“One of the most radical and provocative books of the year so far”. This is how the leading BBC political journalist and presenter Andrew Mar described Alastair Crooke’s book “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution” when Crooke [pictured above] was a guest recently on the BBC radio weekly Monday programme Start the Week, which Marr presents.
Crooke, a former British spy who turns 60 this year, is an extraordinary character who has devoted the past five years of his life to bringing about dialogue and engagement between Westerners and Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah.
After leaving his job with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, generally known as MI6, in 2004 Crooke founded the organisation Conflicts Forum. The slogan on the website of the Forum is “listening to political Islam, recognizing resistance”. The aim is “to open a new relationship between the West and the Muslim world”. As part of his efforts, Crooke has organised a series of little-publicised meetings in Beirut between Islamists and Westerners including former politicians and diplomats.
Crooke’s 300-page book is published by the London-based publisher Pluto Books. His appearance on Start the Week was one of several appearances in London to publicise the launch of the book. Crooke travelled for the launch to London from Beirut where he has lived for the past few years.
Inevitably Crooke is a controversial figure, with some accusing him of being an apologist for Islamists and for in effect justifying terrorism. Others see him as providing a vital “back channel” to facilitate meetings between the West and Islamists, and as helping dispel some unnecessary Western fears and misconceptions of Islamism.
On Start the Week, Andrew Marr said that Crooke “urges us to sympathise with the struggles of Hamas, Hizbollah and other Islamist groups, but he goes a lot further, accusing Western civilisation of having badly lost its way, leaving people isolated, bereft and endangered. It’s time, Crooke says, to listen to the message of the Muslim world.”
Crooke writes in the introductory chapter to his book that his objective is “to try to explain further the essence of the Islamist revolution. To go to the heart of it to convey some sense of the power of the ideas as they have evolved; the excitement and the power of events and movements that are able to mobilise and energise millions.”
Crooke highlights the negative ways in which Western ideas have affected others in the past few centuries. He writes: “It is to this dark side to history – the complex strands of western thinking that stand behind the last 200 years of events – that I look for an explanation of why Muslims, suddenly, at a particular moment in history, began to feel the need to mobilise and to embrace resistance and revolution.”
Andrew Marr suggested that Crooke has in his book paid too little attention to the “dark side” of the Islamists. Marr said: “You will be accused of putting too easily to one side what these [Islamist] organisations would say about the position of women, about homosexuals, about lots of liberal freedoms that we take for granted outside that world. Perhaps if we have seen them too one-sidedly in a negative way, you’ve pushed too much of the dark side away.”
Crooke admitted that there is a dark side to the Islamist revolution. “There is not just a revolution of philosophers, there is a part that is dangerous and ugly, part of the counterrevolution... There is an element that has been deeply involved in literalism and dogmatism, and that is a part we tend to associate with Islamist radicals, but that is largely something in fact the West has created itself.”
Crooke says that he has not attempted in his book to provide “balance”, and that he is instead presenting his personal view. He had no wish to repeat “the torrent of scepticism and hostility towards Islamism – which seeks to brand it as nothing more than a violent, reactionary and transitory kick against the inevitable advance of modernity.”
Some readers will be disappointed that he omits all discussion of gender, given that the treatment of women is a focus of attacks on Islamism. Crooke knows he will be criticised for this omission, writing that whenever Islamism is discussed, gender is a key theme for criticism of Islamism. “But it is a fascinating area: feminism flourishes within Islamism; but not in the way usually understood in the West.” It is a pity that Crooke does not elaborate on this.
Crooke has had 30 years of direct experience of conflict in Ireland, South Africa, Namibia, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Colombia, and has been a co-ordinator in hostage negotiations in various countries. In 1997-2003, he served as advisor to EU High Representative, Javier Solana, in the Middle East, and he was security advisor to special EU envoy to the Middle East Peace Process, Miguel Moratinos.
Crooke was involved in facilitating a series of de-escalations of violence and military withdrawals in Palestine with Islamist movements from 2000 to 2003, and in helping arrange some six ceasefire efforts between Palestinians and Israel. He was a staff member of the Mitchell Commission into the causes of the intifada in 2000.
Crooke had a role in negotiating an end to the 39-day Israeli siege of Palestinian militants in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in April and May 2002. Three months later the Israeli newspaper Maariv unmasked him as an MI6 agent.
