help these victims, Jacqueline Rose?
JR. Well, I think the answer to that has been given by Onora in the form of her question. But I would like to say something in response to Christopher Hitchens, and that is that I’m very concerned about the evocation of the Dreyfus Affair in the context of the war against terror. It was not Islamicist theocrats who put Dreyfus on trial, it was the French and I think it is (applause) very important that we –
CH. They’ll clap anything.
JR. They will, I’m relying –
CH. They’ll giggle at anything too.
JR. I think it’s very, very important that we recognise, especially in the context of Le Pen’s remarkable 20 per cent of the poll in France two weeks ago, that these problems exist at the heart of what Christopher continues to call – with no trace of irony – civilisation, as if this isn’t a term that we might want to think a little bit carefully about. The other thing is, although I appreciate him saying that we’re not here to talk about Israel/Palestine, of course in a sense we are; and the reason why we are is because that link has been made as a result of what happened on 11 September. It’s been made unapologetically and indeed – in response to Rosemary Hollis’s question – with the fervent support of the Christian Right in America, the support for the policies of Ariel Sharon and the absolute blanket equation of his brutal occupation and violence against the Palestinians with the so-called ‘war against terror’. And therefore I think that it’s very important that we see that one of the knock-on effects of what has been happening in the last few months has been a radical deterioration of the situation in Israel/Palestine as we speak.
AOH. Christopher, civilisation?
CH. Well I wonder if I could get as much applause for saying it wasn’t the Muslims who freed the slaves in France in 1798 either, the same year as the emancipation of the Jews. No applause for that. Why not? It’s obvious enough, isn’t it? It’s boring enough for you. I think I’m probably doomed to have a long struggle tonight against those who giggle too soon. Look, let me just put it like this, forget, if you like, the idea that the Taliban actually did have an air force, not just in Afghanistan, but in New Jersey, and that they turned civilian aircraft into cruise missiles packed with frozen and screaming people and rammed them into buildings full of other civilians. I don’t want to put you through all that boring, mushy, moral stuff about ‘imagine what it would be like to be in one of those planes, or in one of those buildings.’ Never mind all that; forget all that, as obviously quite a few of you have. (Protests.) Discount for it then, compare it with something else that you find more objectionable.
Heckler You sound like Peter Hitchens.
CH. What qualifies it for me as terrorism, since we’re asked to comment rhetorically, is the following: what is the motive of those who use civilian aircraft to destroy civilian targets, what do they want? What they want we already know, we know what they want for their own societies, it’s announced. They consider Sharia law à la Taliban in Afghanistan to be the model society, the destruction of all culture, the destruction of all music.
H. That’s about as appetising as a rat sandwich.
CH. A society where everything that is not forbidden is compulsory, a society where only one book is needful. This is a civil war –
H. Is the coup in Venezuela civilised?
CH. I wish I’d thought of the coup in Venezuela.
H. That was organised by the CIA.
CH. I wish I had thought of mentioning it.
AOH. Can I just say –
CH. I don’t know why you don’t mention the Malvinas.
AOH. We’re not having this. There will be an opportunity for questions from the floor later. If you can’t stand what you’re hearing, leave. There’s no way we’re having this. (Applause.)
CH. Well thank you, Mr Chairman, I didn’t ask for protection. I like to think I don’t need it, but thank you anyway. Look, there’s a civil war going on within the Islamic world – this is the rough way I’ll phrase it – there’s a civil war going on within the Islamic world from Nigeria to Lebanon, to the far reaches of Northern China, as to whether or not the Muslim world falls under this kind of rule itself. Those who hope to win that and put all Muslims under Sharia law want to win by exporting that war to where non-Muslims live. That will be and is their tactic. That means it is a war, in my opinion, and has to be fought. It also means, of course, we must find Muslim allies and allies in Muslim society, but I was hoping to avoid too much of the self-evident. Which is why I did not stipulate who defended Dreyfus or indeed who emancipated the slaves or Jews in the French Revolution.
AOH. Anatol Lieven.
AL. Very briefly, in response to the original question, I think if we keep this to a war against al-Qaida, the forces like it and the Taliban, we can’t win it. We can never win it completely: they’re too spread throughout the Muslim world, there is too much support for them from many different factors which are in some cases extremely difficult to deal with. But we can win a lot of battles and we can do so, yes, with the support of very powerful elements in the Muslim world itself. With regard to the Taliban regime, for example, this was despised even by people who are generally regarded as radical Islamists within Pakistan itself. The Jamaat, for example, who identified with a regime, a system which we also regard as radically Islamist, which is portrayed now in Washington as radically evil, namely the regime in Iran, but which clearly has a very, very, very different version of Islam and indeed the Sharia than the Taliban. It would be the gravest of mistakes to homogenise all the forces of Sharia Islam or Koranic Islam or even – God forbid – religious Islam into one monolithic block. It would be a grave mistake both morally and historically; it would also be a grave mistake because if we let this war become a kind of a war against Islam, or to be seen as such, then we’re going to lose this war.
