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Terry Waite: Understanding Islamic fundamentalists

While advising Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite successfully negotiated the 1981 release of hostages taken by Islamic fundamentalists in Iran, and in Libya in 1987. While negotiating the release of American hostages in Beirut, Waite himself was kidnapped, spending four years in solitary confinement. Released in September 1991, Waite devotes himself to humanitarian causes as a lecturer and author. He serves on many community boards, including the Freeplay Foundation, which provides energy infrastructure to impoverished areas and refugee camps. He joined the chat from London.

CNN : Thank you for joining us today, Terry Waite, and welcome

TERRY WAITE: I'm very glad to be able to join the group today. I've just returned from the United States, where I've been lecturing on aspects of terrorism, and last week I was in Kosovo working on the program for the victims of war, which is principally women and children. That's something we'll have to pay attention to in Afghanistan when hopefully the present conflict is over.

CNN : You came into the public light as a one who could negotiate successfully with extreme Islamic fundamentalists. Describe their distaste for the United States and the western world.

WAITE: What we have to deal with is the perceptions of many people throughout the Islamic world, and throughout the developing world. The perceptions are frequently that the West, that is, the United States and large parts of Europe, are manipulative in relationship to the developing world. For example, they perceive that they are used by the West when it suits them, and dropped at a later stage. Those perceptions, for example, are clearly the perceptions of many people in Pakistan.

There are others who say, in relation to Afghanistan, that when it suited the interests of the West to fight communism on Afghan soil, the West had no compunction about supporting the Taliban and indeed bin Laden. Which leads many to say that the West is highly manipulative. The events of September the 11th, which unquestionably were outrageous and tragic, may well have illustrated very dramatically that it is impossible, for example, for the United States to hide behind its own barriers. National self-interest means now having global interest, and international relations have to be based on a greater sense of justice and fair dealing, rather than mere expediency. Now, I've spoken about perceptions there, and I'm not necessarily suggesting that they're accurate in every respect, but in dealing with these problems, one has to take the perceptions of large numbers of people seriously, and relate to them and work with them.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Terry-it does not seem al Qaeda hasn't any interest in negotiations of any kind, but all out war against the US and Israel. How do they differ from other fundamentalists willing to negotiate?

WAITE: When you look at terrorists movements across the world, one has to admit that they do attract to themselves psychopathic characters -- that is, individuals who have little or no conscience or feeling, and will kill without mercy. I doubt whether it is possible to negotiate with those characters. But fortunately, they're in the minority. Looking at other members of terrorist organizations, again, one has to take seriously their perceptions of the situation in the Middle East, and rightly or wrongly, they do not perceive America to be an honest broker. They perceive America to be excessively partial in favor of Israel. Let me underline that I am again speaking about perceptions that have to be taken seriously. So, if we are going to deal with the problem of terrorism, we have to begin to deal with some of the international situation, such as the Middle East, on a basis of justice and fair dealing.

It is very easy in an interview of this kind for me to appear to be overly simplistic, and I thoroughly recognize the complexity of the Middle East situation. But the basic issue regarding many people from the Arab nations is lack of trust in the United States as an honest broker. We have to work hard, very hard, at building relationships of trust, but only with those who have political authority and power. That is a long term and difficult job. It's only as you build relationships of trust, build understanding, that you can effectively deal with problems of terrorism. Because local communities then will recognize that it is not in their interest for one moment to give even minimal support to terrorist activity, emanating from their communities.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: In your time as a hostage what did you learn? And could you describe to us some of the strain you endured being held for four years by these factions?

WAITE: I spent 1,763 days in captivity, almost four years of which were in solitary confinement. To be in solitary confinement, very strict solitary confinement, is of course, not easy. I was trained for the war, and I had no books or papers or radio for a very long time. And of course, no conversation with any other person. I had to learn how to live from within. I was glad that in my life I had read very widely, because I could draw on my memory of prose and poetry. Insofar as I had a respect for language and could remember good language, that helped me to maintain some form of inner structure and inner identity. I learned to be able to draw on inner resources, and I discovered that in fact the unconscious can and will come to our aid in situations of extremity and difficulty.

I was helped by my faith, as a Christian believer, even though I hardly ever felt the close presence of God. I felt alone and isolated. But I could say in the face of my captives, you had the power to bend my mind, and you tried, the power to break my body, and you've tried, but my soul is not yours to possess. That very simple belief enabled me to maintain hope, and if in situations of difficulty, you can maintain hope, you can survive. So to summarize, I learned to appreciate that very complex workings within are in fact very simple. I appreciate now the simple things in life: freedom, being able to see the sky, and feel the wind on my face.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Are there degrees of fundamentalism of which bin Laden and the Taliban are at the extreme end?

