Fred Halliday: Are Islam and the West at Loggerheads?

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Jul 7, 2002, 12:51:18 PM7/7/02
An Interview with Professor Fred Halliday
Are Islam and the West at Loggerheads?

Fred Halliday was born in Dublin in 1946. He studied Politics,
Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University and did a PhD at the
London School of Economics. Since 1983 he has been teaching
International Relations at the LSE.

He has written 14 books on international politics and the situation in
the Middle East including 'Iran: Dictatorship and Development' (1978)
and 'Islam and the Myth of Confrontation' (1995). The latter,
repudiating the idea of a clash between Western and Islamic
civilisations, has provoked hostile reaction from both Muslim and
non-Muslims. Halliday's most recent publication is 'Two Hours That
Shook the World', in which he explores the repercussions of 2001's
terrorist attacks on the United States and the 'war on terrorism'
which George W. Bush insists is still continuing.

In an interview with the ezine's European editor, Nadeem
Azam, he discusses the Taliban, radical Islam in Western Europe and
the Islamic revolution in Iran.

Does Islam have a rigid set of beliefs or is it more liberal than
people make it out to be?

Let me say this. People with a narrow-minded view of Islam must
appreciate the diversity and richness of Muslim culture, whether it
comes to interpretations of the Quran, hadith or shariah. The dogmatic
image of Islam, which is both projected by the enemies of Islam and
enforced by fundamentalists, is false to the great richness of Islamic

What did you think about the Taliban in Afghanistan?

I think most Muslims are relieved that the Taliban's rule over
Afghanistan is over. When the Taliban came along and said 'You're not
a Muslim if you don't shave' most Muslims would disagree with that.
What kind of perception of Islamic culture is that giving? The worse
thing is when you have people who come and say 'only this is Islam and
everything else is kufr [anti-Islamic]'. They were against everything:
women singing, literature which discusses the pleasures of life - I
think it's all part of the culture of Muslims!

To take another example, the Taliban banned all images of living
beings - and they even had public 'executions' of television sets. In
Iran television used to be called sunduq-I-shaytun, the box of Satan.
Then the revolution came and Khomeini and the Mullahs appeared on
teleivion: it became part of building a Muslim society, rather than
something you were against. Television can do good.

What do you think about the more radical versions of Islam here in

When you get Muslim groups in Europe saying in higher education
colleges that Muslim women should not train to be engineers or
doctors, that is going against Islam. The problem with groups such as
Hizb ut-Tahrir is that they say 'this and only this is Islam'. Let's
take the Caliphate. I always tell Hizb ut-Tahrir to get on the plane
and go to Tehran on Mecca and start talking about the Caliphate in
those places - they wouldn't come back. Most Muslims do not believe in
the Caliphate as applicable to the contemporary world.

The reason in my view why fundamentalism has made such an advance here
in Europe is because people are not educated and literate in their own
history and culture. Nevertheless, there are very real issues
affecting young Muslims in Europe and things like employment, racism
and identity need to be looked at.

You say in your book that "Islamists espouse gross racist
generalisations about Jewish people". Should Muslim groups have the
right to express such views?

I think there should be limits on racist and prejudicial statements in
a democratic society. So if you asked me am I an anarchist, an extreme
libertarian as far as the law of free speech is concerned, the answer
is no. It should be possible for anybody to develop a critique of what
the state of Israel has done and is doing to Palestinians, without
being accused of being anti-Semitic. I think some Palestinian and
Muslims groups have done themselves no service at all by confusing
what could be a legitimate critique of Palestine with what are
anti-Semitic prejudices and conspiracy theories. Travelling in the
Muslim world, like I have done, you do find a lot of stuff about Jews
which is racist and also untrue. And it makes it more difficult for
somebody to say, as I do, that Israel is denying the legitimate rights
of Palestinians and that the West has indulged them.

Do you think the Jewish community has a tendency perhaps to play upon
what happened 50 years ago and be over-sensitive to any criticism? Are
anti-Zionist remarks sometimes unfairly deemed to be anti-Semitic?

In some cases I would like to say I don't think abybody should forget
what happened 50 years ago. But it didn't happen in the Muslim world.
The greatest crimes against Jews were not committed in the Muslim
world - I'm not saying everything was hunky dory, but in general,
Muslim states treated Jews better than Christian ones. After all, it
was not the Muslims who expelled the Jews from Spain and it was not
Muslims who built Aushwitz. Nevertheless, I think it is politically
idiotic for those who are critical of Israel to get into
holocaust-denial or adopt pro-Hitler attitudes.

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You say in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation that the "greatest
consequence of the Iranian revolution has been to divide the Muslim
world more grievously than ever before". Do you not feel it inspired
and united Muslims?