AOH. Tariq Ali.
TA. I agree very much with what Anatol has said. I mean the Taliban regime was despised in large parts of the Muslim world. Especially, I should say, in parts of Pakistan and in Iran it was absolutely hated. There is one country where it wasn’t despised, and that is Saudi Arabia. This regime in fact, if you like, is the mother regime of groups like this, and – it’s extremely important to point this out – the bulk of the members of this organisation are from Saudi Arabia and partially from Egypt. That’s where it has recruited the bulk of its members and that’s where it draws most of its support from. And this support started in the 1980s when they were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. That’s how they built up this organisation into the monster that it is. And Brzezinski said as much in a big interview: that the price was worth paying. He was asked specifically, ‘why did you do this?’ He said: ‘Because our big enemy was the Russian Empire, we had to bring that empire down and so we worked with a lot of these groups.’ And the Nouvel Observateur correspondent asked him, ‘So the fact that these groups have now evolved into this doesn’t bother you?’ He said: ‘No. What are a few jumped-up Muslims compared to the defeat of the Russian Empire?’ Well he too got his answer on 11 September.
But can I just make one point about the situation within the Islamic world? Iran is a very interesting case in point. This is a country where for the last three decades, people have known only the rule of the clerics. Sixty per cent of the population is under 25 years of age, they have known nothing else. This is also the country in which there is more intellectual ferment, more opposition, more genuine hatred of religion than anywhere else in the Islamic world where there has been interference by the West. That is why I argue for an organic development and encouragement of oppositions within, because it’s impossible to fight the Islamic fundamentalists unless at the same time you are hostile to what the United States has been doing in that world.
AOH. There are nuances there that I know we want to address, but to help us do so I want to call on a question very much related to this from the novelist Robert Irwin.
RI. In the 20th century followers of Maududi in India and of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt pursued their Islamicist aims through political means or charitable means. Does the subsequent switch to bombings and assassinations by Islamicists suggest increasing desperation and perhaps ultimately their defeat?
CH. Well, thank you, but it’s not my problem. It simply as a question doesn’t interest me. I think those who believe that there is supernatural authority and those who believe that there is a supernatural written reference – the word of God , to which they can refer – are always likely to be prone to violence: they just can’t keep it up. That’s one reason why, by the way, I think this war is quite easy to win: no Jihad has ever done anything but fail or start falling into fratricide in its own ranks. I would like though to take the chance, which is not completely irrelevant to your question, to agree with Tariq on one point, which is this: the ferment in Iran, the political and democratic and cultural ferment is the best revenge for the fatwa, for the threat of murder and bounty issued by the Ayatollah. Partly because it was the mullahs who urged Iranians to breed, and to breed as fast as they could, and try and redouble their population which they themselves had so depleted by their insane wars. So the irony of this civil society overtaking is very impressive.
But when Tariq says he prefers the organic, who wouldn’t? We don’t want to be in a situation like Algeria where you have to fight to the death against Islamic fascism, and think if the war in Algeria had gone the other way and millions of Algerians had tried to leave or force themselves into France to escape from Islamic dictatorship, M. Jean Marie Le Pen would be probably President of France by now if that had gone the other way a few years ago. When I asked Tariq, for example, ‘well what do you think about Iraq? Do you agree with me that the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmed Chalabi and the democratic forces in Iraq should be supported?’ He says: ‘No, they’re just clones of the CIA.’
TA. Well they are. (Laughter.)
CH. Which actually happens to be – ah too soon the snigger again – Why is the CIA refusing to meet Ahmed Chalabi or any of his people in Washington, my home town, allow me to know?
TA. They don’t trust –
CH. He’s frozen out, he’s blacklisted, he’s completely boycotted by the US administration. Why? Because we don’t know what their plans for Iraq are. But what does this leave us with? Either a full scale military intervention, or we can’t support any civil society forces or political forces that might be tainted by some politics not congruent with Mr Ali’s, or we can always wait to see what Saddam Hussein has in mind. For ourselves or the Kurds or Iraq or his neighbours – and inevitably that is the recommendation objectively made by those who say that they are neutral in this battle. So the story is about you and it will come to you, as it did come to the Algerians and the Iranians and everyone else. It’s not to be avoided by these stupid attempts at creating double standards.
TA. Can I reply to this?
TA. I mean Christopher has now brought Iraq in, moving from theocratic fascism to non-theocratic fascism, in his terminology, where every enemy of the West is automatically a fascist. I mean this is the sort of debased use of language which we have seen developing since the Second World War, because it’s the one enemy that everyone fought against and knows has to be defeated. So that every new enemy which comes up is also a fascist. Anthony Eden called Nasser a fascist.
