Fostering Muslim-West Dialogue

Alastair Crooke interviewed by Humayun Chaudhry, Al Jazeera, August 8, 2005

Alastair Crooke is a former official with Britain’s MI6 intelligence agency who has worked in some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots.

He spent many years in the Arab and Muslim world and engaged in dialogue with Hamas and Hizb Allah, as well as facing paramilitary forces and drug cartels in Latin America and militias in Africa.

His last posting, based in Jerusalem, was as a senior adviser to the EU high representative on foreign affairs, Javier Solana.

During this time, Crooke helped end the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002 and worked to mediate the summer 2003 ceasefire between Palestinian armed groups and Israeli forces.

Now retired and leading his own non-profit organisation, Conflicts Forum, Crooke hopes to foster a broader dialogue between the Muslim world and the West. spoke to him on the phone while he was in Lebanon recently.

We asked him about the London and Sharm al-Shaikh bombings, the war on terror and dialogue with Islamist groups. Do you believe the London attacks are a consequence of Britain’s participation in the war on Iraq?

Alastair Crooke: I believe there is no causal motivation that has been established yet for what happened in London, on the two occasions, so I think it’s difficult to say what is the causal trigger to these two events.

But I think it’s very clear that there has been a great deal of anger and hostility that has risen from Muslims everywhere, from not only events in Iraq – that is an important element – but much more widely, in Afghanistan, but also the Palestinian issue and others, that has radicalised many young Muslims, not only in the UK but everywhere.

AJ: Would it be fair to say that Britain’s role in Iraq increased the terror threat to the UK?

AC: I think what one can say is, the role of Iraq – the events in Iraq – the way they have turned out, has increased the radicalisation of particularly young Muslims and here in the region [the Middle East].

It’s very clear not only in Britain but even here in Lebanon in the camps [about 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in camps in Lebanon], people are angry and concerned about what they see happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even the policy towards Iran.

AJ: How do you explain the apparent increase in bombings taking place around the world, most recently seen in London and Egypt? What is happening?

AC: What I think we see is a division in views that is taking place. I think we have on the one hand groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizb Allah who are trying to build a Muslim society, and to get a stake in society and in power, by working through the electoral process, by trying to work or to try to contrive the reforms that will allow them, if you like, from the bottom up, popular Islamism.

You see that very clearly taking place in Egypt, where there is a process of drawing on a popular desire to see elections, changes and reforms – and trying to mobilise that popular support in order to get a stake in power, whereby they can bring about the changes that conform with what their constituencies are looking to.

On the other hand, I think there is a different trend which sees the project of decolonisation after the last European war having been incomplete and having failed, and amongst some of this trend, you get the sense that you have to break the system in order to make the system. You’ve actually got to bring down the structures in order to start again.

That accommodation ultimately will fail because the West won’t allow groups like Hamas, Hizb Allah and others to participate fully in the electoral process. So they are looking to another way of doing that, in which they are challenging, if you like, completing the process of decolonisation. They believe you have to pull the structure down and start again.

I think this dichotomy was elegantly described by Muqtada al-Sadr [a Shia Muslim cleric in Iraq] in a recent interview, in which he said, ‘Look, there are some of my brothers who believe that by working with the provisional government, they can work to bring about an end to the occupation of Iraq. Well, I wish them luck with that, but I believe ultimately they will fail because the United States will not allow it. That is why I believe that first by resistance we must bring about the end of occupation, and only then will it be possible to create a state, a Muslim state, in Iraq’.

And I think that is something of the dilemma we are facing, that I think what we saw in Egypt is [both trends] taking place at the same time. On the one hand, you have the Muslim Brotherhood and the other groups working politically, challenging for power through the electoral process, and we see the bombs that took place in Sharm al-Shaikh – we don’t yet know the full motivation – which may represent the other trend, which says, you’ve got to collapse the system before you can really rebuild a fair and just society.

AJ: You make a distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hizb Allah, and al-Qaida or al-Qaida related-groups, that are more global in their actions?

AC: I think there is a big difference between the two, in that what you have is Hamas, Hizb Allah, Jammat Islamiya, Muslim Brotherhood and these groups.

