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Doha Debates: Tackling Extremism

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Event Name: Doha Debates: Tackling Extremism
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Doha Debates Special Event: Extremism

Tuesday February 28 2006

Transcript

Introduction

TIM SEBASTIAN
Ladies and gentlemen, a very good afternoon to you and welcome to this special session of Doha Debates sponsored by the Qatar Foundation. It coincides with a meeting here in Doha of the Alliance of Civilisations - the UN initiative set up to combat extremism wherever it appears, and that's our issue for today too. But who can define extremism for the rest of the world? Look at the difficulties in defining terrorism, and as we've seen in the current controversy over the Danish cartoons, who's going to listen to any pleas for calm or moderation? Just some of the questions that are going to be asked today by our student audience coming as they do from many countries, but predominantly from the Arab world. Well, as you can see, we have a distinguished panel bracing itself to respond to their questions: Desmond Tutu, who as Archbishop of Cape Town, was one of the chief architects of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner; Diana Buttu, a lawyer by training and a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation during peace negotiations with Israel. She also helped to set up an outreach programme speaking directly to ordinary Israelis about the effects of occupation. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a leading and outspoken Muslim scholar. He travels the world giving talks on Islam and is the founder of the Zaytuna Institute dedicated to the revival of traditional Islamic study methods and the sciences of Islam. And Dr. John Esposito, Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. He's also served as President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, and is a prolific author with some 30 titles to his name. Ladies and gentlemen, our panel and welcome to all of you. What we're going to try and do first of all, and maybe this is very ambitious, but we're going to try and get the issue of definitions out of the way so that it doesn't dog our discussions for the rest of the afternoon, so could I please ask Nasser Al Thani to give us the first question.

Definitions of extremism and terrorism

AUDIENCE Q (M) 
I would like to see an internationally agreed-upon definition to extremism and terrorism. Does the panel think this can ever be possible?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Desmond Tutu, can we get definitions of extremism and terrorism? We haven't had much luck in doing that so far, have we?
DESMOND TUTU
Extremism. What is the norm? I have a large nose but the norm is maybe a nice aquiline nose. Maybe people who are passionate about their faith, but extremism is when I think you do not allow for a different point of view, and when you hold your view as being quite exclusive, when you don't allow for the possibility of difference. How's that?
TIM SEBASTIAN
So being dogmatic is all that is extremism, is it, to that extent?
DESMOND TUTU
Yes. I think, I mean, it's good to be clear about your point of view, and even to be passionate about it, to say, 'I believe very firmly in the fact that each person is of immense infinite value,' and to hold on to that, but to say perhaps you have a different point of view and I must make space for your different point of view. My father used to say, 'Don't raise your voice, improve your argument.'
TIM SEBASTIAN
Sshaykh Hamza Yusuf, do we need a definition?
HAMZA YUSUF
I think extremism is very hard to define, because extremes are on some continuum and it depends on who's defining that. So for instance, someone like Noam Chomsky is considered extreme left in the United States, whereas in England he's not extreme left, he's something Guardian (UK newspaper) readers or Independent (UK newspaper) readers would see as a reasonable argument. In US mainstream media, he's considered extreme left in his political views, not his linguistic views. So I think that's a real problem, defining extremism. I think it's maybe a little bit like obscenity. You know I know when I see it but it's one of those nebulous terms. I think terrorism is also in some ways difficult to define. For instance the Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades in the 1970's are terrorist organisations that were working from a Marxist premise within a society that was not occupying them or it was a response to expressing their political views through violence. In the Muslim world, terrorism is almost entirely directly associated with occupation, and it ends up being tactics of people that are powerless against very, very large military might, so if you look at Chechnya, if you look at Iraq, if you look at Kashmir, if you look at Palestine, I think you're going to see that terrorism is directly related to occupation of powerless people. If you remove the occupation, I think the terrorism would go.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But without a definition of extremism, how do you know what you're combating?
