On the occasion of the publication of his excellent new book, Militant Islam reaches America, Norton, 2002
FRANCO ZERLENGA: the reason I asked for this interview is because I teach a course "The American Mind and Islam." In addition, I consider you one of the few excellent American scholars who knows Islam, and has written numerous excellent and lucid books about it. One of them is In the Path of God I like this book because it is incredibly clear.
DANIEL PIPES: Thank you very much.
FZ: I want all of my students to read this book.
DP: It has just been reissued.
FZ: The other reason for this interview is Giuliano Ferrara. He founded Il Foglio, the Italian newspaper that last spring sponsored one of the most successful pro-Israel and pro-American rallies after 9/11. I saw him in New York. And he knows that I am ultra-liberal, but he asked me to write something for Il Foglio, and I proposed an interview with Daniel Pipes, one of the most authoritative and respected scholars and commentators on the Middle East.
And this is my first question: You said many times that we have to pay attention to Islam. Why didn't we?
DP: I think the problem was that we were complacent. We were not scared. We did not take the problem seriously. I would argue that that is still the problem. We still do not take it as seriously as it should be. The problem is in part structural; the West is so much bigger and stronger.
In contrast, the Soviet Union had a similar population, economy, air force, and intelligence agencies. There was a parallel. But between us and Al Qa'ida or us and Iran there is no real parallel. They do not feel like a real enemy. So the problem is complacency, I think—then and now too.
FZ: You know Islam very well. Russia was dangerous but they did not want to die. In one of your books, you said that Islam rejects the West but now the Islamists have skipped rejection and have gone directly to destruction of America. And they have the ability with weapons of mass destruction. How can we be still so complacent?
DP: Communism rejects only certain aspects of the West and accepts many cultural features. In the Soviet Union for example, they used forks and knives, they wore ties, and they went to the opera. Militant Islam rejects not just politics but culture and civilization. It is therefore much deeper.
FZ: Soon after Sept 11 I was talking with a friend of mine, a successful doctor, a tenured professor at one of the most prestigious schools of medicine in the USA. He is an Episcopalian. In addition, I told him: "Look, Islam is not a religion like the one you think. The so-called founder of Islam died while he was head of a state and preparing an attack on his enemy, and he had nine wives. The political factor is intrinsic in Islam." He was surprised. Also as you see the father of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban, he was sending $2,000 to his son in Taliban School. How many Americans think like him and are ignorant of the nature of Islam?
DP: That reflects on something more profoundly American, which is a lack of understanding of evil. It is very hard for we who have lived, by and large, a happy history to understand the true dimensions of evil. I think it is also hard in Europe these days, maybe harder in Europe than in the United States today. Thus the father of John Walker Lindh just did not understand, nor does your professor friend. Militant Islam represents an unfamiliar phenomena.
FZ: What about the Bush Administration? We have a national security adviser who is an expert in Soviet Union, that does not exist anymore. With the complexity of the Islamic world, you need a Kennan who understood Soviet Union in order to elaborate a strategy. When Bush compares the madrasas funded by Saudi Arabia and teaching the Islam brand of Wahhabi with the Methodists Sunday school, I think he does not know what he is talking about.
DP: This is a new problem in the sense that it has only become a priority for the U.S government for a year now, and the depth of knowledge is not very great, but people are learning. I have been impressed how much people have learned. I often begin at a quite primitive level explaining things very simply and a people say, no: I know that. Your professor is an exception. By and large, I have found that a lot of people really have learned. It is going to be a while. Kennan wrote 30 years after the creation of the Soviet Union. It might take a while again.
FZ: I am talking about strategy …
DP: I realize. It was almost 30 years between 1917 and 1945 It is only a year since 9/11.
FZ: Soviet Union was there in 1933.
