Conversation with Vali Nasr (1).
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 10/3/02
Vali, welcome to Berkeley.
Tell us a little about your background. Where were you born and raised?
I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. I got my primary and secondary education in Iran, and in England. My family migrated to the United States after the Iranian Revolution, and I did my higher education mostly in Boston at Tufts University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplonawaaty, and then at MIT.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?
Well, my father’s an academic, so my ending up in the academy has a great deal to do with that.
He’s a specialist on Islamic Studies, so I got a great deal of knowledge about the religious dimensions of Islam, the cultural dimensions on Islamic history, throughout my years in education.
Was there a lot of discussion around the dinner table about Islam and politics and Iranian politics, and U.S. foreign policy, and so on?
When I was growing up, Islam’s involvement in politics was not a major issue in Muslim countries. Iranian politics itself was, but politics was a separate issue from Islam for most Muslims. So, we learned about religion; we learned about its do’s and don’ts. We also learned a great deal, particularly in my upbringing, about the diversity of Islam’s cultural expressions. That it is not just about the law. It is not just about the “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” That it has very rich, cultural, artistic, musical expressions, and that there is a great deal of diversity in the Muslim world, from Africa to Southeast Asia to the Middle East. And that Islam is lived on a daily basis, rather than just acted upon.
Do you remember the events of the Iranian Revolution, and did it have a big impact on your life, and in what ways?
I remember it very well. I was in Tehran at various points during the height of the revolution. I learned a few things from it. First of all, I saw revolutionary activism as it was unfolding. I also saw the devastating impact that the revolution had on Iranian society and politics, and how it changed the shape of Iran as a society.
My family were among the many who left Iran, which at that time included not only people who were in government but, in many ways, the best and brightest in the country. We settled in the United States; this was during my formative years. The Iranian Revolution brought to the fore the whole issue of the relationship between Islam and politics: Is Islam a religion that is inherently political? Is it the directives within Islam that mandate this kind of violent action? And, increasingly, as the Iranian Revolution began to foist the concept of fundamentalism not only in the West but across the Muslim world, it became a challenge to many in my generation to try to separate Islam from the sins of a particular movement, or the claims of a particular government, and to understand where the truth is about what is politically motivated and what is prescribed by religion.
2-Political Science and the Study of Islam
Now before we get into those issues [of the politics of Islam], let’s talk about becoming a political scientist. Was it inevitable that you would become a political scientist and study these problems from that discipline?
I liked political science ever since I was an undergraduate student at Tufts. I was greatly attracted to political analysis, understanding political movements, understanding roles of governments and states and the like. Given the circumstances of the time, I became interested in understanding Islamic fundamentalism and the role of Islam in politics, as part of political analysis — not as a religious discussion, which was largely the case then. And, increasingly, my intellectual development jelled around providing an understanding of this phenomenon as a political phenomenon.
Beyond your background, who were your mentors in the course of your studies? What were the important influences?
Interestingly, the problem at that time in the study of Muslim politics is still the problem in the United States — there is a complete disjuncture between those who study Islamic history, arts, culture, and Islam’s religion, and social sciences. Particularly in the late seventies and eighties, when I was a student, there was no body of theory that actually provided a fused and a comprehensive and uniformed approach to these topics.
You had political scientists that provided you with the tools of political analysis, and then there were the historians and the Islamists who gave you the detailed knowledge about the religion, and the culture, and history. It was largely up to you to put these together. That was the challenge that I took as I moved forward with my studies, that there has to be a place in political science for understanding the role of religion.
This linkage had been ignored in the social sciences? I mean, there were some exceptions — in anthropology, for example, Clifford Geertz, but not in political science.
You’re absolutely correct, and I believe it’s still a problem. Part of our difficulty in understanding religious movements, particularly Islamic movements, stems from this. Anthropology and history, by definition, rely on what Geertz himself called “thick description.” In other words, you need to get your feet wet in actual facts of the religion of the culture. How you interpret it is a different issue. But you cannot ignore what culture and religions say.
Political science, on the other hand, has been largely focused on theoretical issues, and when it comes to the Muslim world, it actually has demonstrated this absence even in area studies. It’s very rare that there had been a study of Islam in political science in any notable political science department in the United States. And that’s still true to form to this day. In fact, in recent years, political science as a discipline has been more interested in political economy, and then rational choice. And, therefore, has not really been interested in understanding culture and cultural behavior, or culturally motivated behavior within the parameters of political science theory.
3- Islamic Fundamentalism
In your work I get the sense that it is the interface between the work of institutionalists — that is, people who study institutions — and the norms and codes of behavior, together with an understanding of the culture and history of a particular place, that offers insights to the kinds of problems we’re facing in today’s world.
