Interview with Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr.: Not Every Fundamentalist Is a Terrorist
by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly: Do you agree with the thesis that the key issue in the Middle East increasingly has less to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict and more to do with fundamentalist Islam?
Robert Pelletreau: There's no question that the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism is growing in many Middle Eastern states. It is not monolithic, but presents different faces in different countries, according to the differing conditions in those countries. We must deal with fundamentalist Islam in a variety of contexts--how it impacts on issues of importance to the United States, such as the peace process, or combatting terrorism, or encouraging open markets or political pluralism or respect for human rights. The starting point is our own objectives, not political Islam as such! I don't see it as more important than the peace process. A successful peace process diminishes the appeal of political Islam.
MEQ: Can one not argue the opposite? That success in the peace process aids the fundamentalists in their recruitment drives and actually provokes violence?
Pelletreau: Only in that extremists see progress in something that they oppose, so they look for ways to try to derail it. Ismet Abdel Magid used to talk about the unholy alliance of extremists: on both sides, there are those who seek to derail the peace process.
MEQ: The peace process, then, is an instrument for containing the challenge of radical Islam?
Pelletreau: It is an important means to confront the growth of Islamic militancy. One of the ways that radical Islam appeals to the Muslim man-on-the-street is through its opposition to the peace process and even to Israel's existence; to the extent the peace process makes a reality of treaties, agreements, and coexistence, it undercuts the appeal of the radical alternative. More people need to be included in coexistence and see benefit in it and actually derive benefit from it. As that happens, radical Islam's appeal grows weaker.
MEQ: How do you account for the surge of fundamentalist Islam?
Pelletreau: It generally follows from conditions of extreme poverty, of not finding a job, of feeling blocked, of not being able to lead a normal life. In an era when the "isms" of communism and socialism, even of Arab nationalism, have lost their luster, it is quite understandable that many people return to their religious roots for meaning and for values. Regrettably, some of them take an additional turn and, to show their opposition, espouse violence or even direct terrorism. That is crossing a big divide.
MEQ: A year ago, you characterized fundamentalists as Muslims who place a "renewed emphasis on traditional values."1 Is the Islamic resurgence really a matter of returning to traditional values?
Pelletreau: Sometimes, when people feel no identity with their society as it exists, they turn to their religious and cultural roots. They then become fertile ground for the appeal of political Islam.
MEQ: Is it correct to say that you draw a sharp distinction between moderate fundamentalists who are in the political process and extremists who engage in violence?
Pelletreau: I make a broader distinction than that. A whole spectrum exists when we talk about Islam, from, at one end, the practice of one of the world's great religions to, at the other end, violent, extremist groups seeking political power through the use of terrorism and violence under the guise of Islamic principles.
MEQ: "Under the guise": are you suggesting that their Islam is false? That they are not in fact pious Muslims?
Pelletreau: Some say that. It probably depends on the personal political ambition on the part of an individual or a group of leaders. The phenomenon of extremist Islam shows itself in many different groups and situations and countries. We ought not to oversimplify or color them . . .
MEQ: "Them" means the fundamentalists?
Pelletreau: . . . all one color. Every leader or official who claims to be a good Muslim is not tainted. I have trouble defining exactly where one category starts and another stops, for example, where in the spectrum to place the Saudis. We ought not color every party or group or government the same way, nor should we simplistically condemn them all as anti-Western.
MEQ: What about in Algeria? Does that country have moderate and extremist fundamentalists?
Pelletreau: In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) before 1992 was almost entirely a political movement: very few of its members espoused violence, possessed arms, or resorted to armed conflict. In January 1992, the army intervened to interrupt the electoral process; less than a month later, the Algerian government declared the FIS an illegal organization. After that, the FIS became increasingly radicalized. More and more of its members moved towards extremism.
My discussions with Algerian political leaders of various stripes in such major parties as the Front of Socialist Forces and the National Liberation Front indicate that they seek a dialogue with the government that also includes the more pragmatic elements of the FIS. They clearly believe that such elements exist even at this time of increasing radicalization. Through that process, they hope to broaden the base of the government beyond its narrow military constituency.
