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Mon. January 30, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: Hazhir Teimourian
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IA-Forum: You have a book out in November about Omar Khayyam of the 11th century, whom you describe as a persecuted freethinker, as well as a poet and astronomer. Can you tell me more about him and whether you feel his case sheds light on current tensions between Islam and Western nations. Teimourian: Omar Khayyam is probably the world's favorite poet. Since 1859, when Edward FitzGerald translated his quatrains or Rubaiyat from Persian into English, his fame has spread to a hundred lands. For example, several years ago, China’s national radio heard from the BBC World Service that I was working on his biography. They sent their man in London to interview me. The reason for his popularity is that, after 900 years, he still speaks to us in simple language about themes that still exercise our brains. He was a freethinker who punctured the pomposity of the Muslim clergy of his time. He challenged their claim that they had an answer to every question and, of course, the moment his emperor and protector (Malik Shah) was poisoned, the clergy moved and condemned him to death. They accused him of ‘loving the Greeks’, which meant he admired the great philosophers of ancient Greece, and they were absolutely right in that. He also had an acute sense of humor which has helped his survival. By the way, there is a happy ending to his story. He fled from his persecutors in Isfahan and found safety in his city of birth, Nishapur, in the north-east of today’s Iran, and he lived to be a revered sage of 83 before he died in 1131. 18 years ago, when the Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the present Islamic Republic, passed a fatwa of death on Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born British author, because he claimed Rushdie had made fun of Mohammad, it was proof for the world that little had changed in the world of Islam over the past nine centuries. People are not allowed to think aloud in public. In any case, Rushdie wrote for a Western audience. Yet they sent agents from Iran to kill him and even some Muslims who have settled here tried to assassinate him. I don’t think it’s appropriate in all of this to talk of a clash of civilizations, as does the American thinker Samuel Huntington. Civilizations don’t clash - they borrow from one another. It’s peoples’ identities that cannot get along together on the same streets, and for Muslims today, in this age of instant communications, Islam has become their central defining feature, the flag of their tribe. Instead of trying to soften its laws that were written in the back-water of Arabia in the seventh century to bring it into step with our time, they guard ever tenet of it jealously, and they see the West as the old rival that humiliates them, not necessarily because it brings down such genocidal monsters as Saddam Hussein, but because it is, in most visible ways, much more brilliant and advanced and happy than is the world of Islam. IA-Forum: Is there anything Western governments can do to try to ease tensions? Teimourian: Western leaders and most influential Western individuals and institutions are doing their best, but I don’t think they will succeed. When the West saves the Muslims of Bosnia from genocide by the Christian state of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, its good work is quickly forgotten. But if it helps the people of Afghanistan to bring down the barbarian state of the Taliban because that state has become an ally of another genocidal monster, Bin Laden, and has just killed 3000 office workers in a single afternoon in New York, then that is proof that the West is the enemy of Islam. An opinion poll just carried out here in Britain for Channel 4, a liberal television channel, shows that a shocking 40 percent of British Muslims believe that the London bombings of July 2005 were carried out by the government of Tony Blair because it wanted to ruin the name of Islam. They are so primitive as to believe that British government agents would kill 52 of their own people on passenger trains on the order of their superiors without any of them talking to the newspapers the next day, let alone the preposterousness of the idea itself. No wonder that 60 percent of the British today believe that Muslims have become a threat to their daily lives. Amazingly, on the same day this poll was announced (June 5, 2007), Mr. Blair was telling a great gathering of British Muslims leaders that he believed almost all British Muslims loved their country, Britain, and that he was designating another £1m ($2m) to help set up yet another centre of Islamic Studies. In fact, it seems to me and to most people here that the government bends backwards to make concessions to British Muslims. This is very dangerous. It is playing into the hands of the extreme Right and making most British people very unhappy. Back in the heartland of Islam itself, social and economic problems are extremely serious and they are not getting better, adding to frustration that is always blamed on the West by activists. When, for example, we hear that at this very moment one million youngsters are homeless on the streets of Cairo, when we hear that 65 percent of the people of Iran are under the age of 25 and have little hope of achieving a fulfilled