This interview with the distinguished Palestinian author, activist and poet Fouzi El-Asmar. excerpted below, is a follow-up to one this author published in Arabisto in February 2012. There Dr. El-Asmar shared his thoughts about the Arab uprisings and the importance of culture to the Palestinian liberation movement, in the context of analyzing Zionism, Israeli nationhood and related matters that affect the lives and well-being of Palestinians. Here Dr. El-Asmar discusses Al-Ard [The Land], a political organization he helped found in Palestine during the late 1950s but whose history and perspective have been marginalized if not largely absented from most narratives about the Palestinian liberation movement. In turn Dr. El-Asmar draws instructive connections between that political experience and relevant issues shaking the contemporary Arab and Muslim world.
TG: There seems to be a contradiction in the Western focus on Muslims in the Arab world. On your argument, the West supports the Muslim Brotherhood on the basis of an incorrect view that it will cooperate with the Gulf states and thus serve Western interests (oil, military industry, etc.). Yet many of these same supporters express rabid anti-Muslim sentiment. On the other hand, but by the same token, it has been argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is not extreme in light of the moderates within its ranks. Would you say these counterpoints are meant to cloud the real issues-the expansion of corporate interests and the propping up of governments, whether dictatorships or nominal democracies, which enable them?
FE: For eight years, the George W. Bush administration successfully convinced Western public opinion that Islam runs counter to Western interests. That’s in fact why 9/11 occurred. Afterwards, instead of emphasizing Al-Qaeda’s extremism, which exploits religion to garner Arab support, the Bush regime blamed Islam generally, despite occasional claims to the contrary. Public opinion in the West accepted that, because that’s what the people saw. That was “terrorism” to the West. And when the US tried to fix the problem it had created, it didn’t know how. It couldn’t distinguish between Islam and Muslims who are extremists. So now that the US is claiming to be on good terms with the Muslim Brotherhood, nobody is buying it. Instead they see the looming specter of Bin Laden. The Western image of the Muslim is that of a terrorist. Other religions also carry extremist tendencies, such as Christianity and Judaism, but that fact goes largely unremarked.
This attitude has provoked tremendous reaction in the Arab and Muslim world, which wants to correct the Western view, to emphasize that the West is stealing Middle Eastern oil, supporting dictators who are oppressive, and so on. That’s a perspective rarely heard in the West-but it is not religious. The US and Israel would like to blame religion for actions taken by Arabs and Muslims. This is very, very dangerous.
Take the question of nuclear weapons. When Pakistan got them, the political conflict that ensued between it and India was contextualized as religious. The fact was never discussed that Pakistan was concerned about Israeli aggression, which was being facilitated by India. The Muslim Brotherhood has achieved support in the Arab world because it fights against this image, as such trying to prove that it is not really a religious party, even though people support it because it is. This is a rather confused position.
How the West is going to get out of the quagmire it has helped create is uncertain. It will take a lot to persuade Arabs and Muslims that it supports the rights of the people and not their leadership and dictatorships. That’s another mistake: the US has good relationships with dictators while ignoring the people. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power, the US saw it as approaching the people, which is a mistaken view. The Muslim Brotherhood represents only twenty percent. Think about the eighty percent!
Of course, one of the main determinants of this view is unconditional US support for Israel, which only serves to antagonize the Arab and Muslim people. Regarding the stance against Iran, for instance, the US can say it doesn’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons-but what about the US? What about Israel? The US and the West don’t mention that! The US claims it doesn’t want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons because that would threaten the Gulf, where the US has interests. If Iran were to threaten Russia, however, that would be okay.
TG: The US doesn’t mention India, either, which like Israel has a nuclear arsenal but has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
FE: That’s right. But when it comes to Pakistan, the US’s immediate fear is that any nuclear weapons it may have will fall into extremist hands-even as the US bombards and kills Pakistani civilians on a daily basis. People are reacting to that. But it should be a national reaction. If a combined national and religious reaction produces a bulwark against Western attacks, people will go with that instead. That’s why the wave of Islam is taking over in the Arab world.
TG: Another variable in this picture is Syria, for a brief time Egypt’s partner in the (pan-Arabist) United Arab Republic.
FE: Syria is different. The history of Syria is that of a national state. Syrians are Arab nationalists. They have a clear foreign policy vision-about the Palestinian problem, about involvement with the US and the West, about Israel and its expansion. Syria is now considered the only Arab state that is really standing for the principle of nationalism and against imperialism and Zionism. Because of Syria, the US has been unable to implement Israel’s desire for a “New Middle East,” “Greater Israel,” etc. From the perspective of having supported the Lebanese resistance (Hezbollah), the Palestinian resistance, and of having taken a political stand on their behalf, Syria is not acceptable to the West or to Israel. But many aspects of the regime are corrupt, and that has to be changed.
One must differentiate between the regime and the state. The state stands for certain principles. The regime can be changed. The West refuses to accept that. In one of my columns, I refer to Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha, who during a presentation last year in Washington conveyed three demands presented to his government by the US which, if met, were to have ensured an end to the diplomatic impasse between the two countries: Syria must cut off relations with Iran, stop assisting the resistance, and expel Palestinian organizations from its borders. Syria would not comply, and that was the reason for US belligerence. Syria doesn’t have oil, so it’s not being invaded in the same way as was Libya, but it borders Israel, making it strategically important in the context of the US commitment to Israel.