By Niram Ferretti, L'Informale
August 30, 2016
is today one of the most alert observers of the Middle East. From the history
of Medieval Islam, he has shifted to modern and contemporary Islam upon which
he has concentrated a large part of his focus as a scholar and historian, as
well as son of another historian, Richard Pipes, the great Harvard specialist
of Soviet Russia history.
Founder and president of the Middle East
Forum he has written numerous books and countless articles on the subject of
Islamism, Islamic history and jihadism. Among them, In the Path of God:
Islam and Political power (1983), The Long Shadow: Culture and Politics in the
Middle East (1999), and Militant Islam Reaches America (2002).
Dr. Pipes, thank you for granting this interview. I would like to start with a
question about the connection between Islamic terrorism and Islam. We have been
told repeatedly that the roots of Islamic terrorism are not to be found in the
religion but in unemployment, frustration, nationalism, and (that favoured
explanation) in reaction to Western foreign policy, specifically the U.S.
foreign policy. Please comment on this.
The first explanation – about unemployment – is a silly, discredited idea that
reflects a Marxist influence which insists that economic interests drive
everything; as they say, "You are what you eat." I disagree. Yes,
material concerns have great importance but ideas drive humans more. In other
words, "You are what you think." To take a single example, it is
impossible to argue that Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel killed 86 holiday-goers on
the beach of Cannes, France, for economic reasons.
The second – about Western policy – is a
convenient excuse. Yes, the West has a history of intruding around the world.
But why is this violent response disproportionately among Muslims? Perhaps it
has something to do with being Muslim?
Indeed, Islam is – no surprise – the key to
political violence carried out in the name of Islam by Muslims. That's almost
true by definition.
According to Samuel P. Huntington, Islam and the West are inevitably in
conflict due to a deep and irreducible clash of values. Do you subscribe to
Huntington was a brilliant scholar who in this case took an interesting idea
too far. Yes, civilisational differences exist and have great importance. No,
political conflicts and wars have less to do with these differences than with
ideology and personal ambition. Tracing civilisational relations makes for a
great seminar topic but should not be taken seriously by voters or policymakers.
What are, according to you, the main causes of the increased conflict between
Islam and the West that has occurred specifically in the late twentieth
Muslims tried emulating the liberal West (Great Britain and France primarily)
in the era 1800-1920 to seek the sources of power and wealth without success;
then they emulated the illiberal West (Italy, Russia, and Germany) between 1920
and 1980, and that also failed. In the past forty years, they have turned back
to their own history. This too is failing. I often wonder what comes next;
perhaps a return to liberalism, this time with better results? Or to
Between 1980 and 1995 - in other words, well before the Iraq invasion of 2003 -
the United States had engaged in seventeen military operations in the Middle
East, all of them directed towards Muslims; however, from President Clinton to
President Obama, we have always heard that the West does not have a problem
with Islam but only with extremists. Isn't this narrative wearing thin?
I disagree with your premise. The U.S. government has intervened many times on
behalf of Muslims, such as the Albanians, Bosnians, Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Saudis,
Somalis, and Syrians. Further, millions of Muslims have been welcomed to the
United States, some even brought over at taxpayer expense.
I also disagree with your "wearing
thin" comment. It's been U.S. policy since 1992 to oppose not Islamism in
general but only violent forms of Islamism. This policy has been largely
followed in practice.
"For almost a thousand years, from the first Moorish landing in Spain to
the second Turkish siege of Vienna, Europe was under constant threat from
Islam", writes Bernard Lewis. Is the present Islamic resurgence in
continuity with the past or a different phenomenon resulting from different
I see mainly continuity. The European-Muslim confrontation is possibly the
longest and most vicious in human history, comparable to lions and hyenas. It has
gone through many changes, with Muslims controlling substantial parts of Europe
at times and Europeans ruling the great majority of Muslims just a century ago.
This confrontation took a new turn with the German-Turkish labour agreement of
1961 and the American immigration reform of 1965.
According to the German political scientist, Matthias Kuntzel, "The
starting point of Islamism is the new interpretation of jihad, exposed with
uncompromising militancy by Hassan al Banna, the first to preach it as a holy
war in modern times". Do you agree that the Muslim Brotherhood has been
the main agency for the resurgence of jihadism in modern Islam?
No, I see it as only one of several important Islamist movements. The most
important is the Wahhabi (or Salafi) doctrine espoused by the Saudi government
with all its vast resources, then the Khomeinist line of the Islamic Republic
of Iran, then the Muslim Brotherhood, then the Deobandi School in India.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali in her latest book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,
places Muslims into three categories: The Mecca Muslims, the largest majority
who represent the more tolerant side of religion; the Medina Muslims, or the
jihadist wing; and the Modifying Muslims, the dissidents and reformists who
challenge religious dogma. Do you think this broad scheme is useful?
Yes, and it generally corresponds to the triad of responses to modernity that I
offered in my 1983 book, In the Path of God, which I called reformists,
Islamists, and secularists.
In a recent interview I did with Israeli historian Benny Morris, he was very
clear in emphasizing that Arab rejectionism has always been from the start the
main obstacle to a resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. If Morris is right,
then every notion of a possible peace is completely delusional. Is this also
your point of view?
I agree about Arab rejectionism being the cause of the conflict, noting that it
has taken four main forms over the past century: Pan-Syrianism, Pan-Arabism,
Palestinianism, and Islamism. But I disagree that peace is delusional; were
Israel and its allies tough enough, deterrence could work and the conflict
would likely conclude.
Of all countries in the world, Israel is the most vilified; just look at the UN
resolutions against it from 1967 onwards compared to those against any other
state. What are the main causes for this state of affairs?
I count four: Nazi influence; Soviet influence; anti-Semitism; and the large
number of Arab and Muslim UN member states.
With the ongoing civil war in Syria, Iran heading towards nuclear weapons, and
Russia's growing power in the Middle East, America seems increasingly
irrelevant to the region. What do you foresee?
Don't count the United States out. I foresee the region going through even
worse crises and many parties turning to the United States to take on a larger
role, as is already happening in East Asia.
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