CH. I didn’t categorise the Ba’athist regime as –
TA. But you –. What’s this, the invasion of Iraq, what do you think that is going to do, if you are just talking about the war against terrorism? Here you have a situation in the Middle East, when appalling atrocities are being committed against the Palestinians and the United States is going to invade Iraq. And this selective vigilantism, as it’s seen, only breeds more crimes in the region, and that’s exactly what will happen because it’s not even a question of taking a country and allowing them free elections. They will never allow free elections in Iraq because their big fear is that the 80 per cent of the population which is Shiite, will vote for their own parties, and you will have a Shiite state in Iraq which will align with Iran. So the Saudis and the Gulf states find this more fearful than Saddam in power. Which is why even the Kuwaitis now – plucky little Kuwaitis – even they are opposed to a war against Iraq. So for Christopher to come up and throw this and say that this is our next big war aim as part of the war against terror – to wage a war against Iraq – is quite honestly disgraceful. I mean most people don’t want a war against Iraq, both here and in the Arab world and in growing numbers in the United States, and they need to be supported.
AOH. Jacqueline, I want to move us on just a few paces by looking again at what is actually happening now. When a nutcase runs into a school and kills schoolchildren you don’t declare martial law. I want to ask you if the global situation hasn’t in fact worsened considerably as a result of overreaction to 11 September?
JR. Well, in a way I feel that question has been pre-empted by the discussion we’ve been listening to in the last half hour and obviously there are very strong and different opinions on this panel. But I think one of the things that has worsened as a result of this is actually some of the democratic capacities – what Hannah Arendt refers to as the permanent opposition which is the hallmark of patriotism – the democratic capabilities and possibilities inside Western nations. And I’m not just referring to the assault on civil liberties, and the imprisonment of people, and the rushing through of laws which are actually rendering all kinds of people criminals on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever. But I’m also talking about something to do with the nature of this debate, about America. And if I can steal a little bit of Onora O’Neill’s thunder, I would like to put the question in terms which I hope will be close to her thoughts which is that the issue is whether we feel we can trust America. And whether we feel that we can trust it in the policies it is declaring in response to 11 September. Now if we’re talking about terrorism, we’ve also got to talk about (of course; and we haven’t this evening hardly mentioned) state terror. We could talk for example about the bombing of the al-Shifa plant in the Sudan, as a result of which tens of thousands of civilians have died and Britain was partly responsible refusing to let through the chloroquine which would have actually remedied the situation for those civilians, it actually refused a request to let those supplies through. In relationship to Afghanistan we do know, and this was mentioned by Anatol Lieven, that Elisabeth Jones, the assistant secretary of state, has said, ‘our presence in the area, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is a long-term one, we have other goals in the region.’ It is very, very hard not to believe that what is actually being fought for here, even if one accepts some of the things that Christopher has said about a certain form of Islamacism, what is being fought for here is Western self-interest and the control of the oil supplies. Now it’s in that context that I think a really powerful ethical issue has been raised, which is that we do not know how or who to trust. And for me the best little cameo moment of this was when the CIA a few weeks ago, and I’m sure everybody saw this, announced that it was setting up a disinformation unit. Do you remember this? There was such an uproar that they promptly announced that they weren’t going to do it. (Laughter). Now we have, well you’re there already aren’t you, we have no way of knowing whether that second statement was a piece of disinformation or not.
CH. Or the first.
AOH. Before coming to you, Christopher, I do want you to hold that question that was raised there, Onora O’Neill, about ‘can we trust America’? but first I think we need to go to Christopher.
CH. Well we don’t need to, and I’m willing to defer, but that was the one I wanted to take up. By way of commenting just on Anatol: of course I don’t think we’ve had anyone saying one should support repressive regimes in Uzbekistan, but after all the other option has been tried: supporting repressive regimes that are pro-Islamic, such as the Pakistani one and Saudi one and then seeing how that goes. So your point there is, I think again, slightly tautologous or at least it’s a distinction without a difference. And when you say, well people turn to theocracy because all other things have been seen to fail, I really think you’re obliged to say that theocracy has been seen to fail long before everything else was tried.
Now as to America, far be it for me to suggest that oil is worth fighting for, I won’t go that far, and I’m sure that no one here would be so unscrupulous as to say that it’s a material that they would be willing to defend or organise diplomatic alliances about, or anything of the sort. But I will just say: what about Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo? If the people, the Muslim people largely, by the way, of those provinces, had been left to scrupulous Europeans for their care and tending, they would most of them now would be dead, and where they lived would be a howling Christian fundamentalist orthodox wilderness of Serbo-fascism. That’s what would have happened. Now I was very much involved in the arguments in Washington about whether you could get Clinton ever to get off the fence. He would rather have bombed al-Shifa, which by the way he did for his own personal court calendar, it wasn’t a decision of the joint chiefs of staff. But in the end the argument prevailed that, no, the United States could not let ethnic cleansing prevail in Europe. It could not allow the recrudescence of fascism. The argument against this was: what business is it of ours? what interest of ours is involved? It was decided that there was a general interest in preventing it.
