Frontpage Magazine: Mr. Pipes, welcome to Frontpage Interview. Congratulations on your new book Miniatures: Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics, a collection of about a hundred of your masterpiece essays. Many of those essays deal with the current War on Terror. So let’s begin with some current developments. How do you see the capture of Saddam affecting this war?
Pipes: Thanks for the invitation and the kind words. I see Saddam Hussein’s capture having powerful repercussions within Iraqi society and perhaps beyond, but having least impact on the adherents of militant Islam, who are not much impressed by the seizure of a thug.
FP: But surely this is a great boost for the War on Terror, no? Among other things, won't it demoralize our enemies, whether they be Saddam loyalists or Islamist terrorists?
Pipes: His capture is a historical first that will surely have many benefits. I don’t, however, see it demoralizing the Islamists, who are fighting a larger, deeper, and more ambitious war and for whom Saddam’s antics count for little. It is almost like asking whether the Soviet Union was demoralized by a U.S. military victory in Central America.
FP: Fair enough, but the war in Iraq in general is integral to the War on Terror, right?
Pipes: It was not so originally. Problems posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by the regimes in Syria, North Korea, China, Cuba, etc. are vestiges of the last war, the cold war, in which the enemy was communism in its many guises (including Ba`thism). That said, the main forces attacking coalition troops in post-Saddam Iraq are Islamist and so the Iraq problem is now indeed becoming integral to the current war on militant Islam.
FP: So will the capture of Saddam in some way facilitate/help the hunt for Osama? Or is there no connection here aside from a psychological boost for the Osama hunt?
Pipes: It could help the hunt for Osama bin Laden by freeing up some manpower, but not so in a deeper fashion. Note some of the ways in which the two cases differ:
*Bin Laden forwards militant Islam, an ideology larger than himself. Saddam forwarded only Saddamism, a cult of personality. This means that whereas Bin Laden can find refuge among tens of millions of like-minded comrades, Saddam in the end was alone.
*Bin Laden could be hiding in many countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Sudan, or even Egypt or India. Saddam could rely on no such network.
*Bin Laden has not ruled a country, much less has he done so ruthlessly, so he lacks the millions of die-hard enemies Saddam has made over the years.
FP: What do you make of the Palestinians' reaction to Saddam's capture, which is reportedly a combination of disbelief, humiliation and despair?
Pipes: Their reaction shows again – as if one needed more proof – the radicalism and nihilism endemic to the Palestinians’ political life, the degree to which they reject existing realities and are attracted to whomever challenges the status quo. Not until they come to terms with those realities, and the existence of a Jewish State of Israel in particular, can the Palestinians make real progress.
FP: Let's turn now to the terrorists' recent targets. Why, in its previous strikes, has al-Qaeda picked Turkey and Saudi Arabia?
Pipes: I am not convinced that al-Qaeda is specifically responsible for these attacks (for my reasons, see http://www.danielpipes.org/article/1112, so I’d rather answer the question, “Why are militant Islamic groups targeting Turkey and Saudi Arabia?” To which, my reply is that those groups want to take power in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and just about everywhere else. As for when and where they attack, that probably has more to do with capabilities than with sending a specific message.
FP: So when you state that militant Islamic groups are attempting to take power in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and “just about everywhere else,” you are implying that militant Islam is bent on world domination, just as the communists and Nazis were. In other words, this isn’t about – as liberals would argue -- solving poverty in the Middle East, or about giving the Palestinians a homeland, or whatever. There is nothing that we can really do to accommodate militant Islam except to give up our way of life and surrender to theirs. Correct?
Pipes: Correct. I see militant Islam as a true successor of the fascist and communist movements, not just in its totalitarian methods but also in its cosmic goals. There is no way to accommodate any of these ideologies; they will either destroy the civilized world or be destroyed by it. As Abraham Lincoln put it in 1838, “If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
FP: So is there any good news in the War on Terror?
Pipes: Yes. Arrests are taking place, law enforcement is cooperating in new ways, a seriousness of purpose is paying off. But overall, after major improvements on the heels of 9/11, I see quite a bit of backsliding. As an example, note the growing critique of the USA PATRIOT Act.
FP: What is the greatest danger to America and free peoples posed by Islamism at the moment?
Pipes: Islamism poses a long-term totalitarian threat to all peoples, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The prospect of living in a Taliban-like state is about as attractive as living in a fascist or communist one.
FP: True, the idea of living in a Taliban-like state is nightmarish. No movies, no entertainment, no intellectual freedom, no fun, no alcohol, no individualism, no women in sight, etc. Yet what remains fascinating is that this nightmare is actually viewed as some kind of paradise by Islamists. What is the psychology of people who long for this dreadful existence, where the only freedom there appears to exist is the freedom to blow yourself up?
