excerpts from the book
Interviews with David Barsamian
South End Press, 2000
The Israeli government is now planning roads, major highways and
communication networks which link the settlements to the Israeli
cities and ports and leave the Palestinian communities out. So
we have these autonomous zones which are to be administered by
the Palestinian Authority, over which this Authority has no sovereignty.
It can't control the land. It can't protect the water. It can't
even set up industries without Israel's permission. So we have
a series of bantustans called Autonomous Palestinian Authority.
Israel is absolving itself of responsibility for the occupied
population while keeping the occupation.
It's a brilliant scheme, and it is so far succeeding ... What
we are witnessing is the institutionalization of a system of exclusion,
a fully contracted apartheid: separate municipalities, separate
schools, separate health systems, a native economy and an indigenous
substratum on the margins of the Israeli state beneath the privileged
This is a bad dream, a racialist utopia being constructed,
ironically, by one of the most enlightened and historically humane
people, and this with the agreement of a secular native leadership.
If the trend holds, during the next decade, Israel-Palestine shall
look very much like what has just past, South Africa of the apartheid
The twentieth has been a century most remarkable for its simultaneous
capacity to promise hope and deliver disappointments. And as the
end approaches, it seems to me that the century's ending in the
same way in which it began: renewed hopes of a just and peaceable
world order are being overwhelmed by politicians and warriors
whose political minds remain rooted in the past.
For 300 years before the twentieth century dawned, the world
had been transforming, a transformation brought about by modern
science, technology, and imperialism. It was through this age
of capitalist and European expansion that a world system came
to be dominated by the West and the international market came
to be controlled entirely for the West's benefit. This sounds
rather benign, as though the free market was really free and worked
merely to the advantage of the fittest. Far from it; Western domination
was achieved by force so widespread, institutionalized, and legitimized
by religion and morality that to date the epistemology of this
universal violence still shapes relations between the Western
and non-Western worlds
... the truth has to be repeated. It doesn't become stale just
because it has been told once. So keep repeating it. Don't bother
about who has listened, who not listened... the media and the
other institutions of power are so powerful that telling the truth
once is not enough. You've got to keep repeating different facts,
prove the same point.
Israel's fundamental contradiction was that it was founded as
a symbol of the suffering of humanity ... at the expense of another
people who were innocent of guilt.
The primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral
isolation of the adversary in its own eyes, and in the eyes of
Obviously you couldn't morally isolate the regimes of Hitler or
Stalin. A strategy of moral isolation assumes that the adversary
has based its own legitimacy on moral grounds. Gandhi understood
this rather well with regard to British colonialism. He understood
the contradiction of British colonialism, which justified itself
on liberal principles and was violating them.
Centrist Zionism's primary contradiction was its principles of
Iegitimacy were moral and its practices were immoral.
The PLO leadership has committed itself to peace with Israel.
The terms of peace have been spelled out in the Oslo agreement.
This agreement is extremely unjust, because it doesn't respond
to any of the fundamental issues in this conflict. It offers no
compensation, no restitution, no return to the half of Palestine's
population who are now refugees. It offers no settlement of the
issue of water rights in the occupied territories. It offers Palestinians
no right to self-determination. It offers Palestinians no protection
from expanding Israeli settlements. It offers Palestinians no
solution or Arabs generally of the problem of Jerusalem, which
is as holy to Muslims and Christians as it is to Jews. So in a
very genuine sense, Oslo leaves open all the fundamental questions
that have defined the Arab-Israeli conflict.
At the moment, there are four or five people who are foreign affairs
columnists of the New York Times, the newspaper of record. Two
of them, A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire, are right-wing Zionist
supporters of the Likud Party. The third is Thomas Friedman, a
centrist Zionist supporter of the Israeli Labor Party. A fourth,
Anthony Lewis, is a liberal and a putative Zionist. Of all the
foreign affairs columnists of the New York Times, there is not
one that would take an independent position on the issue of the
Arab-Israeli conflict, much less ... one that would comprehend
the aspirations, the needs, the feelings of the Arab or Palestinian
people. The same pattern is repeated in the Washington Post, the
Chicago Tribune, and other major papers.
THE DEMONIZATION OF ISLAM
Where do you trace chronologically when Islam, Muslims, Arabs
become targeted as a threat or an enemy of the West?
This is not a completely new phenomenon.... In the tenth
century, for the first time you saw a certain notion of demonizing
Islam. At that point, it wasn't so misplaced from the European
point of view, because Islam was an expansionist civilization,
and therefore considered ... a threat and a menace. The Crusades
witnessed the first instance of demonization along religious lines,
that is, demonization of Islam itself rather than of Arabs or
Turks.... Next you notice it in the period when British and later
French colonialists encountered Muslim resistance.
There was the case of the Mahdi, who besieged and killed General
Charles George Gordon in 1885 in Khartoum. That particular moment
saw a great deal of emphasis on Islamic fanaticism. Colonial battles
were never remembered unless a Custer was killed or a Gordon besieged.
Millions of people may die, but the memories are of Custer and
This is the third time ... in the last 1,400 years that there
is this organized attempt to demonize Islam. This time it's more
organized and sustained, because the means have changed. Today
there is mass communication.
Does this process of demonization come from a shared consensus
that is not articulated ? Or are people meeting at Harvard and
saying, "OK, we have to get together and demonize Arabs and
I don't think there is a conspiracy.... Great imperial powers,
especially democratic ones, cannot justify themselves on the basis
of power or greed alone. No one will buy it.... Modern imperialism
needed a legitimizing instrument to socialize people into its
ethos. To do that it needed two things: a ghost and a mission.
The British carried the white man's burden. That was the mission.
The French carried la mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission.
The Americans had manifest destiny and then the mission of standing
watch on the walls of world freedom, in John F. Kennedy's ringing
phrase. Each of them had the black, the yellow, and finally the
red peril to fight against. There was a ghost and there was a
mission. People bought it.
After the Cold War, Western power was deprived both of the
mission and the ghost. So the mission has appeared as human rights.
It's a very strange mission for a country which for nearly a hundred
years has been supporting dictatorships in Latin America and throughout
the world. Chomsky and Herman wrote about this in The Washington
Connection and Third World Fascism.
