Are al-Qaida’s aims negotiable?
In a recent post on his blog, Owen Barder has (rightly, in my view) criticised Messrs Bush and Blair for asserting that the aims of al-Qaida and its sympathisers are to "impose their dark vision on the world". However, Owen takes a more limited view than I do of what al-Qaida’s actual objectives are and the extent to which they could legitimately be discussed and negotiated. He noted after the London bombings,
there is no suggestion that the muslim extremists want to change the way western countries are governed (or as George Bush put it, that "they hate our freedoms"); rather, if the statement is to be believed, the fundamentalists have a much more limited goal of encouraging western countries to stop interfering in the Middle East.
Owen sums up:
…if the agenda of muslim extremists is to cause western powers to stop supporting Israel and to withdraw their armies from the Middle East: well, you might not agree, but you can hardly say that it is a demand that no sensible person can negotiate on.
In reply to this, I have posted the following dissenting comment on Owen’s blog (here slightly expanded):
I believe that your (Owen’s) interpretation of al-Qaida’s ultimate aims is too optimistic. The goal as expressed in the al-Qaida scripture (Osama bin Laden’s and his lieutenants’ occasional pronouncements plus some of the extreme Islamicist websites, such as that of Hisb ut-Tahrir) seems to me to be the extinction from the Muslim lands comprising the Caliphate, and especially from the countries hosting the holiest Muslim shrines, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, of the entire western presence and all cultural influence — not just ‘armies’. It’s true that in his recent pronouncement, al-Zawahri referred to the demand that "all infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad", but he also says that "Your salvation will only come in your withdrawal from our land, in stopping the robbing of our oil and resources, and in stopping your support for the corrupt and corrupting leaders [my emphasis]". I take the western presence and cultural influence to include the presence of all businessmen and other western citizens, western investments, the availability of western products (especially such iconic products as Coca-Cola, mini-skirts, pop music and Macdonalds) together with western magazines, newspapers and websites, non-Muslim places of worship and clergy, and freedom to advocate such western heresies as the emancipation of women, separation of church and state, exclusion of religious leaders from political roles [something we could usefully introduce in the UK!], abortion rights, secular education, interest-bearing loans, and so forth, ad infinitum.
In short, they want the core Muslim countries to become a chasse gardée under a Shari’a law régime broadly akin to that of the Taliban in Afghanistan (first major host to al-Qaida, not by chance). And once that is established, they want to extend it bit by bit to other countries with a significant Muslim population (including millions in Africa) — and after that to yet more countries on an opportunistic basis, although I don’t think that’s a really serious aspiration.
If that’s right, and there’s plenty of evidence for it, then it doesn’t seem to me that there is any scope for negotiating or compromising with the sponsors of this programme, still less for making concessions to them. It also follows that immediately withdrawing our forces from Iraq (which I strongly favour on quite different grounds) won’t even begin to meet al-Qaida demands, although it should have the limited and incidental effect of reducing the scope for the issue to be exploited by Muslim radicals in order to aggravate ‘anger’ and promote further terrorism.
But even on your much more limited interpretation of basic al-Qaida goals, they certainly include the extinction of the state of Israel and the occupation of its present territory, including that internationally recognised as lawful Israeli land, by the Palestinians. I recognise that there are a few people in the west who would favour this (and that not all of them are motivated largely by good old-fashioned anti-semitism, although most certainly are), but I hope most of us realise that it’s completely off the map — and, again, non-negotiable. Even Bush is committed to a two-state solution, which would never be acceptable to the al-Qaida camp. (And any further ‘concessions’ would have to include the removal of the Indian presence from Kashmir, secession and independence for Kosovo and Chechnya, installation of Muslim Shari’a law in southern as well as northern Sudan, etc., etc. Negotiable? I think not.)
This is a gloomy reading, but I’m afraid it’s all too plausible. Hence my assertion that it’s necessary to distinguish between terrorists with inherently negotiable aims, or at any rate aims that are capable of rational political discussion, and those whose aims simply can’t be reconciled with the real world of varying cultures and interests.
PS: In all this I haven’t mentioned oil (although it’s significant that in al-Zawahri’s pronouncement quoted in your blog post (and quoted above), an objective mentioned is "stopping the robbing of our oil and resources”). It’s legitimate, and quite possibly right, to see the current issues as part of the early stages of a huge international conflict over control of access to oil, on which no western country — or other: think China and India , however high-minded, is going to have any room for compromise for as long as our economies and way of life remain dependent on the precious black stuff. And it needs to be said that secure access to oil is an entirely legitimate and fundamental national and western interest which it is wholly proper to defend, indeed which it would be a criminal betrayal not to defend, and not a secret and reprehensible goal that dare not speak its name. Again, a gloomy view. But the old are entitled to be gloomy.