When you talk about misunderstandings between the East and the West, what about this thesis of the clash of civilizations – is it something you subscribe to?
Not at all. I think that a clash of civilizations could be possible, and there have been moments in world history such as the Crusades, but equally there are many other moments in history that show that a clash of civilizations need not happen. There are many periods when you find Christian, Moslem and Jew fruitfully co-existing and sharing ideas, and cross fertilising in terms of culture. From Moslem Spain in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries to, under Christian rulership, the Norman kingdom of Sicily, where Jewish and Moslem scholars worked in close collaboration for the Christian king Roger of Sicily, and produced a great period of enlightenment. Then again, you have the period in White Mughals in eighteenth century India where again there's a very fruitful and positive co-existence. So I think that History shows that a clash of civilizations is something that is possible, but it also clearly shows that it's not something that is necessary, and so is something that should be avoided at all costs.
The actions of Bush and Blair, particularly in the last year – invading Iraq in the absence of international consent, having failed to do their intelligence work as to whether weapons of mass destruction existed or not, heavy handily policing Iraq and committing human rights abuses, and finally spurning forty years of agreements on the Palestinian issue – wholely subscribing to Ariel Sharon's solution, these are things that are likely to create massive disagreements between East and West, and could ultimately, in collaboration with Osama Bin-Laden, provoke a clash of civilizations.
In From the Holy Mountain you documented the dwindling Christian communities of the middle east. How has their situation changed, if at all, in the post 9/11 world?
Well, one of the places that I didn't write about in my book, and where the situation has changed enormously is Iraq, where the situation for Christians has worsened considerably. Under Saddam Hussein there were relatively few fundamentalists, as he was, contrary to what Blair and Bush may have suggested, actively involved in surpressing Fundamentalist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, for his own purposes admittedly. Now the fundamentalist genie is well out of the bottle in Iraq and now Christians in Iraq are having a particularly difficult time.
What are the conditions required for fostering this Multiculturalism? You've suggested various periods in History where Multiculturalism has flourished, but isn't it also fair to say that often this has been under conditions of Empire, and military style dictatorship?
Well, it is true for example that the last place left in the Middle East where you do find four or five cultures in village after village, is Syria, which is a place that has Ottoman style despotic government. Everywhere else, from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Palestine, and more recently the Balkans where people have co-existed together, have decided that now they can't live peacefully together any more. So it is certainly arguable –but to give an example of a place where Multi-culturalism has flourished, for fifty years, with a democratic government is, of course, India. To date, in post-partition India you've successfully had Moslem and Hindu co-existence, though that's not necessarily going to remain the case, if the BJP (Editor’s note: Bharatiya Janata Party) for example win the elections with their policies.
Though you could argue as well that there have been significant problems in India in relation to Multiculturalism over the last 50 years?
Yes, indeed there have. And the massive pogroms in Gujarat last year are a terrible warning of what could happen.
You’ve been a somewhat outspoken critic of the Western media, in relation to its portrayal of Islam.
Yes – I honestly don't recognise the Islam that's portrayed in the Western media, as the Islam that I've lived side by side with in the Middle East and India. Popular Islam, as lived by most ordinary Moslems in the Middle East and India, is a far more tolerant and pluralistic religion than the kind of narrow Wahabi Islam that's written about in the news, the Islam of Bin Laden, and Saudi Arabia. I've no affection whatsoever for puritanical Wahabi fundamentalist Islam which is as unattractive as any other fundamentalist religion found anywhere else in the world. Before the Saudis began their propaganda campaign, backed by Western oil petrodollars, Wahabiism was regarded by most as a heretical branch of Islam; it was regarded as extreme and heretical. Thanks to thirty years of funding extremist groups, and training up Imams, now you have a situation where up to 80% of Arabic language publishing is owned by Saudi Wahabi interests, and most of the mosques in the United States are controlled by Wahabis. It's extraordinary, the equivalent of the Wahabis in western Christian culture would be some ultra-protestant sect in the Western isles of Scotland. Until the 1970's and the discovery and exploitation of oil in Saudi Arabia, the Wahabis were a small, unimportant, marginal and extremist sect regarded at best as eccentric by mainstream Islam. Now, they're in danger of becoming the norm.