DP: It would be as though the communists took over in Hungary or in Poland. It was not so important. The Khomeini regime in Iran was bad, but if you were living here in 1979-81, the hostage crisis was huge but in retrospective, it seems very small. 56 people held for 444 days. Quite small. No one there died, although rescuers died. At the time, it was very large, but it did not create a sense of priority. The Soviet Union still existed. Finally now, that sense of priority does exist, I still think we are still too complacent, but it is the first topic that people talk about it. Today, it is the number-one issue.
FZ: People are scared to talk about Saudi Arabia. There is an aura of intimidation to discuss their support of militant Islam through every means. What is our strategy regarding Saudi Arabia?
DP: I think what it should be, is applying President Bush's notion of "You're with us or you're against us." Saying that to the Saudis forces them to make difficult choices. As you point out, there is a culture of intimidation and I would add, a culture of corruption, which makes it very difficult for the existing institutions of state, foreign ministry, defense ministry and so forth, to deal with these problems effectively, yes. We have a long history of not taking a close look at our national interest but in fact having politicians and diplomats who are eager to please the Saudis.
FZ: Bush says that he wants to fight terrorism, but in the same time receive Prince Abdullah at his ranch. It is like Johnson, in 1964, after signing the civil rights Act, told Martin Luther King: "By the way, next week, I will have as my guest for the weekend the head of the Ku Klux Klan." The Europeans, who are cowards by definition, looking at this, think why do we have to stick out our neck against the Arabs. What is it your reaction?
DP: I am very critical of the American policy toward Saudi Arabia since Sept. 11 as I was before Sept. 11. We have a policy of obsequiousness, of weakness, of not standing up for our rights. There are so many example of this, large and small. We need a thorough review of this and a very different approach, one that is far more demanding of the Saudis than has been the case until now.
FZ: Dr. Pipes, an American journalist [Joel Mowbray] has written articles about the so-called visa express policy applied by the State department to Saudi Arabia. That policy is extremely dangerous for national security because it permits Saudis to get a visa without any check in Riyadh even after 9/11. This journalist was detained in the State department building for half an hour. What has to be changed in the State Department?
DP This policy and this incident symbolize the corruption I spoke of. The real problem is that American officials have an expectation that if they do the things that the Saudis want they will get rewarded, personally, when they leave the government. And the Saudis are very careful about building this reputation so what you find is that U.S. officials also have Saudis interests in mind—indeed, sometimes more than American interests. The way to break this, I think, it is to prohibit officials in this country (and I presume also elsewhere) who deal with Saudi Arabia from receiving any kind of funding from Saudi Arabia afterwards: if you are a government official and you deal with Saudi Arabia it is illegal to have dealings with Saudi Arabia when you leave government service.
FZ: why is it almost impossible to have hearings in the Senate or in the House about Saudi Arabia?
DP: No, it is possible. I just did it a month ago.
FZ: not I was talking about an assessment of U.S. policy about Saudi Arabia.
DP: It is possible. We are heading more in that direction. What you have is a U.S. government that has been very careful on all these questions. You see a number of congressmen, journalists, religious leaders, and others who are upset, who want something more. Congress has an important role there. It is the voice of the people to express these wishes. Members of Congress have taken a very emotional, compelling issue: that of women and children who are isolated, captured in Saudi Arabia, and to they talk about these victims. It is a good way to get people interested. It is not theoretical, it is not dry, it is not boring, and it is emotional.
FZ: It took ten years for an American president to recognize that Arafat is a terrorist. How much time would it take to understand that the idea of a Palestinian state is a wrong and dangerous idea?
DP: I think that the key here is the Israelis, not Americans. I blame the Israelis more than the U.S government. The Israelis in 1993 accepted the idea of Arafat as a diplomat, a statesman. That idea was still dominant in Israel until a year and half ago, to the end of the Ehud Barak years. As a result of the violence, the Israelis have begun to change their minds and a few months later the U.S government changed its mind. The real problem has been that the Israelis have been confused.