They may be seen on the one hand through the optic of using resistance or violence, in support of their objectives, but these groups all favour elections, they look for reform, they’re looking for constitutional change in their society, and that is an important difference between these groups and some of the other Salafi, Takfiri, extreme radical groups who are looking for polarisation.

AJ: So what does al-Qaida want?

AC: Well, I’m afraid I’m one of those people in the West that thinks this title, al-Qaida, has become so overused and used so widely, that I mean that’s it’s impossible any longer to say.

I don’t think there is that organisational structure that is so often presented in the West, but I think it is quite clear the main objective is the removal of Western armies from Muslim lands and an ability to create a just society in Muslim lands. But their methodology is very different.

This is to oversimplify it, but it has some objectives which were evident in 1998 [the year Osama bin Laden declared a fatwa calling on his followers to kill American nationals and allies of the US, and the year of the East Africa embassy bombings] which was about polarisation and radicalisation and a short circuiting of the route to an Islamic society by an act of “shock and awe” that would radicalise the ummah [global Muslim community] and bring about an instant change.

But for many Muslims and many groups – including the Islamists – they would say it has alienated much of the ummah by the type and nature of the violence that has been used to radicalise the situation. And also some would say that it has made the conditions for Muslims worse off because of “the war on terror”.

And certainly, some groups might point to the situation of the Palestinians as an example and say it has greatly deteriorated. So what have these acts achieved?

AJ: Do you think America is waging the ”war on terror” in an effective manner?

AC: You have to go back and say, what is a war? “Terror” -whatever that means – I don’t use that word because I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to understanding what we’re dealing with.

And certainly, if we are, it’s why I prefer to use such words as political insurgency – an incipient political insurgency – because an insurgency is basically about psychology and politics and that’s what we have been trying to understand, and that’s what we have to deal with.

But I think there are two things that are very important to understand. One is that in dealing with the situation we have now, the first thing is the West often muddles together things that are so completely different. They group Hamas and Hizb Allah and put them in the same box and say all of this is “Islamist terrorism”.

They couldn’t be more poles apart. Just [recently] for example, I heard that there is an assassination list put out by some of these radical groups which contain Hizb Allah names on it, proposing that they should be assassinated.

There is a world of difference between bunching them together – the struggle and the difference between [these] groups.

The other thing that is important to understand is we often talk about anger and hostility, but there is also a feeling in the West that it is just anger and hostility to the West and that, if only things settle down in Iraq and if Muslims are more educated and get a little bit more money, it will all go away and vanish and things will become stable again.

I think that is to miss the point.

There is anger, and there is this hostility, but there is also beneath that a substantive critique of Western policies, of Western economic structures of our financial system, of our trade policy, of our development policy, of our foreign policies and also an alternative view of how a society should be. In other words, the challenge that they are not necessarily universal values.

So I think we should just not regard this as a froth of anger that will be dissipated, if only a little more money and investment is poured into the [affected places].

I think the anger may diminish, but there beneath this, a substantive and real critique needs to be addressed by the West and not denied by them.

AJ: US President George Bush says that extremist groups like al-Qaida hate the democracy and values the West represents. Is this a correct view and understanding of what motivates such groups?

AC: This is completely wrong. Muslims everywhere – and the polls underline this very clearly – reflect the same values: They do not hate our values, but they do hate our policies.

The problem is with our policies and politics.

Polls show very clearly that Muslims support elections, they want popular participation in government. They want effective and good governance and they want reform. And these are the same values as European and American societies.

There is no difference on values.

Muslim values expressed in the polls represent no threat to our societies.

Perhaps they will look for a society that is underpinned with ethical values not only in a personal sphere but in an institutional sphere, and in a sphere of governance in order to avoid what they see as some of the weaknesses of a secular liberal democracy, but that is not a challenge, or an existential threat to our societies.

AJ: Why do you believe it is important to talk to groups that use such tactics as suicide bombings?

AC: I don’t want to imply that that is a condoning of these tactics, but what we are looking at is we are talking to those groups that have sometimes used political violence, but these are groups that should also be seen, on the other hand, [as groups] who do support elections, who do support positive reform and change, and who reflect significant Muslim constituencies.

They have a real legitimacy. They clearly have many people who support their activities and vote for them and express their support.

So they do have a real legitimacy, which the West must not sweep under the carpet and pretend it’s not there.