You’re absolutely correct. The fundamental question, which has been the case and still is the case today, is, “Is Islamic fundamentalism about religion, or is it a form of politics?” Most often, the knee-jerk reaction in academia, and the media as well, and policy-making environments, is that one has to just understand Islam as religious behavior. It’s easier to do that. It’s easier to dismiss Islam. But the problem is that that doesn’t have much to do with reality. The reality is that fundamentalism is also about politics.
Fundamentalism consists of organizations or institutions of people who respond to political opportunities, or are trying to capitalize on political opportunities, or convey interests. And they behave in many ways in the same manner that any rational political actor behaves, except that they do so within a particular cultural environment. In fact, if we look at Islamic fundamentalism as a form of ideology, then [its] ideology is not religious ideology. It’s more about politics and it’s about society. Therefore, it is necessary, in order to understand Islamic fundamentalism, to say, “This much of it is about religion” — this is the context, but a particular interpretation of religion — and then, “this much of it is about politics.”
After all, fundamentalists are not engaged in religious debates. They’re engaged in political debates, whether it’s al Qaeda or whether it’s moderate fundamentalists. In fact, fundamentalists also in Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, are only peripherally interested in religious debates. Their prime area of concern is political issues.
Let’s explicate that. Is it because it’s an argument about politics within the religion? I mean, “which of you is more virtuous?” Is it that, plus they have to be concerned about politics because the whole religion may be affected by the politics of the national setting?
We have to understand that fundamentalism is a very, very recent phenomenon. If you looked at Islamic fundamentalism, it is a late twentieth-century phenomenon. The very first question you can ask is “Why now?” So, therefore, it is very much born of the circumstances that Muslims find themselves in today. These circumstances don’t pertain to religion, because the religion has been the same religion for 1,400 years.
It is the worldly conditions of Muslims that have necessitated or created circumstances for ideological interpretations of their politics. And in the circumstances where communist ideology is not theirs, capitalist ideology is not theirs, some interpretations of Islam have come to fill that ideological void. But ideologies are always about explaining political and social reality to individuals. So Islamic fundamentalism is performing the same role. It is performing the role of providing a blueprint and a road map for worldly existence to individual Muslims.
Fundamentalists are keenly interested in politics. They view politics as the path to individual salvation. Politics is paramount in their thinking. When they make comparisons between fundamentalism (or their view of Islam), they don’t compare it with Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism. They compare it with capitalism. They compare it with democracy. They compare it with communism. In other words, their point of reference is Western ideologies, not Western religions.
Fundamentalism is very much a phenomenon of making religion into a worldly ideology, and then operationalizing it in politics. There are different paths that that has taken, from al Qaeda’s terrorism to more moderate Islamic parties in Turkey or Malaysia and the like, where they want to participate in elections. But by and large, the phenomenon is still the same. In other words, this is a use of religion in order to gain certain political ends.
I want to go back to your research career and what parts of the world you have focused on. Why did you think that they were a most interesting places to explore these problems?
I focused my work, initially, on Pakistan. This was in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. The reason I did that was because I felt Pakistan provided a very good environment in which to understand some of these issues that we raised. I worked on the history of an Islamic fundamentalist movement that was first established in the 1930s, [that] openly operated in Pakistani society and politics all the way to the present time.
I felt looking at seventy years of organizational development of a fundamentalist party allows you to do real political/social analysis. Pakistan was also relatively open. It has been a relatively open Muslim society; as a result, you could see fundamentalism in operation. You could meet with fundamentalists. You could look at their platform. They participated in elections; they participated in social debates.
The Arab world has always been in a much more antagonistic situation where the fundamentalist parties, at that time, were either underground or at war with the government. There was no real track record of seeing how an organization may respond to political incentives and [may] change ideology and point of view as it moves along, so you’re not able to do political analysis. So Pakistan was particularly suitable in understanding this whole trajectory of the development of fundamentalism.
Tell us about the party that you studied, and the most interesting conclusions that you reached about its evolution during this period.
The name of the party is Jamaat-e-Islami, which literally means the Islamic Party.
Its founder was a gentleman by the name of Abul A’la Mawdudi. Mawdudi is one of the most influential and earliest fundamentalist thinkers, and Jamaat-e-Islami, along with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is one of the two oldest fundamentalist parties in the Muslim world. It has had an uninterrupted history, since the 1930s to the present. It has participated in general elections, has had members of Parliament; members of government have been involved in open political process and, sometimes, underground in Pakistan.
First of all, my work was to provide a rich history of evolution of the fundamentalist party. And through that, to answer some of the questions about “Why do they come about? What do they want?” and “How do their demands and worldview change in response to the political realities that they face?” Particularly, if you juxtapose Pakistan with the Arab world, you see very different conclusions — that where you have more open and less dictatorial and harsh governments, fundamentalists tend to remain more moderate. When you keep them in the political process, they tend to respond to political interests — opportunities as well as risks — and revise their points of view accordingly.
