Monday, March 14, 2005

Daniel Cohn-Bendit in 2001 on the 9/11 attacks

Hearing that recording of European Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit at a conference on democracy and terrorism in Madrid this past week reminded me of an interview I saw with him just after the 9/11 attack in 2001.

As chance would have it, I was scheduled to fly to Austria on the week following the 9/11 attacks.  Fortunately, the airlines had mostly resumed service by then so I wa able to make the trip.  (I was surprised to see that the Austrian Airlines plane I took from Germany to Vienna was still serving meals with metal forks and knives!)

In retrospect, the fact that I was in Europe for a while just after 9/11 probably affected my perspective on the fight against terrorism more than I realized.  Because I'm a lazy tourist, I generally spend a lot of my vacation time sitting around cafes drinking coffee and reading newspapers and magazines, in that particular case almost exclusively German and Austrian ones.  The level of solidarity with America that was being expressed by European politicians of almost all stripes, even those like Cohn-Bendit with serious disagreements with major aspects of US foreign policy, was really impressive.

The idea that within a year this would degenerate into the Bush administration more-or-less openly pushing for the defeat of German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in his re-election bid, or that grown men and women would be doing things like renaming "French fries" (which didn't even originate in France) to "freedom fries" appeared to be an unlikely outcome to me that week following 9/11.  Not that I didn't have plenty of wariness about the administration's unilateralist/isolationist instincts.  There just seemed to be such a good chance that things would take a far more hopeful and constructive direction.

The interview I mentioned with Cohn-Bendit was in the print edition of Format magazine (Vienna) for 21.09.2001.  The following quotations from him are my translations from the German.

The first question in the interview was, "Are we at war?"  Both in the question and in Cohn-Bendit's answer, the given assumption was that "we" included America's European allies.  He refers in his response to the NATO decision to invoke Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty for the first (and almost certainly the last) time to declare the 9/11 attack on America to be an attack on the whole alliance.  The Bush administration, as we now know, declined the opportunity to make the responding intervention in Afghanistan a NATO operation because we didn't want those wimpy Europeans slowing us down, and all that.  Eventually, the international force protecting mainly Kabul was made into a NATO operation.  Cohn-Bendit:

One must not immediately apply the vocablulary of war.  But it's certainly true: terrorism has to be fought.  And we can't fight terrorism with social work.  The NATO invocation of Article 5 is fully justified.  It's not about the "bad Amis" [Americans], because tomorrow any nuclear power plant in France or Germany can be the target of an attack.  The Europeans must push for a broad coalition.  If American elite troops fight in Afghanistan, then that won't bother me a bit, that's their job.  I am just against this technological warfare with the so-called surgical strikes from the air.  But a war with ground troops against Bin Laden or the Taliban, I support that, in my opinion it is appropriate.

In line with his remarks in Madrid this past week, he rejected the notion that jihadist ideology (it wasn't usually called that at the time) is a direct result of poor conditions in Arab countries.  He insisted on seeing it as a particular ideology that utilizes certain issues but is not directly identifiable with them:

One should certainly not forget that behind this terrorism stands the militant and dangerous ideology of Islamic radical fundamentalism.  This fascistoid, racist ideology is not the result of the bad luck of the world, the injustice of the West or the unjust dealing of the Israelis and with them the Americans in Palestine.  Islamic fundamentalism just surfs on this ideology.  Like Bolshevism used the class struggle in order to obtain its goals.

As that last comment shows, the marked anticommunist streak in Cohn-Bendit's thinking that was so prominent in his days as a "68er" is still in evidence.

He attributes the popular hatred that provides the social background and much of the political support for the jihadists to the failures of various Islamic governments "to solve theproblems of the modern world."  He cites the former French colony Algeria as an example, saying that the country itself is not especially poor but there is a severe maldistribution of wealth which leaves the majority in bitter poverty.

But he also criticizes the short-sighted "Realpolitik" of the Western countries in dealing with various Islamic countries as having contributed to the problem, citing the example of the support given to the anti-Soviet Islamic mujahideen in Afghanistan.