I mention this for two reasons, one is it’s a partial riposte to what Jacqueline just said and to what is involved in the American Idea in the post-Cold-War context. The second is this: all those that I know of, all those most prominent in opposing the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida, were also completely opposed to fighting Milosevic and Tudjman. Now it seems to me, and I will just, since I’m in enough trouble already, venture this: if you come across somebody who says it’s not worth fighting Milosevic, it’s not worth fighting Tudjman, you don’t want to alienate the Orthodox, you don’t want to alienate the Catholics, you don’t want to get involved in Balkan wars. And then when it’s fanatical Muslims doing the killing in their turn and attacking civilians right where we all live, well that’s not really worth fighting against either. Probably since in both cases – one attempt was to re-found the orthodox empire, the lost Byzantium; and the other was an attempt to re-found the caliphate, the old Muslim Empire – that if you were indifferent to both those you can’t call yourself an anti-imperialist anymore, but you can be called an anti-American and in I think the most dubious sense of that term: the anti-cosmopolitan, anti-democratic, anti-globalised, anti-internationalist sense in which people hate America, the Milosevic/bin Laden sense of anti-Americanism. And I think those who took both views will just have to live with what they did and said, and with the thought of where we would be if their views had prevailed.
AOH. Onora O’Neill.
OON. I think you want me to answer ‘Can we trust America?’ and if you think about that question it’s very obvious that you can’t answer a question like that. You can trust some people with discrimination for some things and not for other things. What is meant here is probably: can we trust them in the leadership of this particular opposition to a variety of threats, as opposed to a single threat? and can we trust them above all not to make moves that will actually lead those rather disparate threats to coalesce in certain ways? and I think that’s a pretty difficult question. What would you need to trust them, what would you need to know, what evidence would you need to have, does any of us have that evidence?
AOH. Okay Jacqueline Rose?
JR. I think this question of death is incredibly important. Freud said famously once that it is impossible for anybody to imagine their own death. He also said of course this does not stop us from being absolutely ruthless in our capacity to imagine other people’s, including those of people we love, as in the famous joke of the old couple, one of whom says to the other, ‘When one of us dies, I’ll move to Paris’.
Now it does seem to me that one of the things that happened on 11 September was that a dreadful gaping hole was torn through the American psyche in terms of its invulnerability. I mean of course it is a fact that there was not one civilian casualty in America in the Second World War. And one should pause and just register that as part of the horror of what happened. But I do think that in response to that, and I agree with Anatol Lieven that the right to respond to that is a right that I think everybody on this panel would agree with, the question is how to respond. But the right is absolutely given here. But I think in response to that, what happens then is somebody else has to die, right, because this dreadful hole is rent through people’s sense of their own invulnerability and their own immortality – their inability to imagine their own deaths – and then somebody else has to die. So I think it’s not even indifference towards the fate of other people, it’s actually something more wilful and something more atavistic than that which operates at the level of unconscious fantasy life. And I think we just need to think about the extent to which those other things are at play in this.
CH. Soon, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, you’ll be able to read a very meticulous Human Rights Watch report on civilian deaths and casualties in the Afghan war. Which for any of you who fell for the false rumours and reports circulated earlier, or certainly for any of those of you who passed any of that on, will mantle your cheeks with a blush of shame. The most extraordinary care was taken to avoid civilian deaths in Afghanistan. I don’t believe any country ever attacked in the way the United States was has ever undertaken such care. Not just, in the first place not to retaliate at all for five weeks, but in the second place to be so careful to remove only the regime and the filthy nest of murderers and thugs that it had incubated under its wing. This is a thought that I think is difficult for some with memories as long as mine to assimilate but I’ll share it with you. An unintended consequence of history: not everything that the anti-war movement said about indiscriminate weaponry in Vietnam, things like phosphorus, cluster bombs, napalm and so on was completely wasted. Not all those points went missing. A lot of people in the establishment took note of it. Some of the compliment that is paid by the development of precision weapons is indeed a compliment to efforts that some of us were making about Indo-China and other places some years ago. I know that many people aren’t willing to recognise a compliment when they see it, but there it is.
AOH. Okay, Tariq?
TA. Well I don’t know which question to respond to, since it’s a long time since the original question was posed. But I will respond to the question ‘can one trust America?’ And here I will say what one says in relation to Islam: that no society in the world today is monolithic. I will just point out something Anatol, with whom I agree in general on Pakistan, didn’t say: all these Islamist groups put together in the last four general elections held in that country got under six percent of the popular vote. So it’s not a country where the masses are for Islamic fundamentalism; this fundamentalism was created by the state apparatus for its own needs, patronised by them, initially for use in the Afghan war against the Russians, subsequently for use in Kashmir against India. Which is why Musharraf finds it very difficult to curb them because they’ve infiltrated the army. That’s the real problem which he confronts. Since Christopher raised the question of the Balkan war, looking shyly at me while he was doing so.
CH. Excuse me? Do you want to have another go – ?
