MIT Institute Professor and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy, Noam Chomsky, discusses U.S.-Muslim relations and possible reasons for the tensions between the two. Professor Chomsky addressed the MSNBC.com chat audience through a typist over the phone from Boston. The following is an edited transcript of the audio of that phone call. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Ok. Welcome Professor Chomsky.
Question from Chip Berlet: I agree with you that aggressive militarism is not the answer to this mess, but the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s networks seem to me to be totalitarian and apocalyptic clerical fascist movements. Isn’t this a moment the left needs to just say it is against terrorism, and that groups like the Taliban and OsB’s networks are not liberation stuggles but reactionary or fascistic movements that we oppose?
Noam Chomsky: As far as I’m aware, that’s what the left has been saying for 20 years. I know I have ever since these groups were organized by the CIA, Pakistani and Egyptian intelligence and other U.S. allies. They were organized recruited, trained, and armed to fight a holy war against the Russians, which they did. But they also started right away carrying out terrorist acts. 20 years ago they assassinated the president of Egypt and they’ve been carrying out terror ever since. The groups that the CIA organized were drawn from extremist radical Islamic groups and they have been pursuing their own agenda. They did what the CIA wanted them to, but they have been pursuing their own agenda. There is no doubt that from the start they were murderous terrorist organizations. I don’t know if the word fascist is exactly correct, they don’t have that kind of ideology. But they’re extremely dangerous and have been for 20 years. It is quite obvious. That’s been the position, as far as I’m aware, of any serious person on the left as far back as I can remember.
Question from Geraldine Fincannon: We are a nation which would advance the destiny of all lives and share the wealth existing in our country with all its inhabitants and those of the world. Isn’t this the real bone of contention between our country and the radical Moslems who send terrorists to do horrible deeds in our country?
Noam Chomsky: It has nothing to do with money. They have been very clear about what they want. Bin Laden himself has had many interviews with western journalists, many of them are broadcast in just the last week. Two long ones were broadcast by the BBC. What he and the others have been saying for 20 years is consistent, and it’s also consistent with their actions so we should take it seriously. They say their main targets are the corrupt brutal regimes of the Middle East, which from their point of view are not properly Islamic and they want to defend Muslim rights against infidels anywhere in the world. So they’ve been fighting in Chechnya, Bosnia, North Africa, Kashmir, the Philippines, all over.
They turned against the United States when the United States established permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia about 10 years ago. They regard that very much like the Russian occupation of Afghanistan they fought against. Apart from the Islamic fanaticism, what they say has considerable resonance in the region, including very pro-American wealthy sectors. The Wall Street Journal has been doing a particularly good job in surveying those opinions beginning September 14. When they condemn the United States for its anti-democratic stands for supporting brutal regimes and corrupt regimes, they are saying what people in the streets think and there’s a reason for it. The same is true when they condemn U.S. policies towards Iraq and Israel.
They know, even if we choose not to, that the United States has been devastating the civilian society of Iraq while strengthening Sadam Hussein, and it’s been supporting a very harsh military occupation that is now in its 35th year in Israel, over the Palestinians. The U.S. has been pretty much alone in the world in imposing that very cruel domination with economic and military and diplomatic assistance. That’s quite well known there and even the most pro-American wealthy Muslim businessmen bankers have the same feelings others do. When Bin Laden talks about these things there is a resonance. They may hate him. Most of them do hate him because they overwhelmingly oppose his terrorist violence and his Islamic fanaticism, but a good part of the message does reflect what people believe and with justification.
Question from Pat Wickline: I am seeing a lot of media coverage of the perspective that US foreign policy in the region has been driven by economic reasons. It is hard to argue that our motivation is “freedom” when we support a government like Saudi Arabia. Do you think progress has been made in this regard, esp. compared to how US Involvement in Central America was covered in the media?
