Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Jason Burke | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Since the end of 2001 journalists have been pursuing Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden from the Tora Bora mountainside from where he released statements and videos, to [his rumoured presence] in the border province of Waziristan which is, from time to time, subject to air raids by unmanned US fighter drones.

One of these is Jason Burke, a senior reporter for the British Observer newspaper who is currently based in Paris. Burke has written hundreds of articles on the Taliban, and was based in Pakistan for three years where he reported on the Taliban and the 2001 US war against the regime. He is an expert on Afghan affairs and the Taliban in particularly and has written a number of books on Islamic radicalism and his experiences in Afghanistan.

Jason Burke has written an important book entitled Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam which has sold around 45,000 copies in Britain alone and has been translated into seven languages, including Japanese, Turkish and Latvian. The book is a careful study of Islamic fundamentalism and Al Qaeda’s activities and ideology since its inception in Peshawar by Osama Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Arabs. In this book Burke describes Al Qaeda as being more of a radical interpretation [of Islam] than a fundamentalist organization outright.

Jason Burke is a natural journalist who says that he most often finds himself in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has a sharp intelligence and a natural wit, speaking English, French, Urdu, and a little Arabic. He began working for the Observer in 1998, serving as chief reporter in Pakistan prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that brought Al Qaeda and the Taliban into the media spotlight. He has covered stories from Morocco to Cambodia, from Uzbekistan to Zimbabwe, and specializes in conflict and Islamic militancy.

Burke was the first journalist to conduct an interview with President Pervez Musharraf after he seized power in Pakistan in October 1999. Burke later transferred to the Middle East where he covered the Palestinian Intifada and the events in Iraq. Burke was also the first western journalist to enter the Afghan city of Khost during the US war in Afghanistan, and was the first western reporter to interview Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Taliban Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs.

Speaking of his first trip to Afghanistan, Jason Burke told Asharq Al-Awsat, “For several months in the summer of 1998 I drove in taxis round Afghanistan. The country was at war and the Taliban were moving into their most radical phase. The roads were dreadful, mile after mile of holes and rubble which meant even the smallest journey was turned into a horribly uncomfortable marathon of back-breaking jolts and bumps. I slept in road-side inns, caravanserai, chaikhannas, often just wrapped in a blanket as the desert dust blew in and the rest of the travellers and clients got up at 5am for dawn prayers. I did not join them of course but watched as they threw down their shawls in the dirt and lined up in the early morning light.”

“I was freelance, working for a couple of British newspapers. I had resigned a few months earlier after nearly five years as an investigative reporter at the Sunday Times newspaper in London and moved to Pakistan to cover events there and in Afghanistan. I had no savings, no real job, and no security at all. I did not even have my own satellite phone but relied on NGOs, the facilities run by the Taliban themselves and the few phone lines still operational in the war-battered country to get my stories out. But I was very happy. It was what I had always wanted to do. I had always wanted to be a reporter – the only job I could think of which allows you to travel, to learn about other places and peoples, to witness history in the making and to get paid for it – and I had always been attracted to southwest Asia and the Islamic world in general. It was there that languages, culture, history, and people that I had always wanted to learn about and live around were. It was also, year in year out, where the best stories always seem to be.”

Burke points out that this was not his first experience of the Islamic world, or of south-west Asia, nor was it his first experience of militants and warriors, of violence and poverty, of staggering landscapes and tragic life stories. Burke had previously experienced this in 1991 when as a student at Oxford University he travelled to northern Iraq to spend time with the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas who had rebelled against Saddam Hussein. Burke travelled widely over the following years, from Indonesia to Morocco, honing his linguistic and journalistic skills. However Afghanistan and Pakistan was where he wanted to be, and so he explains, “I was happy in my taxis back in 1998.”

Burke went on to say that this was a formative time for him adding “I learned how stereotypes are very often wrong. I found fighters alongside the Taliban who came from local Shia minorities – there in the frontlines simply to earn money. I was in Kandahar when President Clinton launched Operation Infinite Reach, missiles which struck Al Qaeda’s training camps in eastern Afghanistan. It was the Taliban who protected Westerners from angry locals. Things were clearly more complicated than they seemed.”

Recalling this point in his career Burke told Asharq Al-Awsat, “I attended two executions in Kabul’s football stadium, one was a woman [whose case would] later became very famous. I was disgusted and fascinated. Since then I have spent much time talking to extremists of all types – Kashmiri violent Islamists, Punjabi and Iraqi suicide bombers, secular leftist Kurdish separatist of the PKK, smooth-talking radical clerics in the UK – and every time I have tried to understand what motivated them. Most recently I was able to interview militants in recovery programmes in Saudi Arabia and in prison in Pakistan. My only frustration has been the difficulty of arranging visas and access in a range of other countries too and how difficult it is to meet senior militants. Once, when living in Pakistan, I could just get a cab down into Rawalpindi or up to Peshawar and meet them there but not anymore. It is too dangerous for me as a Western journalist.”

Talking about his motivations for writing his book Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, Burke said, “It was out of this investigation into the true nature of radicalism that the motivation for my first book on Al Qaeda came. The book, I am happy to say, was a major success, though it has yet to be translated into Arabic. My aim was to counter the idea of Al Qaeda as a shadowy tight-knit group and emphasise the ideological nature of the phenomenon of radical Islamic militancy with its deep roots in the Islamic world, and the Islamic world’s encounter with the West and with Western policies.”