Pipes: They are people who have found what they believe to be an absolute truth – not just the Qur’an but a specific way of interpreting that document. They take great joy in living in exact accord with that truth and imposing it on others. Sounds familiar, no? Again, militant Islam replicates basic fascist and communist patterns.
FP: I have always been confused by the kind of people who, as you say, relish “living in exact accord” with some kind of "absolute truth." We have this in all walks of life, of course, not just with Islam. But there is something also quite particular to Islam. Aside from there being fanatic Christians, for instance, there is a healthy tradition in Christianity that questions the Bible, encourages scepticism, different interpretations, etc. Correct me if I am wrong, but in Islam, there is the impression that among most Muslims there is the holy book, what it says and that’s that. True?
Pipes: You are right that Islam is dominated today by totalitarians who want to close down debate over interpretation of their religion and who reject self-criticism. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that this has been normative Islam through fourteen centuries. To the contrary, one finds that some of the greatest cultural figures of Muslim history were dissidents in important ways. It is a mistake to extrapolate back from the dire state of Islam today; things were never as bad as they are now. That has the happy implication, by the way, that things are again likely to improve.
FP: This is true, “things were never as bad as they are now.” Why is this? One would think that religious fundamentalism of any kind would die away after several generations, since people would be realizing after awhile how certain things just aren’t working for them. What explains, for instance, the increase of burqas rather the decrease of them?
Is this all about the reality that the Western way of life has proven to be the best and that some cultures and religions, instead of joining the modern world, desperately cling on to what they have left – and also, in their humiliation, react with violence?
Pipes: Many Muslims are acutely conscious of the glories of their medieval civilization and their superiority then over Christendom. That roles have been so crushingly reversed during the past two centuries has prompted increasingly desperate efforts by some Muslims to regain the old strengths. Returning to the supposed ways of old – via Islamism – is today’s most convincing method to achieve that goal.
FP: Do you support profiling of Muslims? Despite its political incorrectness, isn’t it crucial for homeland security?
Pipes: I do support taking into account all factors – nationality, race, religion, and ideology – that are relevant to focusing in on likely perpetrators. This is plain common sense; does one look for rapist suspects among women? Given that the ranks of militant Islam are made up of Muslims and only very rarely (I can think of precisely two examples) do they knowingly receive support from non-Muslims, this unfortunately implies an imperative to focus on Muslims. I regret having to draw this conclusion, but only when we are ready to accept the necessity of such enhanced attention will we be serious about waging war on terrorism.
FP: So if we are serious about waging war on terrorism at home, what “enhanced attention” should we devote to Muslims?
Pipes: Here is my carefully formulated reply, as published in January 2003: “There is no escaping the unfortunate fact that Muslim government employees in law enforcement, the military and the diplomatic corps need to be watched for connections to terrorism, as do Muslim chaplains in prisons and the armed forces. Muslim visitors and immigrants must undergo additional background checks. Mosques require a scrutiny beyond that applied to churches and temples.”
FP: Do you think militant Islam represents a greater threat than communism and fascism? I find it much more frightening, because we are dealing with people who aren’t that preoccupied with self-preservation. Doesn’t this alone create a situation of much greater danger?
Pipes: You are correct that militant Islam uses methods that the prior totalitarians never did – suicide bombings being one example of that. (Arnold Beichman made this point the subject of a most interesting column in The Wall Street Journal, “Why I Miss the Cold War.”) On the other hand, militant Islam lacks the backing of a powerful state such as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia and therefore lacks a conventional military force; and, other than in Sudan, it has so far killed only in the thousands, not the tens of millions as the earlier movements. Frankly, I am not sure yet if it is more or less dangerous than its antecedents; we are probably still too early in this war to make such an assessment.
FP: Let us suppose you became Bush’s main advisor in the War on Terror; what steps would you suggest he immediately take?
Pipes: That’s easy: I would advise him to surround himself with leading moderate, anti-Islamist Muslims and announce that the “War on Terror” has been redefined as the “War on Militant Islam.” That would have many and profound implications, such as (1) indicating that this is a war of ideas as well as of guns, (2) permitting us to focus on that population which supports militant Islam, (3) pointing out the key role of moderate Muslims, and (4) specifying that the immediate war goal must be to destroy militant Islam and the ultimate war goal the modernization of Islam.
FP: I think you are completely right in emphasizing the importance of allying ourselves with moderate Muslims against militant Islam. Please explain the importance of this strategy. First, however, what exactly is a “moderate” Muslim?
