chief Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London. He is the author of several books, most recently, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.
Veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk of the London Independent recently delivered the keynote address at the sixth annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Fisk says, "Do we in fact really understand the extent of injustice in the Middle East? When I finished writing my new book, I realized how amazed I was that after the past 90 years of injustice, betrayal, slaughter, terror, torture, secret policeman and dictators how restrained Muslims have been towards the West." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: With more than 30 years of experience covering almost every major event in the Middle East, Robert Fisk was asked to give the keynote address in the evening. Robert Fisk’s latest book is called The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. He began his address by recalling one of his first experiences in the Middle East.
ROBERT FISK: Ladies and gentlemen, when I first went to the Middle East — on holiday from Belfast, of all places — 1972, I went to Egypt, and anxious to try and pick up a few first words of Arabic, I had the misfortune of purchasing a very old book produced by the British army in Egypt in the 19th century. I still recall the three principal clauses which you were advised to learn if you were an Englishman: "We shall board the steamship, for there is talk of war," "Help," and "Where is the British Embassy?" And I can tell you, I never believed I would actually watch people say these things, as I had to in Lebanon this last summer. There were all the refugees, all the foreigners, boarding the steamships because there was a real war, all wanting help and all demanding to know the way to their national embassies. "So it has come to this," I thought to myself.
You know, in the last 30 years that I have been in the Middle East, there has been one — no, two major changes. The first is that Muslims are no longer afraid. When I first went to Lebanon, if the Israelis crossed the border, for example, many, many, many Palestinians who were in the south would be rushing to Beirut. People would flee the south, run away. Whether it was the siege of Beirut in 1982 or not, I don’t know. But now, they do not run away. Muslims do not run away when they’re attacked, when they’re under air attack.
One of the most extraordinary events was the siege of '82, when over and over again leaflets would fall from the sky: "If you value your loved ones, run away and take them with you" — an attempt to depopulate West Beirut. And I always remember my landlord — I live on the seafront — I met him at front door one day, and he was holding a little net full of fish. He had been fishing on the sea. He said, "We don't have to do as we’re told and leave our homes. We can live, you see, Mr. Robert. We can stay here."
The other big change that has happened in the past 30 years is that when I first went to the Middle East, all the forces which were in conflict with the West were nationalist or socialist or pro-Soviet. Today, without exception, in Afghanistan, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Iraq, in South Lebanon, all the forces which are in conflict with the West or with Israel are Islamist. That is a change that I don’t think we Westerners really understand.
Do we in fact really understand the extent of injustice in the Middle East? When I finished writing my new book, I realized how amazed I was that after the past 90 years of injustice, betrayal, slaughter, terror, torture, secret policemen and dictators, how restrained Muslims had been, I realized, towards the West, because I don’t think we Westerners care about Muslims. I don’t think we care about Muslim Arabs. You only have to look at the reporting of Iraq. Every time an American or British soldier is killed, we know his name, his age, whether he was married, the names of his children. But 500,000-600,000 Iraqis, how many of their names have found their way onto our television programs, our radio shows, our newspapers? They are just numbers, and we don’t even know the statistic.
Do you remember the time when George Bush was pushed and pushed: What were the figures of the Iraqi dead? At that stage, it was less, and he said, "Oh, 30,000. More or less." Can you imagine if he had been asked how many Americans had died, and he said "3,000, more or less"? Those words, "more or less," somehow said it all.
I said earlier on today — and I’m going to give you the example this time — that actually, I don’t think the Iraq report is going to have any effect, but I think what is meant to have an effect in the United States is the gradual drip-drip idea that the Iraqis are unworthy of us Westerners. This is why and this is how we’re going to get out.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Here is Ralph Peters, former American Army officer, writing in USA Today. I’m not advising you to read USA Today, but I sometimes get trapped into airplanes for hours and hours and hours coming to talk to people like you. So, here is Ralph Peters writing — remember this is quoting a mainstream newspaper. He was originally for the invasion. Obviously he needs a get-out clause now. "Our extensive investment in Iraqi law enforcement only produced death squads. Government ministers loot the country to strengthen their own factions. In reality, only a military coup could hold this artificial country together." You see? We’re already planning.
