The latest fashion among Muslims is to denounce those of us who continue to criticise US interventionism in the Arab world, in particular, and the Islamic world, in general. “We Muslims cannot keep blaming the West for all our ills,” writes Izzat Majeed in the popular Pakistani daily ‘The Nation’. “Arabs and Muslims need today to face up to the fact that their resentment at America has long since become unmoored from any rational underpinnings it might once have had,” writes US-based Iraqi author Kanan Makiya. “The weaning of the Arab world away from radicalism is a burden, and a task, for the Arabs themselves,” writes Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at John Hopkins University in America. As an unfashionable Muslim,
however, I must dissent from this growing new orthodoxy. I strongly disagree with the likes of Majeed, Makiya and Ajami. Predictably, I take most exception with a not dissimilar view propounded by the notorious Muslim-baiter, Salman Rushdie, who writes about a “paranoid Islam, which blames outsiders, ‘infidels’, for all the ills of Muslim societies”.
Yet as the saying goes: “Just because you’re paranoid that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Rushdie’s premise – Muslims are paranoid é does not lead logically to his implied conclusion é outsiders are not responsible for the “ills” of the Muslim world. On the contrary, it is the undoubted paranoia on the part of Muslim communities across the globe that has masked the very real dominance of the Islamic world, especially the Middle East, by the big powers, particularly the United States. I have no qualms about laying a large share of responsibility for the many “ills” é the illiberalism, the authoritarianism, the terrorism, etc é in the Muslim ummah, at the door of the West. Take, for example, the three Islamic “ills” that the West has been so keen to critique since the horrific events of September 11th: the terrorism of Osama bin Laden; the repression of the Taliban; and the despotic nature of the Saudi regime. All three have rightly been described by Muslim and non-Muslims alike as stains on the religion of Islam. Yet all three owe their origins, in part or in full, to the foreign policy of the United States of America.
Osama Bin Laden
At the CIA, it happens often enough to have a code name: blowback. Simply defined, this is the term that describes an agent, an operative or an operation that has turned on its creators. Osama bin Laden, public enemy Number 1 for the West in general, and the United States in particular, is the personification of blowback. As anyone who has bothered to read this far certainly knows by now, bin Laden was recruited, trained and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, as part of the covert CIA war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. He is, in the words of one commentator, “the bastard child of Cold War policies where, for the West the only good communist was a dead one and it didn’t matter what kind of monster did the fatal deed”.
As his unclassified CIA biography states, bin Laden left Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan after Moscow’s invasion in 1979. By 1984, he was running a front organisation known as Maktab al-Khidamar (MAK) é the precursor of al-Qaida é which funnelled money, arms and fighters from the outside world into the Afghan war. What the CIA bio conveniently fails to specify is that the MAK was nurtured by Pakistan’s state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency é the CIA’s primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow’s occupation. The CIA, concerned about the factionalism and ethnic rivalries of Afghanistan, found that Arab zealots who flocked to aid the Afghans é like Osama bin Laden é were easier to control than the rivalry-ridden natives.
As the Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, notes in his acclaimed study ‘Taliban’:
“With the active encouragement of the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, who wanted to turn the Afghan jihad into a global war waged by all Muslim states against the Soviet Union, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 40 Islamic countries joined Afghanistan’s fight between 1982 and 1992. Eventually more than 100,000 foreign Muslim radicals were directly influenced by the Afghan jihad.”
Most of these Afghan vets, or ‘Afghan-Arabs’ é as those who fought there became known é turned up later behind violent Islamist movements around the world. Among them: the GIA in Algeria, thought responsible for the massacres of tens of thousands of civilians; Egypt’s Gamat Islamia, which has massacred Western tourists repeatedly in recent years; and, of course, bin Laden’s own al-Qaida, held responsible for the September 11th attacks in the US and the 1998 embassy bombings in east Africa.
Indeed, to this day, those involved in the decision to give the Afghan-Arab rebels é now “terrorists” é access to a fortune in covert funding and top-level combat weaponry continue to defend that move in the context of the Cold War. Senator Orrin Hatch, a senior Republican on the US Senate Intelligence Committee making those decisions, told NBC journalist Robert Windrem that he would make the same call again today, even knowing what bin Laden would do subsequently. “It was worth it,” he says. No-one in America today wants to consider the consequences of bringing together thousands of Islamic radicals from all over the world. “What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US National Security Adviser. American citizens only woke up to the consequences when Islamist militants, said to be trained in Afghanistan and commanded by Osama Bin Laden, brought their terror and violence home to the United States on September 11th.