Noam Chomsky: In the last few weeks since these horrendous atrocities of September 11th, there has been a certain amount of opening in the media about these questions. What I was just saying about the attitudes of wealthy Muslims towards U.S. anti-democratic policies, that was almost quoted from the Wall Street Journal, for example. So there’s been a little bit of opening to this. It has a long way to go, but if we want to understand what is happening and undertake realistic programs that will protect ourselves as well as others, we just have to begin to pay attention to these things.
Question from Stan Feldman: Do you think that Arab states who want to be “with the US, and not with the terrorists” as President Bush says, should take steps to eliminate inflamatory and blatantly false statements disseminated by their media and in their school systems about the USA and Israel?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Why does the American propaganda machine fail overseas?
Noam Chomsky: Of course they should stop producing outrageous lies and fabrications.
These are terrible governments. There are good reasons people in the region hate and despise them and are angry at the U.S. for the support that it gives them. And yes, they should, of course, move towards open media and discussion the way most of the population wants. There is now finally one pretty free television channel in the regions based in the Gulf Emerit Al-Jazeera. That has been pretty free and open and everyone in the Arab speaking world listens to it, but it’s unique.
As to why the U.S. propaganda system fails over there, the reason is that they can see with their own eyes what the facts are. When you produce false propaganda to people who can see that it’s false, it does not succeed. Just the way that we never believed Soviet propaganda. It was so obviously ridiculous that you just laughed at it. Unfortunately it’s the policies that are the problem and there’s no amount of propaganda that can overcome that.
Question from craig Bryant: What is the “real reason” for our continued support of Israel?? And what would be the result if we discontinued that support??
Noam Chomsky: Personally I don’t think and have never thought that we should discontinue support of Israel. I am very critical of their policy towards Israel but that’s in part because I think it’s very harmful to the people of Israel. It happens to support the government, but it’s harmful to the people in my opinion. What we should do, I think, is join what has been a very broad international consensus for about 25 years now, which calls for a two state settlement on the internationally recognized borders (that means pre-June 1967) in recognizing the rights and guaranteeing the security of all states in the region including Israel and a Palestinian state. That has been the overwhelming position of the entire world for 25 years. In fact, the resolution to that effect was vetoed by the United States at the Security Council 25 years ago and Washington has been blocking similar initiatives ever since, still is. I don’t think that that is moral or wise.
Meanwhile the U.S. has provided the means for Israel to continue its settlements in the territories under military occupation, and many serious abuses, all of which are in violation of international law and conventions, particularly the Geneva conventions of 1949. Again, there is a near universal international consensus on that. In fact, Israel is usually the only country that votes against. The United States usually abstains because it doesn’t want to take a position so dramatically opposed to central elements on international law. But it’s still providing a means for that to continue. Unfortunately, most of this is not reported here, or if it is, it’s reported very inaccurately. But surely people who see it with their own eyes know all about it. And around most of the world it’s pretty well understood. We do not help ourselves by hiding our heads in the sand. There is a rich, uncontroversial documentary record on this and we should pay attention to it. What the U.S. ought to do is join the international consensus instead of blocking. Now, by now that’s much harder than say, 10 years ago.
Question from John Schindele: Would the U.S. moving to a more even-handed support of Palastine & Israel (both politically & fiscally) have a positive effect on the region’s stability? Is it even possible now without giving the appearance of the U.S. bowing to terrorism.
Noam Chomsky: Yes, it would almost certainly have a positive effect on the region’s stability and political and social and economic health. It has nothing to do with bowing to terrorism. Remember that most of the people in the region and many others throughout the world perceive the United States as a supporter of terrorism because they regard the military occupation and its actions as terrorism. So it wouldn’t be bowing to terrorism to withdraw from what most people see as support for terrorism. We should do what is right and what is right includes what’s right for us and crucially, what is right for the people of the region. It has been no help to the people of Israel for the United States to support the settlement programs in territories under military occupation which have stirred up enormous anger and resentment and have very much punished the domestic population of Palestine. That is no help to anyone.
