One on One with Yigal Carmon: If MEMRI serves...

MEMRI President Yigal Carmon agenda: Exposing unknown or misinterpreted phenomena in the Arab world.

yigal carmon memri 88 (photo credit: )
yigal carmon memri 88
(photo credit: )
'Facts are bipartisan," says Middle East Media Research Institute founder and president Yigal Carmon, leaning back in the large chair behind the desk of his Jerusalem office, one of many international branches - among them a bureau in Baghdad. Carmon, 60, is clearly used to having to reiterate this seeming axiom. Since establishing MEMRI in 1998 to "bridge the language gap between the Middle East and the West," Carmon and his material have been received with a combination of angst and ambivalence on the part of the press and politicians who don't like what they're seeing. And what they're seeing is what Carmon refers to as the "reality" of the Arab-Muslim world. How Carmon - who served as a colonel in IDF Intelligence from 1968-88; as acting head of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria and its adviser on Arab affairs from 1977-82; as counterterrorism adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin from 1988-93; and as a delegate to Israeli peace negotiations with Syria in Madrid and Washington in 1991-92 - presents this "reality" is by monitoring Arabic publications, radio and TV broadcasts and religious sermons. These he translates - himself and with the help of a vast and highly trained staff - into many languages and circulates over the Internet. He also presents his findings to the US Congress and European parliaments. So widely have these translations and reports been circulated over the past several years that MEMRI has become a household name among members of the media, academia and government, both in Israel and abroad. Which is no wonder, considering the global concern over Islamic terrorism; the controversy over its cause; and the search for a solution to it. In an hour-long interview with The Jerusalem Post, Carmon paints what could be interpreted as a pessimistic picture or an optimistic one, depending on one's perspective. In a fluid and knowledgeable stream of consciousness, he discusses the concepts of "jihad," "democratization" and "multiculturalism," and protests the "unholy alliance between the Left and the Right who say that Arabs have a different culture which cannot and should not be changed." What is your assessment of the Iranian threat and the West's response to it? MEMRI is a research organization that doesn't engage in operational recommendations. Our mission is to present the Middle East reality. In this case, the reality is one of an extremist regime, even harsher than that of [the Ayatollah] Khomeini. After [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad took power, we published a landmark report on him and his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a candidate in the upcoming December elections for the Assembly of Experts. If he succeeds, it will be a disaster. He and Ahmadinejad together constitute a duo which is a danger to the entire world. Ahmadinejad says on TV and to the ayatollahs in his inner circle that martyrdom is what distinguishes man from animal - that if it weren't for martyrdom, we'd all be grass-eating behemoths. And Mesbah Yazdi is even worse. But Ahmadinejad isn't even religious. He may not look religious, but deep down he is. There are serious rumors - which MEMRI has yet to verify through direct quotes - according to which Ahmadinejad talks to and receives instructions from the "hidden imam" [the Mahdi, the messiah of the Shi'ite belief, who is to reappear]. If the purpose of your organization is to research the Arab world for Western awareness, why do you need an office in Baghdad? We need primary sources in Iraq, and since our flagship project is "Reform in the Arab and Muslim World," this direct connection to Iraq - a state that had three democratic elections in a single year - is particularly important. What other projects are you engaged in? The other projects we are working on are "Arab Anti-Semitism" and "Jihad and Terrorism Studies." A fourth, related, project is the "Islamist Web Sites Monitor." Is MEMRI under an American umbrella in Iraq? No, though we are an American research organization, registered in Washington, with branches in Europe and Asia (Tokyo). The people manning the branches in each country are natives of that country. But you are an Israeli. Isn't it dangerous for the organization you head to be sitting in Iraq? Yes it is. You say you are a research organization. Yet you just finished describing projects with specific agendas. Is that not inherently contradictory? How can one trust the integrity of your research? The word "agenda" requires clarification. Any time a researcher exposes something hitherto unknown, one could say there is an agenda. Take archeological excavations, for example. When an archeologist uncovers an ancient city, he's got