WAITE: I do believe that they represent an extreme point of view, and I don't think we should in any way judge all so-called fundamentalists and certainly not the whole of Islam, by the behavior and actions of these people. Personally, I ought to add that I myself am not attracted to fundamentalism of any description, be it religious or political. I think an interesting question to ask is why is it that people are attracted to fundamentalism. I think one of the reasons in the Islamic world is that it provides a sense of solidarity and unity for people who think and know that they have little or nothing in this world. They find that fundamentalism binds them together, to work toward a common person to their advancement and the advancement of what they believe to be the doctrine of their faith.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Terry you went behind closed doors many times and you were in danger all these times -- how has security changed over the years during a hostage negotiation?

WAITE: There is no question at all that I adopted a very high-risk strategy, and I do not believe that that strategy can work in every situation. It will work effectively in some, as it did for me effectively in Iran in the early '80s, in Libya, in negotiations with Quaddafi, and partially in Beirut. The strategy has been first to seek a face-to-face meeting with the individuals responsible for the capture of hostages. Second, to get behind the hostage-taking, and try to discover the reason why. Third, to build a relationship of trust between myself and the people with whom I'm speaking, even though I would not in any way condone the taking of innocent people. Fourthly, to try to unravel the problem by finding a face-saving solution, and by face-saving solution, I mean a solution whereby all parties to the problem can insofar as it is possible, walk away with their dignity intact. That may seem a strange way of working, but in fact, it does work in certain situations.

I imposed upon myself certain rules. I would not pay money or engage in false exchange for hostages, because I believe that that would in fact lead to further problems down the line. I think as far as situations today go, we have to be able to find and develop peaceable strategies of resolving international conflict. I have simply outlined one particular way. There are many different ways. We need to be able to work at them. It is comparatively easy to make war; it is extremely difficult to make peace. That is where we need our best brains to apply themselves.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Can you tell us the degree to which these fundamentalists hold individuals accountable versus whole societies or systems?

WAITE: One of the dreadful things that happens in today's world, both from the point of view of the fundamentalists, or some of the Islamic states, and indeed some of the Western states, is that we tend to stereotype people and nations. For example, one of the ways in which terrorists would justify torturing or killing an individual is not to see that individual as a person in their own right, but to see that individual as representative of a state that is oppressive and manipulative. In other words, they de-personalize the situation. That is understandable, but very dangerous because it leads to, on the one hand, the killing of innocent people in New York, and indeed, the bombing, although it's not always intentional, of innocent people in Afghanistan.

We treat rather casually the sight of a dead Taliban soldier, and when we see them killed, we say, "Yes, we're having a good war." But if we were to take away the stereotype, we would recognize the chances that that dead soldier has a wife and children, and the chances are that a whole new generation will be brought up traumatized by Western bombs. This does not bode well for the future. So, while you are undoubtedly right, that we all stereotype, we do well to get beyond stereotypes and to begin to understand each other as people. And that is possible. Last week, I was in Kosovo with my Jewish colleague, helping develop a program for women and children who have been traumatized by war. All our therapists in Kosovo are Islamic professional women, and the reason Christian, Jew and Muslim can work together is because we know and respect each other as people. I would suggest that that is the spirit that needs to be developed more and more, internationally.

CNN : Why have the fundamentalists moved away from kidnapping and more toward terrorism?

WAITE: I think they have moved away, because they have recognized that kidnapping has limited effect and value. Where kidnapping is still rife, it is mainly now kidnapping in Colombia, for example, for criminal monetary gain, rather than political gain. They have recognized that violent aggressive acts, such as we have witnessed, get a reaction and frequently influence policy. That is what, for example, the IRA have practiced for a long time, in Ireland. What we must do in response to this, is get to many of these situations before they erupt into acts of terrorism. In other words, we need much more preventative diplomacy. The problem with preventative diplomacy is that it is extremely difficult to evaluate. You never know what in fact you have prevented.

CNN : Do you have any closing comments to share with us?

WAITE: One of the long-term issues that concerns me most is the welfare and future well-being of women and children in many of these situations around the world, in Afghanistan, Kosovo, other places. They become the real victims of war, and pay the price for that. As I indicated a moment ago, I'm involved in many projects aimed at easing trauma, and at the same time, to help educate children who have little or nothing, and there are far too many in this world. In South Africa, the program using the wind-up radio brings education to children who would never have a chance. In Mujer a radio company is also running a program where radios are exchanged for guns, so that we have in fact education rather than violence. We need lots more innovative programs that will give hope to the youngsters of this world, giving them tools and skills, so they don't waste their lives in anger, violence and aggression.

CNN : Thank you for joining us today.

WAITE: Goodbye, and thanks for the questions.

Terry Waite joined the chat via telephone from London and CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Friday, November 30, 2001.


• Free Play Foundation

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