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Stephen Kinzer: Differences between Western and Islamic cultures

Stephen Kinzer is a New York Times national culture correspondent. A veteran foreign correspondent who has covered more than fifty countries, he was the first New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul. Kinzer is the author of books about war and conflict in Nicaragua and Guatemala. His most recent book is 'Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.' He joined the chat room from Milwaukee.

CNN: Good day Stephen Kinzer and welcome to Newsroom.

Stephen Kinzer
Stephen Kinzer  

STEPHEN KINZER: It's a pleasure to be with all of you, and if there are any Turks out there, or people who have been to Turkey or are planning to go, I extend my warm welcome to all of you.

CNN: President Bush and members of the coalition have said repeatedly that this war is not on Islam, but on terrorists. In reality, how is that playing out in Muslim countries?

KINZER: The Muslim world is a phrase that in itself is misleading. We're talking about more than 50 countries with a variety of forms of government. If you were to place these countries on a spectrum, from the most radical, to the most secular and modern, certainly, the country on the most radical end would be Afghanistan. The country on the other end of the spectrum, the Muslim country closest to universal ideals of democracy and individual rights, is Turkey. In a place like Turkey, there is naturally sympathy for Muslims in other countries. At the same time, however, there is a recognition of the extremes to which religious terror can be taken, and a great desire to help the West resist and defeat it.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Most Western media have gone to great lengths to report on assurances to people this isn't a war on Islam. Are the Al Jazeera network and other Arabian news outlets providing the same perspective?

KINZER: Networks like Al Jazeera are giving time to Western leaders, as well as to others who are prominent at this moment. The videotape that has had the greatest impact of any broadcast over the last month was undoubtedly the one issued this week by Osama bin Laden. He spoke in an inspirational way that shows why he has become the most articulate spokesman for the rage that radical Islamists in some countries are now feeling. It would be foolish to downplay the effect of a messianic call like the one he made this week.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Stephen, why have moderate Muslims been so unwilling in the past to separate themselves from the extremists, at least to our knowledge?

KINZER: Muslims in many parts of the world are frustrated with what they see as a series of attacks on Muslim peoples everywhere. From our perspective, each of these conflicts is separate. We don't see a connection, for example, between our bombing of the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and the war in Chechnya. Many Muslims do. They see a pattern that leads them to believe Western nations are engaged in a crusade against Islam. I think it's also important to realize, however, that secular and modern minded Muslims in many countries are horrified by what has happened. In no country is that more visible than Turkey, but it is visible in many others as well.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Where do Egypt and Saudi Arabia fall on that spectrum?

KINZER: Saudi Arabia is ruled by a government that, while not fundamentalist itself, is highly conservative. In Saudi Arabia, for example, women are not permitted to hold a drivers license. What is worse is that Saudi Arabia has spent many millions of dollars building mosques and religious schools throughout the Muslim world that are specifically intended to train young people in the ideals of radical Islam. Egypt is a much more modern nation than Saudi Arabia. It is by no means a democracy, but it is an open country, in which many people feel loyalty to ideals of individual rights and religious freedom.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Kinzer, do people in the Muslim countries in the Middle East see this as a result of U.S. foreign policy there?

KINZER: Very much so. The three policies that the United States has followed that have caused the most outrage in the Middle East are easy to identify. One is strong U.S. support for Israel, as Israel occupies Palestinian lands. The second is the United States-led embargo on Iraq, which has caused great suffering for the Iraqi people. The third is American support for the Saudi royal family, which has sunk into such corruption that a nation that has the world's largest supply of oil now finds itself bankrupt and in debt. Those three policies, taken together, have contributed to intense anti-American feelings in many parts of the Muslim world.

CNN: Could you describe to us Turkey's unique position and how Islam and secular democracy play out in that country?

KINZER: Turkey went through a great revolution in the 1920's. Religious brotherhoods were outlawed. The wearing of the fez for men and the veil for women was banned. Civil codes based on laws in European countries were imposed. Laws forbidding the marriage of Muslims to non-Muslims were repealed. Turkey has become a country that prides itself on the intensity of its embrace of secularism. In fact, its secular policies are so strong that they have even caused some backlash. In Turkey, a girl who wears a headscarf cannot study in a public university. An officer who prays regularly is likely to be cashiered from the Army. So, as some Muslim countries try to impose ever-stricter forms of religious orthodoxy, Turkey is doing all it can to reduce the role of religion in public life.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Kinzer, could you provide any insight into how serious the threat is to the Pakistani regime from the radical Islamics in that country?

KINZER: I see the threat is substantial. Undoubtedly, the majority of Pakistanis fear and distrust the Taliban. A sizeable minority, however, is disgusted with the levels of repression and corruption that Pakistani governments have reached over recent decades. This minority is highly motivated, very angry, and has little to lose. If the military campaign in Afghanistan goes on for a long period, that group can grow to the point where it threatens the stability of the regime. The result of that could be a Taliban with nuclear weapons.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: There are rumors that [the Osama bin Laden] videotape was taped prior to the attacks on Afghanistan. Do you share that view?

KINZER: As I understand it, that rumor my be true. I suspect it was taped before the American attacks in Afghanistan, but prepared to be broadcast after the attacks began.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If Saddam Hussein responds to that "messianic call" and begins to attack Israel with scud missiles -- that is, partakes in the "holy war" -- wouldn't we see an instant dissolution of the Arab-U.S. coalition?

KINZER: Saddam is a figure who imagines himself the leader of a united Arab nation. Many Arabs are horrified by this. Nonetheless, by having survived ten years of American attacks, Saddam has emerged as something of a hero to many Arabs. I think, however, that he's happy at this moment to allow the focus of American anger to fall elsewhere. It's not a moment for him to attract it again to himself.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Stephen, with all of his money and supposed concern for the people he attempts [to fight for], has bin Laden done anything constructive to aid them?

KINZER: While he was in Sudan and while he was fighting alongside American forces in Afghanistan, bin Laden was very active in his family business, which is construction. He has built roads and other large infrastructure facilities in both of those countries. His appeal to Muslims, however, is not based on what he can do for them materially. His message is that history is now calling the oppressed Islamic nation into what he calls a counter-attack against forces that have been oppressing it for what he called the last eighty years.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why are there such deep seated fears throughout the Arab/Islamic countries of the U.S. and/or Israel?

KINZER: The United States has been pursuing policies and making alliances in and near the Muslim world that have deeply outraged many ordinary people. Scenes of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians, and Israeli bulldozers destroying Palestinian homes; scenes of infants dying in Iraqi hospitals for lack of medicines that are easily available in other parts of the world; and scenes of destruction in places like Chechnya, are broadcast every night on television stations throughout the Muslim world. After that happens for years and years, it has an effect.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

KINZER: I want to point out the role that Turkey can play. It has a short run role, which is to allow Americans and other Westerners use of its airspace and military bases, and it will certainly play that role. In the long run, however, Turkey has an even more important role to play. If Turkey can resolve its handful of domestic challenges, and emerge as an example of a prosperous Muslim democracy, it can serve as a magnet pulling Islamic sentiment away from radicalism. It can have a huge impact on the Muslim world, and by so doing, can change the whole world.

CNN: Thank you for joining us Stephen Kinzer.

KINZER: My pleasure!

Stephen Kinzer joined Newsroom via telephone from Milwaukee. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Tuesday, October 09, 2001.


• 'Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds'

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