an agenda: to reveal that the city existed. When someone conducts sociological research, he, too, has an agenda. The agenda is first and foremost to reveal a subject that hadn't been revealed before - or bring into focus something that previously had not been in focus. This is a legitimate research agenda. Nor is there a connection between an agenda and the integrity of the research. Whatever the agenda, the research has to be scientific. If it isn't - if we were trying to prove that some phenomenon existed when it didn't, or vice versa - it wouldn't be an agenda, it would be bias. Facts are bipartisan. There is no direct line that can be drawn from a certain piece of information to a certain political position. No matter what views a person holds, he needs to be aware of the facts. What he does with them is a different issue. Can't facts be manipulated? Isn't bias what we accuse our opponents of possessing? I will answer that by way of a few revealing anecdotes. In 1994-5, before MEMRI was formally established, I taped TV broadcasts of [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat calling for jihad [holy war]. The reaction to that tape was: "Kill the messenger." Whose reaction was that? Much of the Israeli media and politicians. And I protested by saying, "But it's not me [calling for jihad]; it's him [Arafat]." To which they replied, "That doesn't matter." Then one day, I asked a very senior journalist with whom I was friendly, "Why are you criticizing our work? We're merely revealing the truth." His reply is one I'll never forget: "There is no such thing as truth," he said. "Every news item must be judged by the question of whom it serves. And you are serving the enemies of peace." Horrified, I retorted, "And you're the one who's considered the reliable journalist, while I'm seen as biased?" So he said, "If you want to play na ve, do it with someone else, not with me. You know I'm right." "No," I said. "I do not know that you're right. There is such a thing as truth, and it is impartial." Subsequently, I encountered many expressions of his attitude. Journalist Dana Spector, for example. [Here he turns to a yellowed clipping from an old copy of the Hebrew daily, Yediot Aharonot, and reads it aloud]: "In fact, I didn't enter the field of journalism in order to report reality. Reality doesn't interest me at all." Along the same lines, I once tried to show the Reuters bureau chief in Israel an item of interest. He was very personable and sympathetic, but said: "You don't have to show me the truth. There is no truth. There is only this side's version and that side's version." Well, I believe that there is such a thing as truth. This is not to say that different sides don't have different versions of a story. Of course, it's important to note and recognize that. Nor do I underestimate or undervalue the significance of it. But I think that the academic approach is to strive to present the truth. Speaking of "facts" and "truth," how was it that there was such a huge controversy over the translation - or meaning - of the word "jihad?" Many words begin with a certain meaning and develop into other meanings and connotations over the years. The original meaning of "jihad" in the Koran and in early Muslim history was "holy war by sword." Over time, this concept evolved, so that, in the Hadith [oral traditions], one can find the word "jihad" in different connotations. For example, the Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying, "We have returned from the little jihad [the actual war], and now we are heading toward the big jihad [the struggle against the evil within each of us, not the external war with our enemies]." A similar linguistic phenomenon exists in other languages, as well. When we say that we are waging a "war against drugs," for example, we mean it metaphorically; it's not a war in the literal sense, with weapons. We just want to express how serious we are about this fight against drugs, so we equate it with war. Apologists for Islamic extremism like to remind everybody that the root of the word "jihad" is "jahada" (to exert). But so what? The root of the word "revelation" is "reveal." And though the word "reveal" is neutral, the word "revelation" is a religious concept. The same goes for the root of the word "trinity," which is "three." So, yes, the root of "jihad" is indeed "jahada." But "jihad" is a religious concept. Is it possible to alter the religious connotations of "jihad" and other concepts in Islam, the way Christianity and Judaism have done - in order for Muslims to be able to live in the Western world? Absolutely. Redefining such concepts is a voluntary act on the part of communities of believers. Look, in the Book of Esther, there are many problematic passages, such as the revenge against the Persians. Today, the only remnant of that commemoration is a noisemaker. But for Jewish fundamentalists, it's not that way. For fundamentalists like Baruch