TA. I will just respond in the following way Christopher, that whatever you do, you mustn’t mix up bin Ladenism and Milosevic because bin Laden’s group, the al-Qaida group, was fighting shoulder to shoulder with you in Bosnia against Milosevic.
CH. That’s a falsehood.
TA. It’s absolutely true. A six hundred page Dutch government inquiry, responding to the critique made of them in Srebrenica, has now come up with all the facts and said that actually al-Qaida cadres were transported to Bosnia in American planes to fight in that particular war. So whether you like that or not is irrelevant, the fact is it happened. As for the fact that the United States and the West have learnt from Vietnam, you’re right but the main thing they’ve learnt is not to deploy too many ground troops, which is why they bomb from the air. That’s what they’ve learnt. Which means that that bombing can create real damage and they haven’t used chemical weapons, I agree with you on that, but they have used uranium tipped missiles, both in the Gulf and according to reports – I don’t know whether they are true or not – in Afghanistan as well. What the actual civilian casualties have been of this episode in Afghanistan we don’t know, we haven’t got a complete report. But since the United States has been killing their own side by accident, you know Canadian soldiers have died, a group of supporters of the regime in Kabul have been killed, one can only assume that lots of innocent civilians have died as well because it’s difficult, with the best will in the world, to be that careful when you’re bombing from so far up in the sky.
As to whether we trust America, there is one side of America which I have always found attractive but it’s a side now which the supporters of the war don’t like, this is dissenting America. There has always been dissent in America against some of its imperial adventures (applause) from Mark Twain onwards. And one of the most heartening things I saw in the United States when I was there for four weeks over April, was that these voices are coming up again. The intimidation that they felt is going. There were a hundred thousand people that marched in the streets of Washington, largely for Palestine. And many many of them were Arab Americans, who felt the most under pressure after 11 September. And that’s a side of America I like. And I think it’s great but the other America I don’t trust but I just want to say why, it’s not an abstract thing. Because this is now the only imperial power in the world. It is the first time in history that you have had one imperial power, unchallenged by any other imperial power, it has never happened before in human history. And powers like this pursue their own economic, political and strategic interests quite ruthlessly and with as much fundamentalism as any religious fundamentalist. (Applause.)
AOH. Christopher, you’ll have an opportunity in a minute but I want to go to Anatol Lieven with a new question. Many perceived a great shift after 11 September in the American Justice Department, a shift from enforcement to prevention, which broadly speaking means that the main job will be arresting and deporting terrorist suspects before they do anything. This is part of what Bush means presumably by a ‘war on terrorism’ but my question to you is: could it also constitute in the long run a war on civil rights?
AL. Well there are certainly very alarming aspects of that. Both US behaviour abroad in terms of bringing people back to the US by extra-judicial means, and I’m not talking here about the ones who are captured in Afghanistan but from other states. And of course transporting prisoners, it seems pretty clear in a number of cases, to states where they can in fact be tortured and information extracted that way. Also of course of grave concern, indeed frankly if you’d asked me before 11 September, I would have said it was impossible that you could have arrested and held indefinitely more than a thousand people in the United States without trial, for offences which are – it would appear, because we’ve been denied the exact information, something which I also would not have believed possible in America – it would appear the offences are, in the vast majority of cases, either very minor or may well indeed have been fabricated simply in order to hold these people, to check them. And it’s true that once they’ve been checked they are being released. But also of course in order to put pressure on them to give any information that they may have. I mean I think this should be a matter of grave concern and then of course one goes beyond it to the question of military tribunals with the right to impose sentences of death; the question of obedience to the Geneva Convention. And I mean this is something where I think the United States’s present Administration has been deeply unwise, undermining one of the few conventions which has actually had some effect on governing behaviour between states during wars.
AOH. There’s joy to be had in not getting bogged down in the Palestinian issue but I would nevertheless, because I feel that we need to touch on it, at least ask for a question from D.D. Guttenplan, who is the London correspondent of The Nation.
DG. What is the logic or the failure of logic which leads some to condemn the US for intervening in Kosovo and then to condemn the US for failing to intervene in Palestine, are there differences between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon anything other than circumstantial?
AOH. Anatol Lieven.
AL. Well I mean one of the differences which has been brought home to me very very forcibly since going to live in the United States is that you know for all his crimes and our failures with regard to his crimes, Slobodan Milosevic was not being subsidised by my tax-payer’s money (applause) as an American taxpayer. I mean with regard to Chechnya, an issue for example on which I’ve tried to establish a more balanced view in the West, if America had been subsidising Russia to the extent that America subsidises Israel, I would have insisted – well I’m in no in a position to insist on anything, but I would have asked, demanded – that America use the leverage which that aid gives in order to produce more humane results, a more restrained policy, a search for political alternatives before adopting military ones and so forth and so on.