The number two problem is the US Government, which way back in 1967 concluded that the Israelis victory was so huge that the Arabs would no longer be interested, be competent, be capable of making war, and so the policy developed, even while the war was taking place, to have the Israelis return the land in favor of promises for peace. This was an American idea, born in the very time the war was taking place, on a wrong assumption, but it has been operative for 35 years. It is traditional, it is very widely accepted, and the contrary idea that the Arabs have not accepted Israel but continue to want to destroy Israel is one that is in fact radical, a minority viewpoint.
FZ: The Arabs do not make a fuss about it. They do not deny it. Even in this country, courses teaching Arabic do not have the State of Israel on the map of the Middle East states. The Arabs do not cover up.
DP: As in so many things, what you see, is what you want to see. We we all have that problem. The Israelis wanted to see that they are accepted. The U.S government since 1967 wanted to see Israel accepted. This phenomenon is more dramatic in the case of Israel than the United States. Israelis are there, are getting killed, and just a few months ago, they were still thinking Oslo was working despite huge amounts of evidence to suggest otherwise. It is a universal and this is just one example. It has becomes easier to make the point that the Arabs have not accepted Israel because of the violence, but it is still very much a minority point of view.
FZ: The Bush administration said that it wants a Palestinian State.
DP: Yes, and the Israelis have said the same thing: Peres, Barak, Sharon. They are not fighting it. In other words, the presumption is that the way to solve this problem is to give each party what it wants. The Jews get Israel; the Palestinians get Palestine. One here. One there, a border and everyone is happy. It is a nice, attractive idea. I am not against it.
I am saying: it will not work because the Palestinians do not accept it. They want everything and that means either they win everything or they lose everything. It is unstable and therefore the key is not finding the right border, the key is convincing the Palestinians that they cannot win. That this is a harmful approach not just to Israel but to themselves and that is why I think the current policies of the Sharon government are basically good because they are sending a signal to the Palestinians: This is not working. You are further and further away from your goals. You are poorer; you are more immobilized, you are more depressed, you are unhappy, so your only alternative is to stop.
FZ: But what about the Arabs states, they do not accept the State of Israel, the existence of Israel that has nothing to do with the Palestinians.
DP. I think it does. The Palestinians are not very important economically or militarily. They are small and weak. Where they do count is that if they want to continue this battle, other Arabic speakers and Muslims support them. If they say "It is over, we have lost, we have given up," the impact on other Arabic speakers and other Muslims will be very great. They will say they cannot do much as the Palestinian have given up. That will have an important effect. The Palestinian importance is political and symbolic, not economic or military.
FZ: Do you think that the American government can press, can push the Arab States to accept Israel?
DP: Yes. It can do a lot but it has done nothing. When Saudi crown prince Abdullah comes out with a plan, the U.S. government says: "Great plan, great idea, wonderful, thank you." I look at it and say: "This is not serious, this is an attempt to change the subject from the Saudis to something else." My work, in large part, on this subject is devoted to trying to convince Americans that the question of the existence of Israel is still the key question, just as it was before 1967, so it still is. Any another interpretation, while more optimistic, is less accurate.
FZ: What about if the Bush Administration asks (this is a dream) Saudi Arabia; why do you not start to recognize Israel. You do not have to start at the ambassador level you can start at the economic level. This way, you really show that you mean it. Besides, as Kissinger noted, recognition is always revocable.
DP: I am not terribly interested in diplomacy, treaties, and ambassadors. As you point out that can be revoked and has, in fact, been revoked. I am interested in a change of heart, a profound development, the kind of change you see in the ex-Soviet Union. We used to be enemies with the Soviet Union. Now the Soviet Union has changed..
FZ: You are one of the best experts in Islam and you know what they teach and preach and practice in Saudi Arabia. How can you change the hearts of these people?
DP: In part, it is what they are teaching. The Soviet Union was preaching hatred too. In the end, nobody believed it. The key is whether it is credible, and if you are just going through the motions, and saying there is a capitalistic system that has to be destroyed. If nobody believes it, it does not mean anything. If the madrasas in Saudi Arabia were teaching about hating Americans and killing Jews, but it was not taken seriously, it would not matter much.
