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Cover story

Analysts of conflict offer view from the other side


For some, videos and photos of Palestinians dancing for joy at the news of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, of children pumping their fists while radicals fire machine guns into the air, are already among the icons of America’s national tragedy. They are burned into our consciousness like the twisted remains of the World Trade Center.

Watching these pictures, many Americans understandably felt a tightening of the stomach, a quickening of the pulse -- and an instinct to strike back. (CNN denied charges that the photos have been recycled from the Gulf War, and even Palestinian sources conceded that such celebrations had indeed taken place.)

It is easy enough, in the psychology of grief, to move from attributing such reactions to a handful of young radicals, to all Palestinians, to their supporters in the Arab world, to Islam in general.

Mainstream media offered few correctives. Revulsion to the attacks in the Islamic world was largely obscured. A day after the attacks, thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon prayed in sorrow and offered blood for relief efforts, but few television cameras carried images of those events.

No one broadcast what happened on Sept. 12 in Beirut, where the chief imams of the city’s Sunni, Shiite and Druz communities went to the American embassy to express their grief and their rejection of violence. Few newspapers reprinted the fatwa of Imam Hussein Fadal-Alla, a spiritual leader of Hezbollah, condemning the attacks and declaring the perpetrators’ deaths to be suicides rather than martyrdoms -- in Islamic terms, equivalent to saying the terrorists went not to Heaven, but to Hell.

In the end, however, perhaps those celebratory images needed to be played out on our screens, despite their distorting effect. The anti-American anger a handful of Palestinians displayed is not a marginal phenomenon. There is a wide sense in the Islamic world today that the West, above all the United States, is an enemy.

That attitude, experts say, is terrorism’s incubator.

What explains it? President George Bush and members of his administration have suggested that terrorists hate America because of its values. At a Sept. 16 memorial Mass for victims and their families in Rome, Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson put the point this way:

“We have helped others around the world to attain freedom, justice and democracy. We are a beacon of freedom, and the perpetrators of hate honed in on that beacon.”

These are, of course, soothing words for a heartsick nation. But soon we will need to ask if they measure up as hardheaded analysis. Is the United States really reviled because it promotes freedom and democracy?

Or is there another way of reading our standing in the world, one that might better account for the climate in which the desire to commit the barbarities of Sept. 11 grew?

To try to understand how the United States looks through another set of eyes is not to endorse that view. Determining the truth in any perspective is a task for sober discernment. It is precisely sobriety, however, that tends to be eclipsed when war clouds gather.

With that in mind, NCR set out to try to understand the case against the United States in Islamic fundamentalist circles.

A split personality

The first thing experts will tell you is that if you are looking for a “typical” Islamic view, forget it. The diversity is staggering. There are 750 million Muslims in the world, some 500 million of them non-Arabs.

Islamic culture and politics in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union is very different from that in the Middle East, according to Missionaries of Africa Fr. Justo Lacunza-Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies in Rome. And that, in turn, contrasts with other Asian forms of Islam such as that found in Indonesia. “Even the Shiite scholars at Berkeley have a different vision than the Sunis at the University of Chicago,” Lacunza-Balda said, laughing.

Lacunza-Balda knows, though, that the current climate is not a laughing matter. Now, when visitors arrive at the institute he runs on Via di Trastevere in Rome, they find its identifying signs painted over. In the contemporary climate, it’s not smart to advertise an affiliation with Arabs and Islam on your front door.

When one speaks about attitudes or currents within Islam, it must be clear that for every generalization there are likely millions of exceptions.

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan, an expert on Islam who has traveled widely in the Arab world, said he finds a “split personality” with regard to America and the West.

“Just about anybody you can think of in the Arab world would quite happily go and live in the United States,” Madigan said in his office at Rome’s Gregorian University. “Yet there is also a sense that there is something profoundly inimical about it, a belief that the U.S. as a global actor is anti-Islam.”

What are the roots of that view?

R. Scott Appleby, director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame, sees three elements: resentment of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, perceptions that the United States is hypocritical -- that its actions belie its professed beliefs; and contempt among conservative Muslims for Western culture.

