Dr. Perphes Volker: Arab and Islamic views on the war against terror
Dr. Perphes Volker is the director of the Middle East program at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. An author and a former professor at the American University of Beirut, he is a political scientist and an expert on Islam.
CNN: The meeting of Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIS) now in progress was scheduled before the September 11 attacks. How have the September 11 events changed the level of unity among these nations?
VOLKER: I would say they have changed the level of urgency that these countries feel to find a common or a unified position on matters regarding both the Muslim world as well as the international situation at large.
CNN: How convinced are the Muslim countries of President Bush's assurances that this is not a war against Islam?
VOLKER: To be frank, they're not at all convinced. Many Muslim countries, and that means their leaders as well as much of the public opinion, are not at all convinced that there isn't a second hidden agenda behind the declared agenda of war against terrorism. Many do suspect that what we actually see here is a form of western or American onslaught on Muslim countries, and on Islam per se.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Dr. Volker, what exactly does the OIS plan to do to help Palestine?
VOLKER: I guess what they're going to do is basically on the level of declarations. They will certainly, with a final declaration of this conference, make a strong appeal to the United States and the West to make additional efforts to solve the Palestinian issue or find a just and acceptable solution for the Palestinian people in their conflict with Israel. And they will certainly make it clear that if the West wants support from Muslim states in the war against terrorism, then the West should make a greater effort to finding a just solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Has Islam declared war on the rest of the world, according to Osama and the Taliban and all the demonstrations in the Middle Eastern countries, including the U.S.?
VOLKER: No, Islam has certainly not declared war on anybody. Islam does not, per se, declare war or peace. There are individual Muslims who may find themselves in a state of war with the United States or the West. Osama bin Laden is but one individual who does not have any religious legitimacy to speak for Islam or for the Muslim people in his country or any other country.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How much credibility does Osama bin Laden really have with the members of the conference?
VOLKER: He probably has no credibility at all with the members of the conference, who are mainly foreign ministers. However, he has some credibility with quite a number of ordinary people in the street, as it were, many of whom might see him as a hero who stands up to what they perceive as American and Western arrogance in its dealing with other countries, particularly in the third world and the Muslim world.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where does the assumption of the U.S. leading a crusade originate?
VOLKER: I guess there were some mistakes here on the part of President Bush, who unfortunately, in one of his speeches, used the word "crusade" and spoke of a crusade against terrorism. Now "crusade" does not mean much in American idiom, but it does for many Arabs and Muslims, who have a vivid historical memory and remember that the word "crusade" stands for the historical Crusade in the 11th and 12th century of Western states against the world of Islam.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Don't you think it would be to everyone's benefit for Muslims to speak out against bin Laden as a corrupter of Islam?
VOLKER: I think it would be very beneficial if more Islamic religious leaders and clerics, as it were, would openly say exactly that -- that Osama bin Laden is not representing Islam and he does not have religious legitimacy. Unfortunately, until now, not enough leaders from the Muslim world have done so, but some have done so very clearly.
Let me mention one important example here, which is the Palestinian leadership. Since Osama bin Laden in his statement for television tried to link his struggle with the struggle of the Palestinians, he got a clear answer from various leaders in Palestine saying that they would not allow him to hijack the Palestinian struggle for independence.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: If Muslim countries and Israel would sit down and rationally discuss their differences, would this quell fears of a "War on Muslim States?" VOLKER: It would be very helpful indeed, if Israel and its Arab neighbors in particular would resume negotiations. Of course, for the time being, the current Israeli government doesn't seem prepared for such negotiations. But certainly a resumption of negotiations and a peaceful resolution would do a lot to lower tensions between the Western world and the Arab and Muslim world.
CNN: Are Islamic nations concerned about the many young people who are willing to die by committing terrorist acts? Do they perceive this as a problem?
VOLKER: Many Arab and Muslim countries do perceive it as a problem, especially since in the past they have had quite a problem with terrorism in their own countries. Think of Egypt for example, or Algeria. And there are other examples. So, they know that they do have a problem in their own countries, that there is a fertile ground for extremism and even for terrorism in many of these countries, but they do not always devise the best policies to dry up that fertile ground. What I mean is that many of these countries would probably have to improve their social and economic policies, in order, among other things, to alleviate poverty. And more importantly perhaps, they would have to widen the margins of political participation, and to also improve their human rights records.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Isn't one of the goals of bin Laden to gain control of Saudi Arabia, and to gain control of the holy sites in Mecca?
VOLKER: I do not think that bin Laden's aim is so concrete. He has basically declared war, not only on the U.S., but also on these governments in the Muslim countries, and the Arab countries in particular, which he sees as collaborators with the West. Now, I don't think his aim is political control in one particular country, but rather destabilization of all these Arab regimes he sees in power today.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: I was concerned about all the coverage of the protests and uprisings in other countries. But someone on CNN this morning pointed out that the numbers are extremely small compared to what they could be and that if it is bin Laden's plan to globally unite Islam to come to his aid, he is failing miserably. What are other countries doing to try to show the general public [what] bin Laden's organization does?
VOLKER: I guess the protests we have seen in countries like Pakistan, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and other countries, do express more than just the anger of a couple of radicals. They do express broad concern of people for civilians and civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in a Muslim brother country, as well.
These demonstrations, of course, can have a positive function also, as long as they remain peaceful, to express the real concern of much of Muslim public opinion about what is going on. Let us be clear here, that the vast majority of Muslims all over the world have clearly taken a stand against the terrorists acts of September 11, but they are not necessarily therefore in favor of a military campaign against a small country like Afghanistan.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: The OIS was very careful to not define "terrorism." Does that leave an opening for them to declare American military action "terrorism" in the event that innocent Afghans are killed?
VOLKER: I think that they have the interest of having the United Nations at some point define terrorism. But it is not even entirely clear whether the 56 states in the OIC would be able to agree among themselves on one definition for terrorism. What we can say, though, is that most of the countries in the OIC would want the United Nations to distinguish between terrorism and the struggle for independence or resistance against an occupier.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: The U.S. has clearly stated that, "You are with us, or with the terrorists." What is the reaction of the Arab states that will not stand with the U.S?
VOLKER: Well, some of the Arab states have responded in a similar manner and have indicated that you can either be with a just solution for the Middle East conflict, or be against it. And they want the United States to be with a just solution, as much as they think they are on the side of those who fight terrorism.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Should we be concerned with the messages being sent by the Taliban being aired publicly by Al Jazeera, and how can we determine how Al Jazeera continues to acquire these correspondences?
VOLKER: Well, we should certainly be concerned about these messages. It seems that Al Jazeera has become a main channel for communication between two enemies with no other means of communication. I think that Western leaders should use Al Jazeera in the same way as bin Laden did. It is a free, uncensored TV channel, which is quite extraordinary for the Arab world. And instead of putting pressure on Al Jazeera to stop sending certain messages, I think the wisest path was the one British Prime Minister Tony Blair went the other day, when he addressed his message to the Arab world over Al Jazeera.
CNN: Thank you very much for joining us today, Perphes Volker.
VOLKER: Thank you. I hope it was useful.
Dr. Perphes Volker joined the chat room via telephone from Berlin, Germany, and CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, October 10, 2001 at 11 a.m. EDT
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