FZ: You said, in one your books, that this is not like communism. There is the element of religion.
DP: Yes, there is no question about it. I think it can be changed. I think that in fact is our burden. The message of 9/11 was that the U.S, with luck and with allies, has the burden of transforming Islam. Militant Islam is the problem; moderate Islam is the solution. We have to get in there and reinterpret Islam with the Muslims. We have to help those who are moderate and fight those who are militant. The enemy is not terror. The enemy is not Islam. The enemy is a terroristic version of Islam. We must defeat it.
FZ: I do not see this in the Bush Administration
DP: I do not either.
FZ: They think that just to go and to kill people in the fields is the solution.
DP: They are missing the ideological element.
FZ: They are completely missing the point. I see that Saudi Arabia supports Hamas, funds the most radical madrasas, tries to systematically misinform the American people and give money to the terrorists and the Bush Administration does nothing.
DP: On the money issue, the administration is good. The response to violence has to take two forms: fighting the enemy, stopping the money, defeating them in the battle field; and then changing one's own policies, understanding what the issues are. The first has been quite good, in terms of Afghanistan, money, but the second is not good. The policies have not changed, and particularly this notion that our enemy is terrorism is a very superficial idea. It is like saying that our enemy is submarines or machine guns.
FZ: It is a technique, a warfare tactic.
DP: Say the Iranian got much richer and could afford a conventional military: tanks, planes, ships. They would build that. There is nothing inherently terrorist about this problem. Terrorism is merely tool of those who are poor, so it is mistake to call the enemy terrorism.
FZ: Saudi Arabia is breeding militant terrorists. It supports all militant groups indirectly or directly. The 15 hijackers/murderers were from Saudi Arabia and we cannot investigate them and their connections in Saudi Arabia.
DP: That is unacceptable
FZ: There is another problem when I look at landscape of American media: I see the systematic manipulation by Arabs and Arab-Americans of the abysmally ignorant journalists and pundits on talk shows and the climate of intimidation against everybody who talks about Islam. It is painful to see Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters, et al. being so manipulated by the ambassador of Saudi Arabia or other Muslim officials.
Two of the most painful interviews that I watched were conversations that Charlie Rose had with the Iranian undersecretary of state and with the former minister of information of Saudi Arabia. Charlie Rose did not know what he was talking about. What can we do about it?
DP: Education and - unfortunately more important than education - more acts of violence. Violence is what educates people. It was not Winston Churchill's eloquence that convinced the British people that he was right; it was the Nazi onslaught. It was not Ronald Reagan's eloquence that convinced Americans that he was right but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Similarly, here it will not be anyone's eloquence but the hard facts that militant Islamic groups and governments are attacking us, killing us, making all sorts of trouble for us. There is no sign that people are going to learn more quickly: and this is my great regret. I am sure we will win this war, but I worry we will lose many lives unnecessarily, because we are so slow in preparing ourselves to fight.
FZ: And what about the failure of the academic world. It is very painful to look at academic world
DP: It is painful
FZ: It is mind boggling, you cannot believe there is nothing coming out from the center of Islamic studies from Harvard, your alma mater, where you also taught.
DP: There are three major sources of information about political questions like this: the government, the media, and the academy. And while these two (the government and the media) are not doing great—I am talking about the president, and TV—at least they are acceptable, but the academy … well, it reaches the point where one can say the professors are not telling the truth, are lying. One example: jihad,
Jihad almost always means, through history, the extension of Muslim-controlled territory through violence. I did a study of what the academics are are writing, saying to the media, are stating on television, and to reporters. Almost without exception, every one of them says that jihad has nothing to do with violence, or if it does, it is purely defensive. Most of them say that it has nothing to do with violence but with a program of self-improvement. This is plain false. The professors know better. They are hiding the truth. This is a deception. It is a failure of responsibility. I made it one of my priorities to focus in on this, to criticize the academy and to make it clear that it is being watched.