Now they are in a serious difficulty because it’s going to be difficult now to extricate themselves from these illegal settlements and integration programs that we have been supporting, but it just has to be done. There are many illusions here about this. For example the Camp David proposals of last year, Summer 2000, were almost universally described here as magnanimous and generous, but they weren’t perceived that way anywhere else. If you take a look at a map you can see why. It’s rather striking that maps were not published here. You can find them in Israel and in other places, but not here. And if you look at the maps, you can see why this was regarded as a completely unacceptable proposal.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Would a change in U.S. policy in the Middle East repair relations? Or are the grudges set?
Noam Chomsky: The longer it goes on, the harder it is to repair. So, 10 years ago it would have been a lot easier than it is today. One year ago would have been a lot easier. And the longer the United States and Israel continue with these policies, the harder it’s going to get. No, it would not repair all the problems by any means, it would just be a beginning. There are many others such as those I was quoting from the wealthy Muslims reported in the Wall Street Journal. They’re also deeply angry about what the United States is doing to the civilian society of Iraq while strengthening Sadam Hussein. They are well aware, and constantly say, even if we prefer to forget it, that the United States supported Sadam Hussein, right through his worst atrocities, including the gassing of the Kurds. They know that and constantly say it. They are strongly opposed to U.S. support for the governments of the region, most of which are very ugly regimes, brutal, corrupt, torturers, very unpleasant regimes and they rely very extensively on U.S. support.
Question from Mike Petty (Dayton OH): Is it possible that the attack on the WTC was meant to provoke the U.S. into military action for the purpose of uniting the muslim nations against the west?
Noam Chomsky: It’s very possible. We should remember that this is the second attack on the World Trade Center. The first one was in 1993. They didn’t succeed in blowing it up but they were trying to. Whether that was actually the intention of the terrorists who carried it out, we can’t know. They’re dead and didn’t leave any messages. But it is the thinking of the groups from which they presumably come, the terrorists networks of radical Islamists that the CIA certainly knows all about since they helped organize them and nurture them for a long time.
Most specialists on the region, and in fact, foreign leaders, NATO leaders, have been telling Washington as loudly as they can that if the U.S. carries out a large military attack which very visibly kills a lot of innocent Afghans, that will be an answer to Bin Laden’s prayers. It will be like virtually a recruitment procedure for new people to join his horrendous cause. And if he’s killed, even more so, he then becomes an martyr. I think that’s probably why Washington has backed off from its early militant rhetoric, it’s been hearing that message. That would not only be a crime in itself but, as you said, it would be a way of recruiting others who want to take revenge for the crime. That’s just what the terrorists want. They would react the same way many people here reacted to the bombing of the World Trade Center. They want revenge. If we want to be serious about it, we have to choose a course of action which will not escalate the cycle of violence and play into the hands of the terrorist groups.
Question from arthur buonamia: What can we as citizens do to influence a foreign policy change that is humane, and just.
Question from John-Boston: Given recent major media portrayals of “pacifists” or “peaceniks” advocating we “do nothing,” would you correct the record by outlining ethical actions, like UN justice and humane foreign policy?
Noam Chomsky: On the first question, we should bear in mind that we are extremely privileged. We live in a very free, very democratic society. Unlike many other places in the world, we can act and speak in all sorts of ways without fear of state punishment and retribution. That leaves all kinds of avenues open to us, from meetings with neighbors or in a church or whatever organization you’re in to publication, to organization, to demonstrations, to political action, to… there’s just every means available. It can be effective. It has been in the past and it can be now. There is no shortage of means. If there’s a shortage, it’s of willingness to use them. They’re available.
On the second point, I don’t know exactly what the media means by pacifists. There are a small number of people, people who I very much respect and who I’ve known for years, who are true pacifists. They don’t believe in violence. Yes there are such people. I don’t happen to agree with them and never have, but I respect the position.
