Around the Middle East with Ayad Al-Qazzaz
METTA SPENCER: You were away speaking at a conference.
AYAD AL-QAZZAZ: It was a seminar at Asilomar. I was a minor participant, speaking about Islamic fundamentalism. The main features were the big shots from the State Department, who told us that Iran is a son-of-a-bitch and Cuba is a son-of-a-bitch. Everybody's a son-of-a-bitch except us. But on my panel we had a good dialogue. Sometimes we touched a raw nerve with the audience, though, as for example when I said that poverty is the worst form of violence. Also, they were surprised when I told them that the U.S. discourages democracy in the Middle East. We encourage it in Europe. We used to have a Radio Free Europe, but we don't have a Radio Free Middle East. Look at what we did in Algeria. We supported a military coup and in the process we radicalized the people who won the election. When you incorporate the Islamic movement into the political system, you moderate them. They become part of the process and they reduce the level of violence because they have a vested interest in it and can express themselves. They may or may not win, but they have to learn the game to participate.
But unfortunately, we get rid of people. We used to say that anybody who disagreed with us was a Communist and we got rid of them. Today There's the same mentality all over again. Now anybody in the Middle East who disagrees with us is a Muslim fundamentalist. We even include Gaddafy, who is the last person to be called a Muslim fundamentalist. He's crazy, but he's not a Muslim fundamentalist. My thesis is that you need to study the social environment that produces fundamentalism. Actually I don't call it fundamentalism, I call it the Islamic movement. So we have to address the forces that brought about the Islamic movement.
SPENCER: Such as?
AL-QAZZAZ: The governments in the Middle East are not democratic and do not represent the will or interests of the people. Many of them are military leaders who discourage the development of civil society--autonomous organizations such as political parties, professional organizations, and trade unions that function as an intermediary between the people and the state. Civil society is the space where the people's interests are articulated, and on many occasions they provide people with alternatives. You see, many of the people who are now followers of Islamic fundamentalism remind me of what we used to call "fellow travelers." They are not really true believers, but because of lack of alternatives, the Islamic movement is the only thing that can absorb their energy.
These governments have failed miserably to fulfill their promises to their own people--to provide them with employment or justice. The standard of living in many of these countries has been deteriorating for 10 or 15 years. With their population growth, Egypt and Algeria need a million new jobs every year, but the economy is not generating those jobs. So what do you expect from people?
Besides, the governments in the Middle East have occasionally supported the Islamic movement for their own reasons--even including Israel, which supported or tolerated Hamas 15 years ago. They wanted to split the Palestinian community and create an alternative to the PLO. Sadat of Egypt also encouraged the Islamic movement in the seventies to provide an alternative to the leftists. And the U.S. supported the Islamic movement in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. We provided them with weapons and money. These people play with fire and they learned how to shoot.
The Islamic movement provides an alternative that attracts many people. It is an indigenous system, unlike capitalism or socialism. Islam has been in the region since the fourteenth or fifteenth century, and the people understand what it is all about. Islam was once a centre of civilization, so some people say: Why don't we try that again? Unlike political parties, Islam also has a communication net--the mosques--to spread their message. The Friday prayer is like a town meeting to discuss and dialogue and sometimes organize demonstrations against the government. The government can close a political party but it cannot close a mosque. And finally, many Islamic movement fundamentalists provide social services such as hospitals and schools. For example, the first people who responded to the earthquake in Cairo three years ago were the Muslim movement, not the government. We can reduce their impact if we open up the system, encourage political participation, and incorporate those people. The politics of exclusion is connected to the politics of extremism. So we don't like them? Well, I don't like Newt Gingrich either, but he's part of the system. I don't do anything about it. So, to solve the Islamic movement, we have to accept them as part of the system, and they will become more practical about winning and losing. I mean, if you lose, you lose. That's just the way it is.
But also, we have to resolve the Palestinian issue. The Oslo agreement is a step in the right direction, but moving slower than a turtle. If we want to strengthen Arafat vis a vis Hamas, well, do something about the economy. This is not China with a billion people. This is only one million people we're talking about. When I point this out, people are surprised but they react quite positively.
SPENCER: Good for you! What are relations like now between Iraq and Iran?
AL-QAZZAZ: Up and down. It's never easy. Sometimes they exchange visitors and try to smooth things out, but they can't forget the war. And each government supports the opposition in the other country, though they both need each other badly. Sometimes I hear that the Iran-Iraq border is an open field for smugglers. Iraq is supposedly selling oil through Iran by trucks, not by pipeline. Trucks are crossing the border. Of course, how much oil can you smuggle? Not much. Iraq also receives food, medicine, and other needed items through Iran. Neither government is inclined to enforce the borders, each for its own reasons. The question of the Kurds brings them together. Both governments are afraid that the Kurds will become an independent state one day.
SPENCER: Are there many Kurds in Iran?
AL-QAZZAZ: Iran has the second largest Kurdish community after Turkey. Of Iran's 63 or 64 million population (the largest in the Middle East) the Kurds may represent about eight million--about 15 or 20%. But the percentage is higher in Iraq. And in Turkey there are about 12 million Kurds out of more than 60 million people. On occasion Iraq tolerates having the Iranians or Turks come inside their border to fight the Kurds.
SPENCER: I also want to ask you about Iraq, Iran, and the bomb.
AL-QAZZAZ: I can only speculate about that, you realize.