life, when we see that the Saudi Arabian government fill the country’s classrooms with hatred of the West and denies its people access to truthful information, we can see that Muslims ought to point the finger of blame at themselves, not anyone else. If the Arabs had accepted the United Nations plan of partition for Palestine nearly 60 years ago and, instead, cooperated with Israel instead of trying to destroy it time after time, Palestinians would by now have become a very prosperous nation, and bigger than Israel, because they had three of the most important places of pilgrimage for the world’s one billion Christians. Poor and ill-educated Muslims are easy prey to what a psychopath such as Osama bin Laden tells them. IA-Forum: You mentioned Iran. Do you believe that Iran is aiding the insurgents fighting American troops? Teimourian: I have no doubt of it. The present Islamic regime in Iran started life 28 years ago with this same kind of extremism and inability to read the outside world. For 444 days, they held 52 American diplomats hostage in their embassy and, President Carter, to his credit, did not attack Iran, just tried to rescue the hostages. It failed. It’s been known to Iranians themselves several thousand years that only barbarians take foreign envoys hostage. Yet the government of Iran did it. Even so, you would have expected that the regime would have matured after 28 years in politics. Instead, it takes British marines hostage in Iraqi waters and it is still unable to read and interpret the outside world, particularly democracies. It cannot see what is in its own best interest, that it is not good for it to be isolated in the world. The regime is bolstered at the moment by high oil prices, but its people are poorer now than they were under the Shah, although this is partly due to the continued population explosion, something that applies to the whole of the Islamic world. The people of Iran are also a hundred times less free than they were under the monarchy in the 1970s. As for supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, I have been reading such reports from British officers in southern Iraq for a couple of years and recently the Americans have shown proof to the press about it. My friends at the top of the Iraqi government also tell me that. The ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian leader, does so because he wants to hasten a withdrawal of American and British troops from Iraq. He thinks such a withdrawal – before the Iraqi army is trained and ready – would make his fellow Shia Muslims in Iraq – the majority community – dependent on him for their security in the face of continued attacks by the Sunny insurgency. So he is sending his most sophisticated road-side bombs to Shia extremists – and even some Sunnis – to blow up more Coalition troops. Unfortunately, it has had great success in this. Dozens of American and British soldiers have been killed by Iranian weapons. IA-Forum: Do you believe Iran’s protestations that its nuclear research is for peaceful purposes only? Teimourian: No, I don’t. Iran has large reserves of oil and natural gas, and nuclear energy would be more expensive, and not something for which you would make yourself isolated in the world. The explanation has to be that the ayatollah thinks nuclear weapons would make him untouchable. I am sure he is wrong. America and Israel have committed themselves to not allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. The Gulf states are also very nervous. They would have to follow suit with a new a new arms race in the region. In addition, Khamenei may also think that if he exploded a nuclear bomb and acquired long-range missiles, he’d become more popular among his people. I doubt that also. Many of them would rather he established better economic relations with the West. IA-Forum: Was America right to meet with Iranian officials in Iraq recently? Teimourian: Dialogue ought to be tried first, and the alternatives are not pleasant to contemplate. I think it would be a catastrophic mistake for the United States to invade Iran to change its regime that way. For that reason, I’m confident it won’t happen. So does the British government, America’s closest ally. Extricating yourself from Iran would be even harder than it has proved in Iraq. Iran is bigger and its regime is much better organized than was Saddam Hussein’s. And it is not the regime of a minority sect. It belongs to the majority community. It has at least half-a-million men under arms who have every interest in the regime’s survival. In this respect, the armed forces of Iran are much better motivated than were those of Saddam. Also, repression in Iran under the ayatollahs cannot, at all, be compared to the genocide under Saddam. But the possibility does exist of one day for us to wake up to hear that a thousand American cruise missiles have devastated all of Iran’s nuclear plants and technological facilities. That would require the US also to destroy the Iranian navy and air force to make sure they could not stop oil tankers reaching the ports of Iraq, Kuwait and the UAE in the Persian Gulf. So, even a cruise missile attack would be serious enough. It would send oil prices even higher, with the possibility of an economic recession to follow. I am still hoping the Ayatollah will take fright of the large American naval force in the Gulf and reduce his provocations at this late stage. America’s saber