Interview with Alastair Crooke

Sarah Stewart, The Middle East in London, July-August, 2006

Sarah Stewart: How did you become involved in the Middle East and how did this lead to your particular interest in perceptions of Islam in the west?

Alistair Crooke: It started in the 80s. I was based in Afghanistan and responsible for liasing between the Mujahadeen leaders and the British government. It was at a time, if you like, when all the currents that we now see around us were incubating. I saw the tensions between incoming Arab leaders and Sunni elements like those who followed Ahmed Shah Massoud in the north. There were all sorts of groups in Afghanistan at that time from Sunni mystics, mainly in the south, to ayatollahs in refuge from Iran who were in residence in Peshawar, as well as the groups that were the prototypes of what is now probably misleadingly called Al-Qaeda. As early as 1987, I remember going to Washington and urging people to understand that there were huge gulfs separating the perspectives of some of the participants and that we needed to develop a policy that differentiated between those groups. Unfortunately, this was a time when people were more
preoccupied with delivering a snub to the Soviet Union. I remember a senator afterwards coming up and saying to me, “well Alastair, that was really interesting but I just want to tell you one thing, those groups that you were warning us about, those are the groups that kick communist ass.”

SS: From there, how did you come to be a conduit for Hamas?

AC: Just over ten years ago I was sent by the British Government to the Council of Ministers in Europe, first of all to the European Union as Special Envoy for the Middle East and subsequently to Xavier Solana, the European Head of Foreign Policy. My job for Solana was essentially to try and begin a process of de-escalation of violence that would allow political process to take place. I was involved in about six cease-fire efforts including the negotiations for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. During that time I met with Sheikh Yassin and the internal leadership. I was involved in negotiating the various hudnas that took place culminating with the hudna of 2003.

SS: What have been the reactions to your role as interlocutor between Hamas and the west?

AC: Well you remember that Hesballah said to me, not so long ago, “I don’t know if you read the Hebrew blogs,” which of course I don’t. But they said “you ought to be careful”. I know that there are attacks but I think it’s inevitable when you touch on issues about which people feel very strongly.We went into this expecting to be criticised and more, but in fact we have found quite considerable resonance particularly in the United States.

SS: What do you think of the way Hamas is responding to holding office?

AC: For one thing their leadership has had to adapt from one that was mostly configured for conflict to one which is responsible for running a state. They also have a very complex system of consultation, and it’s very different from Fatah. There is a process of elections every two years. Sheikh Yassin was always adamant that this must never be an organization in which decisions were the prerogative of one person or a small group of people, and it isn’t. But it means there is an elaborate process of consultation, and think it’s taken a little bit to shake down the relationship between the cabinet and the political committee. Although the cabinet has been delegated a degree of autonomy by the political committee, the final decisions lie with the political committee and with the Shura of Hamas.

SS: With respect to international support, can you say something about Iran’s motives for backing Hamas?

AC: Yes, I think Iran’s motives have to be seen at a number of different levels. At one level it’s quite clear that Iran aims to play a leading role in the Middle East. In order to do this it needs to have a basis of support amongst the Sunna. The Iranian experience during the first Gulf War was one of isolation and there was an attempt by Sunni governments and Sunni states as a whole to try and contain and circumscribe the room for action by Iran because of their fears of Iranian assertiveness. Iran had anticipated the same reaction during the Iraq war where they had expected the divisions between the Shi’a and the Sunna to be exacerbated. In a sense what they are doing is reaching out to other areas in order to avoid finding themselves again in the position where they face a united hostile coalition of Western and Sunni states opposed to them.The Israeli-Palestinian issue is one such area.

SS: You have spoken elsewhere about ‘armed political action’ by Islamic groups as distinct from what is usually labelled
‘terrorism’ in the west. Can you explain this distinction?

AC: We have tended in the west to define violence very much in terms of our own experience. We feel that violence between nation-states, which can be brutal and involve civilians such as we saw in the last major European wars, is somehow of a different order from violence used by people who are unable to find a means of political expression other than through the use of force. We don’t condemn the people who control or operate the ‘legitimate’ systems of violence after what happened in Fallujah, because that is seen as actions of nation-states in defending their interests. But when it comes to Islamist groups we are very disturbed and we find this unacceptable.We need to have a more grown up discussion with Islamists than simply saying stop terrorism, recognise Israel and engage in conventional politics.

SS: Has your experience in the Middle East helped you to understand the Islamist movement here in Britain?

AC: There are clearly common elements. Of course there are different characteristics and problems but Islamism is much more connected than we in the west tend to see. We compartmentalize everything. For example we have experts who deal with Hamas and Hezbollah but those are not the same experts that deal with Uzbekistan, or Afghanistan or Turkey. But for Islamists all these components are interconnected and they have a much greater understanding of what is going on than we think.They have all sorts of ways of bringing people together through meetings and for example in chat rooms on the internet. We are separated into our areas of specialisation and often we don’t see how to join the dots.

SS: What would you say is unique about Islam in Britain?

AC: What I think is unique about it is the search for identity. It is an identity that does not accept western values in terms of removing the ethos of those values from both governance and institutions of the state. An example of the different approaches might be in dealing with young offenders. In the west our answer is parenting orders and, ultimately, prison. We find it difficult to find the practical means with which we can give idealism back to young people, whereas Islamists seem to be adept at this, and I see it as one of the strengths of Islam.

SS: ‘Swimming against the current is never easy’ wrote Patrick Seale when Conflicts Forum was launched in 2004. ‘The coming year will demonstrate whether Conflicts Forum can convince the public, the press and policy-makers that a new Western perception of Islam is not only possible but urgently necessary’. Are you still swimming against the current?

AC: I think we are still swimming against the current in the sense that the west is taking a predominantly military rather than a political approach to political Islam. At the same time, I know that we are listened to widely by both European and American policy officials. It is hard to point to any particular change and to determine whether or not you played a part, and to what degree. Because ultimately we don’t believe we can do it entirely by persuasion or writing papers. We believe for example that there is only one thing that shifts American policy in the short term and that is failure. And I think it is failure rather than going and arguing the case that is shifting policy now. Failure in Iraq, failure in Afghanistan, failure of our wider policies to cope with crises that are growing not only in those countries but in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and growing problems in Egypt and in Jordan.We talk to fewer and fewer of the people who influence those problems. And we have to challenge the language. For example when we start inviting Iran to negotiations, we begin by describing it as a
regime. I think we need to be much more conscious of our language and the impact it has on people both emotionally and psychologically.

And I do wish the West could stop its obsession with carrots and sticks.

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