Similar points surfaced repeatedly in other conversations.

The most prominent example of resentment over U.S. presence in the Middle East is the Palestinian problem, and a widespread perception that American foreign policy is biased in favor of Israel.

“It is ridiculous to say the United States will declare war on terrorism, but then turn its back on terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” said Mohammad Sammak, secretary general of the Islamic Summit in Beirut. “Terrorism should be considered an enemy to humanity wherever it happens and whoever commits it.”

It is a staple of Arab political rhetoric, that Israel is a “terrorist state.” Where does the idea come from? One example: The country’s current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has been implicated in massacres in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon in September 1982, when Israeli-backed Lebanese militia groups slaughtered as many as 2,000 Palestinian men, women and children over three days. One witness called it “the worst single act of terrorism in modern Middle East history.”

According to a later government inquest, Sharon, who was then minister of defense, had “personal responsibility” for authorizing the killings.

It did little to help Israel’s image that Israeli tanks rolled into Palestinian cities of Jenin and Jericho on Sept. 11, even as TV screens were broadcasting images of the carnage at the World Trade Center. The incursion was in retaliation for a Palestinian attack on an Israeli school bus in which two people were killed.

Arab commentators accused Israel of taking advantage of distracted world attention to launch massive reprisals.

Of course, atrocities occur on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Residents of Israeli cities, for example, are in the macabre position of taking their lives in their hands whenever they board a bus.

Madigan, however, said he believes massive U.S. support for Israel is the biggest single factor complicating the relationship between America and Islamic nations. “The reason Israel can deny justice to Palestinians is the $6 billion a year they get from the United States,” he said. “That money makes it possible to expand the settlements, to chop up the Western Bank with highways, and to maintain a huge standing army.”

Most Muslims in the Middle East believe that, under President George W. Bush, U.S. policy has further disadvantaged Palestinians. “When Bush came in, he seemed to many of us to turn his back on the Middle East, at the same time the Israelis under Sharon were escalating,” Sammak said. “It is a fact that there has been an increase in hatred toward American policy.”

Sammak’s comments reflect a conviction, which some would call naïve, shared by many Muslims that if the United States wished to, it could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost immediately.

“Israel exists because the United States exists,” said Ammar De Martino, a convert to Islam and spokesperson for Italy’s Muslim community. “If America wanted to solve the problem, it would be solved.”

A deeper problem

Appleby stressed, however, that for many Islamists (a term for Islamic fundamentalists), U.S. policy on the Palestinian question is the leading example of a deeper problem.

“They believe Israel is a beachhead for American hegemony in the region, primarily for securing our interests in oil,” he said. “They believe the United States conducts foreign policy not to defend the country, but so that Americans can consume more than the rest of the world by a large margin. This is tied into perceptions of Americans as lacking any sense of human equality in terms of the hoarding of resources.”

That perception is not built on sand. According to United Nations statistics, Americans comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but in 1996 we used nearly a third of its resources and produced almost half of its hazardous waste. An average North American consumes five times as much as an average Mexican, 10 times as much as an average Chinese and 30 times as much as the average person in India. America’s yearly waste alone would fill a convoy of garbage trucks long enough to wrap around the Earth six times.

Given such realities, it becomes easier to see why radicals in poor countries might develop an anti-American outlook.

“You take the massive gap between rich and poor out of the equation, and I doubt you’d have the kind of terrorism we saw this week,” Appleby said.

Michael Hudson, former director of Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, added that the physical presence of American military forces on the Arabian Peninsula, considered sacred territory by Muslims because it contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, is seen as offensive.

It is no accident, experts say, that the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 took place on the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990. (Though no firm connection has been established, experts note that Sept. 11, the day of the attacks in New York and Washington, was the date in 1922 that the British mandate was declared for Palestine. The act triggered a series of historical events that many Arabs blame for the creation of Israel and the failure to recognize Palestinian independence).

Perceptions of hypocrisy

As for percentpions of hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy, critics charge that the United States, while billing itself as a champion of democracy and human rights, behaves quite differently in the region.

