December 4, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/ Daniel Pipes

'Most people who have suffered due to Islamism are Muslims'
Daniel Pipes is among the leading experts on Islam and Islamic terrorism in the United States. Presently heading the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think-tank focusing on West Asia, Pipes is among the favourites to join George W Bush Jr as a security advisor, if the latter is elected US president. Soft spoken and low profile, his clarity on Islamic terrorism and its emerging face is refreshing.

He was in India a few days after the first Indo-Russian joint working group meeting on Afghanistan last month. Special Correspondent Josy Joseph caught up with him in the capital to get his views on aspects of Islamic terrorism that concern India.

How do you view the Taleban regime and Osama bin Laden? Do you buy India's version that the Taleban is completely sponsored by Pakistan?

The ideology of the Taleban has very heavily been influenced by the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia. This is a government that in many ways is more radical, in the pure version than what one finds in Saudi Arabia. When it comes to the government itself, I see it partly aided by the Pakistan government. But I also see it having an indigenous origin. I don't see it as purely a creation of Pakistan. I do think in the beginning there was an impulse among religious students which reflected a hidden need of some Afghans, but their success is not completely due to Pakistani sponsorship.

They are very limited by the fact that they are opposed by the Russians, the Indians, the Americans, the Iranians. They have really just one sponsor. They have been unable to gain international legitimacy, unable to fulfill their goals because of this.

They have a mixed foreign policy. I know they are very cautious towards the USA -- they make no aggressive statements. On the other hand they do host Osama bin Laden, who has an extremely aggressive policy. I think it is very costly for them to host bin Laden. At the same time they find it impossible to push him out because that would be a betrayal of their ideals.

He speaks for them in many ways. He represents what they would be like, if they were more secure, more recognised, more established. They would have, I think, an approach to politics like his, but they are not doing it right now because they are being careful. So it is a dangerous regime potentially.

What exactly is the present situation in Afghanistan? How long will the Northern Alliance stand the onslaught? Or do you see foreign hands getting involved to counter the Taleban?

The key initiative will be diplomatic. Will the Taleban regime gain international recognition diplomatically? In which case they will have greater means to influence other states. And two, will they be able to defeat the Northern Alliance? Although it controls only a small portion of the territory, the Alliance is a prominent opposition to the Taleban.

Are the Russian and Americans, with tacit support from India, getting ready to launch an attack on at least bin Laden's hideouts? Rumours of that is thick in intelligence circles here.

I don't know enough about that. I know there is a feeling among American officials that the Taleban are a problem. We have created certain sanctions against them. Strangely, we have not made them a terrorist-supporting regime, because we don't recognise them. But I don't know what kind of support or co-operation exists behind the scenes.

Russia and India are talking about US co-operation to fight the Taleban. Why is that China, which too faces an Islamic problem in Xinjiang province, does not come out in the open supporting this initiative?

Two differences. One, the Chinese have traditionally had an alliance with Pakistan. They are inclined to work with Pakistan. Two, their Xinjiang problem, the unhappiness with Muslims in the far-west, is seen more as a problem due to Iranians and not the Afghans. I think that is correct, it is more Iranian.

Russia is already talking of getting US assistance for taking on the Afghan menace. Is this alliance going to emerge as a new strategic alliance in the post-Cold War era? The "democratic regimes" against the "rogues"?

It is conceivable, but I don't think we are close to that. There is a growing sense in the United States where our old problem was the Soviet bloc and its allies all over the world. We would work with the states against the Soviet Union even if those states were not exactly close allies of ours.

Now in the new era, our international problem is Islamic radicalism. We work with states we don't agree with exactly on other problems. But we work with them. That is just the beginning, and it is still controversial. But there is potential.

The Taleban, bin Laden and other threats from Islamic terrorism. Are these factors contributing to a change in the international perspective of the Kashmir problem?

Osama bin Laden I don't think in the United States there is a connection between Afghanistan and Kashmir. I don't think most American analysts share the analysis of Indians that Afghanistan is a subsidiary of Pakistan. It (Afghanistan) is not seen as a problem of Pakistan.

There is the very beginning of the attempts to look at Pakistan as a rogue state. But there is much reluctance to labeling it that way, to name it as a bad behaving state. The feeling is we will lose our influence there, if we do that. But there are many tensions, there is Afghanistan, there is Pakistan, there are nuclear weapons, drugs, many, many issues with Pakistan. And other issues connected to terrorism.

Does the West share the view that there is a parallel between Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir?

I believe there are two forms of Islamic action. One is to take control of the state from non-Muslims, to become empowered. The other is when you have Muslims in power already, to make them pious, make them more radical perhaps. The conflict in Afghanistan is between Muslims and what kind of Muslim rule they would like. Between Ahmed Shah Masoud and the Taleban.

In Chechnya, of course, it is a drive to get power, to control one's own destiny. If you look around the world, you will find there are many Chechnya sort of fights. Be it in the Philippines, Taiwan, Palestine, and many other places.

There are other attempts to get the right kind of Muslim rulers. Be it in Algeria, Egypt where the fighting is among Muslims.

In your recent presentation you drew a distinction between Islamist and Islamic. Could you elaborate on that?

By Islamic, I would mean anything connected to Islam. Islamist, I would mean anything connected to Islamism. Islamism, I believe, is the modern 20th century transformation of Islam into an ideology, a radical utopian ideology in the same traditions of fascism and Marxism. It is completely different from Islam. And its first enemies and first victims are Muslims.

Algeria certainly has thousands of Muslim victims. Salman Rushdie would be a famous victim of Islamism. Iran has many victims. Most of the people who have lost their lives and suffered due to Islamism are Muslims. And the real fight is not between non-Muslims and Muslims, but between Islamists and non-Islamists. Who is going to prevail? Is it going to be an Afghan vision of Islam, or a moderate Iranian vision. Or is it going to be a moderate vision, perhaps a Turkish vision, very, very different. So the fight is between Muslims.

All the blame is laid at the doorsteps of Osama bin Laden, who operates from a cave somewhere in a remote desert. How much of it is logically possible?

I find it difficult to imagine someone in a cave in Afghanistan, who cannot use his satellite phone, is unable to monitor his money, is very, very remote from the world -- is able to fine tune who is doing what, how and where. It is logistically hard to imagine that he controls his money, he controls his people. I don't see how he can. I am not saying it from the deep knowledge of the way his operation works. He is so remote, how can he do it?

I think we have a tendency to personalise these issues to big persons, someone with a name. I don't say this again from evidence.

So, who is the supreme leader of these Islamic groups? Or is it all scattered, fragmented?

The impression we have had from 1993, with the attack on the World Trade Center, is that Islamic groups are loose, they come together, work together on a project and part. I am impressed by that, I think that makes sense. Osama bin Laden and his supporters are one element in an international network. Rather than see it as one single person giving orders.

How tech-savvy are these Islamic groups?

I don't know much about that. But I can say in the last two months, the Internet warfare between Palestinians and Israelis has become more prominent than seen earlier. Palestinians, their allies and some Islamists have been quite active in subverting Israeli and Jewish sites. Nothing decisive. But it has become the secondary front.

What is interesting about Islamists is that they are technically very capable. Over and over again, we see their leaders are people with technical background: In computers, in other technical aspects. The bombs that were set off on the Philippine airline and in New York were extremely sophisticated. These were not simple bombs, these were very, very skilled bombs. There is a high degree of technical expertise among the Islamists -- computers, chemicals, electrical, and otherwise.

Doesn't all this aggressive talk about Islamic terrorism lead to a social gulf between Muslims and the rest of society? Are you not concerned about that?

The pattern of violence and radicalism has created some worry among Muslims -- that Muslims even when perfectly innocent are looked upon with suspicion. They, in turn, are upset with this bias.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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