HAMZA YUSUF
I think the best definition that I can come up with is Caleb Carr's definition which is that terrorism is the use of violence against civilians in order that the population that's being aggressed upon forces their government to the table of negotiation or to some change in their policies. I think that at the end of the day if we define it as violence against civilians, certainly A.C. Grayling, the British historian who's just written a book asking whether or not the carpet bombing of Germany and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes, or were they acts of terrorism because they were largely against civilian populations. Today in every war that's being fought in the modern period, for every one combatant that's killed, there are ten civilians, over 100,000 by Johns Hopkins' reckoning, over 100,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the bombing. Now, you can call that collateral damage, but for the Iraqi that's facing that, it's terror.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Diana Buttu, definition of extremism.
DIANA BUTTU
I think it's very difficult to come up with a definition of extremism because again, it implies that there's a norm and unfortunately we see that norms are shifting and changing, just in the same way that the Archbishop has said that in some cases his nose would be considered large, in other areas it wouldn't be considered large at all.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But hopefully people wouldn't fight over his nose.
DIANA BUTTU
No, I hope they wouldn't fight over his nose! But that's why I think because we're in a changing world that it is very difficult to make definitions of what extremism is.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But don't we have to if we're going to fight it?
DIANA BUTTU
I think it's important to understand what the cause of it is rather than to make a definition of what it is.
TIM SEBASTIAN
But it's not an abstract concept, it's propagated by people.
DIANA BUTTU
It is absolutely propagated by people, just in the same way that terrorism is propagated by people, but so is war, and unfortunately we've gotten to a point where terrorism is the new bad word rather than the word 'war'. There was a time when I was growing up when the word 'war' or 'apartheid', those sorts of concepts were much worse than terrorism, and I think now because we don't know exactly who it is that's carrying out these acts, or why it is that they're carrying out these acts, we suppose that we don't know, that that's why it becomes a much more looming term than that of war, but as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf just said, there are far more people who are killed by war than there are by acts of terrorism, and I think that it's much more important to understand why all of these acts of violence are taking place in the first place.
TIM SEBASTIAN
John Esposito, are we starting with a muddle where definitions are concerned? Is that a major setback?
JOHN ESPOSITO
I think I'd want to clarify something and that is that as members of this side of the audience can attest to, the Archbishop is incorrect when he talks about the fact that he has a large nose compared to anybody else on this panel. As a southern Italian, I'm very competitive, I win on that one. I think that what I would say with regard to where we're going with this though is, the characteristics that you describe for extremists are right on the mark. The problem when we apply the term is we need to know the specific context. That's the issue, and the same thing happens with the word terrorist. We can agree, as it were, in the abstract on a definition of what terrorism is, but when we go to apply it, for example, Nelson Mandela was seen as a terrorist leader of a terrorist group, you know, Arafat and the Palestinians on the one hand, Begin and Shamir at one point seen as leading terrorist groups but then they became established, so we can talk about the characteristics, we can come up with definitions but actually the only way we can talk about it seems to ....
TIM SEBASTIAN
But we can't apparently come up with definitions, can we? This is the problem.
JOHN ESPOSITO
We can come up with an abstract definition but when we want to get specific, then we have to look at a specific political or religious context.

