TERRORISM: Why the Muslim world hates America
by Bob Browning
News Weekly, October 20, 2001
When armed Muslim fundamentalists seized Islam's holiest shrine, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 1979, an enraged mob in Islamabad, Pakistan, attacked and burned the US Embassy.
Why? Where, if anywhere, was any American involvement?
When Indian-born British citizen Salman Rushdie published Satanic Verses in the UK in 1989, there was minimal outcry. Five months later, when the book was published in the US, a Pakistani mob again attacked an American target, the USIS Centre in Islamabad. And Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa pronouncing a death sentence on the author.
These incidents are but two of the paradoxes that challenge simple explanations of the anti-American hatreds that, hatched in the Middle East, spread to Central and South West Asia, and now, to various degrees, touch other Muslim countries and minority Muslim populations around the non-Muslim world.
Hard as it is to identify terrorist operatives, networks and supporters, it is even harder - though no less important in the long term - to understand the roots causes of conditions that breed and sustain terrorists. Yet this knowledge is necessary to determine the policies that will effectively counter-act or ameliorate those conditions.
Military action following September 11 is necessary, justified and unavoidable, but it is not in itself adequate. To urge deeper and comprehensive analysis is not to argue against using tough-as-necessary force. It is to stress the advantages of perceptive political analysis as well as accurate operational intelligence, devoid of special interest distortions.
Prudence is a virtue. Impetuousness is not. Harmful unintended consequences and counter-productive mistakes are all too easily made in the volatile Middle Eastern and Central Asian environment - as history has repeatedly demonstrated.
Concern to minimise harm to innocents and reduce the risk of escalation is not weak, defeatist or traitorous, as some jingoistic voices now claim - often in opportunistic pursuit of local electoral point scoring. A few Australian columnists have gone to the extreme of trying to link their political opponents with Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi.
Anomalous incidents keep cropping up to confound prevailing wisdoms and disturb comforting beliefs about the complex phenomenon of contemporary terrorism and its relation to the sea of Muslim fundamentalist anti-Americanism in which the bin Laden network hatched and now swims.
A common claim is that the principal cause of rising Muslim anti-Americanism is Washington's pro-Israel policy. This is obviously a factor, but it is hard to believe that bin Laden dispatched suicide teams to New York and Washington purely to help Palestine against Israel. Would he have aborted his long-planned terrorist attacks if, for example, the Oslo peace process had succeeded?
It was the Soviet Union, not the US, that first recognised Israel. The USSR granted the infant state immediate de jure recognition. It sent Israel the Czechoslovakian arms that saved the new state from destruction in its first weeks of life - while the US, for a time, maintained a discreet distance. Muslim militants expressed no comparative ill will towards the Soviets over its pro-Israeli stand, nor good will to the Americans.
In 1956, the US intervened forcibly in the Middle East to secure the withdrawal of Israeli, British, and French forces from Egypt. Yet, over the two following decades the rulers of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and several other Muslim states turned to the Soviet bloc, not the US, for arms and bonds of solidarity in international power politics.
After the death in 1989 of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran maintained its impassioned denunciation of Israel and Zionism. But when it decided to involve itself more in the international dialogue over the Middle East, it found it easier to talk to Jerusalem than to the "Great Satan" in Washington.
Now there is an even stranger anomaly. One of the strongest voices urging the US to exercise caution in forming its anti-terrorist coalition comes not from Western "bleeding hearts" as the jingoists call them, but from Israel's Ariel Sharon, whom few consider a bleeding heart.
Sharon has accused the US of selling Israel out to secure coalition support from Muslim states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He compares US post-September 11 policy towards Israel to the West's surrender of Czechoslovakia to Hitler prior to the Second World War.
In the world of Realpolitik, oil and home defence are closer to America's national interest heart than Israel. One of America's leading columnists, the New York Time's William Safire, echoed the fears of the Israeli lobby when he wrote (October 4, 2001):
"The reason for our sensitivity to Saudi royalty's feelings is that Colin Powell is again into 'coalition-building'. Our invitation seems to say, 'Help us catch this particular terrorist gang now and all is forgiven'. To other Arab states, that message is in danger of being refined to 'Just give us names and hideouts so we can kill the terrorists who bombed us, and we'll pay you for it by leaning on the Israelis to appease the terrorists who are bombing them.'
"We are being told that in coalition-building for a war on terror, intelligence is all. If the Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians - even the Iranians and Libyans - share their secrets about Islamic extremists with us, we will welcome them into civilised society and send money, too. It could go further: If Russia helps, we'll forget Chechnya, and if China helps, we'll go wobbly on Taiwan. Just say yes to 'coalesce'."
Safire's list of US deals to secure support could have included promises to President Megawati to restore relations with the Indonesian military - relations that the US cut, after the Indonesian army's brutal actions in East Timor. Restoration of US-Indonesian military ties could be something Australia might not entirely welcome.
Another common belief is that it has been countries like Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Algeria, and Pakistan that were the breeding ground of radical - some would say pseudo-Islamic - movements that sustain the terrorists. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is commonly presented as America's friend and stalwart anti-terrorist supporter. This notion is being increasingly challenged, especially now that Israel is alarmed at the perceived turn in US policy.
Safire is no longer alone in reminding US policy makers that 14 of the September suicidal hijackers are believed to have been Saudis, and that Saudi Arabia was the source of bin Laden's fortune. Safire notes that within a week after the terror attacks, a number of socially high-ranking Saudis, including 14 members of Osama bin Laden's family, were spirited out of the US back home to Saudi Arabia.
Senior fellow at the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Edward Luttwak, comments (New York Times, October 2, 2001):
"For the United States, at least, Saudi Arabia poses another hard case. Its ruling family has long been allied with the United States, and its relations with President Bush and his father have been downright convivial. Yet the Saudi ruling family finances over a hundred Islamic centres around the world that propagate its creed, Wahabism, the most rigid form of Islam, which rejects tolerance of other religions.
"Saudi-financed preachers and teachers everywhere inveigh against the moderation of traditional Muslim clerics. Their well-appointed schools and mosques have been hospitable to anti-Western extremists. The United States has long lived with this paradox, but in the wake of the September 11 attacks, whose perpetrators included Saudi citizens, it would be imprudent to overlook this connection any longer. It would be futile to hunt down one Osama bin Laden while America's ally is nurturing many more."
The state religion of Saudi Arabia is not the more widely practiced Sunni or Shi'a versions of Islam. It is an ultra-puritanical strain known as Wahhabism. The sect's 18th Century founder, Sheikh Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, urged a return to the "pure" beliefs of 7th Century Islam. He insisted on Islamic punishment - beatings for minor offenders, stoning to death of adulterers, amputation of the limbs of thieves and the public execution of criminals. Wahhabism is the religion of the Saudi royal family, the state bureaucracy, the army, the air force - and bin Laden.
Many would consider the advice of the Christian Science Monitor (October 4, 2001) worth taking:
"If the United States is to avoid the pitfalls of the former Soviets and the British in prior failed attempts to influence events in Afghanistan, analysts say, it will be necessary for American leaders to have a complete understanding, not only of the various Afghan groups and their tangled agendas, but also of the often-conflicting agendas of US rivals and allies in the region."
More discussion and analysis of these tangled and conflicting agendas can only help anti-terrorist efforts to succeed. Allowing political opportunists to silence free speech and objective analysis will not. Imposing a new political correctness will confirm, rather than reject, the impact on civilised achievement the terrorists seek.
(Part two of this article will examine what analysts around the world are saying about the causes of Muslim anti-Americanism and its relationship to bin Laden-style terrorism).