In search of menace, they have turned to Islam. It's the easiest,
because it has a history.
It's also the most vulnerable.
It's vulnerable. It's weak.... Islamic countries are home
to the oil resources of the West. The West has encountered resistance
in Algeria, Egypt, among the Palestinians, and with the Iranian
revolution-enough to arouse anxiety that Western interests ...
are threatened. And there is a history of demonization. All these
things fall into place. And there are enough vested interests
to take advantage of it.
Media coverage of Islamic fundamentalism seems to be very
selective. There are certain types that are not discussed at all.
For example, the Saudi version, which may be among the most extreme.
Americans hear a lot about Hezbollah and Hamas and groups in Egypt,
like the Akhwan.
This is a very interesting matter you are raising.... Saudi
Arabia's Islamic government has been by far the most fundamentalist
in the history of Islam. Even today, for example, women drive
in Iran. They can't drive in Saudi Arabia. Today, for example,
men and women are working in offices together in Iran. Women wear
chador, but they work in offices. In Saudi Arabia, they cannot
do it. So on the basis of the nature and extent of fundamentalist
principles or right-wing ideology, Saudi Arabia is much worse
in practice than Iran. But it has been the ally of the United
States since 1932, so nobody has questioned it.
But much more than that is involved. Throughout the Cold War,
starting in 1945 when it inherited its role as a world power,
the United States has seen militant Islam as a counterweight to
communist parties in the Muslim world. During this entire period,
the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt was not an enemy of the United
States.... The U.S. government actually promoted and supported
the Islamic regime that is now in power in Sudan. General Muhammad
Gaafar al-Nimeiry was allied to the Islamic movement of Sudan
and was a friend.
America's two major leverages on its allies in Western Europe
and Asia-the nuclear umbrella and economic superiority-had drastically
diminished by the early 1970s. The U.S. was looking for new leverages
over its allies. They picked the Middle East because this was
where the energy resources for the industrial economies of Japan
and Europe came from. An established, unchallenged American influence
in this region ... could control prices and show Europe and Japan,
"We can give you cheap oil. We can make your oil expensive.
We hold your economic lifeline."
This was the time of the Nixon Doctrine, namely, the use of
regional powers to police the region for the United States. In
the Middle East, they chose Iran and Israel. In the Pentagon,
throughout most of the 1970s, they were called "our two eyes
in the Middle East." In 1978, after having or perhaps because
of having taken some $20 billion of military hardware from the
United States, the shah of Iran fell under the weight of his own
militarization. The 1979 Islamic revolution threatened American
interests deeply ... materializing in an uglier form during the
Within a year, quite ironically, something totally the opposite
happens. The Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan. In Pakistan,
an Islamic fundamentalist dictator promoted, with the help of
the CIA, an Islamic fundamentalist resistance against the Soviets
in Afghanistan. Now what you had was Islamic fundamentalists of
a really hardcore variety, the majahideen in Afghanistan, taking
on the "evil empire." They received billions in arms
between 1981 and 1988 from the United States alone. Add additional
support from Saudi Arabia, under American encouragement.... American
operatives went about the Muslim world recruiting for the jihad
in Afghanistan, because the U.S. saw it as an opportunity to mobilize
the Muslim world against communism. That opportunity was exploited
by recruiting majahideen in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, and
Palestine. From everywhere they came. They received training from
the CIA. They received arms from the CIA. I have argued in some
of my writings that the notion of jihad as "just struggle"
had not existed in the Muslim world since the tenth century until
the United States revived it during its jihad against the Soviet
Union in Afghanistan.
Since then, almost every Islamic militant, including those
in Israel, Algeria, and Egypt ... has been trained in Afghanistan.
The CIA people call it "Islamic blowback."
These are aspects that the American media is not willing to
touch on. The New York Times' four foreign affairs columnists
are neither qualified nor would they want to be qualified to comment
on these realities.
What side effects have U.S. support of the mujahideen had
on Pakistani society?
One is the extraordinary proliferation of drugs and guns.
Something like $10 billion in arms was pumped into Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Half of it at least rebounded and became part of
international trade. Much of it ended up in Pakistan. So, you
have a situation in Pakistan where almost every third man is armed
... with automatic weapons, Kalishnikovs and grenade launchers.
What used to be small crimes have now become big crimes, because
petty thieves are armed with weapons that can lead to killings
if they feel threatened. In 1979, at the advent of the Afghanistan
revolution, there were an estimated 110,000 drug addicts in Pakistan,
mostly addicted to opium, some to hashish. Today, we have 5 million
addicts. Opium has become a big trade through Pakistan. It comes
from Afghanistan and Iran. We have an estimated $4 billion trade
in Afghan drugs. In a country whose total foreign exports were
$6 billion before all this, you introduce $4 billion in trade
in drugs. We have created in Pakistan an entire class of rich
drug dealers who are paying off this politician here, that bureaucrat
there, that port authority there. The political system of the
whole country has become enmeshed with the drug mafia. It is not
quite as bad as Colombia yet. But it's very close to it.
The third effect is probably the most serious. Pakistan is
a very heterogenous society. There are six ethnic groups living
together with a combination of antagonism and collaboration. The
antagonism consists of something like, "You speak Baluch.
I speak Urdu. Our children play together. They have quarreled
with each other. My child has beaten your child.... We get into
an argument over whose child was worse." Previously, it was
an argument. Today, bullets can fly. So what used to be, because
of ethnic differences in our society, completely minor, local,
street arguments, are now made with guns.... After a while these
little things accumulate and create ethnic warfare...
Moving to Afghanistan and the evolving situation there. The
Taliban movement, you suggest in an article, has connections with
not just Pakistan but also with the United States.
Afghanistan has suffered criminal neglect at the hands of
the United States and its media. In 1979 and 1980, when the Afghan
people started resisting Soviet intervention, the whole of America
and Europe mobilized on their side. For the media, it was such
a big story that CBS paid money to stage a battle that it could
broadcast as an exclusive. Afghanistan was in the news every day.