Is the Israeli government an extreme government?

TIM SEBASTIAN
OK, well, we have a second questioner who wants to get quite specific, Omar Alouba, could we have your question please?
Audience questionAUDIENCE Q (M)
Does the panel consider the Israeli government extremist in that it kills innocent Muslim women and children in Palestine?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Diana Buttu, do you want to take that?
DIANA BUTTU
Yes, I do consider that the Israeli government is an extremist government in that it has maintained an occupation now over the Palestinians for close to 39 years. It has carried out immense acts of aggression against the Palestinians including the killing of innocent civilians, the demolition of homes, the deportation of Palestinians, the denial of natural resources, and most importantly the denial of freedom. All of this has been done for a political purpose, and the political purpose is to try to rid historic Palestine of the Palestinians in order to create Eretz Israel, the larger Israel, so yes, I do consider it extremist.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Do you consider Hamas an extremist movement as well, blowing up civilians on buses?
DIANA BUTTU
I think that the acts that Hamas is carrying out would in fact in my definition of extremist, be labelled extremist, but I think it goes back to the problem with definitions. Definitions are like laws, they're created by the powerful to be used against the powerless, and so by and large when we talk about definitions …
TIM SEBASTIAN
But we have the Alliance of Civilizations High Level Group going to battle with them, so they have to have the definitions, don't they?
DIANA BUTTU
What's that, sorry?
TIM SEBASTIAN
The high level group from the AOC, they need to have a definition.
DIANA BUTTU
Yes, they do.
TIM SEBASTIAN
They don't want to oppress anybody, do they?
DIANA BUTTU
No, they don't want to oppress anybody, but I think it is important to understand the context in which international law and international relations take place, which is there, is a powerful and there is a powerless, and it's by and large the powerful who are making the definition to be used against those who are powerless.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Desmond Tutu, the Israeli government.
DESMOND TUTU
One has to be extremely careful when you are speaking into a volatile situation such as this, and to say I mean that there are actions that are reprehensible, but again, when you use certain terminology, you exacerbate an unfortunate situation. I think, I mean a lot of the action by the Israeli government is reprehensible and it is something that some of us have certainly criticised, but you see, we are always trying to ensure that what you say doesn't pour oil or petrol on an already volatile situation. I think, I mean that if we are going to be trying to resolve a problem, then you want to be careful about the epithets that we use of the protagonists.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
HAMZA YUSUF
Well, I think governments have municipalities. I don't know whether the municipalities are extreme. So they might have extreme garbage men, then I don't know, but certainly in their policies vis-à-vis the Palestinian state, I would have to absolutely assert that they're an extreme government. Collective guilt is not recognised by any law tradition on this planet that has any weight, and so destroying people's houses because they happen to be related to somebody that supposedly committed a crime or is an extreme and gross aggression against all sense of international justice.
TIM SEBASTIAN
So you would want to see the AOC Group going to the Israeli government and saying on behalf of the United Nations that this is reprehensible behaviour and you should stop?
HAMZA YUSUF
Absolutely.
TIM SEBASTIAN
John Esposito.
JOHN ESPOSITO
I think that to start with the Archbishop's comment, I think that one does have to be careful about what one says, but I think that one can talk about and make statements by referring comparatively to both sides, so for example one can say that Israel has an absolute right to exist in safety and security, but so do the Palestinians, to a state, etc., and when it comes to acts of extremism and terrorism, the position that I've basically taken publicly is that just as suicide bombing from my point of view, however much one may understand the agony from which it comes and is motivated, when you're targeting civilians, it's an act of terrorism. Similarly, not all but a fair number of the actions and policies of the Israeli government, whether it's collective guilt, targeted assassinations, etc. are also acts of terror.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Rabbi Schneier, would you like to come in on this? We can get a microphone to you, please. All we would ask is if you could stand up so the cameras can see you, that would be great.
RABBI SCHNEIER (Alliance of Civilizations member)
We can go on with finger-pointing back and forth. That is not going to get us anywhere. There's a very basic premise, and the basic premise is mutual acceptance, or in my words, to live and let live. I want you to live as a sovereign, independent state of Palestine, and I want Israel to be a sovereign, independent Israel. Mutual acceptance, it's the only way to go, and I think that the road map adopted by the United Nations along with the European Union and Russia is the goal, but we're not going to get anywhere beyond finger-pointing if we concentrate on definitions. We need to build trust and eliminate the hatred and the violence and then we can…Look, I'm a firm believer, every conflict comes to an end. The Hundred Year War came to an end, the Thirty War came to an end, World War 1 came to an end, I'm a survivor of World War 2, it came to an end, and the Korean War etc. And I tell you young people, it's in your hands, because you control the future, we're the past, you control the future. If you reach out to one another in terms of mutual acceptance, you can build a glorious future, and that's the way to go, and I'm convinced that this conflict will come to an end just as any other conflict.
TIM SEBASTIAN
Can you have mutual acceptance though of people who commit atrocities or other extremist acts?
RABBI SCHNEIER
Do not stereotype and do not generalise, and above all, it's very interesting, by the way in Judaism, in the Bible not once, 36 times it's repeated, 'Love your stranger,' not once, because it's the tendency of the human being to be suspicious of the other. What are we talking about, xenophobia and anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia, what is it? That's what we're talking about, so the way to go is really respect for the other, respect for human life, respect for the stranger. You talk a lot about democracy. You want to have a definition of democracy? How the majority treats the minority, whether it's politically or religiously speaking, that is a barometer, how the majority treats the minority.
TIM SEBASTIAN
OK. Thank you very much. Diana, can you live with that?
DIANA BUTTU
With the definition of democracy?
TIM SEBASTIAN
Yes.
DIANA BUTTU
I think it's a test of a strong democracy, litmus test, is how is it that we do treat the minorities, this is something that I've always been advocating and looking towards is, how is it that we treat the weakest elements of our own society? Are they treated with respect, with dignity, or are they treated as though they're second-class citizens, and unfortunately in the case of the Palestinians, they haven't been treated with dignity or with respect, and there are Palestinians who are citizens of Israel who are minorities, who are second-class citizens, who are not treated with any dignity, respect, and above all have been denied their freedom, so in that respect it's not a strong democracy.
TIM SEBASTIAN
John Esposito.
JOHN ESPOSITO
I would agree with what you said, but I think that one of the challenges that we have which grow out of what the rabbi said, in my own understanding of democracy is to step back when we're doing this, and always realise that part of the problem most people have in communicating from my point of view is that they compare their ideal to somebody else's ideal, of reality rather than ideal to ideal, reality to reality. And while we can talk about the situation of the Palestinians in the way in which you articulate, I would agree with that part of the challenge in terms of democracy in the broader region of the Middle East is the question of other minorities, and the extent to which for example in many Arab and Muslim countries, the space is created for minorities.