Fair Game

A terrorism survivor and expert digs into the bin Laden dilemma

Terror is nothing new to Walid Phares. The 43-year-old Florida Atlantic University associate professor grew up in Beirut and survived the Lebanese civil war of 1975 to 1990. A Maronite Christian, he recalls witnessing the detonation of the first car bomb in his hometown in 1977. Indeed he's lucky to have lived through it. Dozens of people were killed in the blast, he recalls; the only reason he's around today is that he stopped to tie his shoe, then watched the bodies pile up just a couple of hundred feet away.

In the past few weeks, Phares has been a popular guy. One of the nation's top experts on Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism, he's been interviewed by all the major television networks as well as nine daily newspapers. A former lawyer who moved to South Florida in 1990, the soft-spoken academic has a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Miami. He speaks three languages fluently and has written eight books.

New Times recently spoke with Phares in a Hollywood restaurant about his personal reaction to the September 11 tragedies, the genesis of fundamentalism, and Osama bin Laden's possible motivations for terrorism.

Describe living in Lebanon.

I was a criminal lawyer there during the war. We did whatever we could to survive and live a normal life then. Early in the morning we did our work, and whenever there was confrontation, usually in the afternoons and evenings, we would go home. The attack on New York was reminiscent of what I saw in Beirut. Besides the first car bomb that nearly killed me, I experienced others. Meeting people who went through these terrible things was a great experience, terrible but powerful.

Even before the war, when I was younger, I would see the differences between cultures and how ideologies would develop differently in diverse parts of Lebanon. I did work on the various ideologies of the Christians and Muslims, including fundamentalism. Later I got a degree in international law in Lyons [France]. I took an interest in terrorism only as a dimension of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

Does being a fundamentalist imply doing violence to Westerners?

Theoretically, yeah. Fundamentalism is not just a call for being more religious. It is a call for resuming Fatah, resuming the conquests of the Seventh Century. They began in the Arabian peninsula, then moved east to Persia and west to Syria and Palestine, Egypt, and all the way to Spain. This Fatah aims to establish the new world order and the world Islamic state. Currently the most threatening power to it is the United States. It's not just that the U.S. supports Israel or the U.S. has deployed [troops] against Saddam Hussein.

Iran was the third wave of fundamentalism; the first one was in nineteenth-century Arabia -- the Wahhabis, the famous Wahhabis, out of which Mr. bin Laden commenced. The second wave was in Egypt in the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood. The third wave was in Iran in 1979 after the revolution. That one actually affected the ties with the United States. You know: the hostage crisis, Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon against the Marines, and the rest.

In 1979 the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, too.

What happened in '79 is that all the fundamentalists in Afghanistan, the first mujahideen and others, various factions, all coalesced against the Soviets. Now, that coalition [which included bin Laden] got the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and some Arab states. Bin Laden said years ago that he accepted support from the Americans then because it was help against the Russians. The enemy of my enemy is my objective ally.

Now, after the Soviets were evacuated or withdrawn, there was an internal conflict among the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The mainstream would establish the government, led by those who were actually known as the mujahideen. Then there were those who were more radical, the Taliban. Bin Laden sided with the Taliban, and they defeated the former mujahideen in most of Afghanistan, with the exception of the Northern Alliance and some Shiites in the West, who are backed by Iran. Most of the Afghans are Sunni. The Iranian Islamics are Shiite. They do not get along much.

Why are so many fundamentalists anti-American?

Being a fundamentalist in Islamic politics means several things. One: supporting the change in all those governments in the East that do not subscribe to their ideology. Two: because of American support for those governments, being anti-American. The United States is seen as an immoral power, outside politics, by both Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists. To this you add being materialistic. So regardless of whether you are talking about policy or politics, of deploying or not deploying forces in the East, this is a bad neighborhood for them.

The world is divided into two zones. One of them is the House of Islam; the other is the War Zone. Bin Laden wants to free dar-el-Islam first. This means get the Israelis out, get the Americans out, get rid of the minorities, unify the Muslim lands, and topple governments in Muslim lands. It's simple in his mind. The problem he has is that, in order to do so, he has to undermine the power of the United States, which will not allow the destruction of Israel, will not allow him to topple pro-American regimes, and which recently has begun supporting minorities ... blacks in southern Sudan, where the U.S. is supporting policies that would counter the north from pursuing ethnic cleansing and enslavement. Over the past few years, the United States has been more active in supporting human rights. This is also seen as a problem for the fundamentalists, because if they are to establish a Muslim state, one of the problems will be those minorities and a potential call for pluralism. Pluralism is against the beliefs of fundamentalists. They want an Islamic state, not pluralism.

For all those reasons, my assumption is that bin Laden decided to hit hard in the heart of the United States. He assumed this would do two things: One, it would create an isolationist movement in the United States, inspired by fear. He assumed that Americans are so materialistic and so morally weak that their reaction would not be defensive. He also thought that we would react emotionally and that we would start striking out irresponsibly, regardless of who was responsible.

He was wrong on both counts. He had a poor reading of American society, of the multiethnic, secular world. It's a blow to him that so many countries have joined together. What he wanted was division.

Say we seize bin Laden or kill him. What happens then?

There will be other bin Ladens who will emerge: his students, his protégés, other organizations. This would buy time. But the disbanding of al Qaeda is the most important because it is the most aggressive. This problem is deeply rooted and has to be addressed and uprooted by a long-range policy that doesn't necessarily need to be [uniquely] military but needs to be political, economic, educational. We should offer more support of democratic, human-rights groups to counter the fundamentalist teachings. They are teaching the youth that there are limited options, and countering them there is nobody. Democratic elements are not found, are not supported.

The whole question is what is going to happen in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh in terms of how far can the fundamentalists mobilize people into the streets to limit the capabilities of our allies in helping us. The next few weeks are very important. If they can stop governments from helping, then it is going to be pretty complicated.

The Sunni fundamentalists will be more likely to mobilize in defense of their own people, including bin Laden. The Shiite will criticize America but would be unlikely to fight for bin Laden. The real question is the Hezbollah. If the fight is just against bin Laden, they will say "fine" and just lay low for a while. If they are next on the list, there could be trouble. It is a big chess game.

Your emotions?

To me it is no longer a question of country; it is a question of a confrontation between principles.

Although the destruction of the World Trade Center, which I call a microgenocide, deeply affected me emotionally, it didn't surprise me. I went through something similar in Lebanon. The terrorists picked the United States -- which is my country now -- not just because of what it is but because of what it represents to the entire world.

Immigrants like me have always thought that, even if our countries had fallen to the fundamentalists, there would be one place to go. When the West, your adopted home, has been hit, it reawakens what you went through before.

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