Robert Fisk Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

'Foreign Correspondent' in the Middle East:
Conversation with Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, The Independent; December 14, 2006 by Harry Kreisler

Page 5 of 6

Militants and Moderates

Your book begins with your three interviews with Osama bin La--

I'm going to have to live with this guy, Osama bin Laden, for the rest of my life. I know that, yeah.

I guess there's a lot in them, but I would just like for you, looking back, to comment on those interviews because as I read them in the book I think they awakened you to what was coming, even though you didn't know it.

I don't think they awakened they as much as I think they do now. You can look back in the reflection of what you know later happened. For example, in the last interview I did with him, prior to 9/11 ...

These all would have been in the nineties, one in the Sudan, two in --

That's correct. He wanted to see me in Afghanistan after 9/11, and I tried to get to him. But the Taliban people who were taking me were frightened of the bombs in front of us. The Americans were bombing. The Taliban, who are supposed to go to heaven if they die as martyrs, didn't want to die. But I would say, "But we've got to get to bin Laden."

[laughs] I see.

I was the one who was showing what they were supposed to demonstrate. But anyway, we didn't make it.

Yes, it was '97. We were on the top of a mountain in one of his training camps, built originally, of course, by the CIA when they were fighting the Russians. He said, "Mr. Robert, from this mountain upon which you are sitting we destroyed the Soviet army and the Soviet Union, we destroyed the Russians," which was a hell of an exaggeration but had a certain truth to it. It was the destruction of the Soviet army in Afghanistan that led to the fall of the Soviet Union -- you know, "free" Russia, ever more quotes around the word "free" at the moment. And then he said, "And I pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself."

I remember the pictures of the Twin Towers falling, when Manhattan was a shadow of itself. When I got the notebooks to write this book, I found I had written in the margin of the notebook [of this meeting], opposite bin Laden, I'd written, "rhetoric?"

[laughs]

Well, yes, hollow laughter. Certainly I've gone back -- and I went again recently through my notes. I've kept everything. I've got 328,000 pictures, files, photographs, tapes, notes, books, clippings, photocopies, and I find that several times before 9/11 -- I wrote in The Independent on one occasion, quite brought a stop to a television program in CBC in Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting, by talking about "the explosion to come." I made a movie for cinema but also for Channel 4 and Discovery Channel in 1993 in which I walk into a burning mosque in Bosnia, and my words on the soundtrack were, "When I see things like this I remember the place where I worked the Middle East. When violence is committed there, we call it mindless terrorism. But when I see things like this I wonder what the Muslim world has in store for us. Maybe I should end each of my reports with the words, 'Watch out.'"

For this book I went back through all the clips -- we still have the celluloid film clips, and we went into that mosque on September 11, 1993 -- eight years too early but we got it right. The New York Times condemned the series, by the way, as being sensationalist. Ouch. So, yes, you didn't have to meet bin Laden; if you lived in the Middle East and you spent your time with ordinary people, not with embassy officials, you knew something was coming. You knew something was coming. And it's going to happen again. It's going to happen again.

I have a trick question for you, and that is since ...

We do the trick questions on you ...

The question is this: As I go through your book two figures stand out, Sharon and Osama bin Laden.

No, my father stands out -- my father's all the way through the book. I didn't realize it for years ...

No, no. Sorry, but I want to put ...

He's not quite as bad as those two.

These are two men who've shaped this history in the time that you're writing. How would you compare them? Because both have done really awful things.

I would say that Arafat is in there very strongly. Arafat comes over very, very badly in my book.

Yeah. So, what is it about ... ?

Arafat comes over as an extremely corrupt person, almost painted worse than Saddam Hussein, although Saddam comes over very badly as well.