Pipes: This was the subject of my recent column, “Do You Believe in Modernity,” in which I offered a series of questions to ask of Muslims in order to ascertain who is a moderate. They are akin to questions one might ask to distinguish socialists from communists. (To my amusement, one author, Jim Kalb, has adopted these questions to ask of “moderate” liberals.) One topic I propose asking about, for instance, is violence: “Do you condone or condemn the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris who give up their lives to kill enemy civilians? Will you condemn by name as terrorist groups such organizations as Abu Sayyaf, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, Groupe Islamique Armée, Hamas, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and Al-Qaeda?”
FP: One theme that becomes clear in retrospect is that, long before 9/11, you were almost alone in prophesying the Islamist war against America. What gave you this foresight when so many other “experts” missed the unfolding of this war?
Pipes: Actually, it required no particular insight on my part. Rather, it required wilful denial of reality on the part of other specialists. Militant Islam’s attacks on the United States began in November 1979 and killed 800 people by 9/10. These were hardly unknown episodes (for example, the World Trade Center bombing of 1993), nor was the motivation behind these murderous acts obscure. Trouble is, most Middle East and Islamic specialists apologize for their subject and ignore difficult subjects of this sort.
FP: True, most Middle East and Islamic specialists are apologists for their subject. Why do you think this is? My father and mother both used to teach Russian language, history and literature in academia and, with a few exceptions, I remember that quite a significant portion of their colleagues and students were communists (masquerading as "liberals"). What’s the phenomenon here?
Pipes: There is a tendency to study that which one is attracted to; a desire to be accepted, even celebrated, by those one studies; and a winnowing out takes place, so those who do not fit the general outlook get excluded. Or all of these are at work at once.
FP: So, with most Middle East and Islamic specialists being apologists for their subject, you must have been, and remain, an “outsider” in your profession. How has this affected you?
Pipes: It has liberated me. I don’t have to clip my wings, hold my tongue, or shuffle my feet.
FP: So what led you to be who you are? I was completely marginalized during my years in academia and it had, I think, something to do with me telling my colleagues that Ronald Reagan was my favourite American president. As the son of Soviet dissidents, my background made it impossible for me to be what most of my colleagues were: haters of their own society and lovers of foreign despotic societies. What is your background that made it impossible for you to be the kind of Mid-east scholar who would spend long hours explaining, in great historical and complex detail, how the Americans “brought 9/11 unto themselves” etc.?
Pipes: I have been a conservative since high school in the mid-1960s, when the Vietnam War was emerging as a hot issue. Being conservative has ever since made me unlike most intellectuals. So the real question is, why was I from the get-go a conservative even though I have always lived in an arch-liberal environment? The key, I think, was my having traveled extensively abroad and having therefore developed an appreciation for what the United States is. In this way, my experience roughly parallels yours as an immigrant.
FP: So what is it exactly that drives you? What has been the inspiration behind your intellectual career and journey?
Pipes: My career studying the Middle East and Islam began in college and focused initially on the medieval period. I was especially interested in what learning about another time and place could teach me about my own circumstances. I finished my doctoral thesis on Islam and politics in the premodern period (subsequently published as a book, Slave Soldiers and Islam (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981), just as Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and the politics of Islam abruptly became a subject of current concern. I switched to contemporary history at that point, and that is what I have engaged in during the past quarter century.
My topics bear directly on U.S. government decisions, so I have become deeply embroiled in policy debates over such subjects as militant Islam, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Iraq. As the Muslim population of the United States has dramatically grown, I have become involved myself in its issues too; these are of a domestic nature, however.
FP: For what are you fighting? Are you content and satisfied that you have achieved some of your objectives?
Pipes: I am trying to apply the principles I believe in to the subjects I study. My goal is to help Americans figure out how to deal with some challenges. The satisfaction I have that my views are listened to is roughly balanced out by dismay, especially these days, at the nature of the debate itself, which is coarse and absorbed with irrelevancies.
FP: What are some of the things that you hope to accomplish?
Pipes: My hope is to be useful in developing responses to issues I know something about. These days, issues surrounding militant Islam especially absorb my attention, as this movement is hugely threatening, highly complex, and quite alien to Americans.
FP: Mr. Pipes, thank you, we are out of time. It was a pleasure to have you as a guest on Frontpage Interview.
Pipes: Thank you for the opportunity to give my thoughts. And let me take this moment publicly to state my admiration for Frontpagemag.com, which fearlessly, carefully, and relentlessly deals with such problems as militant Islam, Palestinian radicalism, and our wayward universities.
I welcome all of our readers to get in touch with me if they have a good idea/contact for a guest for Frontpage Interview. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr