The Need for Dialogue

Alastair Crooke interviewed by Share International, June 1, 2005

Alastair Crooke spent almost 30 years in the British diplomatic service working on conflict resolution in Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Colombia. He was Adviser for Special Security to European Union High Representative Javier Solana, and co-ordinated mediation between all parties in the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts. In 2002 he successfully negotiated an end to the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He was awarded a CMG by the British government in 2003 for services to “the advancement of the Middle East peace process”.

Mr Crooke is a director and founding member of Conflicts Forum, a UK-based independent, non-profit, multinational organization comprising professional people united by a common interest in overcoming current barriers between Islam and the West. According to its remit, the Forum seeks to “establish new understandings of Islam ... and to challenge the prevailing Western orthodoxy that perceives Islamism as an ideology that is hostile to the agenda for global democracy and good governance”.

Share International: When was the Conflict Forum formed and what are its aims?

Alastair Crooke: During 2003 I was working with the European Union to try and bring about a ceasefire in the Palestinian context between Hamas, Jihad and representatives of Fatah. This was successful for a period and then collapsed in August 2003 with a bombing in Jerusalem and the subsequent assassination of the Hamas leader. The bombing was not condoned or organized by the [Hamas] leadership, but was an individual initiative from a small group within Hebron acting outside the ceasefire agreements. That led to my dismissal from the European Union: Jack Straw told [Javier] Solana that I was to be withdrawn and I left the government. It was like leaving school again, starting to redesign your life.

I was invited to give talks on the Palestinian issue but soon found that what people were more interested in was who these Islamists were? Are they really a threat to us? What is the difference between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda? We put together a group who had direct experience of talking with these people to try and give some understanding of who they are and the differences between these groups which we loosely describe as Islamists, and often label as ‘terrorists’, despite their having very different political agendas, aims and characteristics. There is almost nothing in common, apart from the label the West has stuck on, between a group like Hamas and Al-Qaeda or the Salafi Jihadi.

We started to explain more about Islamism and realized there was a limit to what we could do as Europeans. What we needed was to involve Americans who would listen, then go back to their own society and, in an American accent, say: “That was interesting to hear what they had to say.”

SI: In March 2005 Conflicts Forum organized a meeting in Beirut called “Islam and the West: Opening the way to peaceful dialogue.” What was the purpose of the meeting and who was involved?

AC: The purpose was to bring Americans and Europeans to hear the [Islamist groups’] views and problems facing their societies, and how they saw their role in the transitions. Not to have recommendations or make policies, and with only ourselves in this, not briefed by any government. We try and keep independent because we feel it is almost impossible for governments at this stage. Unfortunately many governments have become prisoners of their own rhetoric and it is quite difficult for them to escape.

We had what I would describe as “the four pillars of political Islam” there: the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and Jamaat-Islami of Pakistan. Between them, even if they do not represent all of political Islam, they certainly are the heavyweights in terms of thinking, philosophy and intellectual input, and it was important to bring these people together with about eight Americans and six Europeans.

We deliberately kept it small, with no agenda other than to listen, and for a change not to talk at them. The West has a very bad reputation for listening. We tend to quickly devolve into monologues so the aim was not to solve political issues, simply to listen. Hamas had not met an American for many years, Hezbollah equally for many years, so it was something of an important event.

SI: So this would not have been possible for government officials to do?

AC: They would find it difficult because these are still proscribed organizations. The aim was to allow them to talk: there is quite a lot of baggage that still needs to be discussed and aired. Equally as important as the conference, was that I and another delegate, [American Middle East expert] Graham Fuller, participated for 90 minutes in a debate on Al Jazeera [television] together with the deputy head of Hamas and Hezbollah. That was broadcast four times and seen by many Muslims. It was regarded as a landmark in programming to have a former European and American official and the deputy heads of Hamas and Hezbollah discussing these issues. It is not simply about changing perceptions in the West, but it is equally important to demonstrate to Muslims that there are people in Europe and America who are really concerned about the estrangement that has taken place and want to see a new engagement and renewal of mutual listening. There were also interviews on other Arab channels.

We hope to have conferences elsewhere, to develop and generate a dynamic that comes from people, not necessarily from governments. This is not to exclude governments — the more they join in the process the better — but we are trying to encourage people to listen and talk. There was a very good response from the Islamist groups and from the United States and Europe.

SI: What are some of the concerns on the part of the Islamic groups?

AC: In economic terms it is very important to recognize the need to preserve identity. Islamist economics was born in India in an attempt to preserve Muslim identity in a Hindu situation. Now it is about trying to keep some underpinning of moral values in an increasingly global and technical economy which can suck people, by the very nature of the decisions, more and more into secularism.