SPENCER: Okay, let's speculate. After the IAEA inspectors went into Iraq they said, "We've investigated and they were further along toward building the bomb than we expected." How much truth do you suppose there was in that?
AL-QAZZAZ: I can't say. I doubt that he [Saddam Hussein] is capable of building a bomb in a year or two or three--not because I have evidence, but for other reasons. During the Gulf War we portrayed the Iraqi army as the fourth largest army on earth. We found out otherwise. It was a Third World army. We said he had sophisticated chemical weapons but where are they? He never used them during the Gulf War. He had some, but primitive ones.
SPENCER: He didn't use the army that he had anyway. He never even told them to get out of their foxholes.
AL-QAZZAZ: Because they were just a Third World army. They did well against Iran because both of them were Third World armies. But the Gulf War was hi-tech and Iraq is no match. Iraq was bombed for almost 40 days before the ground war, so the lines of communication were destroyed. We exaggerated his power before and we may still be doing so. The reason is that we still need a villain in that area, and when we have a villain, we tend to exaggerate his power.
Look, every time the sanctions are being reviewed in the U.N., we hear another story about Iraq's atrocities and Saddam's attempt to rearm and develop his nuclear weapons.
SPENCER: Yes, just today the Security Council again refused to lift the sanctions.
AL-QAZZAZ: Every two months there is a renewed discussion of lifting sanctions. But I won't deny that Saddam was moving in that direction. He's a politician drunk with power. He never understood his limits. If he had understood his limits, everything might have been very different. Compare him with Hafez Al-Assad of Syria. They are both brutal. They both dehumanize their own people and Hafez Al-Assad tries to maximize his advantage, but he understands his limits. It is very possible that Saddam is renewing his efforts, but Iraq doesn't have the money to do it anymore. Without money he cannot recruit people the way he used to.
SPENCER: Are people in Iraq still suffering as much as before from the sanctions or is their situation getting better?
AL-QAZZAZ: No, it's really much worse. The standard of living is deteriorating tremendously. A U.S. dollar is now equivalent to almost 2,000 Iraqi dinars. During my days there, the dinar was worth $3. A recent report stated that half a million Iraqis--many of them children and old people--have died since 1990 from malnutrition and lack of medicine. That's the way it is.
SPENCER: I know. Samira told me her sister died in Baghdad from lack of medicine and her brother is very sick and she cannot help him. What will it take to get them to call off the sanctions?
AL-QAZZAZ: They won't lift the sanctions--but not because of Saddam. It's because of oil. Saddam went to Kuwait because of oil. The U.S. went to war with Iraq because of oil. And they are keeping the sanctions against Iraq because of oil, not because he's not complying with the U.N. resolution. That's just a cover-up. Right now the price of oil is cheap--$15 or $16 a barrel. Can you imagine what would happen if Iraq entered the oil market? The price might tumble to $8 or $10. That would destroy the Saudi economy and damage the Kuwaiti and American economies. Since 1990, Saudi Arabia made about $80 billion because of the sanctions against Iraq. If the Saudis were to lose that, their economy would be in a shambles. Their economy is getting worse and worse anyway, and they are asking to reschedule their payments. They are imposing taxes on foreign residents and reducing the subsidies on water, electricity, and the airlines. Besides, the Kuwaitis and some other oil-producing countries would lose. The U.S. too--we produce oil--and especially Russia. The most important source of currency to Russia now is oil. If the price of oil went down to $10 Yeltsin would be in terrible shape. So what do they care? They don't see Iraqi children dying on the TV screen, so it is not in people's minds.
SPENCER: That's so sad.
AL-QAZZAZ: It is. People pay with their lives and that's just the way it is. People go and visit them and when I talk to them, they tell me terrible stories. The U.S. will change their mind if there is a change in the oil market. Compliance is a very secondary reason.
But I suppose you want to talk about Iran, too, and the deal they reached for Russia to build nuclear reactors for them.
SPENCER: Yes. We hear that Iran is also trying to build nuclear weapons.
AL-QAZZAZ: Probably. And other countries besides Iran may try too. Americans don't want to admit that as long as Israel has the bomb you have to expect that some of the neighbors will try to get it too. They will justify it on the grounds of security. In one of my classes, a guy said, "But the Israelis are civilized. They won't use it."
I said, "Yeah, I know. Civilized people won't use it. But we did use it in 1945 and we are the most civilized people on earth." It is hypocritical to look the other way when Israel's bomb is concerned.
SPENCER: The Russians have their own reasons for wanting to stay on the good side of Iran. They have their own internal Muslims to worry about and if they alienate them politically--especially while the Chechen War is going on--there is going to be hell to pay politically, as well as with the neighboring Muslim states.
AL-QAZZAZ: You are right. Russia is doing this for Iran for several reasons. One is the money. They need the currency. But they are doing it to quiet the protest and the reaction of Muslim countries against Russia. I am surprised that the Muslim countries have not protested much about what the Russians are doing to the Chechens. I guess they have been bought off.
SPENCER: With what? Russia is broke.
AL-QAZZAZ: With this reactor, for one thing, and with a military agreement. But the Saudies and Kuwaitis are also quiet about what the Russians are doing. They want Russian help at the Security Council when the sanctions against Iraq are discussed. The Russians are for lifting the sanctions, but they are not pushing hard for it. I'm shocked that there is so little discussion of what's happening with the Chechens. The U.S. is quiet because they don't want to alienate Yeltsin. And that's the way it is.