I remember back even in 2003, Daniel Pipes had a long article in which he said that what Iraq needed — and please do not laugh at this — what Iraq needed was a democratically minded strongman. Think about that for a moment.
But let me carry on with Ralph Peters. "For all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption." You see what we’re doing. We’re denigrating and bestializing the people we came allegedly to save. It’s their tragedy, not ours, he writes. Iraq — listen to this, "Iraq was the Arab world’s last chance to board the train to modernity, to give the region a future, not just a bitter past. But now, the violence staining Baghdad’s streets with gore isn’t only a symptom of the Iraqi government’s incompetence," he says. "It is symbolic of the comprehensive inability of the Arab world to progress in any sphere of organized human endeavor." Yes, that’s what I thought when I read it. No letters to the editor about this. "If they continue to revel" — revel, get that word — "to revel in fratricidal slaughter, we must leave." You see, the ground is being prepared.
Take David Brooks, now, this is The New York Times. This is really mainstream. He’s been reading some history books, remembering how the British occupation of Iraq came to grief in 1920. Pity he didn’t read the history books before he supported the invasion of Iraq. But anyway, he’s getting 'round to reading history now. "Today," he says, "Iraq is in much worse shape than when the British were there. The most perceptive reports," he says, "talk not of a civil war, but of complete social disintegration." We're already rubbing Iraq like this and turning it to dust, so there’s nothing left to leave. "This latest descent," he says, "was initiated by American blunders but is exacerbated by" — wait for it — "the same old Iraqi demons: greed, bloodlust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise for the common good, even in the face of self-immolation." This is similar to the Thomas Friedman line of the child-sacrificing Palestinians. "Iraq," says Brooks, "is teetering on the edge of futility." What does that mean? "It will be time to effectively end Iraq. It will be time soon," he says, "to radically diffuse authority down to the only communities that are viable in Iraq: the clan, the tribe or sect."
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the way in which we are being prepared for what is to happen. This is the grit, which will be laid on the desert floor to help our tanks move. Don’t say there were never predictions about the future in the Middle East.
I’m going to make a quick request here. These lights are dazzling me. Is it possibly to have all the lights up like they were before, so you’re all human beings, like I’m trying to be? Can we have all the lights up?
So, but don’t say there were no predictions of the future in the Middle East. The record of that 1920 insurgency against the British occupation is a fingerprint-perfect copy of the insurgency against the Americans and the British today. But on the other hand, don’t say that no one warned many, many years before here now, before even the Second World War, of what was to happen in Palestine.
I’m going to read you a very brief paragraph by Winston Churchill, not about the Battle of Britain. It is Churchill prophesying the future from 1937, 11 years before the Nakba. This is Winston Churchill writing in a totally forgotten essay. He reflected upon the future and wrote of the impossibility of a partitioned Palestine. And he talked of how, I quote — this is Winston Churchill in 1937 — "The wealthy, crowded, progressive Jewish state" — see, it doesn’t exist yet, but he’s already getting it right — "lies in the plains and on the sea coast of Palestine. Around it, in the hills and the uplands, stretching far and wide into the illimitable deserts, the warlike Arabs of Syria of Transjordania, of Arabia, backed by the armed forces of Iraq, offer the ceaseless menace of war. To maintain itself," — 1937, remember, — "To maintain itself, the Jewish state will have to be armed to the teeth and must bring in every able-bodied man to strengthen its army. But how long will this process be allowed to continue by the great Arab populations in Iraq and Palestine? Can it be expected that the Arabs would stand by impassively and watch the building up, with Jewish world capital and resources, of a Jewish army, equipped with the most deadly weapons of war until it was strong enough not to be afraid of them? And if ever the Jewish army reached that point, who can be sure," Churchill asked, "that, cramped within their narrow limits, they would not plunge out into the new undeveloped lands that lay around them?"
"Ouch," I said when I read that. 1937.
AMY GOODMAN: Veteran war correspondent, Robert Fisk, speaking in Long Beach, California, this weekend before the Muslim Public Affairs Council. We’ll come back to the address in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Robert Fisk, longtime war correspondent with The Independent of London, speaking at the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Long Beach, California. He has been a longtime critic of the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East in the so-called war on terror.
