Apr 6, 2010

"The West still has a very colonial mentality"

By Ramma S. Cheema and

Gulalai Khan

Robert Fisk is one name in international journalism that needs little introduction. A British and foreign correspondent for The Independent, Fisk visited Pakistan recently to report on political, social, and judicial system for his paper. Fisk happens to be one of the few Western journalists to have interviewed Osama Bin Laden three times between 1994 and 1997. Fisk has been voted International Journalist of the Year seven times in his career. In an exclusive interview with The News on Sunday on phone, Fisk talks about a host of issues, including the current political system in Pakistan, the war in Afghanistan, 9/11, Middle East, and the ethics that journalists need to apply when reporting. Excerpts from the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: Pakistan is governed by a democratic system now after an 8-year long military period. Keeping in mind the current political and economic situation of Pakistan, do you think we have benefited from this transition from military to democracy?

Robert Fisk: In the 60 something years of Pakistani politics you have seen very few years of formal democracy. Political opposition to military rule hasn't had much practice. Sadly, the concept of corruption has seeped deeply into the fabric of Pakistani politics. Even dictatorship is an extreme form of corruption. It's very important that you put dictatorship into the past now and accept only the shining dynamic of democracy as the only system.

Corruption is like cancer. Once you suffer from it, it's difficult to get rid of it. When you have politicians, almost all of whom are tainted with corruption, there is a cynicism in the electorate (people who come out to vote). In Britain, we did have military dictatorships. British parliament is also corrupt but not on the scale as here. The public says why should we vote for the corrupt, they don't represent us? Tony Blair went to war in Iraq even after a million people walked on the London streets against the invasion. Similar discontent is present in other European countries between the people and the people they elect.

What you have here in Pakistan, which really goes in your favour, is a strong body of lawyers who for various reasons have helped the country in intricate moments. They have stood together for the advocacy of the rule of law. The fact is that the issue of the reinstatement of the chief justice showed greatly on Pakistan. It showed that this little country can show great political maturity and belief in law as opposed to the belief in power which is what Musharraf wanted.

Any democratic setup in Pakistan has to tackle the issue of poverty, unemployment, electricity, and education on an urgent basis to avoid anger and social disruption. The coming out of people on the streets of Islamabad when transport fares were raised is symptomatic of a dangerous tradition. In any other country you will need a much bigger social injustice and inequality to bring people on the streets. It is a very fragile situation.

But one thing that has always impressed me about Pakistanis is the intelligence of the people here. Despite low literacy rates, the people are intellectually very sound. The people here don't need to be highly educated in order to know about politics and what's going on around them. People discuss law and politics in detail; know about the political parties, their manifestos. The people are the saving grace of this country and that is the reason I like coming here. You can ask anyone about politics here and you will get an interesting reply.

TNS: You say you like coming here but Time Magazine reported Pakistan to be one of the most dangerous places in the world. You have spent time here. What do you have to say?

RF: Journalists have their own point of view, I don't believe what I read in the Time. You all should stop believing it too.

Here is Pakistan I am amazed that you worry about what Time or New York Times report about you than worry about your own country and its reality. I think it's a very bad habit to refer to foreigners talking about your country. You have no future if you keep asking foreigners what they think of your country. Ask people from the nearest city or village, not people from New York, London or Tel Aviv.

TNS: Do you think 9/11 was staged in order to attack Iraq and Afghanistan?

RF: No. Everywhere I go people ask me, do you really think George Bush staged the 9/11. I reply do you actually think George Bush was capable enough to carry out 9/11 (laughs). He wasn't capable of doing anything. I think Bin Laden's people were behind it. I also think that the American administration and intelligence authorities were aware something was about to happen and were thinking of a response in case it happened. At least one senior member of the Bush administration was talking about Iraq within 24 hours of 9/11. The members of the Bush administration were aware what opportunities could present themselves if America was attacked or wounded by terrorists…I don't like the word terrorists…I call them mass murderers. The Bush administration wasn't quick enough to cover up the security lapses but by and large people should stop believing that 9/11 was a CIA administered conspiracy.

TNS: Is Obama doing a better job than Bush as far as the policy in Middle East is concerned?

RF: Well, he is pretty much doing the same thing. Governments are not about good or bad guys. It's about conducive power. Obama understands Middle East better, has a number of intellectual Arab friends but in Washington power does not lie with individuals. There are several lobbies. Not just the Israeli lobby, several others too. In Washington, at the end of the day the Congress does know that if it opposes Israel, the Israel lobby will support its opponents in the next general elections. Remember the president of the US may be the most powerful man in the world but he has little power to make decisions in Washington.

When Gaza war was going on, 1300 Palestinians were slaughtered. Obama said nothing. Now if 1300 Israelis were killed I am sure he must have said something. I heard Obama's speech in Cairo and Obama's referring to the exodus of the 1948 as the 'relocation' of Palestinians. That's a very odd way to mention what was clearly ethnic cleansing and he didn't use the word refugee camps throughout his lecture and I was there taking down notes and thinking: now there is a problem here.

