Today's date:
Spring 2008

Pakistan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali Are Front Lines in "Terror War"

Bernard-Henri Levy is France's leading intellectual and the author of Who Killed Daniel Pearl? He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in San Francisco.

NPQ | Pakistan is a country you know very well, especially after your investigative book Who Killed Daniel Pearl? What do you make of the current turmoil in that country?

Bernard-Henri Levy | It turns out I was right beyond my most pessimistic analysis at the time when I wrote the book on Daniel Pearl -- that Pakistan was a ticking bomb with nuclear weapons. Now the political bomb is detonating.

The jihadist forces are increasing in the border regions with Afghanistan and also in the heartlands, and the secret services (ISI) have been even further infiltrated, not less so, by jihadists than when I wrote my book. A great eruption awaits, I'm afraid.

My conclusion in the Daniel Pearl book is that we were all fools rushing off to war in Iraq. The real epicenter of the Islamist danger was Pakistan. Al-Qaida's core base is not in Tora Bora or even the tribal areas of Pakistan, but in Karachi and Islamabad -- close to the nuclear weapons and close to the headquarters of the ISI. Al-Qaida are the proverbial guerrilla fish in the sea of Pakistan's major urban population.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance, who was one of the real brains of al-Qaida, who conceived the 9/11 attacks and claimed to have killed Daniel Pearl with his own hands (although I'm not sure), was captured in Rawalpindi, only two miles from the headquarters of the army!

Of course, Musharraf knows this. He tolerates it to maintain the complicated balance of forces that keep him in power. If he were to really crack down on them the way he has on human rights activists, he would be in hot water.

NPQ | Is Pakistan the front line in the "war on terror"?

Levy | Yes. There is no question in my mind that the center of gravity of Islamist fundamentalism is shifting from the Arab world to the Asiatic world. As V.S. Naipaul pointed out in his book Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among Converted Peoples, the zeal of converts outside the Arab world is more fervent. Just looking at a map through Osama bin Laden's eyes will tell you that Kashmir is closer to the center of the Muslim world, not Palestine. For most of the jihadists, Kashmir is the real Palestine.

In this sense, the war in Iraq was not only foolish but a moral crime because it diverted focus and resources from the real issue. Not focusing on Pakistan after 9/11, and instead contracting out to Musharraf, was a grave strategic error of the United States. It paralleled two other mistakes in dealing with Islamist fundamentalists: firstly, the indiscriminate and unquestioning support of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, not distinguishing between the fundamentalist stem cells of al-Qaida (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's groups) and the democratic forces of young Commander (Ahmad Shah) Masood's Northern Alliance; and then, secondly, America's dangerous tolerance of Saudi Wahhabism in return for oil.

Does the US realize it made a mistake? When (Condoleezza) Rice came to Paris on an official visit as secretary of state, I and two other colleagues sat down with her at the American embassy. She was charming, intelligent and a great deal more open than any secretary of state I've ever met. She responded frankly to questions about any subject, including the war in Iraq. And then I asked her whether the alliance with Musharraf could not, one day, be construed as a huge mistake. She suddenly became tight-lipped and fell silent.

NPQ | Do you approve of the new cozy relationship between France and the US crafted by (Nicolas) Sarkozy, particularly on Iran.

Levy | Absolutely, it is correct. I voted against Sarkozy. I worry about the personal destiny of my friend (Foreign Minister) Bernard Kouchner, who "left the family" (the Socialists) to join Sarkozy and took, therefore, a real risk. But I'm not sectarian. They are doing a great job both on rebuilding the relationship with the US and on confronting Tehran.

The speech Sarkozy gave to both houses of the US Congress recently was a very good speech. Very unlike the racist speech he made in Dakar drafted by his "guru" Henri Guaino, when he talked about the African man being unable to lift himself out of his natural circumstances, etc. Guaino is anti-American, a nationalist. He has a tendency toward racism. And, what is more, unfortunately, he's not very intelligent. Sarkozy, I guess, is beginning to understand this is not the type of person to be so closely associated with as president of the republic.

NPQ | The Israelis are so suspicious of Iran because they followed a similar clandestine path to nuclear bomb capability under the guise of energy production. Shimon Peres worked closely with France on this project.

Do you believe Sarkozy and Kouchner believe Iran has made a strategic decision to have a bomb, despite what the International Atomic Energy Agency says? Is France right to be so confrontational on this?

Levy | Yes, (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and his clique have made a strategic decision. I'm sure. Sarkozy and Kouchner are right to confront them by excluding no option. It does not mean that they have stopped negotiating. On the contrary. It's when you are ready to go all the way that the negotiation has a chance to succeed. That is when you have the strongest leverage. That is where France is today.

NPQ | You and some other prominent French intellectuals have proposed that Ayaan Hirsi Ali be granted honorary citizenship and protected. Tell me about this.

Levy | France is the birthplace of the Enlightenment and we should defend that legacy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali embodies that universal freedom of reason and risks her life for it. We should extend to her the principle of "the right to protect" across borders.

I hope Sarkozy will agree to make her an honorary French citizen. If not, the mayor of Paris might. Further to that, we are asking the European Union as a whole to pay for her protection, anywhere she goes, anytime. After all, she is a European citizen!

A few of us -- in particular Philippe Val, the director of Charlie Hebdo, the only French newspaper brave enough, in France, to print the famous Danish cartoons -- are determined to see this through. We need to defend Hirsi Ali the way we defended (Andrei) Sakharov and (Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn during the Cold War. Same battle, different terrain.

NPQ | Would you say then that there are two front lines in the "war on terror" -- Pakistan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

Levy | In a way, yes. Paksitan is the headquarters of al-Qaida. Hirsi Ali is herself, personally, a sort of front line because she is always in danger of losing her life for defending the ideas of liberal civilization.