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Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube/Diller distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. His bi-weekly column appears regularly in newspapers around the globe. His website, DanielPipes.org, is one of the most accessed internet sources of specialized information on the Middle East and Islam.

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PostMon Mar 24, 2008 7:47 am     On Islam and Islamism - interview with Daniel Pipes    

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by Andrew Potter
Ottawa Citizen
March 23, 2008


Mr. Pipes spoke with Citizen editor Andrew Potter about the emerging threats to Israel, the state of the American professoriate, and the problem with Islamic radicalism.

You're coming to Ottawa tomorrow to talk about 'The threat to Israel's existence, why it's back and how to deal with it.' Can you tell me what is or are the main threats right now to Israel's existence?

Well, they're unending, from the threat of nuclear annihilation, conventional military attacks, economic boycotts, demographic overwhelming, ideological undermining -- you name it, from the most violent to the most political; the threats against Israel are across the spectrum.

I think it's not only unique for an existing state, but probably unique for any state at any time to be in such a position.

You mentioned, right off the top, nuclear annihilation. I presume you mean, predominately, threats from Iran?

Right. In addition, the Syrians are building chemical or have chemical warfare capacity; others are doing biological, so all sorts of WMD --not just nuclear.

For a long time, the ultimate guarantor of Israel's existence has been the United States. And some people -- Norman Podhoretz, for instance -- think that George Bush will not leave office with Iran either either having a bomb or being in a position to acquire one. Do you have any hope for that?

First, I wouldn't look at that decision uniquely (with respect to) Israel's interests. There are plenty of other reasons why the United States government doesn't want a nuclear Iran. But I tend to agree that George W. Bush would not leave office with this issue hanging; he would want it resolved in some fashion, yes.

So ultimately then, would you support either bombing or invading Iran?

I think if the choice is between an Iran with nuclear weapons or taking out those weapons, I would be in favour of taking them out.

Given that America has a general interest in not seeing Iran or Syria get the bomb, do you have any hope that either John McCain or either one of the Democratic candidates will sort of pick up the cudgel here?

Well, McCain has been very clear on this. He made a statement a year or two ago that's been widely quoted about -- that the only thing worse than an attack on Iran is Iran with nuclear weapons. So he has staked out a pretty clear position. The Democrats have not; they've left it quite open.

You've written that there's strong evidence that Barack Obama was at least an irregularly practicing Muslim who prayed occasionally with his stepfather at a mosque. What relevance is that to his candidacy for president?

It has two implications. One is that it will change the way many Muslims look at him; if they see him as someone that leaves Islam and who is an apostate. And secondly, it has significant implications about his own veracity. I'm not saying I accept the rumours that he's a Muslim now. I'm not saying that in the least, I completely accept that he's a practicing Christian -- my focus is historical. I would not have been looking at his childhood were he not running for president.

Aside from the nuclear threat to Israel, you talk about economic boycotts, ideological warfare, and so on. You've written in the past that one of the main vehicles for these threats is American intellectuals, especially the professoriate. Given that it's been five or so years now since Campus Watch has been working, has there been any progress, do you think, on that front?

Well, first, Campus Watch is not focused on Israel -- it is a critique of Middle East studies in general. But how do I see Campus Watch five years later? Well, we have two goals: one is short-term and the other is long-term. The short-term goal is to improve the discussion of Middle East issues; to move it toward the centre, have it be less politicized, have it be more of a tolerance of different viewpoints.

I would say there has been some improvement and I will take some credit for that improvement, but it is limited. The long-term issue is having balance in the professoriate. And there now, while there have been a couple of successes here and there, overall, we have not had much of an impact.

Can we talk a bit about radical Islam? You've written that 'Islam is not the enemy, but Islamism is,' and that 'we need to eradicate the radical variants of Islam.' What makes Islamism, or radical Islam, a threat in a way that say, radical Christianity or radical Judaism is not?

I prefer not to make that comparison between radical Islam and other forms of other religions. I just don't think there's any basis for comparison. There is no such thing as a radical Christian ideological movement -- it's fantasy.

In contrast, I think there is a real connection between radical Islam and fascism and communism -- so I see this as a native totalitarian movement that happens to have a more religious basis than the others do. It happens not to be western, it happens to have many significant differences, but in its aspirations to world domination, in its totalitarian nature, in its brutality, it is far more akin to fascism and communism than to any religious phenomenon.

People such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have been arguing recently that the religious belief per se is the problem and that aligning ourselves with moderates is giving a hostage to fortune. I guess clearly, you disagree, and believe that we can make use of the moderates as our allies.

I would say that the moderates are absolutely essential, because ultimately, one needs an alternate position of Islam, an alternative explanation of what it means to be a Muslim, in order to do battle with the Islamists.

We can't fight something with nothing. And it is the moderate Muslims who are in the course of formulating this alternative. So if one freezes them out, gives up on them, saying "they're part of the problem too," what is one left with?

This is what I say to people who argue that there is no moderate Muslim, for Islam itself is the problem. I say: well then, supposing you're right, what then? How can a secular state survive combat? What are the tools that we're left with? So even if one believes that Islam itself is the problem, it leaves one with no hammer, no tools, no alternatives.

What are you going to do, kill them all? There's no policy that follows. I've had this out with a number of people who argued Islam was solely the problem.

Ultimately they, however reluctantly, are forced to think, well, we need to help find some other version of Islam to promote.

Given that, I was struck by a piece you wrote back in the fall about Islamist finance, where you argue that it's of no great consequence economically, but it poses a substantial political danger. I wonder, could it not be argued that Islamist finance is actually one of those tools for integrating and sort of co-opting the moderate Muslims by bringing them into the world economy?

Well the origins of Islamic finance go back to the 1930s in India, when a major Islamist devised Islamist economics in order to separate Muslims from Hindus. So the original intent was far from integration, it was separation, and I think that's been the effect since then.

There is no such thing as Islamic economics; it's just repackaged normal financial tools and ethics, but it creates divisions that don't otherwise exist.

I think that political implications are negative and that they separate.



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