All revolutions send out a message of encouragement and a message of
moral and political appeal to peoples in other countries, but they
also create divisions, in part because revolutionary states get into
conflicts with other nations - in the case of Iran, with Iraq. No
matter how much the Iranian leadership talked about a universal Islam
- Khomeini used to say there are no frontiers in Islam, there is one
ummah - people opposed to the revolution played up existing dvisions:
those between Persians and Arabs, Sunnis and Shias. The main
international consequence of the Iranian revolution was the war
between Iran and Iraq, two Muslims countries, in which probably a
million people died.

I think we shouldn't underestimate the international appeal of the
Iranian revolution - very often amongst the Sunni and not Shias. If we
take the case of Turkey, the Iranian revolution did not appeal to the
Shias, who are mostly secular anyway, but to Sunni fundamentalists,
who have recently become influential in the country. And the same
applies to Algeria and Egypt.

How is Ayatallah Khomeini remembered by most people?

He had a charisma which drew people to him. It is now twenty years
since the Iranian revolution. A lot of people in the Muslim world
admire Khomeini as somebody who was an honest man. I remember when he
came out of hospital when he was about 83, and they asked him "how are
you Imam"? He said something which no leader could say. He replied:
"I'm all right and I thank the people who looked after me, but I have
to say it was the first time in my life I ever slept in a bed". He
always slept on the floor. I think he embodied a certain austere,
moral authority which many people admire even if they don't like
someof the policies he carried out.

What do you see as the main legacy of the Iranian revolution?

The long-term legacy was to establish the independence of Iran. The
country was never a formal colony, but it was a semi-colony and
continued to be under foreign domination during the period of the
Shah, Iran in that sense has 'stood up'. Khomeini gave Iran its pride;
he once said, "We've rubbed the snout of arrogance in the dust."

In the Muslim world as a whole, depsite all the hostility to Iran and
the problems arising from the Iran-Iraq war, the Ayatollahs have given
people a sense of pride and encouraged them to believe they can defend
their own culture.

But I think the real positive consequence in Iran or elsewhere will
come through people who go beyond, and in some snese against
Khomeini's legacy and try to develop more open, less dogmatic fusion
between theirown culture and Western culture. A BBC correspondent
wrote an article once called 'Nintendo versus the Mullahs' - well most
Iranians don't want either. They want to be Muslims, they they want to
have a relationship to the Iranian past, the literature and the
mysticism and grandeur of Iran, but they aslo want to be part of the
modern world. And that sort of open modernist fusion is the way
forward. My idea of how Iran will develop after the mullahs, what I
call post-Akhundizm is that it will neither slavishly imitate the West
nor follow a dogmatic interpretation of the Muslim past.

Are people in Muslim countries envious of Europe and the liberties
that we have?

You can be free and be Muslim. Let's take the particular issue, for
example, of democracy, having elections and political parties. People
who don't like Muslims say 'Islam can't be democratic' and certain
Muslim rulers say 'this is a Western system, we don't want it' - but
it's got nothing to do with Islam. So, there are things which are not
so much part of the West as universal 20th century values which
everybody can have. I don't see democracy or human rights conflicting
with Muslim culture.

Do you see the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland's joining of NATO,
and soon the EU, as a realignment of world politics in which the
secular continent of Europe and our 'cousins' across the Atlantic in
North America are grouping themselves against the Muslim world?

The expansion of NATO has got anything to do with the Islamic world.
It's got much more to do with Russia and China. The big strategic
concerns and challenges to Western policy-making are not coming from
the Muslim world at all, but from those two countries. NATO as a
military alliance has been to war thrice, once over Bosnia, the other
time in Kuwait, and then Kosovo; in effect the war against Iraq in
Kuwait was effectively a war fought by NATO using NATO tactics
transplanted to the Arabian peninsula. So you have the extraordinary
fact that the only three times NATO has been to war has been in
defence of Muslim people. I think it's ironical, and it undermines the
idea that the West or NATO is anti-Islamic.

If the look at the role of the US and the CIA over the last 20 years,
by far the largest ever covert operation was in support of the Afghan
mujahideen, a very nasty bunch of people in my view. Over €4.3 billion
was spent in support of them. So it goes against the idea of the US or
NATO being against Muslim fundamentalism.

Was not the US's support of the mujahideen, Bosnia and Kuwait more to
do with the world geopolitical situation and their own self-interest
rather than a genuine concern for oppression against Muslims?

Of course, no state will do anything where self-interest doesn't play
a role. But one would think that if the prejudice against Muslims was
so strong they would not have gone to war to defend Muslim countries
or spent €4.3 billion supporting the Muslims in Afghanistan.

I don't agree with Samuel Huntington's notion that the West sees the
Muslim world as a threat. If there is a threat it's something more
than the rise of the Muslim world, it's the shift of the economic
power from the Atlantic region to the Far East. The real problem in
most Muslim countries is they're being bypassed by most of the
economic changes in world.

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