Did U.S. Foreign Policy Create Charlie Hebdo Gunmen?

January 11, 2015

University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole discusses how the West allies with religious fundamentalism, creating the space for extremist to flourish

University of Michigan History Professor Juan Cole discusses how the West allies with religious fundamentalism, creating the space for extremist to flourish



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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The recent attack on French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo has spawned a conversation about a battle for hearts and minds in Islam in the mainstream press. As you can see here, there’s an article which appeared on the front page of The New York Times. But what is often not talked about is the role of the U.S. and the West is supporting religious fanaticism.

Here to help us impact this topic is our guest, Juan Cole. Juan is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and his most recent work is The New Arabs: How the Wired and Global Youth of the Middle East Is Transforming It.

Thank you so much for joining us, Juan.

JUAN COLE, PROF. HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: Thanks for having me.

So, Juan, in our first segment you mentioned how one of the gunmen pointed to the images of Abu Ghraib and how it’s sort of injured the pride of the wider Arab community. Can you connect the dots for us? How does the invasion in Iraq and moments like in Abu Ghraib lead to gunmen executing people execution-style, in a French satirical newspaper’s office?

COLE: Well, I want to underline that I’m trying to give a context for these events, and I’m not suggesting that it’s the United States’ fault that this happened. These individuals undertook it to do these things themselves for their own reasons. But they do have a context.

And because of the Cold War and the U.S. contest with international communism, the U.S. back in the Eisenhower era and after often backed sort of right-wing religious conservatism in the Arab world. Eisenhower wanted to encourage Muslims to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and gave money to the Saudi government to expand the rail network. They wanted to promote the Saudi King as a leader of the Arab world in preference to secular nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. And the U.S. intelligence played a role in destroying the socialist and communist parties in the Arab world. They would often collaborate with right-wing parties or with forms of Arab nationalism that were willing to cooperate with the U.S. So the Iraqi Communist Party, for instance, which was very large and quite popular [incompr.] was destroyed in the 1960s by the rival Ba’ath party, and there’s every evidence that the U.S. gave them its own intel on the communists in Iraq.

So the U.S. Cold War policies weakened the Arab left and strengthened the religious right. And if you read the U.S. diplomatic dispatches back in the ’60s and ’70s, the U.S. is completely unconcerned with religious fundamentalism. It’s worried about leftist and communist and workers groups that might interfere with U.S. corporate profits in the region.

Then, after 1978, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Carter and then, primarily, the Reagan administration decided to take revenge on the Soviets for Vietnam by encouraging Afghan paramilitaries, guerrilla groups, what were called mujahedin, to conduct guerrilla operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan and against the communist government of Afghanistan. And while the U.S. probably didn’t directly form al-Qaeda, it pressured Egypt and Saudi Arabia and others to get up Arab volunteers to go fight against godless communism on behalf of Islam. And, of course, what that effort attracted was these jihadis or radical vigilantes.

And so the Reagan policy against the Soviets–I call it Reagan Jihad–really was a matrix in which al-Qaeda was formed. And the CIA trained mujahedin for guerrilla operations, for covert ops, for cell formation. And that knowledge inevitably then made its way over to the al-Qaeda cells as well.

And what the U.S. didn’t understand–this is called blowback in intelligence work, when a covert op comes back around on you–is that once these Arab networks of militant religious fundamentalism had felt as though they defeated a superpower in the form of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, they became ambitious then to pull down the other superpower with whom they had had an alliance of convenience in the 1980s.

And so al-Qaeda got going in the ’90s. It intervened in Algeria and Somalia. And when Bush, George W. Bush invaded and occupied Iraq, probably al-Qaeda was starting to decline, because the September 11 attacks were unpopular in the organization and brought a lot of pressure on it and opprobrium. But the American eight-year-and-a-half-long occupation of Iraq reinvigorated the movement, attracted international volunteers to go fight the U.S. troops there, and ultimately, I think, that invasion and occupation delivered northern and western Iraq into the hands of an al-Qaeda offshoot. And certainly these networks of militants in Europe were also inspired in part by that invasion.

DESVARIEUX: But, Juan, do you feel that we can’t really talk about the Iraq invasion unless we also talk about the invasion of Libya? And since July, hundreds of Libyan civilians have been killed in fighting, and the Pentagon said in December that ISIS now has training camps in eastern Libya. And there are many people who were in support of this intervention. The UN recently released a study in 2013 that said arms from Libya are spreading to countries like Mali and Syria. And it’s also know that countries like Qatar, Sudan, Turkey are providing arms to groups fighting for power. Don’t we, at the end of the day, have to include the Libyan intervention as part of the interventionist foreign policies that sort of create the space for this religious fanaticism to grow?

COLE: Well, I agree with you that flooding Libya with medium armaments was unwise. I don’t see the Libyan intervention at all in the same way as I do the Iraq one. And there were elements of it that I favored at the time.

I think one has to remember that this was a revolution by the Libyan people against an extremely oppressive government, and the mercurial one that from day to day you never knew what it was going to do to you, and that a similar movement broke out in Syria where the West did not intervene. Many more people have been killed by the Syrian Civil War, even proportionally, than in Libya, which in the aftermath of the revolution, inevitably things are somewhat a mess.

But the Arab League asked the international community to intervene in Libya. The UN Security Council approved it. A no-fly zone was established so that helicopter gunships couldn’t be flown against civilian innocent crowds who were protesting Gaddafi’s tyranny. So I think obviously Libya is in difficult conditions. I don’t think that those are primarily because of the leveling of the playing field that the UN arranged for. I think that many more people would be dead and it would be much worse if Gaddafi had been allowed to try to crush this popular movement, as indeed was allowed in Syria.

But I think it is true that things went way beyond just the UN no-fly zone. And, as you say, some countries in the region, I think quite unwisely, flooded medium weapons into the country, which got into the hands of militias, who then refused to stand down in the aftermath of the revolution and now are fighting turf wars with one another and with what’s left of the eastern military in Libya.

DESVARIEUX: So, just quickly, if you could just say what lessons should be learned from Libya if you are advocating for intervention, what should have been done?

COLE: Well, as I said, I think that the UN did the right thing in demanding that Libya not be–the Libyan government not be allowed to bomb, use heavy weaponry against its own civilian population for the mere crime of gathering in center squares and protesting. And the Syrian regime was allowed to do that and is in fact still dropping barrel bombs on people.

So I’m not an ideologue in this regard. I don’t think that all interventions are wrong or hurtful. I think famously the D-Day and the invasion of Europe to overthrow the Nazis was a good idea. So I think it’s more the circumstances under which it was done, whether it comports with international law and the wisdom with which it is pursued. And in the case of Iraq, there was no UN Security Council resolution authorizing that war. It was an illegal war. It was a war of aggression. It was gotten up on false pretenses. And then it was pursued in extremely invidious and unfair ways so that the U.S. strongly backed the Shiite fundamentalists to come to power, along with Kurdish forces, and really punished the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, and so created enormous grievances that now have torn the country apart. And I compare this to South Africa or contrast it to South Africa, where Mandela’s policies, you know, kept South Africa together, because he wasn’t punitive towards the Afrikaners in the way that the U.S. was punitive toward the Sunni Arabs of Iraq.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Juan Coal joining us from Michigan, thank you so much for being with us.

COLE: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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