The other factor is to see how you can make transitions in society by using the traditional structures: family, wider family, tribe, broader social groups, and to see those as the engines, rather than the obstacles, to transition. There is an increasing discourse, particularly from non-Arab Islamists, that sees the Western project of occupation and hostility to Islam as not simply that of occupying Muslim lands — Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rhetoric against Syria, Sudan and Iran — but sees it linked to the exploitation of Muslim resources to suit Western economic interests. It is about mineral resources being used, pipelines and gas lines — seeing Muslims as client consumers in a Western materialist concept in order to provide resources of consumerism to global capitalists.

SI: Many people in the West think it is wrong to negotiate with so-called ‘terrorists’. What is your view?

AC: Quite often we are accused of giving legitimacy to these groups by talking to them — actually it is the opposite. By demonizing, isolating and alienating groups, you actually increase the frustration and anger that leads to violence. So what we are doing is designed to try and break the cycle of violence. This is not a question of legitimacy — this is how you start a political process.

SI: In dealing with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas do you find that there are those who see the other side of the story, who are not just steadfastly sticking to their own agenda or aims?

AC: With Hamas and Hezbollah it is important also to see that these groups have huge credibility and legitimacy within their own population groups. They are not, as often characterized in the West, somehow marginal or criminal or a small band of gunmen. On the contrary, Hezbollah is probably the largest political force in Lebanon. It runs hospitals, schools and has a widespread social welfare programme. Hamas also has a large welfare programme. These groups support elections, want to see effective and uncorrupt government, believe in constitutional reform and the guarantee of people’s rights.

The problem perceived in the West is one of the use of political violence. But there is another image: these are the torch-bearers who are the most committed to elections, reform and the improvement of the lives of ordinary Muslims. So that aspect needs to be taken into account.

SI: How is trust created in peace negotiations between two opposing parties?

AC: I think it is composed of two simple elements. It is important to treat people with courtesy and respect. I do not think there are any particular magical tricks to create trust. You clearly have to be honest and frank, and it is also important to be authentic. It is easy to criticize one’s own society or government, but you are not being authentic because these people want to understand your society, not a dissident voice from your society. So it is very important to explain how society arrives at a policy.

The ability to listen is very important. We in the West have some strongly held perceptions and views, and are not aware of how much we are enthralled to those particular views, about modernity and progress. We sense that somehow, as societies become more developed and prosperous, all our values will converge on Western, liberal, secular values. There is no real reason to assume that, but it underlies a lot of our thinking. So you have to challenge some of the precepts on both sides and have an open mind. Are we really serious about democracy — and pluralism? Can we be as pluralistic about Islamist groups as we are about secular groups? Are we really as ethical as we pretend we are? Muslims see us talking a lot about ethics: we perceive ourselves as being ethical but they see that when our backs are to the wall Western societies have been quite adept at killing civilians and children. So there are challenges they are putting to us — and we have to put some challenges to them too.

How do you provide a moral underpinning of society as Islamists are trying to do, to avoid what they see as weaknesses in Western society: fragmentation, loneliness, the sense of despair and emptiness of a materialistic society? How do you do that and yet keep open a domain for personal discretion? How do you allow people to breathe easily but maintain moral values? These are difficult issues. How do they accommodate secular people within these societies? I do not think anyone wants to see domination by one group to be replaced by domination by another form of tyranny. How do you deal with popular participation in governments in a society dominated by faith values? Unless you start to address these issues it is very difficult for either side to really listen properly.

SI: If trust is being established and one side breaks the trust, how is one to react: to continue to trust in order for further trust to grow? Or does that end all possibility of further dialogue?

AC: It certainly does not. Processes are never clear-cut in my experience. You do not have the sort of ‘eureka moment’ whereby a movement suddenly decides it is changing course irrevocably. This is a gradual process. Most organizations have currents in favour of the change and other currents unconvinced, who are waiting on events to decide. Trust is not something that is unitary and single and for ever.

A bomb went off in Jerusalem during the Hudna [truce] of 2003 and there was a breach of trust by Hamas. This was something done in defiance of the leadership by one small group of people who decided to make their own arrangements and rules and act independently. Does that mean you stop and do not continue? Historically, all transition in societies has been punctuated by trauma, by violence, and has often been prolonged. That is what we should expect. There will be steps forward and steps back. That does not mean that trust is destroyed and you have to ignore the changes. On the contrary, you have to build that into your expectations. There will be setbacks and recurrences of violence even in a process that is moving generally in the right direction....
SI: What prevents the will of the United Nations being more clearly expressed in the Israeli/Palestinian problem?

AC: The most obvious one is the American veto in the Security Council. A large number of resolutions have been vetoed by the United States on the grounds that they were unbalanced or not sufficiently taking into account attacks on Israel. There are many resolutions from the United Nations on the Palestinians and Israeli context, but there has been very little effort on the part of the international community to provide implementation of them. The United Nations is adversely viewed by most Israeli people: they do not have trust in it, regard it with hostility and suspicion, not as an impartial and even-handed organization. That is no reflection on the United Nations, but this is one of the factors that make it hard to work.

