I have just commenced reading Émile Zola’s highly regarded novel, Germinal. I am reading an English language translation by Roger Pearson that was published in 2004 by Penguin. As well as translating the work, Pearson, a professor of French at Queen’s College, University of Oxford, also wrote the introduction to this edition. The protagonist of Germinal is a passionate young man who leads a strike in a French mining town. In his introduction, Pearson suggests that it might be persuasively argued that with this novel, Zola was “appealing to the cynical pragmatist in his fellow bourgeois in order to improve the lot of his fellow human beings.” He poses the question as to whether this warning is still of relevance today. In answering it, he has this to say:
Social and economic conditions have changed enormously since the second half of the nineteenth century. But the fundamental issue in Germinal perhaps has not. Shoot the miners or pay them a fair wage? That question now seems simple. But it might not seem so simple – even if today’s reader of Germinal still wished to give the same answer – if the issue were put more broadly. Should ‘the fortunate of the world’, it’s ‘masters’, stamp out the expression of grievance or seek to eradicate its cause? What if the choices were different, more contemporary? Tiananmen Square or a measure of democracy? A War on Terror or an autonomous State of Palestine?
With his last question, Pearson leads readers to conclude that if an autonomous State of Palestine had been in existence, there would have been no War on Terror. I am sure readers of this blog will be familiar with the facts that “war on terror” is a term associated with President George W. Bush. On September 20, 2001, eleven days after 9/11, President Bush said to applause at a joint session of Congress:
Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.
The War on Terror therefore began as a response to the terrorist atrocities of 9/11. While Osama bin Laden emphasized Palestine as a reason for 9/11 in a more recent broadcast, it certainly did not seem to be his primary motive at the time. Available on the internet is a compilation of all Bin Laden’s statements monitored by FBIS from March 1994 to 9 January 2004.
What is very clear from reading through these statements, right back to the Bin Laden’s interview with Robert Fisk in 1996 is that his key anger with America was due to American troops being on Saudi soil. In a later, more detailed, statement published in Al-Islah in Arabic, on September 2, 1996, Bin Laden did refer to the “injustice” of “the occupation of the land of the ascension of the Prophet [Israel]” but he also mentioned: “Qana, Lebanon…and massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani [as transliterated], Ogaden, Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.” In any event, it was Saudi Arabia that was the main focus of this lengthy tirade. So far down bin Laden’s list of concerns was Palestine that this was picked up in an interview in the Arabic paper Al-Quds Al’Arabi On November 27, 1996. The interviewer put the following to bin Laden:
It is noted that you are focusing on or giving priority to Islamic issues other than Palestine. Many people criticize you for this. What is your opinion?
In response, Bin Laden made clear that Afghan had been closer to his life and in sequence of time than al-Aqsa Mosque (Jersualam) and that is why he had been active there and that “the two holy mosques [Saudi Arabia] were occupied recently compared with the occupation of the al-Aqsa mosque, which made them more important because they are the qiblah of all Muslims.”
And so it continued. In an interview in Islamabad Pakistan published on March 18, 1997, Bin Laden declared that his ideal personality was Shiekh Salman Oudah., someone he declared was “imprisoned in Saudi jails because he had demanded expulsion of US troops from Saudi Arabia.”
It was on February 23, 1998 that the “Text of World Islamic Front’s Statement Urging Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” signed by Bin Laden was published. Three facts were emphasized for the reasons for this Jihad. The first was Americans in the Arabian peninsular, the second was the hostility and sanctions against Iraq, and the third was an American aim “to serve the Jews’ petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.”
Time and time again, bin Laden’s clear focus was that “the Arabian Peninsula has become a camp for the soldiers of the enemies of Islam, the US Army, which is equipped with ground and sea weapons.” He reiterated that “All Muslims must declare jihad against them [the US troops] and expel them from the holy land.” His concern of the occupation of Palestine was at best secondary. He explained how he saw the world in an interview he gave in 1998 broadcast on Al-Jazirah Satellite Channel Television in Arabic on September 20, 2001: “There are two parties to the conflict: World Christianity, which is allied with Jews and Zionism, led by the United States, Britain, and Israel. The second party is the Islamic world.”
In any event, Roger Pearson is dreaming if he thinks that had there been an autonomous state of Palestine, there would have been no war on terror. I am surprised that Penguin allowed him to use his introduction to Zola’s classic to express such a view.