rattling is the only hope of a peaceful outcome to this confrontation. IA-Forum: Speaking of tensions between Islam and the West, Turkey is often held up as an example of a secular, yet Muslim state. There is intense debate about whether Turkey should be admitted to the European Union. Do you think it should be? Teimourian: No. I think bringing a country of 75 million Muslims inside the borders of the EU would be disastrous for community relations here and it might even lead to the break-up of the Union. Turkey’s population of 75 million is rising and is expected to exceed 120 million in about 40 years’ time, twice the size of the next largest country in the Union, Germany. Turkey has also long, mountainous, un-policeable borders with the Caucasus, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Joining Europe would mean that the EU’s eastern borders would be virtually open to even more migrants from distant identities who have difficulty adjusting to Europe’s norms. Because of the limited process of democratization that Turkey has achieved in recent years, Turks are nowadays better able to express their inner feelings and deep attachment to Islam. They have chosen their first Islamist government since the founding of the republic in 1923 and more and more of them look towards the East, rather than the West, for inspiration. The former, secular ruling elite is now a distinct minority. This is not surprising. The Turks’ very identity – their sense of nationhood – has been forged over the past 1000 years in the Middle East in fighting and overcoming ‘infidel’ Christians, or Rumis (Romans). Their pride in such genocidal heroes as Alp-Arslan who captured a Byzantine emperor in eastern Anatolia in 1071 and opened the way for the Islamization of the Greek and Armenian east, won’t go away soon. This Turkish attachment to Islam can be seen at work inside the Union already. According to Hugh Pope of the Wall Street Journal, who supports Turkey’s application, out of the two million Turks who have settled in Germany, a quarter are engaged full-time in trying to covert Germans to Islam. Of course, the majority of the Turks and Kurds who make up the population of Turkey will not emigrate to Europe. But millions of them will want to. A Danish friend of mine who visited central Anatolia for her country’s Immigration Department says she was horrified by the numbers of villagers who said they planned to join their relatives in Denmark as soon as they could. ‘Whole villages had virtually packed their bags’, she told me. This is particularly true of the millions of Kurds in the east whose culture and national identity are still not fully recognized by Turkey. My Danish friend resigned from her job as a result of her government’s immigration policy. It has now been made much tougher, to the extent that no Danish citizen can bring in a wife or husband unless they are above the age of 24. It is being said in the political class here in London that the reason Britain is pushing for Turkey’s membership more than any other European government is not that it believes a successful Turkey would set a good example to the rest of the world of Islam and that it would also reassure Muslims everywhere that Europe was not their enemy. Apparently, the British foreign office believes that Turkey would act as ‘a counterweight for Britain against the Franco-German axis inside the Union. Some Europeans, on the other hand, suspect that Britain really wants to turn the Union into a mere free-trade area. This might happen under the pressure of massive Turkish immigration. As the immigrants would want to concentrate in Holland, Germany, France and south-eastern England, freedom of travel of labour would have to be abolished. That would destroy the essence of the Union. Turkey’s membership is probably theoretical. Such is the new fear of Islam in Europe that a number of countries have said they would subject the country’s entry to a public referendum. It would seem bound to fail in at least one country. IA-Forum: You talk about the possibility of greater immigration into Britain. How successful has Britain been at assimilating immigrants? Do you think the multicultural model has worked? Teimourian: 30 years ago, I decided to bring up my two children in Christianity because I wanted them to identify with their country, know in their blood where it came from. This view remains extremely unpopular among immigrants, specially among Muslims. It was easier for me because I man not a Muslim. But even among the liberal British establishment it was unpopular. They would say: "No, your own culture is best for you; remain faithful to your roots”. But since 9/11, criticizing multiculturalism has become acceptable. Even some left-wingers are daring to challenge Political Correctness. For example, Chris Smith, a former Culture Secretary in Blair’s government, has brought out a book called The Suicide of the West. It's all about numbers really. There is a limit to which a society can digest newcomers without the newcomers becoming self-sustaining, a nation within the nation. You cannot have, in half a century, two million Muslims settling in a country the size of England and expect them to become Europeans in culture and identity. They congregate together for comfort and employment and, soon enough, you find that they hardly come across members of the host society from month to month. Not only that, today’s technology helps