MEQ: Do such pragmatic elements really exist? Many anti-fundamentalist Muslims emphatically deny their existence. For example, President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia points out that the "final aim" of all fundamentalists is the same: "the construction of a totalitarian, theocratic state."2 Osman Bencherif, Algeria's ambassador to the United States, says that "it is misguided policy to distinguish between moderate and extremist fundamentalists. The goal of all is the same: to construct a pure Islamic state, which is bound to be a theocracy and totalitarian."3 Are they wrong?
Pelletreau: They've made these statements from a political point of view based on where each of them sit and what each's political objectives are. President Ben Ali is concerned about instability in a neighboring state's flowing over and affecting the stability of Tunisia; and he sees an ever more radicalized and violent Islamic movement as the primary source of that instability. The Algerian ambassador represents his government and his government's point of view; his is also a political statement. Neither of their statements purports to be the result of an objective, academic analysis of the Islamic phenomenon across the board; rather, these reflect how each of them from his specific perspective sees one aspect of a larger whole.
MEQ: But opposition leaders say the same thing. Saïd Sadi, the militant Algerian secularist, argues that "a moderate Islamist is someone who does not have the means of acting ruthlessly to seize power immediately."4 Even more dramatically, Mohammad Mohaddessin, director of international relations for the People's Mojahedin of Iran, declares that "moderate fundamentalists do not exist. . . . It's like talking about a moderate Nazi."5
Pelletreau: Some concur with this outlook and some differ with it. It is a complex subject that requires a great deal of study. It is a subject and a phenomenon in evolution. We should be careful about stereotyping.
MEQ: Hamas, the Palestinian group, claims that the head of its politburo, Musa Abu Marzuq, has met American officials.6 Yasir Arafat has been described as expressing "surprise and anger" at reports that high-level Hamas figures met with senior U.S. officials in April 1995.7 President Husni al-Mubarak of Egypt has asserted that the U.S. government "Your government is in contact with these terrorists from the Muslim Brotherhood." He adds that "this has all been done very secretly, without our knowledge at first."8 News reports also indicate that American officials have met with leaders of the Muslim Brethren in Jordan, and with Anouar Haddam, the representative of Algeria's FIS in the United States. Is there any truth to these claims that the U.S. government is in touch with these various groups? Should it be in contact with them?
Pelletreau: That's a topic worth discussing. First, we are completely opposed to terrorism and violence, and we are not knowingly in touch with groups or individuals engaged in terrorism and violence. We emphatically do not seek such contacts. Second, we don't believe that everybody who says he's an Islamist falls necessarily in the terrorist category. Third, in the course of preparing our annual human-rights reports or in the course of normal political-reporting responsibilities by embassies, we try to get the most accurate picture of the political scene across the spectrum. In areas where we are actively engaged in trying to understand the political scene, we may sometimes talk to someone who may have terrorist connections without our knowing about them. Then, too, we do sometimes have contacts with individuals or parts of groups or groups with Islamist leanings who do not espouse terrorism or resort to violence.
MEQ: You do not then require that a whole group, say, Hamas, not be engaged in terrorism? It suffices for only a part of the group not to be?
Pelletreau: No. We do not have contact with Hamas. We do not have a conscious policy of going out to contact individuals who are members of Hamas.
MEQ: What about with the Algeria group FIS?
Pelletreau: We and other governments had contacts with the FIS when it was a purely political movement. We believe FIS is not a unified or monolithic organization and that some elements in it continue to oppose the use of violence and are interested in dialogue and cooperation with the government of Algeria and secular opposition parties. Therefore, we do continue to have occasional contacts with such groups and such individuals.
MEQ: More generally, is it appropriate to have contact with the elements who say that they've rejected violence even while others have not? Or should the government insist on the entire organization's rejecting violence, and that those who continue to engage in violence be excluded from the organization? This was the policy with both the Palestine Liberation Organization and Irish Republican Army.
Pelletreau: I would have to study the IRA more closely before making an analogy. One criterion is how unified and cohesive a movement is. We suspended our dialogue with the PLO in 1990 when one of its constituent groups committed an act of terrorism and the leadership was unwilling to condemn it and distance itself from it.
MEQ: Is it correct to say that you see violence and terrorism as a dividing line between those fundamentalist Muslims with whom we can have a dialogue and whom we consider acceptable as partners in the political process, and those with whom such contact is not acceptable?
Pelletreau: It is more complex than that. The starting point is our total opposition to terrorism and those who practice it. Beyond that, we would examine local conditions, the history of the particular group or movement, and how specific U.S. policy interests would be affected.