It disappeared from the news the day the Soviets withdrew. Then,
Afghanistan was abandoned by the media, by
the American government, by American academics, and as a result
by the American people. These people who fought the West's battle
with the West's money and with the West's arms, and in the process
distorted themselves, distorted Pakistan, and contributed to the
demise of the Soviet Union, found themselves totally abandoned
after the Cold War. The Taliban's rise takes place in that vacuum.
The Afghan majahideen fell to fighting with each other. They
were all both warriors and drug smugglers. They were known to
the CIA as drug smugglers.... There are ten factions shooting
at each other, and something new develops. The Soviet Union falls
apart. Its constituent republics become independent. Among those
are the six Soviet republics of Central Asia: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,
Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, and Azerbaijan. These six
Central Asian republics, whose majority population is Muslim,
are very close to or bordering on Afghanistan, and also happen
to be oil- and gas-rich states. So far their gas and oil has passed
through the Soviet Union ... but now a new game starts: How is
this oil and gas going to go out to the world? At this point,
American corporations move in.
The American corporations want, obviously, to get hold of
the oil and gas. After the Cold War, who controls which resource
at whose expense and at what price? Corporations like Texaco,
Amoco, and Unocal start going into Central Asia to get hold of
these oil and gas fields. But how are they going to get the oil
and gas out? . .. Through Turkey and via Afghanistan to Pakistan
are two possibilities. Iran is the third, but they don't want
to put any pipelines in Iran because Iran is an adversary of America.
Therefore, Pakistan and Afghanistan become the places through
which they are likely to take pipelines. And then they can cut
the Russians out.
President Clinton made personal telephone calls to the presidents
of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, urging
them to sign pipeline contracts that together amount to billions.
These pipelines would go through Turkey and via Afghanistan to
Pakistan and take oil to the tankers that would meet them at the
ports. The pipeline would go through Afghanistan. Both Pakistan
and the United States .. . pick the most murderous, by far the
most crazy of Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Taliban, to ensure
the safety of the pipelines.
The Taliban are anti-women. Some of the highest U.S. officials
have been visiting and talking to them. The general impression
in our region is that the United States has been supporting them.
The U.S. concern is not who is fundamentalist and who is progressive,
who treats women nicely and who treats them badly. That's not
the issue. The issue is who is more likely to ensure the safety
of the oil resources that the United States or its corporations
The U.S. government officials lie when they talk about human rights.
They're a bunch of hypocrites and liars. You can't take it seriously.
There are several countries that are human rights violators of
extreme proportions: Indonesia, South Korea, Israel, and Turkey,
and they all remain deeply tied to the United States.
What do you think about the future of Israel?
In the short run, seemingly bright and powerful. In the long
run, very dark.
Why do you say that?
The Israeli government, to my total surprise-or not so much
surprise, I think we could have expected it-has been missing its
chance for the last ten years to make peace with its Arab neighbors.
For forty-five years, Israeli officials talked about wanting to
be recognized. That was the only basis for peace. Now every Arab
government, plus the PLO, openly recognizes Israel's right to
exist. They have removed the Arab boycott. Egypt, the largest
Arab country, has reached full peace with Israel. The PLO has
reached full peace with Israel. King Hussein of Jordan has reached
full peace with Israel. But the Israelis are continuing to take
Palestinian lands and build settlements.
Their policies are to convince the Arabs that no matter what
they are willing to give, Israelis want peace on their terms-more
territory and more humiliation of Arabs. More expansion. It can't
last that way. Israel is a small country, 5.5 million people.
The Arabs are many. They are at the moment weak, disorganized,
demoralized, and a bunch of country-sellers are ruling those places.
That's not a permanent condition. Someday the Arabs will have
to organize themselves. Once they have done that, you will see
a different history beginning again, and it won't be a pretty
Franklin D. Roosevelt ... understood .. that a modicum of safety,
of security, of distributive justice and the stimulation of hope
in people is necessary for stability. It is this lesson that the
current generation of American rulers is violating. They are going
to bring upon this country some sort of an upheaval.
Social movements are the most unpredictable of historical phenomena.
No one, no scholars have yet found a formula for predicting revolutions
SOME OF THE NEWS FIT TO PRINT
You used to write fairy frequently for the New York Times.
It's been literally years since you had an op-ed in the paper.
What happened there?
It is rather ironic, I think, that the New York Times was
publishing me quite frequently during 1978 to 1980, when A.M.
Rosenthal, a right-wing Zionist, was its editor. The ban on us,
including Edward Said, has occurred generally speaking from the
time that Joseph Lelyveld, a very liberal Zionist, came in as
editor. I am suggesting, then, that a change of personnel might
have had something to do with it. Because Rosenthal was a right-wing
Zionist, he probably felt that he would be freer from attacks
of bias if he used a few tokens like myself or Said.
There is a second reason, I think a larger one. There has
been a very deep shift in the climate of this country toward the
right. It is this change that defines this extraordinary phenomenon
that a twice-elected American president from the Democratic Party
[Clinton] has been the one to effectively abolish the gains of
the New Deal and is yet by and large applauded despite all his
dissimulations, lies, and undignified behavior. What is remarkable
is that the liberal Democratic establishment, including the media,
have mostly been favorable to Clinton. Two days after admitting
that he had committed perjury and had lied about having sexual
relations with a twenty-one-year-old in the Oval Office, he launches
a military attack on Afghanistan and Sudan without giving reasonable
proof of anything. He engages in an untrammeled unilateralism,
and the newspapers, including the New York Times, come out editorially
to say that he is now acting like the commander-in-chief of the
United States. There has been a shift in this environment toward
intolerance of dissent, toward defining once again the boundaries
of dissent, which had been broken during the Vietnam War and the
civil rights movement. It's the breaking of those boundaries by
young people that allowed us to become visible in the mainstream.
Those boundaries have been redrawn, and we are on the other side
of it. That's the larger question than the personnel issue of
Rosenthal and Lelyveld.