Some of this, now, we see elsewhere: Turkish Islamist parties are revising their ideologies to participate in elections. But in the case of Pakistan, the general summary was that the more open the political environment — the more inclusive it is — the more moderate and open fundamentalist parties are likely to be, and the more they behave on the basis of real political choices as opposed to ideological behavior.
In the case of Pakistan, what explains the openness of the political system that allows this moderate evolution of the party that you were studying? Is it the colonial tradition — the British tradition — in India and Pakistan?
Partly. Partly, it is the colonial tradition. For instance, there is an enormous amount of respect for the judicial system in Pakistan, which is also the case in India as well. There are cases where the Supreme Court of Pakistan voted on behalf of the Jamaat-e-Islami, overriding the government, for instance, in the 1960s.
But I think the more important point is that Pakistan is generally a weak state. We don’t think of it that way — it’s been ruled by military, it has nuclear weapons. But that’s a paradox. It’s a country that has nuclear weapons and a very proficient military, and is capable of staging coups, but the writ of the government in Pakistan does not run in large areas of the country. The penetration of power in rural areas is very minimal. It has to rely on all kinds of intermediaries in order to exert power. The government that’s not able to get its way by default has to negotiate. And, you know, that’s also the lesson we’ve learned about evolutional democracy in the West: why first in Britain, and not in Germany or Prussia?
The same idea holds there. In other words, Pakistan has had, generally, more democratic periods than have Arab countries. When it has had military dictatorships, these have been far more open and benign than the Arab ones. So periods of military brutality of the kind we saw in Latin America or we see in Egypt or Syria have been largely absent in Pakistan.
Tell us a little about Mawdudi and the evolution of his thinking with regard to this trajectory of choosing either moderation or radicalism. Did his guiding hand influence and support moderation? And what made the difference in that course? Was it this setting that you’ve just described?
Mawdudi’s intellectual development happened during the time of partition of India. His belief was that Muslims were losing control of India because they had become too enmeshed with Hinduism and they were not practicing the proper faith. So he began to harp on a purified Islam as a way of preserving and strengthening Islam. Once this was proffered, it gradually became a force onto itself. He, generally, was more of a intellectual than a militant.
Mawdudi believed that societies would become Islamic if the elite in the society was educated in proper Islam. The dominoes would fall once you polish Islam and take away the cultural accretions to it, and find what pure Islam is — which in and of itself was an innovative idea at that time, because we didn’t think that Islam was lost and needed to be discovered. But he thought of it that way, which is very much the same as any fundamentalist argument, in any tradition. That once you discovered real Islam, and the elite in society adopted it, then the society would become Islamic. Therefore, his view of fundamentalism was very literary, because it was directed at the elite of the society. It was not based on political action; it was based on education.
Now within Pakistan itself, as the [Jamaat-e-Islami] party began to participate in politics, it began to discover political action. It began to discover the importance of organization in order to be able to bring the masses to the streets. It began to discover the importance of controlling campuses. For instance, Mawdudi and Jamaat-e-Islami gradually took over control of student unions across Pakistan in the 1970s, beating out leftist groups in elections. They learned how to control campuses, how to control students. And, gradually, they became more of a political activist organization than an intellectual one.
But Pakistan’s politics never required a party to have to go underground. I mean, Jamaat leaders went to prison for a year, two years. They were treated well. They were never tortured. They came out, and they went about their business. The party was shut down; was re-opened. Courts voted against it and then voted for it. But there was never a need, as you had in Egypt, for instance, for the party to go underground and then fester and then come back as a militant force.
In fact, militancy and extremism in Pakistan were not the consequence of internal pressures; they were really the consequences of foreign policy in the region. In other words, they were the consequences of Saudi foreign policy in the Afghan war. That’s what pushed Pakistani fundamentalism towards extremism, not the internal politics of Pakistan.
Before we talk about this external intervention and the impact that foreign policies — say, the Saudi’s and the U.S.’s — have, I would like for you to make clear to us what, exactly, this particular Pakistani party and other Islamic parties want. Is it that they want to make everybody virtuous by returning to the roots of the religion? Or does the religion lead to conclusions about equity and social welfare, and, therefore, through the party they seek to change the policies of a government?
