Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent and this year’s Park Distinguished Visitor, will speak tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Emerson Suites. Fisk is the recipient of six Foreign Correspondent of the Year and two Journalist of the Year awards, and is one of the only journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. Staff Writer Archana Menon spoke to Fisk about his conversations with bin Laden and his experience as a journalist in the Middle East.
Archana Menon: You began traveling around the Middle East in 1976. What cultural or general differences have you seen since then?
Robert Fisk: The biggest difference I have noticed is the Arabs are no longer afraid. When I came here, during the civil war, the Israelis had crossed the Lebanese borders and the Palestinians in the south would all flee to Beirut. I remember once being in Jerusalem and seeing Palestinians wearing police uniforms working for the Israelis. I don’t know when the change took place but it might have been in 1982 during the siege of Beirut. Now, they will fight the Israelis like the Hezbollah did in the summer. They will fight the Americans when you consider Iraq, the country teeming with poverty and suffering after the UN sanctions. … The other great change is more cultural than religious. When I first came here, the enemies of the West were all nationalist: the Palestine Liberation Organization was nationalist, the Ba’ath party in Iraq and Syria, and now all the enemies of the West are Islamic, and not nationalist.
Fisk explains the biggest difference he’s seen in the Middle East.
AM: What does it feel like to be living in Beirut, a place filled with conflict?
RF: People arrive [in Lebanon] and the Lebanese smile at them like Lebanon is their friend. And I am not sure it is. You have to treat the Lebanese with great respect. They are a people who are on a sort of political fault line. It is also a fault line between the East and West, the Shiite and the Sunni, Christian and Muslim, Israelis and the West, and so on. And I think the people here have learned to live with the foundations of their houses shaking. To keep alive, they have to smile and be friendly to everyone. But that doesn’t mean that they are giving you their country.
AM: Have you received any sort of threat because you are a journalist from the West?
RF: I have had one telephone threat in 31 years. That was a Turkish woman in London who was objecting about what I was writing about the Armenian genocide. After [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri’s death, I was informed that a general — who has now lost his job — in the listening department of military security was tapping my telephone. But I stayed in Lebanon. I didn’t leave, which is probably what I was supposed to do. Over a long period like 31 years, you are able to establish that you are not a spy, which is a great fear among Arabs when they see a Westerner, and you also establish that you have a good heart. So, for example, after Hariri’s murder, one of the pro-Syrian security officers in Lebanon asked the Hezbollah to detain me in southern Lebanon and question me about the sources of my information. The Hezbollah refused to obey that request and I actually went down to southern Lebanon and thanked them for refusing. In terms of government and war, I have had people scream abuse at me but only because I was in a place where there was fighting going on. But I have never had a person come to me or deliver an envelope saying, You will die unless you whatever. And if I did get one, I would refuse to leave because if you leave, everyone immediately thinks that you must be a spy.
Fisk on his confusion with the concentration of Lebanon.
AM: How would you describe your life as a journalist in Beirut?
RF: It is exhausting. When I came to the Middle East, it was a story. Most of the regimes were comparatively stable, but now it is catastrophe from the borders of Pakistan all the way to the Mediterranean. If I turn on the BBC news tonight, virtually 60 percent are Middle Eastern stories, and what happens is you just get overwhelmed because now the flood smashes early in the morning and you don’t know when to start work.
AM: What are your thoughts on Iran and the rumored possibility of an invasion?
RF: I thought originally that the Americans wouldn’t invade Iraq, and I was wrong. And on the basis of that, I am very frightened of saying that there will not be an attack on Iran. Given the current administration in Washington and its inability to accept the Baker Report or to listen to the voice of the American electors in the last election, who knows? I think it is a totally false crisis. The political leader of the Iranian Islamic revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, closed down the [nuclear] institutions after the Islamic revolution, and they were reopened when Saddam, who was working for us at that time, was using gas against Iran. And then the Iranians felt that if he was using gas he will use nuclear weapons next. So they reopened all these nuclear institutions in Iran again. But that part of the story has been wiped off the history book. That’s not in the narrative. It’s just shown that these horrible maulers want nuclear power.
Fisk on the economic future of Lebanon.
AM: Some of your many journalistic endeavors included your interviews with Osama bin Laden. How would you describe bin Laden?
RF: When I met him, he didn’t have any broad understanding of world affairs. He thought there was going to be a civil war in the United States. He seemed to think that America would be bankrupted by war. But history suggests that quite the opposite happens. War pumps the Western economies. He was a man who didn’t seem to have wisdom of the world. He was clearly a very harsh person. I once asked him what sort of state he would like to live in, and it was clearly something worse than Saudi Arabia. Here was a man who believed in head-chopping and hand-chopping for thievery. I would not want to live in bin Laden’s Arabia. But you have to understand that although he has referred to me recently, and although he wanted to see me after 9/11 in Afghanistan, I haven’t actually seen him since before 9/11. When I actually met him, 9/11 hadn’t happened. You can’t really turn around and say that I am the man who met the man who did 9/11 because it had not happened when I had met him. Because I met him a lot for quite a long time, I am afraid that he is going to follow me for the rest of my life.
AM: Could you elaborate on your interviews with bin Laden?
RF: In my book, I point out that in my last meeting with him, he told me a story wherein his brother had a dream in which he saw me coming on a horse as a religious man. The Wahhabi people believe in something that I call “dreamology,” in which they think that they receive messages through their dreams. I think this was an attempt to see if I would in some way come across, and I immediately replied that I am not a Muslim, I am a journalist, and my job is to tell the truth. [When I met with bin Laden,] what would happen is someone would come pick me up and take me somewhere and bin Laden would arrive afterwards. I was never blindfolded. I always knew where I was, generally, but I was always driven openly, and they were quite courteous toward me. I wasn’t handcuffed or shoved in the back somewhere. I mean, nothing was ever hidden from me. The first time, I saw him in Sudan and I was taken by a Saudi friend. The two cases that we met in Afghanistan, I never asked to see bin Laden. He asked to see me.
AM: Do you see any hope for stability or peace in the Middle East in the near future?
RF: No, I see none. The problem is that we keep talking about democracy and the people here talk about justice and it’s not the same thing. You cannot build democracy on sand, you have to build it on justice. We are not interested in correcting the wrongs of people, we are just interested in making them do what we want them to do. And when they don’t do it or they object or they stage an insurrection, we call them terrorists, which is just not going to work.
Fisk talks about the Hezbollah and religion’s effects on culture.
AM: What do you believe we, as students and as world citizens, should know about the situation in the Middle East?
RF: I am a journalist and I can just report back and give lectures. This is a decision that you should make and decide how you respond to that. I said that people shouldn’t go and visit Iraq, but they should visit the Middle East. People who care about the Middle East or think they care should come and have a look at it. Come to Beirut, go to Israel, come to Palestine, obviously not the dangerous parts, but come talk to the people who live here. Do not just listen to The New York Times’ version of the events. When I am in America, I read the American press, and frankly if I didn’t know the Middle East, the reporting on this region would be incomprehensible to me.
Fisk talks about the younger generation in the Arab world.