However, what’s called the peace movement has never taken that view. I know very few people who were not in favor of fighting the war against Hitler if they’d been alive or in retrospect. What the serious peace movement has been asking for is pretty much what the Pope just asked for, openly. He said, and he’s right, that it was a terrible crime and when there is a crime, those who are responsible should be held accountable and brought to justice, but without harming great numbers of innocent people. If somebody robs my house and I think it was someone in the neighborhood across the river, I don’t go out and kill everyone in that neighborhood, that’s not the way you proceed. They way you proceed is through lawful means. And they’re available, and there are plenty of precedents for them. The United States should, if it can, and that’s not going to be easy, present a credible case against whoever was responsible for these atrocities. That is not going to be easy, which is probably why they haven’t done it, but that has to be done as a preliminary. And then there are measures that can be taken through international institutions.
Question from Stephanie Daniels: Are the international courts a real option for the US now? If the US recognized their legitimacy and jurisdiction, would someone (US military? UN forces?) be authorized to go into Afghanistan and arrest bin Laden even without hard evidence.
Noam Chomsky: Not without evidence of course. Even NATO countries say they can’t proceed without evidence. And nobody really knows if it happens to be Bin Laden. But yes, the courts are certainly available. Now, the international criminal court, unfortunately, we cannot approach because the U.S. has refused to recognize its jurisdiction. But there is the world court, and if the U.S. wanted, it could set up a special court the same way that it was done for Yugoslavia. There is also the UN Security Council which can initiate forceful actions if it is presented with serious reasons.
We should remember that there are real precedents for this. The most obvious, because it is supported by a World Court decision and UN Security Council resolution, the highest authorities. Twenty years ago the United States launched a war against Nicaragua. That was a terrible war. Tens of thousands of people died. The country was practically destroyed. Nicaragua did not respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They went to the World Court with a case, the World Court ruled in their favor and ordered the United States to stop its “unlawful use of force” (that means international terrorism) and to pay substantial reparations. Well, the United States responded by dismissing the court with contempt and immediately escalating the attack. At that point Niagara went to the UN Security council which voted a resolution calling on all states to obey international law. They didn’t mention anyone, but everyone knew they meant the United States. Well, the United States vetoed it. Nicaragua then went to the General Assembly which, two years in a row passed a similar resolution with only the United States and Israel opposed. El Salvador in one year. But of course, the United States is a very powerful country. If it opposes lawful means, they can’t be pursued. So Nicaragua could do nothing. On the other hand, if the U.S. pursued those means no one would stop it. In fact, everyone would support it.
Question from tennisball: What do you consider the most reliable source of news covering the WTC and the alleged conspirators?
Noam Chomsky: The best thing to do is read widely and always skeptically. Remember that everyone, including me, has their opinions and their goals and you have to think them through for yourself.
MSNBC-Will Femia: How does the international anti-terrorism coalition fit the “new internationalism” theme? And will it last?
Noam Chomsky: We should look very carefully at this anti-terrorism coalition and who is joining it and why. Russia is happily joining the international coalition because it is delighted to have U.S. support for the horrendous atrocities it is carrying out in its war against Chechnya. It describes that as an anti-terrorist war. In fact it is a murderous terrorist war itself. They’d love to have the United States support it. China is very happy to join because it wants U.S. support for its wars in western China against Muslim groups who, in fact, were part of the coalition in Afghanistan 20 years ago and are now fighting for their rights in China, and China wants to suppress them brutally and would love to have the United States supporting that. Indonesia is very happy to join because it wants continued U.S. support in crushing internal uprisings as in, for example, Aceh, as it has been doing very brutally for many years. Unfortunately they already have U.S. support, but they would like to have much more support. Algeria, which is one of the most murderous states in the world, would love to have U.S. support for its torture and massacres of people in Algeria. And if you look around the world, those who are happily joining the coalition are doing it for reasons that should send shivers up their spine. There’s a lot of applause for the coalition, but it will disappear very quickly if you look at the reasons why countries are joining. If that’s the new internationalism, we should not want to be part of it, we should be strongly opposed to it.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Professor Chomsky. I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us.
Noam Chomsky: Glad to do it. Thank you.