BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 21.10.01

Film: TERRY DIGNAN reports on the deep-seated grievances that many in the Arab World feel about America's policies in the Middle East.

TERRY DIGNAN: Osama Bin Laden - terrorist and propagandist, a man who employs both violence and the media to further his cause. Using television appearances, he and his associates exploit the grievances of the Arab and Muslim worlds. To the dismay of governments in the West, and the Middle East, from his hideout in Afghanistan his message strikes a chord. ABDUL BARI ATWAN: The messages of Osama Bin Laden which he passed through satellite channels start to actually make its effect on the people. We noticed that certain parts of the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia welcome these messages and support Osama Bin Laden. DIGNAN: Many of those who have tuned in to bin Laden's propaganda sympathise with his description of Arab and Muslim grievances. Tackle these grievances, they say, and you remove the root causes of the terrorism aimed at the United States. But just how much room for manouvre is there on issues like Palestine and Iraq? And even if the West adopted a new approach to the Middle East, would it be enough for the likes of bin Laden? IMAM HAMZA YUSEF: All of the Muslims that I know, none of them in any way were pleased with what happened with September 11th. I think they were devastated by it, but I think unfortunately in the Muslim world there are a great deal of people who feel, one, it's come uppance time, it's chickens coming home to roost. JAMES RUBIN: Certainly there are American foreign policies that are not popular in the Arab world and the Muslim world, in Europe or in Asia, and that's a reality that American politicians and leaders have to deal with on almost every subject. But none of that should be linked to the mass murder of innocent civilians. DIGNAN: On Thursday Israeli viewers watched the funeral of their assassinated tourism minister. The next morning the TV crews were in the West Bank to record Israel's response to the killing. Bin Laden now shrewdly portrays himself as the Palestinians' friend, using their cause to increase his support. HANAN ASHRAWI: One way of resolving, one way of ending this, these fertile grounds for anger, for hostility, for distrust and for extremism would be to solve the Palestinian question equitably and legally and justly in order to prevent it's exploitation, in order to deal with the cause of, of disaffection and discontent. And to give the US and the West perhaps a means of rectification instead of continuing this spiral that would feed further extremism. ATWAN: We have to solve that, and the Israeli should understand that otherwise, you know, the next generation of terrorism will use more deadly weapons, maybe anthrax, maybe the VX gas nerve gas, maybe nuclear small devices, who knows. DIGNAN; The camera does not lie - this is a vicious conflict. And maybe an unequal one because Israel's biggest backer is a superpower. But with America now at war, won't the Bush administration in Washington feel freer to pressurize Israel's Prime Minister? ASHWARI: Well it hasn't put sufficient pressure on Israel, number one, because Sharon himself said it, he said well we control the pro-Israeli lobby or the Jewish lobby controls Washington, so why should we listen? And it's about time I think that Sharon understands that this is no longer the case, that the Congress is not willing to confront the Administration right now. RUBIN: American administrations can and should work very hard on the peace process. They can and should try to acknowledge that there is resentment in the Arab world towards American support for Israel. But there is a limit to what we can do and there, and there needs to be an understanding in the Arab world that we have tried and we have worked on it. And the most recent failure, in my opinion, was more the result of the Palestinians being unwilling to deal with a remarkable offer from the Israelis. DIGNAN: In an age of global broadcasting, images of human suffering in Iraq have provided bin Laden with a powerful propaganda weapon. The Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, claims his people are suffering because of trade sanctions. Britain and America fear removing the sanctions would enable Saddam to import materials for weapons of mass destruction. Yet many Muslims believe the policy is inhumane. ATWAN: The Arabs don't have sympathy towards Saddam Hussein. They have sympathy towards a fellow Arab country, to Iraqi people which are Muslim and Christian people. They can see, you know, this country under the sanction for the last ten years. A million Iraqi were killed because of this sanction. If you left the situation as it is now and the country is really under this sanction, killing sanction you know, in the end you know, they will follow the example of Osama Bin Laden and create, make the country a safe haven for terrorists for extremists. DIGNAN: Even if these scenes of adulation are stage managed for primetime TV, many in the Middle East blame the West and not Saddam Hussein for the Iraqis' predicament. Removing sanctions, though, could pose great