Goldstein, the day of Purim is the day of revenge. Which is why he chose to commit his crime precisely on Purim. Another example: Ramadan. For the fundamentalists, Ramadan is the month of jihad and martyrdom - the month in which Allah grants victory to his believers. Today, for many Muslims, Ramadan is a month of spirituality, fasting and feasting. Unfortunately, in the Palestinian school books - and I mean those used today in the PA - the children are taught that Ramadan is a month of jihad, martyrdom and Muslim victory, and that it has been like that throughout history, with specific examples of known historical battles which took place during the month of Ramadan. In 2004, I participated in a conference organized by the Spanish government to commemorating the March 11, 2003 Islamist attacks in Madrid. Among the participants were Europeans and Muslims of different nationalities. I dealt with the issue of jihad. And, following a comment by a Muslim participant that we shouldn't mention jihad in connection with the terrorist attacks - because jihad is something that Muslims respect - I got up and responded as follows: "I'd like to relate to this comment not as an academic, but as a Jew." The entire audience became electrified when I said that, because it was so unheard of. I then went on: "We Jews have in our Bible the edict of 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But our sages - many centuries ago - replaced this principle with the principle of compensation. God, of course, knows the word 'compensation.' If He had wanted to say that, He would have said it. But He chose the explicit command of 'an eye for an eye.' Our sages decided that this was no longer acceptable, and dropped it. The same is true of the Christians with regard to the Inquisition: First they believed that it was God's will, but later dropped it. It's only because we've already been through this that I take the liberty of suggesting to you Muslims that you, too, drop the edict of jihad, which isn't even one of the five pillars of Islam. It doesn't suit the humanistic principles of the 21st century." What was the reaction on the part of the audience? The non-Muslims began whispering among themselves, as though they were happy that someone had said what they were thinking. How did the Muslims present respond? They were very angry, and the session ended shorty thereafter. Today, I have modified my position somewhat. Now I think that if Muslims don't want to eradicate the term "jihad," that's okay, as long as they explicitly limit its meaning to spiritual jihad only, and do not allow - as most Muslim apologists do - multiple meanings, one of which - unfortunately the most prevalent among Islamists - is jihad by the sword. This is in the hands of mainstream Islam, and it is possible, albeit difficult. In Tunisian schoolbooks, for example, the only meaning of jihad is a spiritual one. The Palestinians, on the other hand, continue to educate their children to jihad by the sword, while telling their critics that jihad has many meanings. How do you see the Arab world in terms of its ability to modify itself? There are different forces at work in the Arab and Muslim world. This became apparent during the war [in Lebanon]. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and others were against Hizbullah, Syria and Iran in the strongest of terms. It came to an ironic point where a Wahhabi Web site used the Israel Air Force video showing the missiles being fired from Kafr Kana to prove that Shi'ites are liars. What about the Palestinians? How do you view Abu Mazen [PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas]? We have written a lot about him. For several years now, he has come out against terrorism, in no uncertain terms, before the most difficult of the Palestinian populace, the youth in the refugee camps. The term "resistance" is a holy principle among the Palestinians. And to come out against it is not easy. Didn't he say that terrorism is strategically unwise? Yes, in most cases, his arguments against terrorism were instrumental. But on three separate occasions, he condemned it on moral grounds, as well. Couldn't this be just an attempt to be the "carrot" in a "carrot-and-stick" policy governing the PA? No. A person doesn't maneuver with his belief system. Let me give you an example. If someone were to offer you to make a statement to the BBC that Zionism is racism, and in exchange, Israel would receive $24 billion, releasing it from all its debts, would you say it? No, you never would. There is no game-playing where ideology is concerned. Otherwise, you make a fool of yourself, the way Arafat did by saying one thing in Arabic and another in English. What you are saying runs contrary to what apologists for the Hamas victory in the PA have been asserting: that the people were voting against corruption, not in favor of terrorism. It also contradicts what the West is constantly claiming: that the Palestinian