Osama bin Laden Is a Sign of Things to Come
Excerpts from an Interview with Eqbal Ahmad
Editor's Note: Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani scholar-activist who died on May 11, 1999, gave a prescient interview to David Barsamian in the November 1998 issue of The Progressive. What follows is an excerpt from that interview: --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Q: You were in Pakistan when the United States bombed Afghanistan and the Sudan. What did it look like to you?
Ahmad: The United States is a superpower that claims to be judge, accuser, and executioner. You don't allow that in your system. We don't allow it in our system. But we are allowing it on a world scale. Why didn't the United States go to international forums and present the evidence that it had against bin Laden before bombing Afghanistan and the factory in Khartoum? There is increasing evidence now that the factory was not producing any chemical weapons. The camp they hit in Afghanistan I visited in 1986. It was a CIA-sponsored camp. The United States spent $8 billion in producing the bin Ladens of our time.
Q: What do you mean by that?
Ahmad: He was socialized by the CIA and trained by the Americans to believe deeply that when a foreigner comes into your land, you become violent. Bin Laden is merely carrying out the mission to which he committed with America earlier. Now he is carrying it out against America because now America, from his point of view, is occupying his land. That's all. He grew up seeing Saudi Arabia being robbed by Western corporations and Western powers. He watched these Saudi princes, this one-family state, handing over the oil resources of the Arab people to the West. Up until 1991, he had only one satisfaction: that his country was not occupied. There were no American or French or British troops in Saudi Arabia. Then even that small pleasure was taken away from him during the Gulf War and its aftermath.
Q: What is the background of the CIA role in Afghanistan?
Ahmad: After the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, an Islamic fundamentalist dictator in Pakistan, Zia ul-Haq, promoted, with the help of the CIA, the mujahideen resistance. Now what you had was Islamic fundamentalists of a really hardcore variety taking on the Evil Empire. They received $8 billion in arms from the U.S. alone. Add another $2 billion from Saudi Arabia under American encouragement. And, more than that, American operatives went about the Muslim world recruiting for the jihad in Afghanistan. This whole phenomenon of jihad as an international armed struggle did not exist in the Muslim world since the tenth century. It was brought back into being, enlivened, and pan-Islamized by the American effort. The United States saw in the war in Afghanistan an opportunity to mobilize the Muslim world against communism. So the United States recruited mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. I saw planeloads of them arriving-from Algeria, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. These people were brought in, given an ideology, told that the armed struggle is a virtuous thing to do, and the whole notion of jihad as an international, pan-Islamic terrorist movement was born.
They were trained and armed by the CIA. The militants of the Islamic movement almost everywhere have all been trained in Afghanistan. The CIA people now call it "Islamic blowback."
Q: Why do you think the West is so ready to treat Islam as the enemy?
Ahmad: After the Cold War, the West had no viable threat around which it could organize its policies. All powers, all imperial powers-especially democratic ones-cannot justify their uses of power only on the basis of greed. No one will buy it. They have needed two things: a ghost and a mission. The British carried the White Man's Burden. That was the mission. The French carried la mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission. The Americans had, first, Manifest Destiny, and then found the mission of "standing watch on the walls of world freedom," in John F. Kennedy's ringing phrase. Each of them had the Black, the Yellow, and finally the Red Peril to fight against. There was a ghost. There was a mission. People bought it.
Right now, the United States is deprived of both the mission and the ghost. So the mission has appeared as human rights. It's a very strange mission for a country that for nearly 100 years has been supporting dictatorship, first in Latin America and then throughout the world. And in search of menace, it has turned to Islam. It's the easiest because the West has encountered resistance here: Algeria, then Egypt, Palestinians, the Iranian revolution. And a portion of it is strategically located: It's the home of the oil resources for the West.
Q: What is your view of the Taliban of Afghanistan?
Ahmad: The Taliban is as retrograde a group as it is possible to find. Last year, I spent two weeks in Afghanistan. One day, I heard drums and noises from the house where I was staying. I rushed out to see what was going on. There was a young boy who couldn't have been more than twelve years of age. His head was shaved. There was a rope around his neck. He was being pulled by that rope. There was one man behind him with a drum. He slowly beat the drum.
I asked, "What has the boy done?"
People told me he was caught red-handed.
"Doing what?" I asked.
"He was caught red-handed playing with a tennis ball."
I went off to interview one of the Taliban leaders. He said, "We have forbidden boys to play with balls because it constitutes undue temptation to men." So the same logic that makes them lock up women behind veils and behind walls makes them prevent boys from playing games. It's that kind of madness.
These people are anti-women, anti-music, anti-life, and some of the highest officials of the United States have been visiting them and talking to them. The general impression in our region is that the U.S. has been supporting them.
Q: Why would the United States do that?
Ahmad: When the Soviet Union fell apart, its constituent republics became independent. The Central Asian republics, whose majority population is Muslim, happen to be oil-rich, gas-rich states. Their gas and oil used to pass through the Soviet Union. Now a new game starts: How is this oil and gas going to get out to the world?