There is a combination here. First of all, you have to understand that fundamentalists claim to speak for Islam, but they have a very particular interpretation of Islam. Just like any Hindu would not subscribe to what RSS says Hinduism is, or an average Christian would not give Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell the authority to define Christianity, the same is true of Islamic fundamentalism. In other words, Mawdudi was being the Jerry Falwell or the Pat Robertson of Islam. He decided what Islam is: who is a good Muslim? He tried to propagate that view within the organization. Obviously, the aim of any such group in any religious tradition is to propagate its own view, and this view is based on certain presuppositions. Every religion believes that pious individuals provide a pious society that may or may not lead to a pious government. Fundamentalists believe that you have to have a pious government first, which then would forcibly make society religious, which then would forcibly make the individual religious. In other words, it’s salvation whether you like it or not. It would be dished down by the government. This was very much was the basis of his view.
Mawdudi articulated this, put it out there, and propagated it; but like any ideology, it has a life cycle. The way fundamentalism unfolded in Pakistan is very much like Eurocommunism did in Europe. It began to water down and interact with other points of view and political views in the political process — in order to win at elections, in order to get recruits and the like.
On many levels, what they demanded were the demands of fundamentalists or conservatives everywhere. There were moral issues, so it’s like the way in which the Moral Majority thinks about forcing certain moral criteria within and on the American public, and then fighting it out through the political process. The Islamic party was very much behaving in the same way — trying to propagate a particular view of Islam, and trying to do so through the political process, which is different from the Arab world, where all of this propagation happens outside the political process.
So down the road, they eventually ended up with two fundamental desires. One is to propagate their view of Islam and to make it universalized. Secondly, to get hold of power in order to be able to do so more efficiently. And in that, they’re not very different from, say, right-wing religious groups in United States, which are simultaneously vying for position of power as well as propagating their view. Now it’s a chicken and egg situation. Do they want the political power in order to propagate their religious view? Or is the political power the end, and the religious view is the means? So you do have that kind of ambiguity in Pakistan as well.
And of course, that could change in the course of exercising power or being successful politically.
Very much so. And you do so generationally, because you begin with people who are purists, for whom politics is the means and religion is the end. But as you go through the years of evolution of a movement, and the younger people are more activists with less religion, increasingly, religion is just the medium and politics is the end.
That’s the benefit is of looking at a movement in long duration: if you looked at the early Jamaat leaders, they spend large amount of their time in prayer and writing, and thinking. As you go down, the second generation did a lot more stone-throwing and marches than the first one. When you come to this generation, they’re pretty much politicians with offices and secretaries, and are constantly in political haggling, and they’re doing things that everybody else is doing. Religion is a minimal amount of their time. So, early Jamaat leaders were, by vocation, religious, where politics was a sideshow. Jamaat leaders in Pakistan today are, by vocation, politicians. They’re professional politicians who happen to be religious.
You’ve suggested that in places in the Arab world, this kind of historical evolution is aborted by the lack of any form of democratic system to let the evolution be, so to speak.
Absolutely. This was my idea about Pakistan, but when we now look at Turkey and Malaysia, we see the same — that inclusion breeds more moderation. It is risky. It has to be handled properly. There are always dangers. As Albert Hirschman said, people can either voice or exit in a political environment. If people cannot voice, they will exit. And then, once they’re outside the political process, there’s only one avenue of expression open to them, and that’s violence.
This is not a new concept to the U.S. I mean, the U.S., at some point, decided that communism was a big problem in Europe. It was not going to disappear. So you either bring it in the political process — you make them vested in the political process; you define them, make them institutionalized — although we would always be vigilant against them winning an election. But it worked in Spain, France, and Italy, where at one point, they won 30 percent to 40 percent of the popular vote in Italian elections. And you try to separate them from the Red Brigades of the world.
Now, the same holds true of the Muslim world. If you don’t have a political environment for them to operate in, you’re going to drive them underground. Don’t force them into decisions that would compromise them, their ideals; force them to move in a direction of pragmatism and moderation.
In your latest book you focus on the relationship of the state to the Islam, Islamic parties, and Islam in societies. You compare Malaysia and Pakistan. Let’s talk a little about Pakistan, now, and General Zia’s policies, because you’ve set the stage for us to understand already that what was emerging within the society with regard to Islam as a presence, but also attached to a political party. What did Zia try to do, and was he successful at doing it, as he tried to relate the state to the Islamic forces in society?
In short, Zia’s strategy can be called “riding the tiger.” In other words, fundamentalist parties in Pakistan were unsuccessful, politically, at the polls. And that was one of the arguments for inclusion. The Jamaat has never won more than three or four members to the Parliament. They are much more successful socially in defining the framework in which political issues are discussed. That’s also true of the right wing in the U.S. They may not win elections to the Congress, but they can frame key issues like busing, abortion, or appointments to the Supreme Courts, and the way in which these will get discussed. In other words, the social influence far exceeds the political influence.
By the end of 1970s, the Jamaat had been very successful in propagating its call for some kind of Islamic order. It had convinced large numbers of the population that Islam has certain answers that can deal with Pakistan’s problems. And in this, they were just as successful as, say, any socialist party in Europe that has been able to convince a large majority of the population that socialism, of one form or another, holds the key. And, therefore, a socialist party in Sweden wins the vote. So it was in that nature.