risks. RUBIN: Does the World really want Saddam Hussein to have thousands and thousands and thousands of weapons of mass destruction like anthrax, like smallpox? And how is the best way to get rid of that? Sanctions have been a way to do that, it's obviously got costs, but the real starvation in Iraq to the extent it exists is the fault of the regime which is spending its money, the oil reserves that they have and that they can sell, on luxuries for their leaders rather than food for their people. DIGNAN: Just over ten years ago Muslim television audiences saw thousands of American troops arrive on the soil of Saudi Arabia ahead of the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Many American troops are still based in the Arabian peninsular such is the uncertainty about the region's security. Bin Laden's condemnation of their presence has touched a raw nerve. ATWAN: It is very very sensitive issue, because Saudi Arabia host the most holiest shrine on the Arab and Muslim creeds so this our religion doesn't allow foreign troops to be in that part of the world. Osama Bin Laden used these troops as an excuse to mobilise people behind him and to launch attacks against his government Saudi Arabia and also against these troops, so it is a very sensitive issue, from the Islamic point of view. DIGNAN: In 1991 these pictures of Kuwait's burning oilfields were beamed around the world. Some Western analysts believe Saddam Hussein is still a threat to Gulf oil producers - including Saudi Arabia. American troops are there to keep him out. RUBIN: Americans don't have any desire to send their troops out in to the Saudi desert and live there all year long. We were invited in, we were asked in and I think the American policy-makers would be pleased to pull our troops out if the threat went away. DIGNAN: The state-run broadcasting stations of Arab and Muslim countries echo many of bin Laden's complaints about the West. Yet his ambitions for the Islamic world are said to threaten not just the West but the very existence of the governments of the Middle East. So is there any guarantee that addressing Arab and Muslim grievances will end the terrorism? ATWAN: As long as, you know, the American actually preferring to deal with a rotten, corrupt dictatorship in the Middle East and ignore the Arab public opinion and Muslim public opinion, this will create the suitable climate or the ideal climate for people like Bin Laden to exploit the frustration of people and to pursue their attacks against western civilisation. NEIL PARTRICK: Were he and his ability to wreak terrorist havoc to be successful then one could imagine that there will be a variety of other challenges within these Gulf countries, not necessarily Bin Laden and his network, who would challenge the stability of those regimes and no doubt replace them with ones rather less amenable to our security interest, and considerably rather more offensive in terms of human rights. DIGNAN: These pictures from Al Jazeera television show Bin Laden and his associates in Afghanistan. Overthrowing Middle East governments may only be a first step to creating a world divided between Muslims and everyone else. Terrorist groups like Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda may not be satisfied until this vision becomes a reality. PARTRICK: He does make clear and many of the groups which are believed to be part of his broad network say that they wish to establish an Uma, an Islamic community, a form of restored Halifate, a government that is seen to be adhering fully to Islamic principles, that rules according to the Sharia will unite all the Muslim peoples conceivable wherever they are in the world. RUBIN: He would like to see all of the Arab and Muslim world live like they live in the Taliban's Afghanistan - a kind of Stone Age Caliphate where there's no freedom, no rights and no future. Bin Laden and this type of Bin Laden ideology exists in Islam right now, it needs to be stamped out, it needs to be confronted by the leaders of the Islamic communities where these people come from. DIGNAN: Indeed, in Pakistan, the government has allowed the Taliban to recruit in front of the television cameras. But some Muslims are optimistic that should the West tackle Islamic resentment it might slow the flow of volunteers to Bin Laden's cause. Although it's unlikely to affect those who've already pledged themselves to terrorism. YUSEF: These people I feel that have already committed, they've gone over to this extremist side, I don't think we're gonna win them over. I don't think that they're gonna go away but I think if we genuinely address the grievances - not in some Machiavellian lip-service type of address, but really genuinely try to examine the situations, talk about them on both sides and do something about the present conditions, I think that we will prevent further recruiting of these, into these type of groups. DIGNAN: Bin Laden has embraced broadcast technology despite his dislike of the modern world. His message is that Muslim grievances justify mass murder. Tracking him down may prove easier than removing the resentment he relies on to further his cause.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.