I find all these people very sinister. And of course there's no point in avoiding the fact that when you meet a sinister person you want to get out your screwdriver and unplug the computer and find out what happens inside it. I think it comes down to a question of [whether you] can use words like "evil" and "wicked." I've met people in the Lebanese civil war, ordinary government, who get drugged up, who enjoy torture, who've raped and enjoyed it, and they're bad people. I don't know if they're reformable. Equally after the war I've seen them again and met their little children who've played with my pussycat on my balcony. You have to admit their humanity, even though they have none.

I find that the greatest sin of people, over and above their individual crimes, is their absolute self-conviction. Sharon had it -- has it -- well, if he's still with us. When I talked with bin Laden I tried constantly to debate with him. You can debate with the Hezbolah leadership, you can debate with Nasrallah, or any of these people. Actually you could debate with Saddam, oddly enough. Not with Arafat. Arafat had complete self-conviction. Bin Laden, you couldn't have a serious discussion with. He knew what was right and he knew he was right. I have to say sometimes, reading through all my notes and my meetings, there were some parallels with George W. Bush. Right and wrong, them or us, they hate us because of our values, our democracy, in sort of a mirror feint parallel, horrific way, it does reflect the kind of language of Osama bin Laden who is equally absolutely adamant, but in bin Laden's case he doesn't have a people who can dis-elect him, and there isn't a stop-off point after the second run.

In your book you talk about the sense of history which you got from your father. You say, "After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, most of the Middle East, and I have spent my entire career, in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad, watching the people within those borders burn." And so, my question is, do these people you've just described, the bin Ladens, [who] make muck in this world, where do you find...

They're our creatures. We created them.

Right. But then where do you find the good? Is it in the little people who you listen to, who you watch suffer?

It's in those people who lost their daughter, who showed so much nobility. It's in the family under fire in their home, under Israeli artillery fire, who run into the road and grab me and pull me into their sitting room so I can lie on the floor with them and avoid being killed. They didn't have to do that. And they're not my religion. Well, I don't know if I have a religion but I'm certainly not theirs.

I'm living among a people who've maintained their faith when we Westerners have not. The fact is, we've lost it. That's [the meaning of] the famous Arnold poem, "They'll seize long withdrawing raw," the Victorian poem about the loss of faith. We don't appreciate these things, we don't read history. They do. They remember it very clearly. I think the good is only in those little people.

I'm always aroused to anger by hearing journalists talking about the effect of war on them, you know, "Can they cope, how do they come to terms with it, do they need counseling?" I think it's just nonsense. The only people who matter are the people who can't leave the country. We can get a plane out, club class, and have a glass of champagne. These people have pariah passports, they have to live and die there with their families. Yes, these are good people. They don't deserve what's happening to them. I must admit when I finished writing this I was overwhelmed by the conviction of how -- I was amazed at the restraint that Muslims have shown towards us over the last ninety years, amazed that we haven't had more 9/11s. But we will have more again. I mean, I'm sure it'll happen in London again.

The days when we could go abroad and have foreign adventures, Korean War, Vietnamese War -- and no Vietcong ever came to Washington and blew up the State Department. No North Korean ever turned up in the London tubes. They're gone forever. The new strategy of war is that we are not going to be safe in San Diego, or Colorado, Gloucestershire, Northern France, Berkeley. We're not safe anymore and we have to accept that, if we're going to have these foreign adventures, if this is going to be our ideological future. Bush at one point said that the war on terror may last forever, eternal. I mean, what is this? Nightmares to frighten school children. We have to stand up against it. I keep saying to people, we keep being told 9/11 changed the world forever, and that allows us to have torture chambers and break up all the rules we set down for human rights after the Second World War. Well, Bush allows that to happen. I will not let nineteen Arab murderers change my world, nor should you. And nor should Bush have allowed them to.

I sense, when you look at the sweep of this history, that we, the West, the U.S., are often hoisted by our own petard --

Cliché!

Yes! -- in the sense that we set in motion -- I mean, we had Juan Cole on the program and I noticed that he made the point that you make in your book, that we helped create the Iranian nuclear program under the Shah, that the Israelis at one time supported Hamas when they thought they were --

An opponent to the PLO.