SI: Do you see the United Nations as the ‘hope for the world’?

AC: I think the United Nations or some form like the United Nations is clearly essential in terms of the whole process. A number of things prevent it being more effective. It needs sufficient consensus amongst the great powers, and the Secretary-General — simply the servant of the Security Council — is not an independent actor. Secondly the United Nations has not always been effective: the constraints of needing to have quotas of people and a balanced structure has not necessarily made for the most effective choice of personnel and core decisions. There has been an ethos or atmosphere of resignation of ineffectiveness, of “that’s the best we can do”, and there are too many constraints. There is a great need to have a much more effective operational structure with authority to act. As it is, it takes so long to get authority and it is very bureaucratic when that authority is given.

SI: What are your views on the war in Iraq? Would you have advocated an alternative solution?

AC: I do not believe that the war in Iraq was well conceived or has achieved its objectives. It is too early to tell, but it could easily be a source of much wider instability within the region. It could lead to greater tension between Sunnis and Shias, to civil war, and have impacts in other countries. Was this price worth paying for the removal of Saddam Hussein? Only history will judge whether the huge civilian loss of life and the widespread instability in the region has been justified.

If it does bring about a reluctant loosening of the political framework which would allow Islamists to participate or have some scope for involvement in the political process, we may not end up with the liberal, secular, capitalist type of democracy that was originally envisaged for the greater Middle Eastern mission. This may be an unexpected positive result of the fluidity. I have been in conflict [resolution] for 25 or 30 years and know of no case where everyone did not sit down confidently before the event and say: “It’s quite clear what the outcome is going to be.” But in all cases the only thing that was certain was the unexpected.

SI: You have been engaged in conflict resolution in Palestine, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Cambodia, Namibia and South Africa. What factors do they have in common?

AC: In one sense none, but in another sense a very simple one: the inability of people to listen. Entrenched opinions, the labelling and demonizing of human beings to exclude them from political power or process; and strong, overwhelming feelings. Some people talk about politics and conflict resolution as if it is a science, but I think it is much more about dealing with feelings and respect in tangible things: how you allow people to feel so that they have the parity of esteem in negotiations. How you address the asymmetries of power to give both sides the sense of having respect at the negotiating table. Feelings and emotions are often neglected. We feel uncomfortable in the West at even acknowledging that feelings like anger and resentment exist, because they do not quite fit with our mindset. We see the path of vengeance as something primitive or backward — but the reality is we have it both in a personal anger and in a community sense....

SI: In the peace negotiations in South Africa, Nelson Mandela must have been a great inspiration?

AC: He is one of those incredible people that can radiate from their personality. There are people that people just trust, that can actually radiate a sense of integrity and a real sense of justice, and it is very important that they are involved. Quite often politicians are jealous and despise those people: what they see in them is implied criticism of their own weaknesses, so they are loath to have them engaged in the process. There is something intangible — don’t ask me to define what it is — but you can recognise it. Socrates said that beauty is difficult to define, but when you see it you can recognise it. Mandela certainly has some indefinable personal characteristic that allowed him to do things which other people, who may be just as intelligent, just as thoughtful, cannot do.

SI: He was such a great example with his lack of revenge or bitterness after his release from prison.

AC: Those models are very important. Senator Mitchell has the same ability to listen and his patience allows things to develop, bringing people into it. A different quality to Mandela, but he was remarkable in that ability. People who would be angry and hostile would feel listened to and attended to. That is a very important characteristic that he was adept at. How many people can one think of who touched the live-wire of the Israeli/Palestinian context, who still have such a respect amongst all the peoples of the region?

SI: Yasser Arafat seemed to have the same qualities, but has been so denigrated by the Western media.

AC: Arafat has been demonized. He had real charisma and a sense of what was going on in the community. We are still today the victims of our own propaganda, when people suggested Arafat was the source of all the problems. Now that he has gone people realize that he was not the source of the problems, but was simply occupying, as he always did, the centre of the web of those complex intersections of Palestinian interest and views, and that is how he survived — not by impression of tyranny, but because he stayed carefully in the centre of this strange, complex, Palestinian thinking. He was always at the centre: everyone spoke to him and he spoke to everyone, he had legitimacy, credibility and influence. But the influence came just from him, there was really no mechanism. I used to go to his office and visit him a lot. There was no structure to make anything work. It was Arafat doing this largely by force of his character, a remarkable man. He was also a man with the potential for bringing about a resolution.

SI: The stress must have been enormous living in his Ramallah compound?

AC: He was always better in stressful situations — he came alive. The more the stress, the more the sparkle in his eye! Where he was really bad was when he was in the doldrums; then he got sour.

He had great courage and was quite at ease with dying. He was only frightened of one thing — a death by humiliation. Not because he was frightened of dying, but because he was frightened that as the Palestinian symbol, a humiliation to him would be a humiliation to the Palestinians, and he was frightened of that