Writing in 1998, Professor William O. Beeman, an expert on Central Asia and the Middle East at Brown University in the USA, pointed out that “the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been supporting the fundamentalist Taliban in their war for control of Afghanistan for some time. The U.S. has never openly acknowledged this connection, but it has been confirmed by both intelligence sources and charitable institutions in Pakistan.” Dana Rohrabacher, an outspoken Republican congressman from California, reiterated this view a year later: “There is and has been a covert policy by this [Clinton] administration to support the Taliban movement’s control of Afghanistan. This amoral or immoral policy is based on the assumption that the Taliban would bring stability to Afghanistan and permit the building of oil pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan”. In fact, shortly after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 1996, CNN reported that “the United States wants good ties with the Taliban but can’t openly seek them while women are being repressed”.
Further light on the secret contacts between the US government and the Taliban regime is shed by a book published last month in France, entitled ‘Bin Laden, the Forbidden Truth’, written by Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie. Brisard is a former French secret service agent and Dasquie is an investigative journalist.
The two French authors write that the Bush administration was willing to accept the Taliban regime, despite the charges of sponsoring terrorism, if it co-operated with plans for the development of the oil resources of Central Asia. Until August, they claim é like Congressman Rohrabacher é that the US government saw the Taliban “as a source of stability in Central Asia that would enable the construction of an oil pipeline across Central Asia”. It was only when the Taliban refused to accept US conditions that “this rationale of energy security changed into a military one”. (It is interesting to note that neither the Clinton nor the Bush administrations
ever placed Afghanistan on the official State Department list of states charged with sponsoring terrorism, despite the acknowledged presence of Osama bin Laden as a guest of the Taliban regime. For that would have made it impossible for an American oil company like UNOCAL to sign a deal with the Taliban for a pipeline to the Central Asian oil and gas fields.)
Besides the secret negotiations held between Washington and Kabul and the importance of the oil industry, this new book on bin Laden also highlights the role played by Saudi Arabia in fostering Islamist fundamentalism of the bin Laden variety, and the blind eye turned by America.
The White House constantly stalled investigations into the activities of Osama bin Laden, Brisard and Dasquie write. They report that John O’Neill, deputy director of the FBI, resigned in July in protest over this obstruction. O’Neill told them in an interview that “the main obstacles to investigate Islamic terrorism were US oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it.” He went on to add, “all the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organisation, can be found in Saudi Arabia.” (In a strange coincidence, O’Neill accepted a position as security chief of the World Trade Centre after leaving the FBI, and was killed on September 11th.)
In November, Western newspapers, including the Economist and Time magazine, published extensive and flattering advertisements placed by the Saudi regime é a clear indication of its concern about the future, as well as the bad publicity seeping out about its past links with bin Laden and the Taliban. As has been pointed out in innumerable reports, 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia, not Afghanistan. Yet the US government has remained noticeably silent on the issue of Saudi Arabia, and has actually apologised to the Saudi government for increasingly critical coverage of the Saudis in the US media. (One recent example is an editorial in the New York Times that highlighted “the royal family’s pervasive corruption, its contempt for democracy and the appalling human rights abuses carried out in its name.”)
This is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, as the distinguished journalist Said Aburish notes, in his study of the Saudi regime: “I cannot unearth a single public statement by a Western leader about the country’s abominable human rights record.” The fact is that prior to World War II, the United Kingdom supported the establishment of the Saudi regime é both financially and militarily é and since World War II, the United States has provided similar support. In 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited King ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy and promised that the United States would never do anything that might prove hostile to the Saudis. FDR’s successor, President Eisenhower, went further when he stated America’s aim was “building up King Saud as a major figure in the Middle Eastern area.” As Said Aburish points out: “Without the West, there would be no House of Saud.”
The main reason for the USA’s need to keep the Saudis on side is clear enough. The Saudis own 25 per cent of the world’s and the United States consumes 25 per cent of the world’s oil. An analysis by Professor George Perry, a senior economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, argued that if Muslim extremists é like bin Laden é managed to win control of Middle Eastern oil supplies, the price of petrol would quadruple and drive up US inflation by 15 per cent in the first year. This hypothetical scenario is evidence of the importance of the Saudi relationship, and the US would presumably take immediate military action to secure the oil. Indeed, the estimated 20-25,000 American troops permanently stationed on Saudi soil are said to be present there precisely for this reason: to prevent an anti-royalist, anti-Western coup. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out: “It has been a leading, driving doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region will be effectively dominated by the United States and its clientsé”
It is such a tragedy, then, that when the human rights abuses and repression in Saudi Arabia receive media attention, the systematic connection with American policy and its share of the responsibility for such a monstrous regime is never entertained. The same applies with regard to the actions of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. So, I ask: “When will the United States take some responsibility?”