The most glaring example is the post-Gulf War sanctions in Iraq. While some Arab nations joined, or at least cooperated with, the international coalition formed to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, in the years since, Muslim support for Western policy toward Iraq has evaporated.

Sanctions, according to critics, keep the infrastructure in disrepair, consigning the nation to poverty and hunger, and produce medical shortages contributing to the deaths of up to a half-million children.

“Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died as a consequence of the sanctions,” Hudson said. “For many Muslims, this is just as horrendous as killing 5,000 people in the World Trade Center.”

Adding fuel is the irony that Saddam Hussein, today presented to the American public as an enemy, is a former U.S. client, seen by leaders as a regional counterweight to the Islamic regime in Iran.

Similarly, America’s passion for democracy often seems to founder in the Middle East, where its policy has often been to support undemocratic regimes.

One frequently cited case is Algeria, where a conservative Islamic movement called the Front for National Liberation won a first round of balloting in December 1990. The Algerian military then cancelled the second round and imposed martial law, which in some form continues to this day.

Although the United States has protested election irregularities elsewhere, it was content to allow the Algerian military takeover, critics say.

“In Algeria, the leaders strangled the country,” said Lacunza-Balda. “There is oil in Algeria, lots of arable land, one of the best climates in the world, plenty of potential for tourism, huge mineral deposits and good universities.

“Where has all this gone?” Lacunza-Balda asked. “You think the Islamic fundamentalists are going to do worse than reduce the place to misery?

“The threat of fundamentalism is used by Arab leaders in order to suffocate any possibility of having a sound democratic society,” Lacunza-Balda said. “They use it to stifle the efforts of younger generations to have a say, to maintain control over the masses.”

The bottom line is that “Islamists say they’re the real democrats, not the United States,” Appleby said.

De Martino confirmed that this is a core conviction.

“In Tunisia, in Algeria, in Morocco, the U.S. is connected to governments run by dictators who say they are Muslims but who are profoundly anti-Islam,” De Martino said. “That’s not democracy, because they have to rely on military force to stay in power, yet these governments loudly proclaim their pro-American stance,” he said.

ýIn that vein, Appleby said, critics point to the roughly $3 billion being funneled by the United States to Egypt each year to enable President Hosni Mubarak to fight Islamic critics in ways that democratic nations would find intolerable: closing opposition newspapers and political parties and jailing opponents.

“I have to say that this is not total insanity being spewed,” Appleby said of critics’ views. “There are legitimate issues here.”


The third factor in Appleby’s analysis is what one Islamic writer has called “Westoxication” -- what some conservative Muslims see as the morally corrosive impact of contemporary Western culture.

“There is a general association between the West and things like pornography, sexual promiscuity, alcohol and drugs,” Appleby said. “The hardcore Islamists discipline themselves in extraordinary ways to compensate. It accounts for not just suicide bombings, but also the asceticism and commitment that makes them willing to give their lives over to the cause.”

Many Muslims are both attracted by and wary of American culture, Appleby said.

“It’s not an accident that the most popular show on Iranian TV before the revolution was Dallas,” he said. “There’s a real ambivalence.”

Madigan said another widely held, if vaguely articulated, anti-Western instinct is a “sense of frustration” about how the Arab world lost its dominion.

“There is a memory of glorious days when they ruled the world, from India to Spain,” Madigan said. “Islamists look back on a time when justice and right prevailed and state power was used to enforce the good.”

In very general terms, Madigan says, there is resentment of the West for having eclipsed the Arab world and Islam.

One point upon which experts agree is that there is nothing unique to Islamic theology that promotes an anti-Western, or pro-violence, outlook.

If one wants to find them, of course, there are verses in the Quran that seem to promote a militaristic spirit. “Slay the pagans wherever you find them” is one. “O Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal rigorously with them … their home shall be Hell” is another.

Yet Madigan says the Quran, like all scriptural texts, does not come with an owner’s manual. It can be interpreted in peaceful or bellicose ways, depending on the interpreter’s inclinations.

“We all have a worldview, and then we go to scripture looking for support for that view,” Madigan said.

Lacunza-Balda echoed the point.