With the other groups [such as al-Qaida], there is no indication of whether they have a clear legitimacy. Maybe some arguments that they make have some resonance, perhaps or not within the whole of Muslim societies, but some sectors of it.

There’s no formal way of judging the degree to which there is legitimacy for their views, as opposed to some ephemeral resonance that some arguments have within Muslim society, so there is a big difference, I believe.

The other difference is, if they’re looking for polarisation and radicalisation, then I’ll doubt if they want to talk to anyone.

AJ: Should governments not take the principled stand that they should not negotiate with those who use such indiscriminate carnage?

AC: We need to find the most effective way to break a cycle of violence and we need to address it in a number of ways.

One of the clear things I’m saying is that once you look and understand that this is also about politics, it means we have to have a political approach, as well as a need to protect our societies too.

Every society has to protect its citizens, that is the duty of a government.

But it is also important to look at it more widely and to understand possibly that by labelling and lumping together groups like Hamas and Hizb Allah and others that clearly are wanting to participate … to try to deny them political space, to isolate and demonize them and disempower their discourse is the wrong way to go about it.

You have moderates and young people – even people here in the camps in Lebanon – who would say to their political leaders, “Look, see where your moderation has got you? See what you’ve succeeded in? Your still labelled a terrorist, you are still hunted down and killed and it has achieved for you nothing.”

If that continues, it would be not surprising if people – young people – will say there’s no point [in positive participation].

Maybe the radical groups have got the right idea in this, if you like.

It’s a challenge between those who believe you can work through the system to bring change and those who believe you’ve got to break it and start from the beginning.

AJ: Is there a democratic transformation, or an “Arab spring” under way in the Middle East – in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine – and is this because of the policies of George Bush?

AC: Well firstly, I’m not sure that’s what we have got.

I mean, we may have had some events taking place, but elections in Palestine have not taken place. Parliamentary elections we have yet to see… taking place, even the completion of the municipal election.

I was in Paris recently, and I read that Hamas should be excluded from participating in the elections. I think that was a call from Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister. So, in short, it’s fine to have elections as long as you vote only for Fatah [the ruling Palestinian party of President Mahmoud Abbas] effectively is the message.

The question about Iraq is a difficult one. What has the invasion achieved so far?

In Lebanon, the turnout, although people were excited and enthusiastic about the elections, the turnout was very low in areas because people felt disenfranchised and they didn’t feel that the elections – although these are changed circumstances from what had existed in previous elections – were not necessarily offering a real choice.

AJ: You’re presently in Lebanon. What lessons can today’s Iraq learn from Lebanon’s history?

AC: Lebanon has shown the possibility for internal accommodation and for pluralism. And I think it is to the credit of parties, and I say even those parties that are classified or regarded like Hizb Allah, as “terrorist”.

Hizb Allah has played a very important role here in these recent months in trying to ensure stability in the region and to help the process towards a pluralistic outcome.

So you will find that even the groups that are quite often criticised in the West have played a positive role in helping towards creating stability and a political process. It is a credit to not only Hizb Allah, but to the other groups as well in the positive changes they are achieving.

I know it’s still very tense and there are many challenges ahead, but to that extent, it’s been very positive.

AJ: Would you say that a slide into civil war in Iraq is preventable?

AC: I don’t know. I’m sitting here in Lebanon. And I think to know those things you have to be on the ground [in Iraq], so it’s difficult to say.


  1. Richard Lewis wrote:

    Dear Mr. Cooke: I agree with your views. The challenge is how do we encourage our Administration to change their mistaken and erroneous views and policies with respect to the Muslim world? Your presentations and publications lay out the problems; how do we best address remediation?

  2. admin wrote:

    In Conflicts Forum’s efforts to open a new relationship between the West and the Muslim world, we provide opportunities for Western policymakers to become better informed by letting Islamists speak for themselves. You can learn more about what we do here and here.

  3. Antibush wrote:

    Bush and the Republicans were not protecting us on 9-11, and we aren’t a lot safer now. We may be more afraid due to george bush, but are we safer? Being fearful does not necessarily make one safer. Fear can cause people to hide and cower. What do you think? What is he doing to us, and what is he doing to the world?
    Are we safer today than we were before?
    We have lost friends and influenced no one. No wonder most of the world thinks we suck. Thanks to what george bush has done to our country during the past three years, we do!

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