people are innocent victims of their own leaders, and, of course, of Israel. It's true that their leaders are steering them, but they accept this leadership. It's part of their education; it's part of their culture; it's part of their fundamental belief system. This is evident in polls taken. There's a fascinating phenomenon related to polls among the Palestinians, which indicate that a majority supports negotiations and a majority supports terrorist attacks... simultaneously. One can also say about Abu Mazen that on the one hand, he's against terrorism, and on the other hand, he's more in favor of the Right of Return than any other Palestinian leader. He's the only one to have mentioned numbers - 3 million Palestinians he says should return to Israel. Even Arafat wasn't so specific. Last week's congressional elections in the US gave a sweeping victory to the Democratic Party. Do you anticipate encountering a different reception of your material in Washington? No. All of our briefings to Congress have been bipartisan. We know many Democrats in Congress who are interested in receiving an accurate picture of reality. Nor do I anticipate any major changes in US policy following these election results. You don't? Wasn't it a vote of no confidence in the president and his doctrine? Despite talk of Bush's policy failures, I believe that he deserves credit, not criticism. Based on what I see in the Arab world, Bush has changed it in a way that hasn't been done in the last two centuries. He prompted processes of reform that cannot be reversed. That there are fierce and violent opponents to his doctrine of democratization goes without saying. Maybe Bush has begun democratizing the Arab world, but isn't Europe in the meantime undergoing a reverse process of Islamization? An increase in the number of Muslims does not necessarily mean an increase in Islamization. It creates painful difficulties for both the immigrants and the host countries. The difficulties Muslim immigrants encounter in acclimatizing culturally to Europe make them easy prey for Islamists. Still, it's hard to say that the Islamists are winning. There are so many Muslims in Europe. How many of them are really involved in extremism? There is no collective "they." The majority actually does acclimate and adjust. We need to examine European policy, which is divided generally into two types. One type - the German model - is based on multiculturalism. Instead of striving to achieve integration, the attitude is to avoid dealing with the pain of this process, and leave immigrants in their closed world, calling this "respect." This is as hypocritical as it is racist. It's as though the host country is saying: "Stay in your own neighborhoods; circumcise and kill your women; we respect you and your culture as you are." It's a way of distancing themselves from the immigrant population, rather than trying to incorporate it, and help solve its problems. The other type - in France - is one of real integration. According to this approach, Muslims have to adapt to French culture and the principles on which the Republic is based, even while remaining Muslims. Imams who wish to be on the government payroll have to take three-year courses to learn the French language, culture, history and the political system. An attitude like this initially results in more violence, because the police and other governmental institutions have to break into the Islamic traditional system to impose the Republic's rule of law. In this endeavor, they are confronted by the Islamist sheikhs, who fight to keep their own control over the Muslim population. But this kind of integration is the only chance for Europe to spare itself and the Muslims a major clash. During last year's riots, [French Interior Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy wrote an article in Le Monde in which he clarified the dilemma to the French public: "Are these immigrant neighborhoods of Paris the slums of North Africa or [part of] the French Republic?" The answer was obvious. It is extraordinary that many people in the US hold the view that multiculturalism is better for all concerned. These are the same people who accuse Bush of "imposing" democracy on the Arab world. As though the Arabs have no interest in, nor deserve, the values that the rest of us live by: freedom, equality, human rights, etc. As though they're lesser human beings, who do not deserve - immediately and decisively - to be rescued from their plight. There is an unholy alliance between the Left and the Right, who say that Arabs have a different culture which cannot and should not be changed. Such a position, of course, is complete nonsense and utterly immoral. Arabs are human beings like we are, and they deserve everything we enjoy. To paraphrase Shakespeare [from The Merchant of Venice, in which the original text refers to Jews]: "Hath not an Arab eyes? Hath not an Arab hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?"