By Satenik Harutyunyan
On October 5th, 2010, UC San Diego’s International Affairs Group hosted Reese Erlich, a Peabody Award-winning journalist and author of numerous books including Conversations with Terrorists. The author, having traveled extensively and conducted interviews with world-renowned political figures, offers critical portraits of six Middle Eastern leaders often labeled as terrorists. During his talk in San Diego, Erlich not only discussed his trials and experiences, but also revealed an unconventional point of view regarding the United States as it relates to the Middle East. In his research, Erlich sheds light upon the perpetually changing interpretation of what constitutes terrorism and the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy.
Mainstream western ideology tends to draw a strong parallel between Muslim fundamentalism or extremism and terrorist activity. Erlich, however, offers a contrasting viewpoint—one in which terrorism transcends religion or ethnic identity. In his individual research, he seeks to question the meaning of terrorism and the stereotypes associated with it altogether. Instead of simplifying the Middle East and its populations, Reese Erlich delves deep into the complexities of the region, aiming to dissect the steps necessary to work toward stability in this ever controversial part of the modern world that is the Middle East.
PROSPECT had the opportunity to ask Reese Erlich a few questions.
PROSPECT: Can you explain the reasons behind choosing this specific title for your book?
RE: The book deals with leaders and countries that the United States at one time or another may have labeled as terrorist or state sponsors of terrorism. Calling it Conversations with Terrorists makes it an ironic title because in fact, none of the people in the book are terrorists today. But it is a way to initiate a conversation about why the United States falsely accuses people of being terrorists or vilifies them in order to achieve other goals.
PROSPECT: Could you touch upon the ways in which your interviewees reacted to the perceived identity and the given title of “terrorist”? Was this a name they rejected altogether or did they find a sort of motivation in being falsely represented?
RE: The interviews were done over a long period of time. Some were interviewed before I even came up with the idea for the title. I think none of the people I interviewed would consider themselves a terrorist. Geula Cohen, for example, wrote an autobiography entitled – Woman of Violence: Memoirs of a Young Terrorist.
PROSPECT: In that case, what would these people label themselves as?
RE: Well, Hamas considers themselves freedom fighters, part of a national liberation movement for Palestine. Bashir al-Assad sees himself obviously as the leader of Syria and a leader in the Arab world. Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah in Lebanon was a senior cleric and highly respected man; he didn’t play an overtly political role. So everybody defines themselves in terms of their roles.
PROSPECT: The third chapter of your book is called “Geula Cohen: A Jewish Terrorist”. Judaism and terrorism are an unlikely pair in the mainstream Western world. Can you briefly tell us how you came to this conclusion and how it contributed to the dynamic of your book?
RE: Of course there are Jewish terrorists just as there are Muslim terrorists and Christian terrorists. We just don’t hear about those other kinds. Prior to 1948, virtually all of the Israeli armed groups carried out terrorist attacks on the British and the Arabs. Bringing it down to today, I interviewed some of the settlers in Hebron – mostly American Jews who have moved to Israel – who are politically and ideologically no different from Muslim extremists when it comes to religion. They believe that anybody who is not of their faith should be expelled from Israel – that they have the right to physically eliminate Arabs. And these things are being carried out. Yesterday, it is suspected that Hebron settlers bombed a mosque in the West Bank and burned Korans. That was a terrorist act. But somehow, that’s not Jewish terrorism. But it’s people who are Jewish and use their interpretation of Judaism to carry out intentional attacks on civilians and civilian property. Why is that any different from a suicide bomber or a Taliban militant who does the same thing in the name of Islam?
PROSPECT: In our day and age, the Middle East is a region plagued by controversy and a lack of stability. When it comes to international affairs, what is the most important factor or what should be the focus of the global community in terms of foreign policy in the Middle East?
RE: It used to be relatively easier; the biggest conflict was that between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Now, it’s like there are three more wars. I’ll simply list them in no particular order. The U.S. should pressure Israel and the Palestinians to reach an acceptable two-state solution. It should pull all its troops out of Iraq and close all its military bases. It should also pull all its troops out of Afghanistan and stop the war in Pakistan. Those actions, if carried out successfully, would do more to undermine the groups like Al-Qaeda than anything the U.S. has done to date.
PROSPECT: Do you find that the election and leadership of Barack Obama has helped or hindered progress in the Middle East and in what ways?
RE: I think it has had no positive impact. I think people hoped he would carry out policies that were different from Bush, but certainly in terms of parts of the world like the Middle East, the policies have remained virtually the same.
PROSPECT: Do you believe it is possible for the political leaders of the Middle East to come together and work toward stability in the region? If so, what are the conditions necessary for such stability and if not, what are the obstacles disallowing it?
RE: There are differences in the Middle East, but those differences could be settled through negotiations. I mean, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia- when you look at the region as a whole, they each have their own national interests to pursue, but which I think could be peaceably resolved if the U.S. wasn’t interfering or trying to manipulate the situation. Having the U.S. out of the picture would reduce the likelihood of warfare.
PROSPECT: During your talk, you mentioned Iran. Can you comment on the importance of the Green Movement in Iran and its potential effect on politics in the Middle East?
RE: Of course the Green Movement has made significant differences in the region. Even if unsuccessful so far, it has still had tremendous impact. I went from Iran to Iraq, where everyone wanted to hear about what in the world was happening in Iran. And these people said, “In the Arab world, when we have problems, we have coups, but in Iran, there are mass demonstrations.” Now, that is a bit of an exaggeration but I understand the sentiment. They are very much admiring the Iranian struggle against a dictatorial government.
PROSPECT: Do you think the Green Movement stands a chance?
RE: I do. I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict when, but the sentiment that was reflected in the Green Movement was so powerful that it is bubbling beneath the surface. At some point, it will certainly erupt again.