MEQ: Islamic extremists were responsible for the World Trade Center bombing in New York City in February 1993. In combating this problem, should the U.S. government call on foreign governments? Is this a matter for just the FBI, or is it also something for the State Department to deal with?
Pelletreau: Terrorism committed in the United States -- whether it has an Islamist origin or another source -- is a problem for the U.S. government as a whole. If there are people planning actions in the United States, we need to be involved in trying to combat them in every way we can, and that is not limited to the FBI; other elements of the government that can help should and will help; that includes the Department of State.
MEQ: In congressional testimony in March 1994, you stated that the U.S. government believes "the Iranian regime is a permanent feature." In September 1994, you made this stronger, saying that "the Islamic revolution is deeply rooted and the present regime and its political decisions are also deeply rooted."9 Do these statements characterize your own views?
Pelletreau: They certainly did at the time. Today, we see that the Iranian regime faces an increasing number of internal problems, mostly economic and social in nature. I can't say that we see a viable opposition movement emerging. But, things are a little shakier this year for the regime than they were last year.
MEQ: Would the U.S. government welcome a change of regime in Iran?
Pelletreau: That's for the Iranian people to decide, not us. But there are many changes in policy we would welcome in Iran. We would welcome its clearly foregoing the development of weapons of mass destruction; ceasing its support for terrorist organizations; showing some support for the Middle East peace process or at least ceasing its active, material opposition to it; and foreswearing terrorism against its own citizens.
MEQ: Aren't U.S. policy initiatives toward Iran in recent months awfully vigorous just to accomplish a modification of Iranian behavior? Some observers think the Clinton administration is inching toward a policy that aims more at delegitimizing the regime in Tehran and isolating it internationally -- somewhat as it seeks to delegitimize and isolate Saddam Husayn's regime. Comments?
Pelletreau: We seek to contain each of those regimes, each of which demonstrates a threatening attitude toward other countries in the gulf and toward our interests in the gulf. We try to design a set of responses that matches the conditions in each country. The shorthand for this policy is "dual containment." It is probably more accurate to say that we have a customized policy of containment toward each country.
MEQ: Is it fair to say that the policy of containment toward Iran is more similar to our policy toward Iraq than it used to be?
Pelletreau: No question, during the course of 1995, we have strengthened the containment policy of Iran. We found at the beginning of this year that two very clear aspects of Iranian policy were not adequately addressed by our previous approach. One concerned Russian contracts with Iran in the nuclear field. The other concerned additional information we received about direct Iranian support for terrorist organizations in the Middle East. These made us feel entirely justified in strengthening the economic pressures on Iran, and increasing the cost to the regime if it chooses to continue those policies.
MEQ: Would one of those approaches be making contact with opposition groups?
Pelletreau: It could be if viable opposition groups were to emerge. At this point I don't see any viable opposition group on the Iranian scene. The current regime has been in power now for sixteen years and seems to be quite deep-seated in the political culture of the country. That doesn't mean that we agree with its policies or admire its governance. Indeed, it is making some very poor decisions and some very bad miscalculations.
MEQ: If the Russian nuclear-reactor sale proceeds, does it at some stage become appropriate to raise with the Russians the question of what can be done to limit the potential proliferation damage from this reactor?
Pelletreau: That is a very hypothetical issue. We feel that Russia should terminate its nuclear cooperation with Iran. We have entered a dialogue with the Russian government on this topic. It has already agreed to not go forward with providing gas centrifuge technology, and to review jointly with us other aspects of its cooperation. So we hope that as the Russians become more aware of the various implications of their own cooperation and of Iranian ambitions in the nuclear field, including the development of nuclear weapons, they will see that it is in their interest not to continue forward with this contract.
LIBYA AND SYRIA
MEQ: Anthony Lake last year defined backlash states as North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Libya.10 We'd like to take up some of the other states. It was nine years ago that U.S. forces bombed Tripoli. Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi seems fairly quiet since then.
Pelletreau: In the Libyan case, the policy of containment has shown some results. Libya does not support international terrorism as actively as it did nine years ago. It finds itself unable to derail the peace process or become unhelpfully involved in the gulf. As you say, Libya is not as great a threat to the stability of the region or to ourselves or others now as it was nine or ten years ago. Of course, this could change.