He's certainly right on that example.  It's one of the worst examples of "blowback" in the history of American foreign policy.  The particular jihadist ideology that drives the Muslim terrorists who are such a focus of concern today can't be understood outside the particular experience of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan.  If there was ever a case of US foreign policy creating a Frankenstein's monster that comes back to terrorize its creator, that was one of them.

He also addressed the specifically religious element as follows:

But back once more to Islam.  One cannot say that Islam has nothing to do with the Islamism of the World Trade Center pilots.  The Inquisition, in the end, also had something to do with Catholicism.

American politicians are unlikely to word concepts like this in that way, except for rightwingers who just want to slam Islam as an evil religion.  The democratic tradition in Europe had a much more marked "anticlerical" element in the 19th century than in America, in no small part because established Catholic and Protestant Church hierarchies in Europe often threw their influence heavily behind anti-democratic reaction and persecution.  This tradition persists to some extent today, so that a politician like Cohn-Bendit doesn't much worry about phrasing things in a way that our Christian Right in America would condemn as "secularist" or "humanist" or whatever.

But he goes on to describe the problem as a perversion of religion, and focuses on the more general problem of fundamentalist fanaticism:

Islamic fundamentalism is, like all fundamentalist tendencies, a genuinely racist ideology.  That's also true in Catholicism and Judaism.  A certain interpretation of Judaism brings the settlers in the West Bankto a racist ideology.  The problem then develops if religious interpretations develop into political ideologies - with the settlers in Isreal, with the Catholic fundamentalists in America or the same with the Islamic fundamentalists.  For that reason, certainly not all Muslims are generally dangerous.

There are Catholic fundamentalists in America, by the way, though the Christian Right is much more driven by the militant Protestant variety.  I would speculate here that he was probably applying his experiences with rightwing Catholics in Europe too loosely to the American situation.

He went on to say that the Israli-Palestinian conflict needs to be resolved so that the jihadists can't use the issue for propaganda value any more.  The key to a settlement, he sensibly observed, is removing the Israeli settlements from Palestinian territory.

Cohn-Bendit agreed with the notion that today's global terrorism can be seen as a malignant side-effect of the much-discussed "globalization":  "If the market spreads out over the entire world, then it needs rules, just as it needed earlier also in the national state," he said. "Against a naturally growing globalization, oriented only to the market, we should propose the idea of a globalizataion of solidarity," though he didn't elaborate further on that in the interview.

Asked if anything postive might come out of the aftermath of 9/11, Cohn-Bendit's answer is now a sad reminder of tremendous opportunities needlessly squandered, above all through the Iraq War:

Today we have for the first time pressure for cooperative diplomacy; Europe must invite the Americans to a partnership in the fight against terrorism.  With that, it is also important that we say to the Americans: Do you want multilateral cooperation, or do you want multilateral order-takers?

We know the answer that Bush and Cheney and Rummy had for that question.

1 comment:

purcellneil said...


Thanks once again for your most excellent journal.

In reading this post, I was struck by several things, perhaps most by the sense of perspective one gets from considering the insights of Europeans.  I am not familiar with Cohn-Bendit but I agree with his observation that globalization and the market-driven forces it unleashed call for an intelligent and cooperative approach from world leaders -- to counter some of the undesirable effects and to ensure that legitimate human concerns and values are not completely overwhelmed by those of the marketplace.

Clearly, even as we see the President naming John Bolton to the UN post, there is a great need for cooperation and collaboration to address the challenges of globalization, terrorism, disease, genocide, human rights, environmental degradation, and poverty.

It is a shame that the only voices many Americans hear are those of insular, ethnocentric and jingoistic FOX blowhards; and the God-is-on-our-side, our-God-is-better-than-their-God preachers.

I wonder if Americans will ever undertake to be responsible citizens of the leading nation in the world.  If the current President is any indication, we have a long way to go.