In his book, Crooke aims “to bring out and trace the essence and spirit of the ideas that lie behind this rising resistance to the West rather than attempting a historical survey of Islamism in all its diversity.” He says “there is no one Islam or Islamism – there are many.”
He writes that at bottom the dispute is between two opposing views on what constitutes the “essence of man”. Underlying the conflict are differing religious insights – but this is not a straight confrontation between Christianity and Islam. The Anglo-Saxon tradition, which America embodies, emerged from the long-running struggle between Protestantism and Catholicism.
Since the days of Oliver Cromwell, in the mid-17th century, the mainly English speaking world has come to regard its enemies as “haters of liberty and God” who possess no morality and will do anything to win. “These same originally Protestant themes can now be observed reflected in western language towards Islam,” Crooke observes.
Islamist resistance was “jolted into existence by the trauma of social engineering, ethnic cleansing, political disruption, repression and massacres that were the direct consequence of the western experiment in exporting to Muslim societies its vision of economic market-based life, freed from social and political control.”
According to Crooke, the “enforced westernisation and secularisation of Turkey in the early 20th century, and the brutality of its nation-state building have come to symbolise the worst aspects of secular modernism.”
Crooke condemns the “western myth” of the free market and the “invisible hand”. He goes as far as saying “the western nation-state, human rights doctrine and the institutions of western democracy are all derived from these same myths.”
In evolving an Islamist ideology, “something important happened”. Along with most people in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Islamists had been constrained by western instrumentalist “scientific” thinking, but they suddenly broke free. This was the crucial importance of the Iranian revolution: “It freed Islamists from self-imposed constraints resulting from a hegemony of instrumentalist thought.”
Crooke says the Islamist ideology that evolved is “dynamic and substantive” and that Islamism is gaining the characteristics of an “open” society whereas the West is acquiring some of the characteristics of a “closed” society. Islamism believes that behaviour is influenced by the experience of “living in a just and compassionate community, and by humans behaving with each other, as God directed”.
On the question of Islamist violence, Crooke argues that mainstream Islamist resistance is “a means to facilitate political solutions through helping to correct asymmetrical imbalances and by forcing the West to acknowledge the importance of key principles as necessary to any solution”.
He distinguishes the “emancipator resistance” of movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah from the “burn-the-system-to-build-anew philosophy of Al-Qaeda and the eschatological [ie concerned with End Times] leanings of some Salafi groups. “The failure of the West to make this distinction empowers the more extreme movements at the expense of the mainstream.”
Crooke argues that Islamist resistance is no more “divine caprice” than the systematic violence that western states use as “legitimate force”. He adds that the “demonization” of Islam is a deliberate ideological operation, with the twin objectives of strengthening America’s scope to take “decisive action” and justifying greater American intervention in the Middle East in pursuit of the neo-liberal agenda.
The pursuit of these objectives has been a failure that is ascribed to a way of thinking that has strewn its wreckage across 300 years of history “and which in recent years has added another astonishing mound of debris in the Muslim world – a legacy that will haunt the West for years to come.”
It is clear that Crooke intended his book to be challenging. During his visit to Britain, he appeared on a lively and at times heated hour-long roundtable discussion on Islamism and violence on the Iranian government-funded English language channel Press TV. The discussion was chaired by Tariq Ramadan. The other two guests were the director of the anti-Islamist Quilliam Foundation, Maajid Nawaz, and the scholar and cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar.
Both Nawaz and Sardar expressed reservations about Crooke’s book. Nawaz told Crooke he thought he had “slightly romanticised Islamism.” Sardar strongly criticised the behaviour of Hamas after the Gaza war, in killing alleged collaborators and reportedly seizing some international aid. Sardar also said that suicide bombings against civilians in Israel should be criticised as much as suicide bombings anywhere else.
In an interview conducted by Sir David Frost on the satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera English, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, Crooke acknowledged the gap between the theory and practice of Islamist revolution. He said that many of the Iranians who took to the streets at the time of the revolution “still feel that the revolution didn’t achieve its ends.”
Crooke added: “The Iran that they have today is not either as free nor as equal nor as just as they sought and so many of them want to see a new revolution or at least a further stage of the existing revolution actually to bring about a better society, to make a society that really is just, and compassionate and equitable. And this is part of the Islamist revolution.”
(Published in Al-Hayat newspaper in Arabic translation, 9 April 2009)