Lastly, intellect as a whole is under assault in America,
and social intellect in particular. The scientist can do whatever
he wants to. But the social intellect is under assault in very
insidious ways. The publishers are not really publishing radical
works. The media are extraordinarily full of vacuous talk. People
sit around on television and radio talk shows and pontificate
on Islam, China, Japan, India, the Arabs. None of them that I
can recall knows a single language of these places on which they
are pontificating, can identify five central dates of our history,
can look at the roots of any struggle. We happen to be talking
at a time when Osama bin Laden is a central figure of the news
and discourse in America. To date, no one has examined what has
produced Osama bin Laden. There have been hints that he worked
with the CIA, that he first engaged in violence because he was
brought in to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. There are
hints that he was recruited into the jihad by the CIA. The United
States and the Saudis financed it. But this is not enough. No
one has identified how his country, Saudi Arabia, has been robbed
by Western corporations and Western powers. No one has identified
what bin Laden grew up seeing. The Saudi princes, this one-family
state, have handed over the oil resources of the Arab people to
the West and its investment firms. He has seen it being robbed.
All through this time, he had only one satisfaction: his country
is not occupied. There are no American, French, or British troops
in his country. Then he realizes, in the early 1990s, that even
this small pleasure has been taken away from him. He has already
been socialized by the CIA, armed by the Americans, and trained
to believe deeply that when a foreigner comes into your land,
you become violent. You fight. That was what the jihad in Afghanistan
This whole phenomenon of jihad as an international armed struggle
never existed in the last five centuries. It was brought into
being and pan-Islamized by the American effort.
I think we should begin by recognizing that Pakistani and Indian
rulers are caught in medieval militaristic minds. They are no
more modern than the Clintons and the Bushes, who see power in
terms of military prowess. We are living in modern times throughout
the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times said that the terrorists
"are driven by a generalized hatred of the U.S.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist. One does not
associate either intelligence or depth with a New York Times columnist.
Thomas Friedman writes without information or knowledge. It's
an ignorant remark. It's a waste of time to try to respond to
it. He actually in that article said that they hate America because
America is so wealthy. He said that they hate America because
it has technology and science and their children are all imitating
America. This is nonsense. This is not analysis. This is witchcraft.
David Anderson is a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental
and African Studies in London. He comments that this battle will
be a "long, perhaps never-ending, attritional war. Pandora's
box has been opened, and it won't be closed again," discussing
this issue of retaliation, counter-retaliation, an eye-for-an
I don't see anything as historically permanent. Nothing in
history has been permanent. Frankly, I don't think American power
is permanent. It itself is very temporary, and therefore its excesses
are impermanent and reactions to those excesses have to be, by
definition, impermanent. If Anderson means the next five years,
then he's right. If he means the next fifty, he may not be right.
America is a troubled country, for too many reasons. One is that
its economic capabilities do not harmonize with its military capabilities.
The second is that its ruling class's will to dominate is not
quite shared by its people's will to dominate.
What's the evidence for that?
The evidence is massive. If the American people had a will
to dominate the world, they would have Iynched Bill Clinton at
the first sign of his hanky-panky in the White House. I'll tell
you why. Britain had a will to dominate in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries. Britain punished for very small crimes its
most famous empire builders. Robert Clive was impeached and Warren
Hastings was impeached, because an imperial society instinctively
knows that it will not command respect on a global scale unless
it shows uprightness at home. Unless it shows uprightness at home,
it cannot commit excesses abroad. That's why imperial countries
very often tended to be puritanical societies. The people of America
don't want Clinton to resign because they think he's been a good
president. They can separate his being commander-in-chief from
his personal behavior. This is not a people with a will to rule.
This is a people with a will to violence, yes, but not a will
You can take other examples. A will to dominate means a willingness
to sacrifice, to pay the price of it. The American public does
not want American boys dying. So, in Somalia, when American Marines
were attacked, the United States pulled out and sent in Pakistanis
to do their dirty work and clean up the mess. They don't want
to send troops abroad. They don't want to die in foreign lands.
That is, they don't want to pay the price of power abroad, which
they were willing to do during much of the Cold War. This changes
after Vietnam. In that sense, George Bush notwithstanding, the
"Vietnam syndrome" is very much alive.
Iran now has someone who is considered a "moderate"
president, Mohammad Khatami. There have been some openings between
the United States and Iran. What's your assessment of what's going
on now inside Iran itself politically and externally? Does this
signal a possible normalization of relations with the United States?
There has not been any opening between the United States and
Iran yet. There have been gestures. The American wrestlers went
there and the Iranian wrestlers came here and that kind of thing,
but there has been no substantive opening between the two countries.
Mohammad Khatami's government is being challenged by the radical
conservatives in Iran. Therefore, what you are witnessing in Iran
today is a struggle for power between two brands of Islamic politics.
It's Islamism in both cases. One is more democratic than the other.
One is more moderate, the other more radical. One has been in
power, the other has not.
Khatami is new. He comes in with new social forces behind
him. It is a very interesting struggle because beneath it are
very fundamental issues about the future of Iran or the future
of any third-world, particularly Muslim, society. Issues of the
nature of the relationship between civil society and the state.
Issues of the nature of culture and the relationship of culture
to power. The issue of the nature of power itself: how is it to
be made more accountable to the citizen, to the public? What is
the nature of public discourse, the nature of the relationship
between faith and politics? Those are all very fundamental issues
at stake in the current struggle for power in Iran.
Khatami's group, if we are to use Western terminology, and
it is not always applicable, represents an enlightened liberal
view of the relationship between power and civil society. This
group would like to see women freer, with fewer constraints than
have been imposed on them under the present Islamic rule. They
would have more freedom of speech and association than was allowed
by the revolutionary system under Ayatollah Khomeini or than would
be allowed by the conservative groups. They would seek more normal
relations with Western countries and with America than the previous
leadership. For all those issues, even in terms of the overall
expression of Iran's politics, this is progress over what had
preceded Khatami's administration. But remember that this government
is the product of an election. Iran has continued to hold free
elections, with fewer choices, but still free elections, which
is not true of Saudi Arabia.
One would think that the Islamic theocracy in Iran would be
sympathetic and supportive of a neighboring theocracy in Afghanistan,
the government of the Taliban. But that's not the case at all.
Iran is actively supporting what is called the "northern
alliance" under Ahmed Shah Masood. What's going on there?