At this point, American corporations move in. Texaco, Amoco, Unocal, Delta Oil-all of these are now going into Central Asia to get hold of these oil and gas fields. They don't want to take any pipelines to Iran because Iran is, at this moment, boycotted. It's an enemy of America. So Afghanistan and Pakistan become the places through which you lay pipelines. And you cut the Russians out. Just look at the story here: President Clinton makes personal telephone calls to the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, urging them to sign pipeline contracts. And the pipeline has to go through Afghanistan. In this game, both Pakistan and the U.S. get into the business of saying who will be the most reliable conduit to ensure the safety of the pipelines. And they pick the most murderous, by far the most crazy, of Islamic fundamentalist groups, the Taliban, to ensure the safety of the pipelines.
In this situation, the U.S. concern is not who is fundamentalist and who is progressive, who treats women nicely and who treats them badly. The issue is, who is more likely to ensure the safety of the oil and gas resources.
Q: What's behind the rise of fundamentalism not just in the Islamic world but also in the United States, Israel, Sri Lanka? What gives power to these movements?
Ahmad: There are a number of factors. The first is the fear of-and reaction to-homogenization. Globalization of the economy, the shrinking of spaces through modern technology, the power of the media in creating common tastes, everybody eating McDonald's hamburgers or wearing jeans-all this has made a whole lot of people uncomfortable with what is receding from their own way of life. That discomfort is used by rightwing ideologues to say, "Come to us. We will return you your old-time religion. Come to us. We will give you back your old ways, your old memories." And people who don't know any better often follow.
There is a second factor, and that is a disappointment with modernism, a sense of disillusionment with life as it is constructed in our time. It seems empty, void of meaning. It feels like families are breaking up but there is no substitute for the proximities, the comfort, the security of family life. These are changes that occur from technology and from the expansion of the tentacles of capitalism into every aspect of human life. In many ways, advertisers are deciding the color of underwear that we wear, the kind of sexual advances that we make to our wives and lovers. Once that starts happening, people feel a loss of individual autonomy. In search of autonomy, we look for some specific, unique way of relating to ourselves. Fundamentalism offers that. Old-time religion offers that. New-time religion also offers that.
Q: The media critique of fundamentalism seems to be very selective in its targets. What about Saudi Arabia?
Ahmad: This is a very interesting matter you are raising. Saudi Arabia's Islamic government has been by far the most fundamentalist in the history of Islam until the Taliban came along. Even today, for example, women drive in Iran. They can't drive in Saudi Arabia. Today, men and women are working in offices together in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, they cannot do that. Saudi Arabia is much worse than Iran, but it has been the ally of the U.S. since 1932, and nobody has questioned it. But much more than that is involved. Throughout the Cold War, starting in 1945, the U.S. saw militant Islam as a counterweight to communist parties of the Muslim world.
Q: You mentioned the Iranian revolution. Is there a parallel between Iran in the 1970s, which looked like an impregnable U.S. fortress, and Saudi Arabia in the 1990s?
Ahmad: I think it was 1981 or 1982 that a fairly senior CIA official who had either retired already or was on the brink of retiring wrote a very interesting article in the Armed Forces Journal. The article was entitled "The American Threat to Saudi Arabia." His argument primarily was that the policies that the U.S. government and corporations were pursuing out of greed were going to turn Saudi Arabia into a model of Iran, a totally dependent state and extremely vulnerable to revolution.
Osama bin Laden is a sign of things to come. The U.S. has no reason to stay in Saudi Arabia except exploitation and greed. Saudi Arabia is not threatened with invasion by anyone that we know of. Any potential aggressor, such as Saddam Hussein, has already been knocked out from any capability of invading Saudi Arabia. And the Americans demonstrated in 1991 that they are capable of mobilizing against any attack on an ally in the Middle East. So what's the justification of an American military presence, an intelligence presence, a massive presence in every other area in Saudi Arabia? Every ministry is infiltrated with American advisers. It's creating deep discontent there.
The answer is money. Money in ten different ways. The Saudis' oil is essentially controlled and marketed by American interests. Saudi wealth is invested in the U.S. and Europe. And the Saudis, since the early 1980s, went into the arms market, so the U.S. dumped something like $100 billion worth of armaments in that place.
The Saudi people are going to be discontented. But Saudi discontent shouldn't be seen only as Saudi. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia is an Arab country, part of an Arab world. The Saudis are the guardians of our Muslim holy places, and they have been unable to guard them. The Arabs are, at the moment, an extremely humiliated, frustrated, beaten, and insulted people. If you look at the situation from the standpoint of the Arab as a whole, this is a most beleaguered mass of 200 million people. What is actually uniting them at the moment is a sense of common loss, common humiliation.
This people has only two choices now, as its young people see it: It's either to become active, fight, die, and recover its lost dignity, lost sovereignties, lost lands, or to become slaves. Terrorism is not without a history. All social phenomena have historical roots, and nobody here is looking into the historical roots of terror.
Editor's Note: Eqbal Ahmad, the Pakistani scholar-activist who died on May 11, 1999, gave a prescient interview to David Barsamian in the November 1998 issue of The Progressive.