CH. Well there’s another potential symbiosis to add to that, which is that as people will remember, the Kosovo intervention was specifically designed to take the Kosovo refugees who’d been kicked into Macedonia and Albania and take them home, return them to the territory from which they had been expelled. And in the course of that operation, which I supported, and some were neutral about, General Sharon gave a very impressive and interesting interview in which he said he thought it was an extremely bad precedent. If you start taking refugees home to where they claim to have been born and were living, where would it all end. So Sharon okay. I waited for the other shoe to drop and it fell last week, Milosevic is on trial, exactly where I think he should be; last week they brought in Rugova to testify against him, face to face at last in the courtroom, Milosevic produces from behind his back, from the advisors that he’s had, without any warning at all, a document printed allegedly in Albanian, that he accuses Rugova of having distributed all over Kosovo, telling the Albanians to run away, telling them to get out, telling them to evacuate their territories. He says: ‘We didn’t expel you, your own leadership told you in your own language to leave’ and Rugova is handed the document and can prove as it happens in the court that it’s not really written in Albanian it’s a very crude forgery, but again it’s a very nice try and where did they get this idea from. Of course all these things, all these ghosts and revenants from previous cleansings are going to come back and haunt us. That’s why I keep saying it’s our responsibility to oppose when we can and when we have the chance and this latest one will be no exception.
TA. Well I think there’s general agreement on this one, believe it or not. (Laughter.) I think the question, however, is an important one. Which is: what can the United States do to stop the butchery which is going on in the occupied lands in Palestine, and here I think there’s no need for a military intervention whatsoever. Basically, the leverage the United States has on that state, the close links between that state and the United States on virtually every level. I don’t know whether any of you know this but both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions virtually unanimously, not completely, virtually unanimously, more or less giving a blank cheque to Israel. So in this situation, the question arises what has happened to the United States and why has it allowed its relationship with Israel to become so important that it affects and threatens their relationship with other countries in the region. Who knows the exact mechanics of why this has happened? One reason certainly is that in this oil-rich region, they do regard Israel as a reliable enforcer. If there was no oil in that world, I can assure you none of this or very little of this would have been going on. So we don’t – Where are you off to? (Laughter. CH leaves the stage.) I hope he hasn’t gone to make a phone call to someone. So in the case of Israel I think the United States really is in a very – it’s the only power in a strong position to stop this business, very quickly, if the will is there, but clearly, as Anatol has been telling us, the will isn’t there. And the longer this business goes on, I just tell you, the more despair, the more bitterness, the more individual terrorists will be created.
AOH. Okay, Jacqueline Rose?
JR. I mean there’s another link here which I’ve only discovered myself recently, so I simply in a sense just want to share it with you. Which is this, which is that Binyamin Netanyahu is the sponsor of a privately funded institute called theJohannes Institute, which is an institute of counter-terrorism, called the Johannes Institute after his brother who died in Entebbe, which sponsored two international conferences in the 1980s on counter terrorism, at one of which George Schultz gave an important keynote address. And Netanyahu in his later book on terrorism, which came out in the 1990s, actually credits the proceedings of that conference which is called Terrorism: How the West Can Win by the way, actually credits that book (which apparently Ronald Regan was reading on his way to the Tokyo summit on terrorism in 1987) with turning American policy on terrorism around. And in his book of the Nineties, in ‘95, he actually argues that America had, prior to that, an attitude towards terrorism which is, and I virtually quote: we need to understand the causes or indeed, and I’m adding here, desperation which leads people to commit terrorist acts. And Netanyahu congratulates himself on the fact that as a result of these conferences, one in Jerusalem and one in Washington, American policy is turning around to a pre-emptive action against terrorism, which when you read it in the speech of Schultz predicts almost item for item what America will do after 11 September. So I think there is a very uncanny set of connections here, where it’s not just that there has been a linkage between America and Israel after 11 September in response to terrorism which has created this horrible equation between the Palestinians and Osama bin Laden but actually that equation was driving the whole process before. So I think that just adds to this discussion the extent to which we have to be very wary and very anxious about the way this is proceeding.
AOH. In an ideal world we’d be able to get each member of the panel to respond to every single thing that’s come up, but I’m really keen now to open up the floor and take some questions from you. So we’ll just go straight into that. The guy in the green T-shirt.
AK. It’s a question directed mainly at Tariq Ali. Tariq, if Western intervention is always wrong –
TA. Could you just say who you are?
AK. Yes, I’m sorry, my name is Andy Kershaw. If Western intervention is always wrong, what would you say tonight to the voters of Sierra Leone?
TA. I think the Sierra Leone intervention was clearly a very limited one: it had a particular function. It’s not the case that I’m totally opposed to interventions on principle. I think the intervention by the Tanzanians to get rid of Idi Amin was totally justified and produced a much better regime. I think that when Pol Pot attacked the Vietnamese at a time when he himself was being backed by the West, the Vietnamese went and overthrew his regime – that was very positive. It’s not a case of being opposed to interventions on principle at all.
AK. You said earlier that Western interventions always cause problems – is that what the Sierra Leonians would say?