There is nothing surprising there. For one thing, we should
not see Islamic movements as monolithic. There is a large variety
of them. They range from the very modern to the totally primitive-in
fact, so primitive that in the whole of Islamic history there
is no parallel to them. The Taliban, for example, are literally
unique in Islamic history in many respects. They are a product
of modern times, of a certain social disease. The immediate reason
for Iran to feel antipathy to the Taliban is that they are viewed
by Iranians as suffering from two terminal defects. The first
is that the Taliban were supported by the United States.
Until recently, actually. They will again be supported by
them once this Osama bin Laden issue disappears. The second is
that they are sectarian, orthodox Sunni Muslims. The Iranians
are Shiites. As sectarian Sunni Muslims, they hate Shiites. It's
like fundamentalist Catholics up against fundamentalist Protestants,
both trying to set up a theocracy. Obviously there will be conflict
between the two. It's a bad analogy, but it comes closest to what
I can cite to you.
Recently there have been a number of advertisements and articles
from U.S. commercial interests questioning the policy of sanctions
and isolation of Iran. Particularly the U.S.-dominated oil, gas,
and chemical multinationals are lobbying the government to reconsider
its position. What do you make of this particular situation, where
it seems that ideology is trumping commercial interests? Usually
the commercial interests dominate, but here several U.S. administrations
have seen it more important to isolate Iran diplomatically and
to pay whatever economic cost that incurs.
It's an interesting problem. This is one of the myths of the
left. Sometimes non-commercial vested interests get the better
of commercial vested interests. A very good example would be the
China lobby in the 1940s and 1950s. They were primarily responsible
for blocking the United States from opening up to China-which
the United States has done now, but almost twenty-five years too
late-despite the fact that it was not in the American interest
to maintain the blockade on China.
Something similar is happening in the case of Cuba, especially
after the fall of the Soviet Union. A lot of American companies
are interested in getting into Cuba. It's ninety miles away from
the American coast. It has nearly 95 percent literacy, a skilled
labor force, and an educated middle class. It would make a very
good export platform because it also has very cheap labor; yet
it remains closed because of the Cuban lobby. The lobby is very
powerful. It bribes Congressmen. It has political action committees.
So, it's a case of the tail wagging the dog.
The same is true of Iran. The Israeli government still doesn't
approve of Iran. It feels that Iran is a big Middle Eastern country
not wanting to accept Israel's control of Jerusalem. Therefore,
Israel says Iran is dangerous and must be isolated. I think the
Israeli lobby has done a lot to keep Iran isolated.
The New York Times had a front-page story on Iran testing
a medium-range missile with a range of 800 miles. The headline
says it is able to hit Israel and Saudi Arabia. They could have
mentioned Turkey, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. Why the choices?
Because Israel is a strategic ally and Saudi Arabia has a
strategic position. By saying that, you are creating a public
opinion. The American public doesn't care if Iran hits or doesn't
hit Pakistan. It cares if it hits Israel or Saudi Arabia, although
it has less reason to hit Saudi Arabia and Israel than it has
to hit Pakistan. It's not about to make war on either.
Let's go back to that idea you expressed about commercial
interests vs. non-commercial ones. For example, in Guatemala,
the United Fruit Company had an enormous economic interest there,
and it was able to influence the 1954 coup.
I didn't say it's always the case. Occasionally it is the
case. The norm is that commercial interests get their way. Their
pressure groups are very strong. But occasionally you'll get a
situation in which a very strong pressure group forms and creates
for itself a cultural legitimacy. A convergence occurs between
the rhetoric of the state and the pressure group. Take Cuba, for
example. Cuba has been portrayed for almost forty years as a bad
boy in the rhetoric of American officialdom. The media have by
and large supported that. A lobby has developed along with that.
It's incredibly strong in some ways. It's very focused. It has
I only one goal: to prevent the resumption of normal relations
between Cuba and the United States.
TURKEY AND ISRAEL
What are your views about recent events in Turkey? There seems
to be a struggle between some Islamicist formations and more secular
It has been nearly eighty years now since Turkey declared
itself to be European. Turkey's identity has developed for the
last eighty years away from the Middle East. Its ruling class
doesn't want to be part of the Middle East. Turkey therefore has
found itself making an alliance with Israel. On the other hand,
the people generally know that they are not really Europeans,
after all, and recognize that even more now. You have an Islamic
movement that has taken hold in Turkey. It's a strong movement;
in fact, it was the party in power and was dismissed unconstitutionally
by the intervention of the army. Turkey is a troubled country
because it is falling between the Middle Eastern stool and the
European stool, and it doesn't seem to fit the crack.
What's the logic behind Turkey's military alliance with Israel?
The logic of that is that Turkey has at this moment one major
ally and benefactor: the United States. The U.S. has helped forge
the alliance between Turkey and Israel. The logic is really to
encircle the Arabs. The Arabs are at the moment, if I could use
the term, the true captive peoples. At the same time, they are
a people who are showing signs of not wanting to remain captive.
Therefore, the United States fears that they may rise again or
they may learn to resist. When they resist, the U.S. will need
a strong policeman to put them down. Israel and Turkey ~ <t
are very good allies. ~ e'
THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE .
The genocide of the Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks
is called the first genocide of the twentieth century. Turkish
governments continue to deny it to this day.
You may disagree with me on this one because I don't think
it was done by the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish genocide of Armenians
was the first expression of Turkish nationalism. The caliphate
was still there, the Ottomans were still ruling, but they were
already ceasing to be Ottoman rulers and becoming Turkish nationalists,
which is why they lost the Middle East. They lost the loyalties
of the Arabs because they turned to nationalism. Armenians had
lived with the caliphate in relative safety until this particular
ideology of difference, that is, nationalism, took hold. The ideology
was that anyone who was not a Turk by blood was the Other. The
Armenians were not killed for being Christian. They were killed
for being Armenian. The Armenians in a very genuine sense were
the first victims of the rise of nationalism in the Middle East.
The Jews were the last victims of the rise of nationalism in Europe.
And I hope that the Kurds are the last victims of the rise of
nationalism in the Middle East.
Princeton University has now a chair funded by the Turkish
government on Turkish history. Its principal function is to refute
the genocide of the Armenians.
Is that really true? My God. All I can say, in that case,
is that it's one more thing that Princeton is doing that I'm ashamed
of. I think that the Turkish people will not be a free people
until such time as it comes to terms with its own history, especially
its modern history, which includes the genocide of the Armenians.