them to live as if they had never left home: they can watch their original country’s satellite television programmes to the exclusion of all others. No wonder that hundreds of thousands who have been here for decades still need interpreters if they visit a government office. It is also alarming that second and third generation Muslims in Britain are becoming more anti-Western, not less. Their parents were mostly not anti-Western, at all. They came here for work and refuge and were grateful. But their children carry British passports and have been through a liberal education. They are more confident and are not afraid to assert their separate Islamic identity. Furthermore, their parents send them home for regular, extended visits and each time their romantic identification with the parent culture and identity becomes stronger. France next door seems to be in even deeper trouble than we are in Britain. Their encouragement of multiculturalism has not been as pronounced as it has been here or in Holland, but their numbers are larger. There are said to be some six million Muslims in France and doubling about every 15 years. Whole areas around Paris and the other big cities are no-go areas to Europeans. I expect that in under a decade, French voters will conclude that their new right-wing president Sarcozy was not right-wing enough, that he failed to ‘solve’ the Muslim immigration problem. IA-Forum: Britain has begun setting certain criteria for accepting immigrants, such as a Britishness test and language requirements. Do you think these will work? Teimourian: The latest idea put forward by the Communities Minister Ruth Kelly is that immigrants ‘earn citizenship’ though voluntary social work and other proofs of goodwill. It is also proposed that applicants be subjected to tests as to how useful their skills would be to Britain. I think it’s probably all too late. Muslim ‘ghettoes’ have now come into being and it is difficult to reach these, to convince them, for example, that brining in nieces and nephews from Pakistan and Bangladesh in arranged marriages for their children is not helpful to Britain. Extremists tell them the opposite, that only through greater numbers and Islamic militancy will their communities achieve more influence over the rest of the country. I believe that the best thing British can do is to make it almost impossible for Muslims to bring in brides and husbands for their children, and also to make it harder for parents to send their children to the Islamic world for education or long holidays. Some of the youngsters have even been known to join terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan. When they come back, the state does not have the legal power or ever the resources to find out how they passed their time when they were away. Such a behavior is difficult – genuinely painful – for democratic, liberal societies to contemplate. We are not in the habit of saying "You have a British passport, but do not visit your sick grandfather in North Wazirestan because we think Bin Laden is there.” And so I fear that as the indigenous people see the character of their towns changing by huge influxes of people who cannot – or will not – become like them, they will panic and turn to extremist parties such as the British National Party, unless one of our mainstream parties veers sharply to the right to fill the gap, and I don’t see any sign of that. IA-Forum: Are you a little less pessimistic about relations between Islam and the West in the long run? Teimourian: This is very difficult to foresee. After 9/11, I wrote an article for a British political website called Open Democracy. I predicted that as the social problems of the Muslim world got deeper and deeper due to a combination of population explosion, poverty and poor governance, their present resentment against the West would get even deeper. I said that I wouldn’t be surprised if a new ‘invisible Iron Curtain’ were erected along the length of the Mediterranean Sea to cult human contact between the two worlds to a minimum. Well, so far there is no sign of any kind of movement in that direction here. Or at least no major political party seems to be contemplating such a policy. This is despite persistent reports that the threat of Islamist terrorism is getting worse all the time. Only last week, for example, Scotland Yard announced that the number of suspected terrorists surveying potential targets in London had gone up by 37 percent over the past 12 months, or that at least 2000 Islamist cells were being watched by the police. In fact, Muslim immigration into Britain has continued as if 9/11, Madrid and 7/7 (the July 2005 suicide bombings on the London underground train network that killed 52 passengers) never happened. The future now depends on how successful the police will be in preventing major terrorist atrocities. Some high-ranking police officers have said that a major attack on London’s financial districts with spent radio-active fuel is ‘a matter of when, not if’. If that happens, attitudes could harden quickly into a very ugly reaction. May be, one day, historians will look on the pre-9/11 era in Europe and North America as an unusually peaceful time. In any case, we have, by no means, witnessed ‘the end of history’. Hazhir Teimourian is a writer, historian and commentator on the Middle East and a member of the Limehouse Group of Analysts.

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