FZ: At least, the academy studied communism very seriously in all its aspects and gave an answer at every level.
DP: I think that the difference is a difference in era, not in subject. There was good work done on Islam before say 1980, and there was bad work on communism after 1970. So I think what it reflects is not so much the subject matter, as the evolution of the university to the point: that in most countries I have been to, the university faculty live quite in isolation intellectually speaking from the rest of the population. Yet they have an importance. If you want to understand jihad, to whom are you going to turn? Not the government or the media; you will turn to academics. If you want to understand Islam, to whom do you turn? The academy is not fulfilling its duties vis-à-vis these complex new subjects.
FZ: I would like to go back to Israel. There are many people in the Arab world that do not care about the situation of the Palestinians. We will outbreed the Israelis in 20 years. We do not have to give up anything and we do not have to accept the existence of Israel. What do you think about it?
DP: Demography is the real Arab strategy against Israel. It is not clear what nature it will take exactly, whether it will be just the Arabs living in Israel pre-67 borders or also those from the west Bank and Gaza or some other areas, but the extraordinary difference in numbers presents an opportunity for the enemies of Israel to feel that they can ultimately win just by being so much larger numerically.
Demographics also go a long way to explain why the U.S. government is wrong in thinking that the Arabs have given up their attempt to destroy Israel. Yes, they did loose a terrible, terrible battle in 1967, but the difference in size, the huge geographic base, the demographic base, the economic base of the Arabs makes them feel fairly confident that in the end they can overwhelm Israel. I do not know if this is true, but this is their strategy.
FZ: I would like to talk about the conspiracy theory that you wrote about it in one of the most insightful books that I read on the subject: I would like to know which are the major conspiracy theories going around now.
DP: There are two broad categories of conspiracy: one having to do with Jews and the other with secret societies—and the cast of characters of the latter changes over time. So at one point it might be the illuminati, the Jesuits …
FZ: But now, now …
DP: Right now, the new secret society are those engaged in globalization. It is a form of the capitalist conspiracy, but with this new globalization quality, and the other side is the anti-Jewish conspiracy, which one sees coming out mainly from the Muslim world. Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories used to be primarily Christian but now are primarily Muslim.
FZ: The Saudis, while despising Western literature, are recycling the old fables and ludicrous lies about Jews.
DP: They are recycling these, exactly. It is striking to see how the European phobias of secret societies and Jews have been transformed among Muslims into fears of imperialists—primarily British and Americans -- and Israel. It is the same theme. I like to note that this is insulting to everyone, because the Europeans had these stupid ideas and now the Muslims have taken them over and the Muslims cannot even think up their own stupid ideas, they have to get these from Europe: it makes everybody look awful. But these are not original ideas, these are European, very Christian, in effect going back to old ideas essentially from the 19th century. They are no longer important in the West but have been brought back to the West by Muslims, especially in Europe, where you see the violence coming from the Muslims.
The Protocol of the Elders of Zion has been translated many times into Arabic. It has been very popular. And then they developed their own literature with interesting connections to Christian messianism. Complicated developments are taking place.
FZ: Some people think that anti-Semitism in Europe is over but it is not. The most vicious anti Jewish pope, Pius IX, has been beatified. The works of many Church Fathers are full of hatred for Jews, for example St. Ambrose's, are untouched. Saint Giovanni di Capistrano is still a saint. Although the pope recognized the State of Israel, after 40 years, John Paul II leaves intact all the cultural apparatus of anti Judaism and potential anti-Semitism that could be used in future generations. What people see as the Church's positive approach to the Jews is, in fact, more public relations than anything else.
DP: My impression is that anti-Semitism has declined a great deal, but now, with the tensions between Arabs and Israel and the Muslim population of Europe being very upset, you find a resurgence, especially in France. Italy has been very interesting because there have been powerful voices in Italy saying "No" to this, which one does not hear in France, Britain, or Germany. The difference is worth noting..
FZ: Thank you