ROBERT FISK: Today, you know, we journalists are complicit with governments in creating what I call the ministry of fear. This is not just a question of phone taps, racial profiling, secret tortures, it’s also a way of making you and me constantly frightened. I happened to be in Toronto when the famous terror plot was uncovered, the 11 Canadian Muslims, or Muslim Canadians, who were arrested and allegedly were plotting to take over the Parliament Building in Ottawa, hold all the members of Parliament hostage, and then to chop off the head of Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada. Harper himself wisely made a little bit of a joke about this, because he saw that this was getting a little bit too much.
But what struck me was the next morning, the Toronto Globe and Mail, mainstream press in Canada, had an eyewitness report — and I use the quotation — of the arrest of the "brown-skinned Muslims." I kid thee not. That’s what it said. The next morning on the CTV, which owned and owns the Toronto Globe and Mail, I was on a live radio program. Live is good. You can’t be edited. So I said, "Can you tell me why the Toronto Globe and Mail referred to these Muslims as 'brown-skinned'? I mean, why didn’t it refer to the white-skinned police chief of Toronto, for I am sure he is white, is he not?" He is, of course. You see, I was told, by the way, by the interviewer that it was a generic matter. Indeed, I’m sure it was. But this, remember, is mainstream journalism.
What is going on in our society? You know, after 9/11, I was flying around the world, and I wasn’t allowed to have a knife to eat my food with. Now I can have a knife, but I can’t have toothpaste. This is the ministry of fear in action. The reality behind this nonsense?
You know, whenever I hear British policemen announcing they foiled another terror plot in the — it’s now red, gold, standard, green, yellow warning signs, you know, the famous colors; we have colors, like they do in the United States, to warn us of the horrors to come — I think of the real horrors in Iraq. If only there were a few policemen to go there. But they don’t have the spittle for it. They’re going to frighten you. I’m thinking of some real terror in Baghdad, the terror that comes through the letterbox or is stuck onto walls. Now, here are real terror plots for the ministry of fear, plots to cleanse and massacre whole communities from their homes and cities on the grounds of their religious sect.
So let’s take a look at some really ferocious terror, collected on the streets of Baghdad and from the front doors of those who are indeed facing a generation of threats, many of them scrupulously collected, these documents, by local U.N. officials, given to some of my Italian colleagues, who handed them to me. And this is the first time they’ve been detailed in this country. They are printed, not hand-written, and they are poisonous.
"To the ignoble rejectionists who sold their religion and community for worldly rewards," begins one note from a Sunni group about their Shiite Muslim countrymen, "it is clear that you must be classified among those who have betrayed the covenant of Allah and his prophet and are intellectually and actively involved in fighting against the Mujahideen. Therefore, we grant you 24 hours to vacate this righteous district. Otherwise, punishment and retribution shall be your fate. Allah is greater. Praise and grace be to Allah."
There are dozens and dozens of these documents, and they’re not put there by people who are joking. Some of them, I suspect, may not be put there by groups at all, because I have a suspicion that there are people who want a civil war in Iraq, and they are not necessarily Iraqi. There are many of these documents which I suspect were not written by Iraqis. They’re very neatly printed, some of them.
Here’s a literary work of the Allahu Akbar Brigades, who are probably Sunnis and which specifically target schoolgirls. "Death, crucifixion, amputation of hands and feet will be the retribution against those who defy Allah, to all women, who due to their mode of dress encourage titillation, because this will lead to worldly damnation. Bullets and the cudgel will be the punishment for those who have no morals. We are fully aware" — listen to this — "We are fully aware of what takes place after noontime in the school hall on Museum Road. We are present among you and know all there is to know." Ouch. This is real terror, not the kind that our governments are trying to push us into believing is there waiting for us.
