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The events of September 11, 2001 have raised to a new height the level of terror and ruthlessness radical groups are willing to unleash in pursuit of political goals. The level of destruction inflicted on civilians, the brutality with which the terrorist attacks were executed, and the fact that the terrorist design is undertaken by extensive deliberation and determination sent shock weaves throughout the world, and brought condemnation from foes and friends alike. Targeting of thousands of unarmed civilians, using civilian airliners carrying civilian passengers, and bringing down two of the most spectacular buildings in the whole planet, in a drama that was played on live TV in front of millions of viewers, made the attacks even more sinister and apocalyptic.
Anguish Over “Why?”
In a televised address to a joint session of Congress, President Bush went directly to the heart of the question that continues to puzzle Americans: Why would anyone want to harm America? What motivates nineteen Middle Eastern men to shatter the life of several thousands civilians, and to bring pain, grieve, and anguish to even greater number of their families, friends, and countrymen? What in the world would produce the degree of anger, hate, and hostility we all have seen explode in front of our eyes, as we sat watching with bewilderment and horror the two civilian jetliners crash into the World Trade Center’s twin towers?
“Why do they hate us?” Mr. Bush asked in his statement to Congress. His answer was short and straightforward: “They hate what they see right in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Bush’s answer, while containing elements of truth, seems to be lacking on several important accounts.
It is true that the radical groups who attacked the United States have little appreciation of freedom and democracy. Most peoples in the Middle East have had no experience in recent memories of freedom of speech and assembly, and no experience of true and functional democracy. However, while radicals, who constitute a fraction of Middle Eastern societies, are involved in destructive endeavors that are bound to shake the foundation of world peace, the bulk of people in the Middle East yearn for an open and free political system, where freedom of religion, speech, and assembly are part and parcel of their political experience. It is also true that self-appointed leaders, who rely on military force to keep their population in check, rule most political regimes in the Middle East.
It is equally true that the values of freedom and democracy are held with high esteem by Americans. Americans have been vigilant in ensuring that the freedom and democracy they have inherited from the founders of this great nation are not usurped or taken away. The combination of political and religious freedoms on the one hand, and the accountability of elected officials, give this country edge over others, and attract every year hundreds of thousands of creative and hardworking people who find in America’s freedom a conducive atmosphere to improve their personal and to enrich the life of their community and adopted country.
National Interest vs. Human Rights
The sad fact, which Mr. Bush has failed so far to recognize and acknowledge, is that in many parts of the world, and particularly in the Middle East, America is associated not with freedom and democracy but with suppressive and autocratic regimes. For the last fifty years, successive US governments have stood behind self-appointed leaders, providing them with financial and military support, as well as security and political guidance. Far from being the guardian of freedom and democracy, the United States is often seen as the power behind military regimes and brutal dictators.
The US involvement in Iran is a case in point. In the fifties, the United States Central Intelligence Agency was directly involved in engineering the coup détente that removed the democratically elected government of Mohammed Musadeq, and installed the Shah regime in Iran in 1954. Despite his abuse of the civil liberties of his people, and his extensive use of state security forces to suppress critics and opposition forces, the Shah continued to receive the blessing of American leaders. President Carter, who insisted that the US foreign policy must be informed by American concerns over human rights, praised the Shah during a visit shortly before the latter was ousted by the Islamic revolution. The US later took an active part in arming Saddam Hussein in a bid to topple the revolutionary government in Tehran. To ensure the cooperation of the Iraqi military government, the Reagan Administration kept silent when Saddam used Chemical weapons against Iranians as well as against the Kurdish opposition in Northern Iraq. It was only when the belligerent Saddam turned his newly acquired military strength against the oil rich Gulf countries that he was declared a renegade.
The blunders of US foreign policy in the Middle East have not ended with the Gulf war. Rather than finishing Saddam, US-led coalition decided to keep him in power and to impose an economic embargo on Iraq. The American decision brought about a human disaster of great magnitude. For over a decade, the people of the Middle East, and many humanitarian workers and human rights activists, had to watch in horror hundreds of thousands of ill-stricken and malnourished Iraqi civilians perish.
America’s commitments to freedom and democracy have hardly had any bearings on US foreign policies towards Iraq and Iran. To the Iraqis and Iranians, the US appears as a technologically advanced military power, unrestrained by moral obligation in its pursuit of its own self-interest.
The failure of successive US administrations to project clear and sustained interests in freedom and democracy can be seen in the US position vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For decades, Arabs and Muslims watched the Israeli government expand its territories at the expense of its Arab neighbors. Israel was allowed to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, the Golan Heights, and South Lebanon with the tacit approval and blessing, and occasionally with the open support, of the United States government, in spite of successive UN resolutions and clear violation of International law.