To say that it was a civil war is like saying that Turks were
not a majority people. It is also like saying that Turks were
not the upholders of power. Power was in their hands; a majority
was in their hands; and the territory was theirs. They cannot
dismiss it all as a civil war. They will be a bigger, greater
people if they acknowledge this, just as I think the Germans are
a bigger people today because they acknowledged the Holocaust.
The Israelis would be a bigger people today if they acknowledged
that they have committed a crime, a massive crime, against the
Palestinians. The same is true of the Turks with the Armenians.
What you're suggesting is something that makes some Israelis
very uncomfortable, the symmetry you were outlining there, the
genocide of the Armenians, the Holocaust, and the Israeli treatment
of the Palestinians.
It has been the destruction of a people. I should have added
the Americans with American Indians. It's my failure that I did
not remember the American Indians. But all that the Americans
can say, if they want to say it in their favor, is that they didn't
do it all at one time in a specified time and space frame. All
that the Israelis can say is that they didn't really build gas
chambers. For God's sake. They took lands from people; they took
away water; they destroyed a culture. They are still doing it.
A people doesn't survive if you take away from them their land,
water, and culture. They drove people away. This is what the Israelis
did in Palestine. True, the bloodshed was not the same; the number
of heads chopped off was not the same; the number of deaths was
not the same. Yet deprivation of a homeland, an attempt to obliterate
a people from their soil, was there. Unfortunately, this is still
going on. So, yes, I know how much the comparison must grate on
the Israelis, and perhaps also on the Armenians. In fact, I found
it striking that the Armenians I met in the Middle East, particularly
in Palestine and Lebanon, were so strongly pro-Palestinian precisely
because they knew instinctively that there was not symmetry, that
these four cases are not symmetrical. They may be asymmetrical,
but they are on the same terrain. One is a higher peak than the
other, but the terrain is the same.
Your views on Zionism are largely I think shaped by your earlier
comments on opposition to exclusivity and "the pitfalls of
national consciousness. " i9
I praised earlier the Indian nationalism of Mahatma Gandhi
and Jawaharlal Nehru, because it was not exclusionary. It did
not envisage a Hindu India in which there was no space for Muslims
or Christians. In Israel today, even today, after the majority
of the Palestinians have been either driven out or expelled-or
are remaining as an occupied people-those Palestinians who are
given citizenship rights are still third-class citizens. They
don't have full citizenship rights. You speak to any American
Jew here and ask him if he would like to live in America under
the conditions that the Arab lives in Israel. His answer would
be no. Don't say I'm making a comparison with Israel, because
then his answer may change. Say, "Supposing as a Jew your
property could be taken over by the state for security reasons
while the same thing can't happen to the Christians." Say,
"As a Jew you cannot join the armed forces, but the Christians
can. Therefore, as a Jew you will not have access to the housing,
to the educational scholarships, to the welfare system, to those
lands to which Christians have access. Would you call yourself
a citizen of America? " His answer would be no. It's an exclusionist
state, a racialist state. I'm sorry.
THE CHANGING OF THE GUARDS
You write about "the tenacity with which colonial culture
has, after decolonization, held out and tightened its grip on
Pakistan and India as a case in point. Its persistence is defined
by the failure of the post-colonial elite to spawn alternative
values and styles as foundations of a new culture. "
The post-colonial state is a bad version of the colonial
one. The structures of the post-colonial state are the same, that
is, a centralized power, a paternalistic bureaucracy, and an alliance
of the military and landed notables. The structure of the state
has remained the same; but new problems have emerged, and this
old system cannot work....
The colonial state was not about being of service to the colonized.
It was about exploitation and extraction of resources. The post-colonial
state is exactly the same. This intelligentsia, this bourgeoisie-the
propertied class of the third world-is as heartless in its lack
of concern for the poor, in some ways even more so, as the colonial
state. There has been a near breakdown of the institutions of
higher learning. A new intelligentsia, rooted in that soil, informed
of the country's problems, having some sense of responsibility
as to what is happening to people, has not been produced. They
are now sending their children to American universities, just
like Iranians did a bit earlier. There were 60,000 Iranian students
studying in the United States at the time of the Iranian revolution
in 1979. There are 15,000 to 20,000 Pakistanis studying here now.
More will be coming. Even the middle class, the intelligentsia,
is cut off from the problems of the people. They are building
a system of apartheid in which the poor are separated from the
rich and the rich are connected to the West, to the metropolis.
It's a bad situation. I hope it will change. I should not give
you as bleak a picture, because there are people who are trying
to turn this tide in a different direction or stop it; they are
small, but they are trying.
Yeats wrote about something you're describing in his poem
"The Great Day ": "The beggars have changed places
but the lash goes on. " So, even with independence, there
hasn't been significant change. Didn't Frantz Fanon say liberation
is not merely changing one policeman for another?
I don't remember the exact quote, but that was roughly his
argument also: unless we think in terms of alternatives that empower
people and make alternative plans for economic growth, then the
future remains quite bleak. Fifty years after the start of decolonialization,
I think we are turning around to admit that it was a necessary
step but not a sufficient one. We have not gone from the necessary
to the sufficient.
Groups like the Third World Network, based in Penang, Malaysia,
suggest that through the mechanisms of so-called free trade agreements,
the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, the hegemonic
powers have to some extent recolonized the former colonies.
I agree with the argument, but I have one difficulty with
it. It seems to me that we are always reinventing the wheel in
which we have been caught anyway for a long, long time. I don't
think that we are going through a process of recolonization because
we never really went through the process of decolonialization.
Take my country. Pakistan is a large country; it has a population
of 140 million now. The British ruled this area with the help
of three institutions: the army, the bureaucracy, and the feudal
landlords. The army and the bureaucracy had top commanders who
were English. Top civil servants were often English. Just below
them there were a large number of Indians serving them. See the
structure. The reality was that our economy was tied to the metropolitan
economy. We produced to supply Britain. We bought our consumer
goods mostly from Europe or the industrialized world.