The Pakistan military decided to capitalize on this. They did not want the Islamic Party to be in a position to make a better grab for power, but they understood that the society is very ripe for a government that would give them an Islamic answer. So Zia came to power …
Zia was a general…
Zia was a general. He was chief of staff of the military, overthrew the elected prime minister at the time, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was in trouble with the population. He took over the government. Zia had Islamic credentials, so he was a genuine article. He was known to have been a pious colonel, had been reprimanded by his superiors for distributing Korans in the military. In other words, when he began talking about Islam, it was the genuine article. But Zia and the military understood that a government that would fulfill the demands and promises that the Pakistan had spent thirty years convincing Pakistanis of, would do well.
It’s just like if you have a socialist society which believes that land reform is imperative, and you have a government coming and taking that slogan and implementing it, it’s going to get a great deal of benefit. So Zia began to implement a great deal of Islamic measures. Now it’s very important to note that Zia didn’t change anything fundamental in Pakistan. The Pakistan economy didn’t change. Pakistan society didn’t change. There was no land reform. There was no change in relative relationship between social classes. There was no change in Pakistan’s foreign policy.
He, rather, began to implement Islam more at the superficial level. So every meeting of the government would begin with a religious invocation. People would wear “dress” — religious dress. There would be a lot of mosques built. There would be a lot of money that would go into various Islamic causes and programs, and you revamp the curriculum of the schools and things of that nature.
So, essentially, he began to create an Islamic state from above, not from below. This is a unique case. Malaysia is similar, where you have the state proactively Islamizing, not in response to the pressure from below, but because it saw an opportunity in Islamization. Zia was an Islamically oriented person, but I think what he saw was a very interesting phenomenon that he saw in Islam, an opportunity to make the Pakistan state a more powerful state; so it’s very interesting.
An Islamic state of Zia was capable of nationalizing religious endowments, which a secular government could or would not do. It was in a position of taking over large areas of religious welfare, which accounted for an enormous amount of patronage in Pakistan, and make that the government’s affair. This could not or would not have been done by a secular government. So he created civility and expanded state power in the name of Islam.
The venture fell apart, for the reason that, first of all, it was hinged on the military. When Pakistan was democratized, this notion came apart. Secondly, he was assassinated, and therefore, the whole experiment was aborted. And, thirdly, Pakistan was doing this while it was in the throes of the Afghan war. Any policy of “riding the tiger” has certain dangers that is not ultimately attainable policy.
So in the post-Zia period, this project of the state to expand its powers by speaking for Islam and taking the thunder of the fundamentalists — appropriating the thunder of the fundamentalists — lost ground. But for the time that Zia was there, he was very successful. In fact, I remember one Islamic leader telling me, “He’s saying everything we used to say, so he’s basically made us redundant.”
So it’s something that we can understand in the United States — co-opting the opposition of the potential opposition.
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s no different from what the Republican Party may have done with the conservative Right.
Now, obviously, in all of this, before his death, a transforming event is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American decision first under the Carter administration, then the Reagan administration, to support the rebels in Afghanistan opposing the Soviet puppet regime there, and to use Pakistan and General Zia as a funnel for American aid, which would then go to the Mujahadin, who were fighting the Soviets. That must have had a profound impact, if one is “riding the tiger,” to use your metaphor; suddenly at a certain point you are feeding drugs to the tiger, I guess. But, at a certain point, you no longer control that and then the tiger will go off.
You’re absolutely correct. The Afghan episode was both a threat and an opportunity to Pakistan. It was a threat because the Soviet Union, overnight, arrived at Pakistan’s northern borders, and General Zia looked to Islam and fundamentalism as a way of creating a wall against communism. What they didn’t want to happen was that the Soviets may sit there for the next ten years, support communist parties in Pakistan, and then pull the same stunt that they pulled in Afghanistan, in that you first create a communist nucleus that, then, can stage a coup and then bring in the Soviets.
So Islamic fundamentalism was going to be foisted as the main barrier to communism. And this was actually fortuitous, because it created a tremendous amount of common ground between Jamaat-e-Islami and the military. They all agreed that they didn’t want Pakistan to be communist. This was a major threat to Pakistan’s security.
On the other hand, it was an opportunity. It was an opportunity because it provided General Zia with broader powers to co-opt the fundamentalists without compromising Pakistan’s foreign policy, because there was a concert between what the Saudis wanted, what the Americans wanted, what the fundamentalists wanted, and what Pakistan’s military wanted, which was: “Whatever is our ultimate goals, our immediate problem is containing the Soviet threat, and pushing Afghanistan back.”