And so, is this just our fate as mankind, to ... ?

I'll join those who say it's too simplistic always to blame the West. I live among Muslims. My driver's a Muslim, my landlord's a Muslim, my grocer's a Muslim, I live in the Muslim world. I have to say I don't consciously think about it, and nor do they with me. These are my fellow human beings, these are people I risk my life with, they risk their lives with me, whatever. I don't think about religion. If their relatives die I go and -- of course they have a Muslim funeral and I'm there. But I don't think about it. Going to a mosque for me doesn't mean I'm moving across anywhere, moving towards [anything].

I think that the problem for us is that we are the most powerful people. These are the people who've kept their faith, the Muslims. These are the people who still permit and allow and wish religion to trickle and run like water through their blood veins and their lives. As we used to until perhaps the Renaissance in Europe and afterwards. We can be puritanical in religion, we can be -- you know, we can find God, etc. But as a civilization in the West we have lost our faith. The irony is that we who have lost our faith have the power to impose ourselves upon people who have not lost it, while people who've kept faith do not have the physical, military, or political power to defend themselves. That is the true nature of when people talk about the war of civilizations, which is a total cliché and not true. I'm not involved in a war of civilizations, I don't see a war of civilizations, though again, there are people who would like one.

It's really a question of understanding. Sometimes I think that the Western world and the Eastern world are very jealous of each other. We profess to think that the Muslim world wants to return to the Middle Ages, but I find lots of people, from the orientalists onwards, are fascinated by men who have four wives. Sometimes I think that a lot of Westerners would like to have four wives and they're very jealous they can't. At the same time, and this will sound quite cruel, but at the same time I meet a lot of Arabs who are very interested in the way we have our freedoms, whether they be social freedoms, sexual freedoms in the West. Sometimes I think they're quite jealous of us for having the freedom socially which they don't have. Sometimes I think, rather like the journalists who want to be soldiers and the soldiers who want to be journalists, the Muslims would like to be the West, and vice versa.

We do regret, I think, in some ways that we don't have a faith. I remember my father once asked me if I was frightened of dying and I said, "You bet." He said, "That's because you've lost your faith." And I said, "Dad, I never had any."

There are many ways we can critique U.S. policy, but I want to ask you about a particular thing which I often read in columns by your former colleague in Lebanon, Tom Friedman's columns.

Ah, Tom Friedman, yes. The frontier of permitted criticism of the present regime here, yeah.

Where are the moderates in the Islamic world?

Every Muslim I meet virtually is a moderate ...

Talk a little about that.

First of all, I should tell you Tom Friedman is an old friend of mine. I still have dinner with him at Dupont Circle in Washington from time to time. But he really is becoming messianic. He probably wants to be the Secretary of State, and at the moment I read him because I know it's so outrageous. I will laugh and laugh.

Where are the moderates? Look, we're all moderates if we want to be. You know, we divide people up into doves and hawks, more clichés, moderates and immoderates, or whatever, radicals and fanatics, fundamentalists, you name it, anticlées, the French say. You know, we're all human beings and we have to decide what we want to be. Driven into a corner like animals, the most soft, gentlest, liberal human being will turn into a tiger. You make me angry enough and I'll start screaming in fury at you. "Ah, you're not a moderate anymore, Bob." You see? You pound and pound and pound a whole people because of their religion, because of their ethnic origin, because they seem to oppose you, and they'll turn on you, yes. And then you'll say they hate us because they don't like our values and our democracy. Huh?

Where are the moderates in America? Well, half the people who didn't vote for George W. Bush. I'm not even sure that's true. You know, there's a moderate in everybody but it depends how we frame our lives. I don't think we can chop people up into moderates and immoderates -- I notice we don't use that. You notice we don't talk about the Christians? We talk about Muslims and the West because there aren't many Christians left now, or maybe not any. Moderates are people who tend to be without power.

Good answer.

Next page: Conclusions

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