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An Interview with Professor Fred Halliday

Are Islam and the West at Loggerheads?

Fred Halliday, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of 'Islam and the Myth of Confrontation' Fred Halliday was born in Dublin in 1946 and died on 26 April 2010. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University and did a PhD at the London School of Economics. From 1983 onwards he taught International Relations at the LSE. In 2008 he retired and became an ICREA research professor at the Barcelona Institute for International Studies, in Barcelona where he intensely collaborated with the LSE Catalan Alumni.

He wrote more than 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, provoked hostile reaction from both Muslim and non-Muslims. One of Halliday's most noted publications was 'Two Hours That Shook the World', in which he explored the repercussions of 2001's terrorist attacks on the United States and the 'war on terrorism'.

In an interview with Nadeem Azzam he discussed 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 tradition.

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 Europe?

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.

Click here to buy Fred Halliday's new book on the repercussions
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Nadeem Azzam, London. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.