Now take a look at Pakistan for the last fifty years. It's
exactly that situation. A British-trained army, a British-trained
bureaucracy, and the same feudal landlords who had collaborated
with the British constitute the triangle of power. We buy most
of our armaments from the West and China. We produce very little
on our own. Most of our big products come from industrialized
countries. The numbers have increased. Previously imports came
from Britain. Now it is mostly America, plus Japan and Germany.
Globalization has increased the number of buyers and sellers in
our countries. Nothing else has changed. So, the economic reality
has not changed and the political reality has not changed. Why,
then, should we talk about recolonization? Pakistan never became
a decolonized country. Never. And it is not being recolonized
in the period of globalization. Globalization is merely changing
the structure of the international economy. It is not changing
the structure of our economies.
The Indian environmentalist and activist Vandana Shiva told
me a story. She went to a village and was describing globalization,
the expansion of multinational corporations into India and elsewhere.
A villager wasn't quite getting it. Then all of a sudden he said,
"Oh, now I understand. The East India Company has returned."
That's a very good story. The Company Bahadur, they used
to call them.
The East India Company being perhaps the first of the multi-nationals.
There was the Dutch East India Company and several others.
The East India Company was the ultimate winner in India. Today,
of course, the intensity and scope of multinationals have increased
vastly. The means of communication and production have increased.
The rapidity of production and the power and capabilities to reproduce
have expanded enormously. With increasing volume, the number of
traders and producers has increased. But the structure has not
changed. I'm afraid that I'm more conventional in this regard.
I go with the Monthly Review group's argument that the structure
of capitalism has not changed significantly. Its intensity and
PBS is very strange. The BBC did a very successful film on Edward
Said and his work, The Idea of Empire, and they did this documentary
on me. They are both American documentaries in some ways. Both
of us have lived here and made some name here, Edward of course
much more than me. We have played a role in American history:
I in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and other
things, and Edward in the academy particularly. Yet PBS and no
other American network has ever thought of replaying them. A lot
of money has been spent in doing these documentaries by the BBC.
PBS takes things like Masterpiece Theater from the BBC but nothing
serious like this.
Let's move on. 1998 is the l50th anniversary of the Communist
Manifesto. There are various symposia and conferences being held
around this event. What are your thoughts on the relevance of
Karl Marx and his legacy today?
First, Marx focused our attention on the poor and the working
class. Second, Marx and Frederick Engels rather brilliantly warned
of and chalked out the exploitative oppressive patterns of capitalist
development and the workings of the capitalist system. That capitalism
has not been defeated or changed and continues to demonstrate
a great deal of resiliency and dynamism are both true and were
actually argued by Marx rather consistently; but it doesn't take
away from the fact that capitalism is an exceptionally unjust
system. We still have to figure out how to do away with it, or
at least its worst features. That challenge remains, and that
challenge was posed by Karl Marx.
Finally, the biggest achievement of Marx and Marxism may have
been to offer us the methodology of analyzing social and historical
realities. I do not think anyone has so far come up with a substitute
for historical materialism as an explanation for the turns of
history, the processes of history. Nor has anyone elaborated the
idea of dialectics into a methodological system in the way that
Marx and Marxism did. These are not mean achievements. These are
high achievements, and were made within the context of focusing
the minds of the educated class, or at least a certain sector
of it, on peoples other than themselves-the poor, the working
class, the oppressed, the weak, even the distant ones. This had
never happened before.
The history of humanity is replete with the rejection of the
Other. It is replete with callousness toward the Other, toward
the habit of and traditions of and the intellectual outlook of
that which is not you or not yours. Marx and Marxism focused the
intelligentsia's attention in a positive way on the Other, the
poor, the weak. And at least a section of the intellectual class,
the intelligentsia as a whole, students, others, saw it as their
moral and intellectual responsibility to comprehend reality in
order to change it, to make the world better for all and not for
themselves only. I don't think there had ever been such a class
in history before. Once such a culture was created, you had a
completely different view of producing literature and producing
cinema, which we see, for example, in the films of Vittorio DeSica,
Satyajit Ray, or, for that matter, people like Jean-Luc Godard.
These are works of artists of the 1930s, 1940s, into the 1950s,
replete with the idea of the Other viewed in positive, empathetic,
and sympathetic ways. It introduced the notion of kindness, of
a non-narcissistic outlook on life. These are not minor achievements.
To the extent that these existed before Marx, to the extent they
existed at all, they were associated with the religious person.
This was the first time you saw secular intellect focus on issues
of the common good.
What accounts for capitalism's relative resilience, its ability
to survive as an economic system?
It's a powerful system based on two important premises. One
is that human beings are greedy. Greed is the strongest singular
drive in the human animal. Greed for everything-money, power,
accumulation, things to consume. The second is that reproduction
is possible and good, and therefore, to organize for reproduction
is the epitome of human endeavor. It's a very dynamic system.
It takes unusual individuals who wouldn't be caught in it.
Do you have a sense, being outside the United States after
living and working here for so many years, that your perspective
on the country is changing?
Not really. I come. Often I spend two or three months each
year in the United States. The country is changing. My perspective,
I don't think, is changing very much. It's a country that has
lost most of the gains that it had made from the New Deal, from
the civil rights movement, and from the peace movement. These
were major gains that I did not expect America to squander.
What do you attribute that to?
For one thing, those long years of Ronald Reagan and George
Bush, but those long years themselves indicate that something
had changed. Then the coming to office of someone as visionless
and as unreliable as Bill Clinton. Finally, and it's important,
this is too comfortable a country. Where there is so much comfort
possible, especially for radicals and former radicals, a softening
with age essentially occurs. There are very few hard nuts that
don't change, like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. You can't expect
everyone to be that tough.
OPPRESSION AND IDENTITY
The argument is made that the Jewish people have been persecuted
historically for millennia and have only one homeland: Israel.
On the other hand, there are more than twenty Arab states. The
Palestinians could go to any one of them, speak Arabic, and be
culturally at home. How do you respond to that?