Burke continues, “I wanted to kill off the myths – such as that Osama Bin Laden was a product of the CIA – or that suicide bombers were either ‘mad’ or ‘psychopathic.’ Happily my argument that Al Qaeda was part of a much bigger and more complex phenomenon to which no military solution could be found was well-received.”

“I wrote the book after covering the war in Afghanistan in 2001 having been hired by The Observer as their chief foreign correspondent a year or so earlier. Throughout much of 2002 I remained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, though I also made trips to Iraq. I had previously been to Baghdad and Basra in 1999 and 2000 to see the grim reality of life under Saddam’s brutal rule and the UN sanctions. I travelled elsewhere too – to Iran, Algeria, Jordan, and also covered the violence of the first months of the Al Aqsa Intifada [the Second Intifada]. I still remember the astonishing scenes at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip during the first week of the uprising. Happily I was also able to travel in Africa too, a welcome change that broadened my horizons and thinking. Then I covered the war in Iraq itself, and stayed on through 2003 and 2004. It was out of this experience that my second book On the Road to Kandahar came.”

Speaking about his experience in Iraq, Jason Burke said, “The fighting in Najaf in August 2004 was the most intense combat I had ever seen. Iraqi militiamen were resisting an assault by American tanks, infantry, and apache helicopters. It was incredibly hot, the noise was intense and a whole belt of the city was in ruins. As the fighting reached its peak, I was crouched behind a wall with some colleagues when a door opened nearby and a young man beckoned to us. Inside, his father, a local farmer in his 60s, served us brackish water. All their neighbours had fled but the two men had remained to safeguard their home from looters. We asked him who he blamed for the trouble. He blamed both the Americans and the militiamen. They were as bad as each other, he said, they had all come to fight in his hometown. He wished they would all just go back to where they came from and leave him in peace. As I listened to that old man, something clicked. He was the man in the middle, the man who was reasonable and honest and just wanted to get on with his life, the man whose voice was drowned out by the blast and the shock and the shouted angry rhetoric of the ideologues and the warriors.”

Burke explained, “I wanted to write a book that showed as many people as possible that it was the old man that was most representative of the so-called ‘Islamic World’ not the killers. And when I thought of him, I thought of all the other people I had known who were equally sensible, hospitable, warm, and who were suffering just as much, and how so few in the West thought about them. I thought about the Kurdish guerrillas I had joined whilst I was a student during my summer holidays in 1991, I thought about the Afghans who I had travelled among for years in the late 1990s, friends in Pakistan, Algeria, and elsewhere. [I thought about] all those with whom, I knew, I had shared – and still share – so much.

Burke goes on to say, “Many now think about the ‘clash of civilizations.’ Many now talk about ‘Muslims’ as a monolithic bloc of more than one billion people, all of whose values and lives are incompatible with progress, democracy, and economic growth. I hoped On the Road to Kandahar would show how such an idea is dangerous and wrong. The book was not a polemic, not a well-turned rhetorical argument but simply an account of what I had seen, which I hope shows that self-fulfilling prophecies of a third world war against ‘Muslims’ should be greeted with the derision it deserves. I also hoped that [this book] would reveal what actually drives the militants and how their twisted ideology has a purchase on population, that it explains something of the role of violence and myth and of the importance of the media in our new globally-wired, interconnected world. And I hoped that it shows the reader a little of the reality of what it is like to be a reporter, at work in the field.”

Burke recalls that “The old man was not merely representative of the ‘silent majority’ of moderate voices in the Muslim world. Fundamentalisms all over the world are on the rise, the dynamism and uncertainty of the 21st century has made the rigid and the dogmatic attractive to many. Those for whom life is complex, for whom morality is often grey rather than black and white, have struggled to be heard in recent years. My book, and all the people whose words are to be found in it, I hoped, would make a small contribution to the hard but incredibly important process of correcting that imbalance.”

Speaking about the developments that he has witnessed following the war in Afghanistan and his expectations for the future, Burke tells Asharq Al-Awsat that “Since then we have seen the conflict in the Middle East and Southwest Asia ebb and flow. Since 2005 – when bombs exploded in my own home town of London – the problems in Europe have also been of great interest to me. I have worked extensively on radicalism – but this time I include my fellow citizens [when discussing this problem]. I remember how back in the mid-90s I wrote stories for the Sunday Times on men like Abu Qatada who few were interested in at the time. Nobody in the UK paid much attention to the civil war in Algeria, or [events in] Egypt. They do now though. I have also spent much time in France, which is also a fascinating story. In the UK and in France you see two very different models of integration of immigrant populations and very different conceptions of national identity. These questions of difference and different points of view on the world are likely to be more and more pressing in the coming decades. In my recent travels to Pakistan I can see how a new conservative nationalist and Islamist identity is being consolidated, something that will become an important factor in regional dynamics and cannot be ignored. And then there is the unfolding tragedy in Afghanistan which I visit every few months. Most recently I spent a week with the new American soldiers being surged into the country, before spending two weeks talking to the locals in the areas where these new troops are fighting.”

Jason Burke ends this interview by telling Asharq Al-Awsat, “It is difficult to be optimistic, as I have said frequently in my newspaper articles and on the television. The West is learning its own limits. Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, is digging the tomb of another one. But the story remains a good one for all journalists – whether it involves being out on patrol with the troops, interviewing the militants, finding out what the locals actually think, or digging out – as I did last year – news of secret peace talks between the government and the Taliban. This is why I became a reporter which – despite all the problems newspapers are facing at the moment – still remains much better than any sensible job.”