And I’ll show you another kind of terror, and it is a kind that journalism permits. I’m going back to January this year, on a military trial. It’s an Associated Press report. See if you can spot what’s wrong with it. "A military jury on Monday ordered a reprimand but no jail time for an army interrogator convicted of killing an Iraqi general by stuffing him headfirst into a sleeping bag and sitting on his chest. His wife" — this is the wife of Lewis Welshofer Jr., the American officer — "testified that she was worried about providing for their three children if her American husband was sentenced to prison, but she said she was proud of him for contesting the case. 'I love him more for fighting this,' she said, tears welling up in her eyes. 'He has always said that you need to do the right thing, and sometimes the right thing is hardest thing to do.'"
Torture is tough, ladies and gentlemen. Torturing people is very hard. But, by the way, it’s only halfway through this story that we’re told that the major general is called Abed Hamed Mowhoush. His identity, as usual, is not as important as that of the American who murdered him, killed him, sat on top of his sleeping bag, into which he had been stuffed upside-down. Incredible! And we’re not told whether General Mowhoush has a wife and children. That is absent from this report. The defense, by the way, had argued that Mowhoush’s death was caused by a heart condition. Well, it would have been, wouldn’t it, if he was stuffed upside-down inside a sleeping bag and had someone sitting on top of him.
"Officials believe" — there’s always officials being quoted. "Officials believe that Mowhoush had information that would break the back of the whole insurgency." One man, he knows about 20,000 others. So they sit on him upside-down in a sleeping bag. Incredible!
Later on, we actually have the case of the soldier himself, who was reprimanded, being close to tears. Everyone’s close to tears in this court case. And then he says, now listen to this, "I deeply apologize if my actions caused suffering in Iraq." Sacrifice for the family of the general? No. He said, "I deeply apologize if my actions tarnished the soldiers serving in Iraq." Not quite the same thing. AP didn’t quite spot there was a problem there.
Now, take this one. This is the Associated Press doing its job. It uses the Freedom of Information Act to get official documents out of Guantanamo Bay and managed in a long story, but buried deep within it, not at the top, to uncover the following. It’s the official account of a court case inside Guantanamo of Feroz Ali Abbasi. He’s actually a British citizen. He has since been released and is now at home.
He’s on trial, and he pleads and pleads to the American colonel, Air Force colonel, in charge of the trial, "Give me the evidence against me." He’s not allowed to have the evidence. And the AP has this official document — and this is the official American document I’m quoting, but I have to add it is paragraphs, paragraphs, into the story, not at the top. "An Air Force colonel would have none of it. 'Mr. Abbasi, your conduct is unacceptable. And this is your absolute final warning' the colonel said. 'I do not care about international law. I do not want to hear the words "international law" again. We are not concerned about international law.'" Pretty much the George W. Bush policy, isn’t it, in the world?
And this, however, was not the headline. The headline was that the American papers, the documents, tell the Guantanamo stories. It’s way down here that we have the actual evidence. How about a headline that says, "American courts say they don’t care about international law"?
So let us be frank, in Abu Ghraib, in Bagram, in Afghanistan, in U.S. military bases across Iraq, prisoners, almost all Muslims, have been tortured by American men and women, who in some cases appear to be sadists.
How do I account in my work for the illiterate old man who tells me how American forces pushed a broomstick up his anus in Bagram and watched other prisoners endure the same treatment? How do I account for the murder under torture of prisoners in Bagram, in Afghanistan, something already admitted to by the U.S. authorities? How do we account for the activities of U.S. Unit 626, which has cruelly beaten its prisoners on the face, torso and sexual parts? How are we to react to those two incidents, both now officially investigated, in which U.S. forces, under attack by Iraqi insurgents, apparently took their revenge by lining up local Iraqi civilian villagers, including women and children and shooting them?
At the Baghdad Airport detention camp, we now know highly trained U.S. Special Forces officers — there were 1,000 present at any one time — have for years been beating prisoners before and during interrogation. Lieutenant General William Boykin — this is the same weird general who disparaged the Muslim faith without being disciplined — later claimed, totally wrongly, that there was no pattern of misconduct in the camp. There was, in many parts of Iraq and Afghanistan. It does continue to this day. My colleagues are still tracking these events.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, the veteran war correspondent for The Independent of London. He was speaking this weekend in Long Beach, California, at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Tonight, on December 20, he will be speaking at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, at 5:30 at Kochoff Hall at University Center.