Secondly, in long duration, Pakistan had always viewed Afghanistan and Afghan nationalism as a threat. Ever since the British drew their Durand line, Afghanistan had had irredentist claims to northern Pakistan, or northwestern Pakistan. The Afghan war provided an opportunity where Pakistan got the upper hand. It began to use the war against the Soviets, and the fact that the Pakistanis could use Islam to control the Mujahadin fighters, as a way of controlling Afghanistan and Afghan nationalism.
There was no other way for Pakistan to have control over the Mujahadin, unless it was done through Islam. And the only way in which it could be done through Islam was if Pakistan itself would remain Islamic. In other words, Islam became central — not just to “riding the tiger” domestically, but also to creating Pakistan’s regional geo-strategic vision.
Now also key to this vision is what Zia’s regime called “strategic depth,” which was the notion that Afghanistan could be used as a staging area for incursions and for training of personnel, who would later take action in Kashmir to restore or bring that region into Pakistan’s orbit. Tell us a little about that and the role of the fundamentalist parties in pushing that separate agenda, which was more related to Pakistan nationalism.
Actually, there are a number of very key issues that you raised in that statement. The first is that the Afghan war happened, also, at the time of the Iranian Revolution, which meant Pakistan lost its closest ally in the region for thirty years, which was the Pahalavi regime in Iran. It felt very vulnerable on its western side as well as on its eastern side with India, and with Afghanistan, with the Soviets sitting on its border. So it used an alliance with the United States and Saudi Arabia to fight for a strategic depth in Afghanistan. Now strategic depth in Afghanistan basically meant that Pakistan would be a much wider territory and it would have nothing to worry about in Afghanistan. So the prime interest of Pakistan, all the way until September 11, 2001, was to control Afghanistan.
It could not control it directly. It had to control it through proxy. And the proxy were, first, the Mujahadin and then, later, the Taliban. Now this strategy — the Afghan strategy — was a successful strategy. In other words, Pakistanis understood that with the right kind of Islam and the right kind of strategic initiative, not only can you push the Soviets back, but you can actually control a territory. So why not apply it to Kashmir?
Even freedom fighters on the ground made the same conclusions. The Chechens and the Kosovars and the Kashimiris themselves for a while began saying, “Well, look, this is the only case in recent history where a superpower, particularly the Soviet Union, has been forced to leave. They couldn’t do it in Hungary. The couldn’t do it in Czechoslovakia. It couldn’t be done in Poland. It was done in Afghanistan.” Now, they didn’t look at this and say “It’s Zia and the CIA, and Saudi money.” They looked at it and they said, “It was a jihad.” So they thought that, well, if you fight in the name of jihad, the Saudis will give you money, you galvanize the population, and the occupier will fall. I mean, surely, India’s no bigger a threat than Russia was. So the Pakistanis understood it this way. The militants, themselves, understood it that way. And it was almost natural for the Pakistan military to say “Okay, we are fighting this war in Afghanistan. Why not use it in Kashmir as well?”
There’s another element as well, and that’s that ever since late 1990s — 1997, ’98 — Pakistan also felt the problem of how you demobilize a proxy army like the Taliban or like al Qaeda. And, actually, we see what the problem was. When the U.S. washed its hands of Pakistan, all of these highly-trained Islamic “Rambos” were left to their own devices, and they became al Qaeda. Pakistan was cognizant of this, and one of the ways in which they tried to deal with it was find them somewhere new to fight. That “somewhere new to fight” at times was maybe in Kosovo, maybe in Chechnya, but that was not in large numbers. Maybe some of the more seasoned fighters ended up in Chechnya. But you need somewhere more sustained for them, so Kashmir, also, became a way for Pakistan to avoid the headache of demobilizing thousands and tens of thousands of volunteers and fighters who were armed, who were ideologically motivated, who were coming back buoyant from a victorious jihad, back to a country which had no way of absorbing them. Therefore, they either send them to the far reaches of northern Afghanistan to fight against the Northern Alliance, or they send them to Kashmir.
5- U.S. Foreign Policy and Islamic Fundamentalism
What is the impact of this witch’s brew that is created by all of these factors — the external interventions and so on — with regard to radicalizing the Islamic parties and groups and moving them away from what might have been a moderate trajectory? Is that why everything hits the fan, because of the sequence that you’ve just described?
Exactly. Actually, in my opinion, there are three key events that account for ascendancy of fundamentalism. All three events happen to converge on Pakistan in some way, even though it usually goes under our radar even when we discuss fundamentalism. You can always have ideologies out there, but the question becomes, “Why do ideologies, all of a sudden, become triumphant and ascendant?” I mean, Mawdudi and the Jamaat-e-Islami may have been in Pakistan a long time, but why did Islam become important not only in Pakistan, but globally?