TA. Well I think that what’s happening in that unfortunate country isn’t totally over, let’s just wait a few years and then – But I do believe in general that Western interventions do cause problems. And of course this has always been challenged, this view, by people throughout the 20th century. The Fabian socialists in Britain were strong supporters of the British Empire at a time when American liberals were much much more hostile to it. And when American liberals in their leading magazine said that there was an equation between Hitler’s Germany and the British Empire, John Maynard Keynes said: ‘I will never write for that magazine again.’ So there are lots of precedents like this of how people, intellectuals on the Left, have been divided on the civilising influences of empires and Western states. This is not a new debate that we’re having.
AOH. Okay, anybody else –
Q. My question is for Christopher Hitchens. I used to be a great admirer of your views until 11 September. You wrote a book on Henry Kissinger in which you rightly called him a war criminal; Bill Clinton – rightly called him a liar. So I am genuinely confused – and I ask this out of pure confusion – as to how you now do trust an American government carrying out a war abroad, supporting people like Pervez Musharraf and Abdul Rashid Dostum who’ve killed a lot more people than Muhammad Atta could ever dream of doing. Is it because they are not Islamo-fascists?(Applause.)
CH. Anyone can get more applause than me. (Laughter.) Well, you know, I am tempted to say – and you will understand me I hope if I did – that if you haven’t understood what I’ve said up till now, you’re not going to understand anything that I say subsequently. (Protests.) Oh okay, you want me to: alright, then I will say it again. I really was afraid of repeating myself, but now with your reassurance, comrades, I’ll continue. By the way, if you knew how you sounded when you hissed, you wouldn’t do it: you sound like such berks when you do that. At no point did I use the word ‘trust’; it’s not in my nature, for one thing, to discuss politics or ideology in that way. I don’t think you’ll find anyone to get up to call me a liar about that. If you were such an admirer of mine, as you kindly say you are, you could even have read my stuff in The Guardian or in The Nation saying why I don’t trust Bush, why I don’t trust Ashcroft, you could’ve just heard what I said about the axis of evil being a misinterpretation of 11 September. If you can’t guess my views on General Musharraf, I do think you haven’t been paying attention. So in a sense I can’t accept the grammar of your question, I’m really sorry. Now is there something, at the risk of wearing out the time that might belong to another panellist, is there something that you think I have not answered?
Q. You say you don’t not trust them or trust them, yet you say they’re not out for the oil, not out for self-interest, they are intent on destroying these Islamic Fascists. You take them at their word.
CH. Look, it’s like saying this: I am in favour of the defence of secular democratic society against all comers, foreign and domestic, in the United States. Do I say the United States is already a completely secular and democratic society? No, I do not, nor have I. But to the extent that it is, I do and will defend it. And that’s why I object so strongly, in what I hope are serviceable terms, to the casuistry of people who pretend that because there’s a double standard here or there, there are no principles worth defending. This is lethal, suicidal moral indifference, and that’s what I’ve been fighting against. And I’m sorry if on occasion I may have laid about myself in such a way as to confuse you. But I don’t think that in print, or I’d like to think, on the platform either, I really licensed your bewilderment.
These final questions are not included on the CD
AOH. This fellow holding the paper.
Q. Tariq Ali was the only one I think who mentioned that the United States is the sole global power that we have now and what we are seeing is the dawn of a new imperialism. So why is it that we are so – we, meaning the global community – why are we so content at letting America have its say regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of it. It has committed a whole host of crimes on a vast scale in international law. It is suspending civil rights as far as the al-Qaida prisoners are concerned. It is actually riding roughshod over all norms of international law and why – where is Russia, where is Japan, where are all these countries?
CH. All the law-abiding countries, where are they?
JR. Actually, I just wanted to pick up a point about the use of the word ‘secular’ in this discussion, because I won’t be able to live with myself after this if I haven’t said this. Which is that there is a real risk, I think, in presenting all religious belief and ‘supernatural authority’, which I think was an expression that was used earlier, as if it is necessarily reactionary: that is just wrong. In central America, the Roman Catholic Church defended the preferential option for the poor and was an enemy of the United States as a result. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is, after all, an Archbishop, and whatever one might think about the particular Christian or redemptive component of his vision, I think most people here would agree that he’s been a force for the good. And Mary Wollstonecraft, as has been argued very brilliantly recently by Barbara Taylor – her belief in the emancipatory capacity of women was their ability to enter into the divinity on equal terms with men. So the idea that all religion is on the side of reaction is something I really don’t think that we should leave this room thinking. (Applause.)
AOH. Could I ask for a question please from Kate Allen, the director of Amnesty UK?
Q. With respect, that was not an answer to my question.
JR. I agree with your question, so I apologise.
AOH. Would anybody like to try? Would you like to come in?