This is a polemical argument. It's very difficult to respond
to it without sounding polemical. It is a historical fact that
the Jewish people suffered unique forms of persecution all over
Europe. They confronted prejudices even in the United States until
very recently. It is also historically known and fully recognized
by the best of Jewish scholars that, in relative terms, Jews had
a much better time in the Islamic world. So that right up to the
nineteenth century we spoke of the Judeo-Arab civilization in
the same way as during the last half of the twentieth century
we speak of the Judeo-Christian civilization. European anti-Semitism,
which was not anti-Semitism of the Arabs, climaxed in the Holocaust.
If the establishment of a Jewish nation within a specific territory
and statehood was called for because of this persecution, it should
have occurred in the Western world-in America or Europe-and not
in the Arab world. The Arabs were not guilty of persecuting the
Jews. The guilt was here, and therefore its expiation should have
occurred here. I don't believe that expiation is a proper answer
to such problems, but if expiation was needed, perhaps the Allies
could have decided that a Jewish state would be founded in a part
of Germany. Or they could have decided that it would be in a part
of Poland or America. Why displace the Palestinians, who have
lived in Palestine for more than 2,000 years, who have tilled
that soil, who have built cities there, why displace them to accommodate
the guilt of Europe? That's one answer. Sounds polemical.
But my real answer is that statehood, nationhood, is not a
solution to the problems of our time. Black people have been persecuted
here for a very long time. They were brought in as slaves. They
were kept as indentured labor. They have remained in one way or
another discriminated against in this country. Is the answer the
creation of a black state in the South? Shall we turn Alabama
and Mississippi into two black nations? No. The answer is: end
the discrimination, overcome the prejudices, bring about integration
of two peoples, restore democratic rights, create binational states,
and build multicultural entities. The answer to evil is removal
of evil, not its consolidation into statehoods.
So, you create a Jewish state. What comes out of it? What
comes out of it, really, is a state in which I honestly think
any self-respecting American or European Jew would not want to
live. I will tell you why. If the United States had laws that
Israel has, no self-respecting Jew would live here. It would discriminate
against the Jews. They would not be able to buy property in the
same way as the Christians do. They would not be able to join
the army. They would not work in the civil service. In Israel
today there are two categories of citizens. There are Jews and
Arabs. The Arabs are third-class citizens without all the citizenship
rights that Jews enjoy. Is that a statehood that the Jews would
like to have here? The answer is no. I wouldn't want any Jewish
person or black person or Muslim person to live in an America
that discriminates against them. The solution is multiculturalism,
binationalism, and equality of citizenship. It's not exclusionary
The United States has sowed in the Middle East and South Asia
very poisonous seeds. These seeds are growing now. Some have ripened,
and others are ripening. An examination of why they were sown,
what has grown, and how they should be reaped is needed. Missiles
won't solve the problem.
PATHOLOGIES OF POWER
One of the terms you've coined is "pathologies of power"
in postcolonial states. " What do you mean by that?
By that I mean the fact that third-world politicians and
institutions, individuals who hold power and the institutions
they run, do not express themselves most of the time in reasonable
Saddam Hussein of Iraq requiring typewriters to be licensed
is pathological. Saudi Arabia opening universities, which is a
good thing, but fearing that the students shouldn't get together-because
they might talk politics or revolt-and therefore doing everything
to prevent the students from discussing matters, from meeting
together, and from collaborating-this is the exact reverse of
what universities should be.
Third-world writers are among the most endangered species
in the world. Nearly all Arab writers today are living in exile
of one form or another. The only great novelist Saudi Arabia has
ever produced in its entire history is Abdelrahman Munif. He has
been divested of his citizenship. It is as if a body politic,
a social body, is cutting itself off from something important,
something creative. Munif lives in exile in Damascus. Adonis,
another important writer, is a Syrian. He lives in exile in Paris
or sometimes in Beirut. In Pakistan, since independence, I think
there has not been a major literary figure who has not served
time in prison. To me these are all examples of sickening behavior
on the part of the state which expresses an illness, a pathology.
These are not natural ways of behaving.
There's the case also of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin.
Taslima Nasrin is one of the recent examples of what is happening.
This is not normal, especially when you think of the fact that
most of these writers, a majority of them, are really not saying
or doing anything that is threatening. Taslima Nasrin is not a
great writer. She wrote a novel in which she portrays the risks
that the Hindu minority runs in a majority Muslim Bangladesh.
She is alleged to have given an interview in which she said something
to the effect that she does not believe that the traditions of
the prophet Muhammad are binding on Muslims. Whether she said
it or not, we do not know. She denies it, and for that she's been
driven out. These are all pathological behaviors.
I can cite many more. Benazir Bhutto, in the space of three
and a half years as prime minister, stole nearly $2 billion from
a poor country like Pakistan. That's pathology. She doesn't need
that kind of money. She was already a rich woman.
Nawaz Sharif says that he thinks the introduction of sharia,
Islamic law, would be a good thing for Pakistan.
I wrote about this as soon as Sharif proposed a fifteenth
amendment to the constitution. I argued that Islam has been, in
Pakistan and also in other Muslim countries, a refuge for weak
and scoundrel regimes and rulers in modern times. Whenever they
feel threatened and isolated-and are losing their grip, losing
popularity, and losing the consensus of the people-they bring
out Islam from the closet and use it as a political weapon. That's
what Nawaz Sharif is doing. He has been in office now for nearly
two years. Pakistan's economy has not improved. It's in very bad
shape. He tested nuclear weapons and Pakistan's security has not
improved. The perception of security has not improved. Our basic
disputes with India have not been resolved. He supported the Taliban
in Afghanistan, which has brought us in conflict with Iran, as
if we needed one more hostile neighbor. And there are very serious
allegations now, starting with an article that appeared in the
London Observer, that in his first government in 1990 he had stolen
a lot of money and transferred it to foreign banks. Under these
conditions, Sharif pulls Islam out from the closet and he starts
the process of "Islamization." This is a typical use
of religion for political purposes.
Switch on your television. All the advertisements are about your
individual comfort, consumption, and pleasure. It is drilled into
children and adults day in and day out. It has an effect that
shapes our minds. The notion of solidarity beyond self and beyond
family, beyond the small group, has become increasingly alien
in modern consumer-oriented American society.
The United States has a $7 trillion dollar economy. One trillion
dollars, one-seventh of the economy, is spent on marketing.
If we do not take risks we cannot serve the common good.