The three events are the Iranian Revolution, the Afghan war, and the rise in the price of oil and its implications for the Saudis. These three events had the following impacts. The Iranian Revolution made fundamentalism a viable ideology for opposition — one that can successfully overthrow a regime.
The corollary is the October Revolution in Russia. Had the Germans not shipped Lenin back to Moscow, had the czar’s army not been at the front, maybe communism would have remained a quaint phenomenon of Viennese cafes of the 1920s. But certain circumstances came together to produce the Russian Revolution, and after that, you were dealing with a new reality. So the Iranian Revolution may have not been inevitable; the Shah may have acted differently, Khomeini may have acted [differently]. Once it happened, it had a cataclysmic impact, and you could see that even moderate fundamentalists were saying “Look at Khomeini; he’s the model.”
Then you had the Afghan war, which in large measure was like the Spanish Civil War for the Left. In other words, they came from all over the Muslim world. They came and fought. They came and fought sometimes for ten, twenty years. Somebody like Osama bin Laden has never really held down a job. He went to Afghanistan when he was seventeen, got military training; never really psychologically left Afghanistan. That’s what I’m saying: there are a lot of Islamic versions of Rambos — highly trained, professional guerrilla fighters who are not going to be absorbed back into an economy easily. And there are tens of thousands of them that remained in Afghanistan.
It was also a watershed event because fundamentalism was successful in rolling back a superpower. So if the Iranian Revolution was successful in rolling back a regime, Afghanistan pushed the buck further by rolling back a superpower. It made fundamentalism much more of a triumphant phenomenon.
The third side of this is that ever since 1974, when oil money came to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia began to universalize it’s own brand of Islam, which is Wahhabism, which is a particularly conservative hard-line and literal reading of the religion. It is called Wahhabism because the majority of Muslims, for the longest period of time, viewed this as an “ism” outside the mainstream, it was so hard-line.
But since 1970s, with the backing of Saudi money, it has become much more mainstream. Many of its sensibilities have become mainstream. It’s almost like if you were to think of Southern Baptists spending a lot of money to make the Quakers buy into their values and presuppositions. So the impact was that the Saudis began to bankroll conservatism across the Muslim world, which made it much more receptive to fundamentalism.
Now all three of these phenomena, which account for fundamentalism more than anything you can find in the Koran or the scripture, converged on Pakistan. It bordered on Iran and was directly impacted by the Iranian Revolution. It fought the war in Afghanistan. In other words, many of the people who participated were Pakistanis, as well as people on the border. In other words, they lived the Afghan war. Saudi money was lavishly spent in Pakistan as well. So the convergence of all of these happen within Pakistan, which at the same time was a weak state with internal problems, with a fertile ground for fundamentalism to spread. Everything snowballed in the late nineties to produce, if you will, the second generation: a much more violent, intolerant, extremist version of Islam, which was a product of the Afghan war and the investment in the Afghan war.
With this insightful, broad picture of the changes in Islam and its relation to global events, I want to ask you now, how should U.S. foreign policy address, after 9/11, these complexities?
Again, you’ve raised a number of very important issues. The first is that there are, obviously, key issues still that animate political opinion in the Muslim world, and maybe push it in the direction of fundamentalism, like the Palestinian-Israeli issue, or the Iraq issue now; or, if you will, those wedge events. We need to handle those clearly, methodically, rapidly, and get past those.
More basically, we ought to follow the policy we followed in Europe in the case of communism. To understand that we’re dealing with an ideology that has been ascendant, but it is not religion; it’s ideology. The worth of an ideology is what it delivers to the population. The worth of an ideology is that a population buys into it because it doesn’t understand or see any other viable alternatives. So if we want to modify or defang fundamentalism, we need to present Muslims with political environments in which they can evaluate other options, environments in which fundamentalism and what it promises, and what it asks in terms of sacrifice, will not appear high on anybody’s list.
Thirdly, also try to increasingly separate moderates from radicals. In our own society, we’re tolerant of people who hold very conservative views on abortion and who vote accordingly, but who refrain from engaging acts of violence against abortion clinics or gynecologists. We deliberately separate those. Or, we’ve separated those who participate in violent and militia movements from those who are, simply, anti-U.S. government.
We need to follow policies that would prevent fundamentalism from having a complete hold — an unrivaled hold — on public opinion. We should not contribute to an environment in which we say “Okay, here’s the Muslim world. Fundamentalists speak for the Muslim world. Hence, they’re all fundamentalists.” The best we can do for fundamentalism is to just hand over the reigns of power and the right to speak for a billion people to fundamentalists.