TNS: Why do you think Americans and foreign journalists are afraid to report actual facts relating to Palestine?

RF: There are a number of things. Firstly, reporters don't want to get into trouble with their editors or land up in a major controversy relating to Israel. Therefore, they have invented a special language which in my opinion is outrageous and disgraceful but keeps the press safe from accusations. They use words 'disputed' instead of 'occupied' for areas that are essentially occupied areas. Then they call the settlements 'Jewish neighbourhood' and fence. Even a paper in Pakistan called the wall a 'security fence'. I find it outrageous because a fence is something you have around your fields, a neighbourhood is somewhere where you can chat to your neighbours, a dispute is something you solve over a cup of tea or a lower court.

Once you turn a colony into a neighborhood, an occupation into a dispute, a wall into fence, you de-semiticise the entire thing. It's sad that our reporting not only supported the Israeli occupation but also made Palestinians into a generically violent people who throw stones at Israelis. And this happens because of the practice in journalism where journalists think it's better not to be controversial and write in a way not to offend anyone but by doing that they take away from the reality of war, the blood and the suffering of the people.

American journalists are especially fearful of being labelled anti-Semitic, of losing their jobs due to strong Jewish lobby, be reviled, be shunned. These people make anti-Semitism respectable. One of the papers in Pakistan also called the settlements controversial. I say it's not controversial, it's illegal. But you see you can't give a backbone to a reporter. If you are a reporter who doesn't have the courage to speak the truth then it's better to go work in a bank, IT or Public Relations.

Another problem is the editors. An editor needs to stand by the reporter. I am very fortunate to have an editor who trusts me and whom I trust. I am lucky because if you don't have a courageous editor, no matter how good a reporter you are, you will be defeated.

TNS: Do you think the US is fighting a losing battle in Afghanistan and it's affecting the entire region?

RF: Yes. No one in history has won a war in Afghanistan. The British lost in 1842, the nineteenth century, 1919, the Soviets lost in 1979 and 1989. Americans are on the verge of losing it now. We can malign our enemies anywhere, call them savages, terrorist etc. The Canadian commander in Afghanistan called the Taliban 'scumbags' but you see that is not the point. The point is that the Afghans, the people, are never going to tolerate any foreign occupier. Afghan people might have a very low rate of education, live in intolerable conditions but they know if a president has had a fraudulent election and then they hear that Obama calls the fraudulently elected president, Karzai and congratulates him on getting elected. Afghans are not stupid. Being uneducated doesn't mean you are stupid.

We can be romantic about the situation, be moralistic about the situation but at the end of the day the truth is we will never win in Afghanistan. These lands don't belong to the British or Americans. They belong to the Muslims, the Afghans people. The Muslims might need our education, our technical assistance but they don't need our military, our soldiers. We do not have any right to have our military in the Muslim world.

TNS: You are reported to have said that all strategy on Afghanistan and this region will fail if the Kashmir dispute isn't resolved. Is it true?

RF: Yes, it's true. There will be no solution to the mess in Afghanistan and this region until America deals justly with Kashmir. When Richard Holbrooke was appointed he was appointed for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was told he wasn't dealing with Kashmir. Does that mean Kashmir is an India issue not to be discussed with Pakistan? Then why should the Pakistan army, the ISI, and the people of Pakistan fight a war that is essentially America's? It's like asking people in Gaza to support US foreign policy after it supports Israel to occupy Palestinian land and carry out atrocities on the people of Palestine. It won't work. People won't do that. They are not stupid.

One of the main problems I think while dealing with this region is that the West still has a very colonial mentality by which they feel they can tell the Muslims what to do and what not to do. We still think we are better than them. This is very demeaning to the people here.

TNS: Did Musharraf really have a choice to say no when confronted with "are you with us or against us"?

RF: Remember then you had a dictator and his priority was not the future of Pakistan but the future of Musharraf. For him, it was a personal situation and power that mattered when confronted with 'with us or against us'. He agreed to go along with the US because had he refused the US would have found a way to get rid of him. It didn't matter to him what it might do to Pakistan in the future. At that time Pakistan was safe because there was no internal insurgency but now after Pakistan took sides with an Imperial power, the war came to the country.

TNS: How do nations like Pakistan avoid falling victim to the US, of the West's notion of democracy in their own country?

RF: It's difficult. The history of this nation began with Pakistan and although Pakistan is a great nation the history after partition is not glorious at all with constant military dictatorships and economic disasters. On the other hand, the West has a long history of colonisation and occupation but I feel there is one occupation more sinister than the military occupation and that is economic domination. You see you don't see any Western soldiers marching on your streets but you need their money to run your country.

The moment you go to Washington to ask for money, they say you have to pay interest and the interest is to support their foreign policy because of their economic hold. How do you avoid it…by good governance, a government of people who don't rule to make money out of politics but to improve and help the country. You have a spirit alive in Pakistan that can save this nation. The lawyers came close to it. The conditions here might be tough but that doesn't mean you can't run your country. If you don't do that you will have to ask the West for their money and in return submit to their foreign policy demands.

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