AL. I could comment very briefly. One reason we go along with it is that there’s nothing much we can do about it. You know we can’t stop them in the last resort and that is why, if you talk to people privately in the British government, they do have a case in saying: ‘look, if we go with the Americans we have some chance of influencing their actions; if we try simply to oppose them or oppose them in any kind of blanket way, you know they’ll simply walk over us.’ Secondly, as Christopher said, we must recognise that, yes, on occasions, the United States has also been a force for good. I would not agree with Tariq on that, about Western interventions being universally bad. It was on balance a force for good in the Balkans, and I would say on balance, although with considerable doubts, in Afghanistan too. And thirdly, in the end we can still hope for what I was saying about the struggle in America and what Tariq mentioned about voices of dissent in America. This is a democracy, it’s in a state at the moment of some hysteria as a result of 11 September – understandably, I would say. Frankly, it has always been in a state of hysteria, or at least for many decades now, about Israel – but we can still hope that US democratic processes will still produce what we might feel are more rational policies.
TA. Well, I think the one issue on which the whole world, in my opinion, but certainly Europe and the European Union, should unite to intervene, verbally and politically, is on the question of Palestine and Israel. I think this is absolutely central, and going along with Bush’s policies on that is going to be fatal. It’s going to prove to be completely fatal, because the one thing that we’ve not talked about, which we all know, is that one peculiar characteristic about this US Administration, is that it’s the first Administration which is packed with Christian fundamentalists at a very high level. Bush himself is a born-again Christian. The Attorney-General Ashcroft actually starts work every morning with prayer meetings, where they have to hold hands. This is something not even General Zia-ul-Haq could implement in Pakistan. So at the moment we do have a strange Administration, even for a big imperial power. And I think one’s got to bear that in mind.
AOH. Christopher – briefly, because we need to get some more questions.
CH. Well, I presume that they want equal access to the divinity. I mean I don’t, I have no – (Laughter.) People who attribute their presence amongst us – anyone who says I’m here because of God’s plan, that’s how modest I am – I think is likely to be reactionary in politics and a bad influence. The place for this stuff is in the home, okay. (Laughter.) I will not reject the challenge from the comrade, who I would say was from the Subcontinent. I would ask him this. He wanted to know why a country that – I think I have you right, sir – was indifferent to the norms of international law, was not more opposed by Russia and China, was that how you had it? Where was Russia, you said, where is China, why do they lie down under this lawlessness? I think your question answers itself: I think you had a real nerve asking it actually, or shall I say Chechnya or Cambodia or North Korea or Tibet or Kurdistan? It wouldn’t make any difference to you – would it? – any more than if I asked you how many people are currently flooding to the borders and ports of your country to immigrate to it – or to Russia or to China. Ask yourself that. One of the greatest problems that the United States has at the present moment is that everyone wants to come and live there: they’re wondering now how generous they can be. We should all have such problems; you will never have a problem like that, and nor will your ideology –
Q. You must allow me to answer.
CH. Yes, you can.
Q. First I am not from the Subcontinent, okay? (Applause.)
CH. That’s fine; anyone can make a mistake: you began with one.
Q. If you allow America completely unbridled sway over the rest of the world, what we are going to see is a complete collapse – you’re talking about the collapse of civilisation, we are going to see a complete collapse of all civilised values, never mind –
AOH. Briefly, Tariq.
CH. He still looks Subcontinental to me. (Groans.) Come on, come on, come on.
AOH. I’ll take one last question.
Q. I’m a solicitor [inaudible] I come from a province in Canada, which is British Columbia. It is the subject of land claims throughout the entirety of the province by the native people who are a tiny minority who have been treated very very badly. What I don’t understand is why you are ducking the question of what do you do about the return of refugees because, as Christopher Hitchens rightly says, you can’t just keep ducking the question and talking about rights. You can’t invite the destruction of an entire society by creating another one and if you do that you’re not going to have the solution which you need in the Middle East.
TA. Well I don’t know what questions are being ducked, my position is very clear on this. That if every single Jew born anywhere in the world has the right to become an Israeli citizen, then all the Palestinians who were chucked out of Palestine by the Zionist Government should have the same right, very simple. (Applause.) The only way to deal with it is to say that the right does not apply to anyone because Israel is full. That’s if the Israelis said that and changed the law. Ideally the best solution in that country would be a combined Israel-Palestine, a single state with equal rights, that’s what I would favour. (Applause.)
AOH. Jacqueline Rose.
JR. There is now a strong post-Zionist movement in Israel which supports exactly what Tariq has described. And I think it’s important to recognise that. But nobody is suggesting that there isn’t room in Israel for all these people, and I think it is very, very important to know that in the 1980s the Knesset passed a law rendering unconstitutional any party that sought by democratic means to change the definition of Israel as an exclusively Jewish state. Now that’s what we’re dealing with, and the post-Zionists, who are a very strong and vocal movement now, much stronger of course than anything that you will hear in the Western press, are agitating for a multiracial, democratic Israel with room for Arab and Jewish citizens.
AOH. Okay, I need to stop. Thanks very much for coming. (Applause.)
Online exclusive · 15 May 2002 » The War on Terrorism: Is There an Alternative?