So in a way, if I follow your logic, then what we are now doing in Pakistan may be just the opposite of what we intend. In the short term, we’re supporting a regime that is aiding us in the fight against al Qaeda, which is sort of cleaning up the mess that was created by all that you’ve just described. But in the course of doing that, we’re latching on to a military ruler who seems to be even more rigid than Zia in clamping down on all of the forces that might lead to democracy, which would then create a framework in which moderate Islamists might emerge.
Absolutely. In fact, the tragedy with Pakistan is that Pakistan, as I said, was a relatively open society. Instead of being nudged in the direction of building on democratic institutions that were present, as corrupted and as inadequate and stillborn as they were —but at least they were there and there was something to build on — we’re moving in a direction of a military government.
In the short run, we might say there is no choice; we need to fight al Qaeda. It was neither political institution nor military institution that we could rely on. We have to do it. But we have to be cognizant of the fact that we don’t want this to be a long-run strategy. What appears to be happening in Pakistan, unfortunately, is that we’re applying our Arab model there.
What we did in a lot of the Arab world is that so long as you contain your governments and follow basic premises of American foreign policy, we will give you funding and we’ll turn a blind eye to your violation of human rights. And then we ended up in a Catch-22 situation with this, because our policy began producing violent anti-American movements. The only people we could rely on to suppress those were the same brutes who were the causes of it. So we keep giving more and more money to Egypt and to Morocco and Jordan in order to suppress the very forces that are caused by the presence of these people in the first place, and we shy away from pushing them to open up the system.
This seems to be the direction Musharraf is going in. “Okay, I’ll crack the whip.” Every time pressure increases on him, he delivers something. So first he supported the war, then when it came close to the time of elections and he banned Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif from participating, he delivered an al Qaeda cell in Karachi. So all criticism of his violation of democratic procedures was suspended in Washington.
Musharraf is, basically, becoming a Pakistani Sadat. He may end up being very popular here if he ends up handing over Osama bin Laden at some point, but he is, obviously, systematically dismantling democratic institutions in Pakistan by gerrymandering the constitution, by gerrymandering elections. And what we have to be prepared for in twenty years, we may be facing sort of an Egyptian version of Islamic Jihad in Pakistan, and we have to think very clearly about what that means in a country with nuclear weapons.
One final question. Looking back at this intellectual journey that you’ve taken, and your background, I would conclude that you really don’t subscribe to Huntington’s theory of a “clash of civilizations.” That in fact, that creates a rigidity with regard to our perceptions as to what the Islamic world and the West may have in common. Is that a fair assessment?
It is a fair assessment. I did study with Huntington at one point when I was at MIT. I have a great deal of respect for his work. I think there are many elements that he touches on that are true. It’s at the level of taking anecdotal evidence, and then sort of enshrining it as a theory that then explains everything — that’s where the problem is.
There is no doubt that some in the West view the rest of the world as “the other.” That there are those in the Muslim world who view the West as a “bogie.” But this is not the beginning and end of the analysis. There’s a lot of diversity on both sides, and there’s a lot of politics that happen on both sides.
The problem with Huntington’s approach is that it essentially removes politics from politics. In other words, there’s no more politics. We’re all guided by what we’re born into and that decides all politics, which is to say that the U.S. will behave always in a particular way, irrespective of what its interests are, which I don’t think is true. And it also presupposes that fundamentalists or Muslims will always behave in ways which are prescribed by culture, rather than interests.
Huntington misses on a point, that the reasons the Muslims are behaving in this way is not cultural. It’s because the methodology that Khomeini put forward offered an enormous amount of political dividend. The approach he took against the United States popularized him in the Muslim world, allowed him to galvanize power and consolidate power in Iran, enabled him to achieve many things. Whereas, fundamentalism has yet to face a defeat for fundamentalists to recalibrate and respond differently. But fundamentalists, just like Americans, when they are operating in a political environment, look at what works and what doesn’t work, whether fists raised in the air with slogans work, or they don’t work.
We’re seeing this in Turkey right now. The leading candidate for prime minister in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was put in jail for being an Islamists a number of years back. He wants to be Prime Minister of Turkey. He knows it’s possible through the elections, so he came out and said, “I never was an Islamist. I support joining the European Union, and I don’t want to change anything in our relationship with the United States.” He is actually now more pro-American than the secular Leftist Party that’s in power.
So Huntington’s theory, basically, is so high-level, it’s such an overarching framework of analysis, that it basically is close-circuited. It has no room for any kind of political analysis. And, ultimately, the way out of here will be through politics. In other words, there has to be a reward and retribution environment in which Muslims will begin to make political choices that would make it inclusive in mainstream global politics.
On that positive note, I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us in helping us understand this very complex world that we’re facing today. Thank you very much.
Thank you for having me.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
1- Professor of Political Science at the University of San Diego. He’s the author of several books on political Islam, most recently The Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Powe