“I could build an entire theology on the basis of Christ’s line about coming not to bring peace but the sword,” he said. “I have heard such theologies about fighting Muslims from people who consider themselves fantastic Christians. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way to read the Bible.”

It’s the same thing, experts say, with distant historical memories about a lost Muslim empire. These became fodder for anti-American sentiment only when recent events encouraged some radicals to use them that way.

Lacunza-Balda says the turning point in Islamic-American relations came in the 1970s with American support for the Shah in Iran and his hated Savak secret police, and the 1967 and 1973 wars between Israel and the Arab states, with the consequent occupation of Palestinian lands. “Out of those events, the United States became the enemy to fight,” he said.

Where do we go?

The sense of America as a global bully is hardly confined to Islamic public opinion. America’s wider PR problem in the global community goes back at least to the Reagan administration, accused of defying the International Court of Justice and basic principles of international law through its attacks against Nicaragua. The invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the invasion of Panama in 1989 seemed to underscore American contempt for international norms, as did later bombings of Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan and Serbia.

Other factors include U.S. withholding of dues to the United Nations; refusal to sign treaties banning land mines, establishing an international criminal court, renouncing child soldiers, and establishing a comprehensive nuclear test ban; opposition to cheaper generic AIDS drugs; and resistance to crackdowns on international havens for tax avoidance by the super-wealthy.

Such moves have been unpopular in many quarters. One Serb commentator, reacting to the Sept. 11 bombings, told the Los Angeles Times: “Every stick has two ends, and if you are beating others, you should expect a boomerang effect.”

Yet given that an American military strike is likely to fall on an Islamic target, one has to ask above all else what the consequences might be in the Islamic world.

If the target is Osama bin Laden’s organization or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and if the U.S. can offer convincing proof of their culpability, experts say a quick and limited intervention could be politically acceptable.

“I’m serious when I say that no Muslim I know is happy with what’s happening in Afghanistan,” Sammak said. “The Taliban are in the Middle Ages, and it has nothing to do with Islam.”

Sammak said his reading of Arab politics is that few people would weep for the fate of the Taliban or bin Laden if they are responsible for the attacks. De Martino struck a similar note. “Most Muslims loathe the Taliban because it is giving Islam precisely the negative image that its enemies in the West want it to have.”

Yet other experts said a wider war, or an assault carried out in the absence of convincing evidence, would inflame existing anti-American feeling.

“If the retaliation is messy, if the world has not been persuaded that these are the right guys, if the means are clumsy and indiscriminate and lead to substantial collateral damage,” Hudson said, “then you will see an enormous wave of new hostility and bitterness against the United States. It will increase the pool of recruits for the Osama bin Laden organizations of the region.”

Madigan said he remains strangely optimistic.

“As horrible as it has been, there seems a realization that what happened is the end result of the failure of the United States to support a just solution to the Palestinian question. A lot of people are connecting the dots.”

He is sensitive to the argument that a change in U.S. policy might create the impression that the terrorists got what they wanted. “But does that mean you don’t do the right thing because you don’t want to cave in?” Madigan said. “Where does that logic lead?”

Not everyone will agree about what the “right thing” in the Middle East is. But there is likely to be a growing consensus that America has to rethink not just its anti-terrorism measures but its policy choices.

Journalist Robert Fisk, commenting on Palestinians’ reactions to the attack, labeled it “the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a crushed and humiliated people.”

Fisk wrote, “This is not the war of democracy vs. terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes, and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996, and American shells crashing into a village called Qana, and about a Lebanese militia -- paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally -- hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”

His analysis is one-sided. Many complaints, ancient and recent, cut in the other direction. Yet Fisk holds up the lens through which the burning towers of the World Trade Center are seen by many in the Islamic world.

It may be difficult in the short run for Americans to think in these terms, to move from grief to geopolitics. “What could some political thing have to do with blowing up office buildings during working hours?” one bewildered New Yorker asked on CNN the day after the attacks.

This, though understandable, is also a shortsighted, response.

The greatest challenge now facing the United States may not be summoning the capacity to prosecute a war against terrorism. It may be whether we can set aside our hurt long enough to reflect before we react.

John L. Allen is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web sites

Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies

The Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001