MEQ: Does the U.S. government intend to engage with Qadhdhafi?
Pelletreau: We have seen no progress by Tripoli on the question of those accused in the bombing of Pan Am 103 or cooperation with France on the UTA flight that exploded over West Africa in September 1989, killing 170 persons. Very clear Security Council resolutions call on the Libyans to take certain steps with regard to those acts of terrorism; they have a channel of approach to return to the community of nations, if they conduct themselves as nations normally conduct themselves.
But that is conditional on compliance with the Security Council resolutions. There is a clear course of action set out that Libya could follow that goes through the U.N. The Secretary General of the United Nations is identified in the resolutions as the person and the office responsible; we've seen Libya try a number of end runs around this very clear channel of communication. You have to wonder why Libya is doing this if not to evade the Security Council resolutions. If Libya is talking about compliance with the resolutions, there is no reason for it to go anywhere but to the secretary-general to map out the steps it needs to take to bring itself into compliance.
MEQ: Why is Syria not considered a backlash state? The Syrian record would seem to fit the profile of a rogue state: occupying Lebanon, supporting the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) against Turkey, sponsoring other terrorist outfits, giving sanctuary to an international cast of criminals, drug trafficking, participating in forgery of a substantial number of American $100 bills; the list goes on and on. Any comments on Syria's absence from the list of backlash states? Is it just because Syria is engaged in the peace process with Israel? Its behavior? Something else?
Pelletreau: There are very clear legislative restrictions with regard to our dealing with Syria. The various aspects of our bilateral relations with Syria need to be considered along with our effort to help Syria and Israel move toward peace. Progress there should open the way to improvement in Syrian-U.S. relations. We address our various difficulties with Syrian policies in one or the other of those contexts. Our latest narcotics report, for example, reported a certain improvement in Syrian behavior.11 Thus, we do feel in the case of Syria that it is correct to pursue a policy of engagement.
MEQ: Are you satisfied with the Syrian response?
Pelletreau: There is the beginning of a response. We think that progress can be achieved through a policy of engagement and trying to encourage and facilitate a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement.
MEQ: Are you worried about Syrian-Turkish relations, specifically, the tensions over the Euphrates River waters and the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist group based in Syria and
Pelletreau: That is certainly an element of potential instability in the area; Syria and Turkey have had a difficult relationship for some time. It is certainly a concern to us. We have raised the PKK with the Syrians. This is another reason for us to develop a better relationship with Syria, a more positive and multidimensional one than we have today, one that might provide a basis for our helping to resolve such difficulties.
NEGOTIATING WITH THE PLO
MEQ: In his book, Through Secret Channels, Mahmud 'Abbas wrote about you in 1988: "The American Ambassador was convinced that only the [Israeli] Labour party was capable of initiating such a dialogue [with the PLO], and he was anxious about the obstinacy of Likud and its assumption of power in Israel."12 Is this an accurate assessment of your views back then?
Pelletreau: I would really question that without recalling everything we said. I frankly don't recall any such statement or expression of views and I doubt very much whether I made it. You can check this with a number of others. Also, it's worth noting that I did not meet very many times with the Palestinians. We conducted the U.S.-PLO dialogue in a very careful and disciplined manner. Before each session I received quite detailed instructions. I carried out those instructions just as accurately and as completely as I could.
MEQ: You did not engage in freewheeling speculation and discussion of your views on this and that?
Pelletreau: It was not a place for freewheeling speculation.
MEQ: Could you say a few words about those meetings? Your thoughts on them, in retrospect?
Pelletreau: In retrospect, I think they had a certain value in conditioning the PLO to an approach to the peace process that it had not previously considered. It had firmly insisted on entering the peace process only in the context of an international conference with a great deal of amassed international support behind it. We talked a good deal about creating the right kind of atmosphere for direct and sustainable negotiations and how you begin such negotiations. We made a certain amount of progress in familiarizing the PLO with our approach and our way of thinking, neither of which they had been previously exposed to.
MEQ: Did it surprise you that the PLO and Israel later found a way to negotiate some of their differences directly?
Pelletreau: Not too much.
1 Robert H. Pelletreau, Jr., et al., "Symposium: Resurgent Islam in the Middle East," Middle East Policy, vol. 3, no. 2 (Fall 1994, pp. 2-3.
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes