You're a political theorist and a realist. Do you not think it's necessary within every political sphere of thought to have or even generate an external enemy?
I don't. Take, for example, one of the most significant things that has happened in modem history: the conquest of the Americas. It was an epic event and led to the creation of multitudinous societies from Canada to Argentina. It wasn't spurred on by any external threat; it was caused by the desire to expand and acquire territory.
You say in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation that the Muslim world should not feel threatened by the prevalence of Western values - or, rather, non-values. Is it possible to have what one could call a 'confusion' between two such vastly opposing ways of life?
How vastly opposing are they? There is no one Islamic way of life and no one Western way of life. In the West we have all sorts of different cultures, languages, ways of writing, cooking, dressing, and praying; the same, within the limits of the five central tenants of Islam, is true of the Muslim world. If you travel in the Muslim world, and amongst the Muslims in this country, what you see is enormous diversity.
The same's true of places such as Iran. In Iran there is ethnic diversity: half the population, for example, aren't even Persians, they're Arabs, Kurds and Turks...
This is also where I disagree with Huntington. He implies that there are these blocks of opposed civilisations. We're much more mixed and interlocked. I don't look forward to a world where everyone is the same, Muslim or non-Muslim or everyone speaks English or everyone wears trainers or baseball caps.
Is it not inevitable that with Coca-Cola you have the baseball cap and bikini, with Western satellite television, advertisements and magazines you take on Western values?
Look at Britain. The British have this obsession about the continent, about Brussels taking them over and destroying their culture, as if all the pubs are going to be turned to cafes and all the beer is going to be cold and cricket abolished. But one of the great things about the modem world is not only can you retain your different culture, all sorts of new cultural identities are developing and new ways of interpreting the past. That goes for Islam as well or for what people in Muslim countries believe to be their culture - whether it be architecture or religion or anything else.
There is pressure towards globalisation and monopolisation. Apparently in Mecca the first things you see are Sheraton and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But there is also Islam, there are also a hundred and one different languages and cultures in Mecca. You have the big central Asian community for example. So the modem world is one with pressures for uniformity but for diversity as well. That's the challenge for Muslims, like everyone else. And for each individual who will have a number of different identities: Muslim, British, Bengali origin, Sylheti, female etc.
Are you not basically saying that the Muslim world to some degree has got to accept the onset of Western libertarian ideology. Let me ask you again: is it possible to have McDonalds and Friends and not take anything else from Western culture? The Muslim world is being bombarded with Western satellite television. Let's take the example of Ireland, which used to be a staunchly Catholic country. The Irish people's beliefs have been hacked at for decades and their values are withering away. Eire is now as 'liberal' as any other Western country.
Ireland, where I come from, is an interesting example. The conservative interpretation of Catholicism which prevailed in Ireland from independence from Britain in the 1920s until about the 70s, has not been there throughout history. It was imposed in the 19th century by a particular set of ideological and organisational changes within the Catholic church, changes following reactions against the French revolution and British colonialism.
While you have an erosion of the power of the Catholic church, you have a huge explosion of pride in Irish music, sport and language; many more people now - voluntarily speak some Irish than when I went to school in Ireland in the 50s. It was then a chore, it was like going to Quran school on a bad day. It was something you had to do and people weren't interested.
Ireland is now more economically independent than it has ever been in the last thousand years and there is a huge growth of pride in a confident nationalistic way. You only have to be in Ireland five minutes to realise it's very different from Britain: the body language, the way they speak, their sense of humour... The same applies to the Muslim world. They have the same technology as the rest of the world, but within that they have their own languages, cultures, sense of humour, and history.
Presumably you, therefore, disagree with Samuel Huntington's notion that there will be a "Clash of Civilisations" between the West and Islam? Do you not think that after the demise of Soviet Communism, Islam is perceived by the West as the new enemy?
Fundamentalist Muslims will say anti-Muslimism in the Western media proves that kufr or Western society is endemically and eternally anti-Islamic. You hear a lot of talk about how there has always been a conflict between the West and Islam and now it's the time of the new Crusades. What I say in Islam and the Myth of Confrontation is there are these prejudices but it's not a product of a continuous history that goes back to the seventh century. It's to do with the uses of anti-Muslim prejudice in particular political contexts today. I look at Western Europe, Israel, Serbia and India.
Is Islamophobia a rising threat in the world?
Let me talk about India. It probably has the greatest mass movement against Muslims in the world. The anti-Islamists make the same generalisations about Muslims as in the West: that Muslims are drug-runners, terrorists etc. But some Hindus are also terrorists who shot Gandhi? We have to 'historicize' it, put it in it's context. But I don't believe the Western society is necessarily anti-Islamic.
I would like to make another point here. Many people use the term Islamophobia, meaning fear of Islam as a religion. I don't think that's the problem, there is not a fear of the Quran or the hadith or the Prophet Muhammad. In the past there used to be in the Christian world. Instead there is prejudice, very akin to racism, against Muslims as people. Very obviously, in Gaza or Sarajevo or Kashmir, people are not against Muslims because of their beliefs, but because Muslims are different people. They want to drive them out or kill them. The Serbs didn't try to convert the Muslims of Sarajevo or Kosovo to Serbian Christianity, they tried to kill them. The Israelis are not trying to convert the Palestinians to Judaism.
To what extent is it a tragic farce that the US funded the Taliban and are just now ending a war to crush them?
I think American policy on Afghanistan has been disastrous from the very beginning and, in hindsight, but I said so at the time, it would have been much better to have kept the reforming Communist government in power in Afghanistan. The kind of person you now have ruling the whole of Central Asia, Mr Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, and Mr Karemov in Tadjekestan, and all these people, are no better than was Najebullah and Babrak Karmal in Afghanistan. They are corrupt dictatorial states, but at least there is an element of modern state there and they are susceptible to some kind of negotiation. Better that than the kind of murderers and conservative Mujahedeen and Taliban they have brought since. So I think American policy has been mistaken from the very start, but that's a result of its Cold War strategy.
Finally, would you say the Islamic faith is any way responsible for what happened on September 11, 2001?
You cannot blame the religion in the sense of the holy texts - the Koran, the hadith and so on - for the simple reason that you can interpret these to meet any practice you wish in the modern world. You can derive capitalism, communism, feudalism and even a slave economy from them. The same goes for a wide range of political behaviour. This applies to Judaism and Christianity too: the books of Judges and Deuteronomy legitimate, under appropriate circumstances, the killing of innocent people and children.
But if we turn to the particular causes of September 11, we have to ask why did this group of people do what they did and why did their action produce such an echo in the Middle East and elsewhere?
To take the echo first, it is clear that a lot of people out there think the Americans deserved it: people in China think this; 80 per cent of the population of Brazil said, two weeks after the event, that they did not think Brazil should side with the Americans in this conflict; parts of the intelligentsia in Western Europe think this even if they don't say it. Why this resentment? It is partly just in the nature of being the most powerful state to attract resentment. It is, of course, also to do with cultural insecurity and the perception that globalisation is run in the interests of a narrow group of western countries. But if you look at what drove the main actors, you have to look more specifically at what I call "the greater west Asian crisis." By that I mean a set of crises which are distinct in origin but, over the past 15 years, have converged, at least in the eyes of the radical Islamists. The three main ones are the Palestine question, the Iraq question and the Afghanistan question. These are seen as being expressions of a single western conspiracy against Muslim and third world peoples.
They are also linked more practically through the emergence of a transnational highly militarised Islamic youth - often well educated, rather secular in lifestyle, from comfortable homes - who move from one crisis to another. They draw on three very conservative strands of Islam: the Wahhabi tradition, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Deobandi movement. They gather in countries like Afghanistan and Yemen - countries with large areas out of the direct control of the state. It is no accident that these two countries never experienced colonialism. There are no railways, a weak state, strong tribal institutions, and they have both been through quite severe civil wars in modern times so there is plenty of opportunity for armed groups to mobilise.
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Highly recommended read: Alija Ali Izetbegovic - A Muslim Hero
© Nadeem Azzam. No reproduction permitted.