Over the past year, Middle Easterners watch countless pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting at rock-throwing Palestinian kids, of US-made Apache, designed to destroy tanks, used for assassinating Palestinian activists, and US-made tanks and rocket launchers used to suppress the Palestinian Intifada.
Terrorism is a plight that must be fought. No amount of anger and discontent can justify the targeting of non-combatant civilians. But terrorism cannot be fought by mystifying it or by ignoring its root causes. The first step for developing a sound strategy to effectively combat terrorism is to examine the conditions that give rise to the anger, frustration, and desperation that fuel all terrorist acts. To focus on individuals and organizations that employ terror, while ignoring the socio-political circumstances that give rise to acts of desperation, can potentially strengthen the arms of the terrorists. A devastating force unleashed against elusive groups can exacerbate the very conditions that gave rise to resentment, frustration, and anger.
America is admired throughout the world for a political system characterized by freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. But America is resented in many parts of the world for, ironically, its willingness to support authoritarian and corrupt regimes as long as they advance American economic and strategic interests. Those who are using terror against America are the product of political repression. They are the product of Middle Eastern regimes befriended by the United States but have little respect for freedom and democracy. It is indeed a sad but true reality that many prefer to ignore: Free and democratic America has been nurturing repression aboard. To acknowledge this fact is the first step to deal with the roots of terrorism.
Equally important is that we pursue a methodical and persistent approach to terrorism. Terrorism must be clearly defined, and systematically confronted. If terrorism is defined as the use of violence against unarmed civilians, then we have to ensure that all individuals and organizations that fit this description, regardless of their positioning and loyalty, are identified as such. The US government has not been consistent in identifying terrorist acts. The US government did not recognize the Russian brutal attacks against Chechnya, and its use of disproportionate force to flatten the Chechen capital for what it is, and for what it represents.
Similarly, The Israeli incursion into Lebanon, its shelling of Beirut and other civilian targets, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, did not receive the moral condemnation it deserved. Israel continues to use excessive military force to suppression an essentially civilian uprising against its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush administration has so far given Israel a free hand to bully the Palestinians and to violate the terms of its Oslo commitments.
Singling Out Islam
The president, along with several American leaders, counseled against targeting Muslim Americans, and went out of his way to dissociate Islam and terrorism. Still may, particularly in the media, continued to make both subtle and direct attacks on Islam’s beliefs and values. Among all religions, Islam has been singled out by media groups, and unfairly blamed for acts of terror carried out by Muslim groups. The blame is frequently subtle, articulated through the old and primitive instrument of “guilt by association.” It often takes the form of using Islam as an adjective to describe terrorism, hence the catch phrase “Islamic terrorism.” Alternatively, Islamic symbols and sounds-e.g. mosque, prayer, call for prayer, etc.-are played in the background every time a terrorism act is reported. Occasionally, the blame is laid at the doorstep of Islam by self-appointed experts on terrorism, a là Daniel Pines and Steven Emerson, who find it convenient to point fingers at all practicing Muslims in order to push their narrow political agenda.
The efforts to blame Islam for terrorism are not only baseless and erroneous, but are unmistakably malicious and ill-intended. Islam, like many religious traditions, stresses charity, mercy, and compassion. Historically, Islam is recognized for its tolerance toward other religions, even when bigotry and intolerance were widely accepted and practiced in medieval times. But like other religious traditions, Islam recognizes the right of peoples to return evil for evil, even though it puts higher premium on forgiveness. Reciprocity, or eye for an eye, is found not only in Islam, but in Christianity and Judaism as well. Further, like other religions, Islamic texts contain statements that emphasize forgiveness and peace, along with others that permit the use of force for fighting back against aggression and for achieving just peace.
In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, Moses narrates to the Israelites a fiery message from God as they prepare to enter the promised land: “I will make mine arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh; and that with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the beginning of revenges upon the enemy.”
Likewise, the Bible contains texts that call for the use of force to avenge the rights of people and to punish the unjust. In the Gospel of Matthew, a statement attributed to Jesus reads: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but the sword.”
A partial and out-of-context reading of religious texts, combined with a desire to reciprocate against real of perceived injustice, may lead misguided individuals and radical groups to commit atrocities in the name of religion and justice. Muslim scholars and leaders must speak against using Islam and Islamic doctrines to undertake acts rooted in political ambition or frustration.
By the same token, media organizations have the duty to present a balanced picture of Muslim society and faith, rather than feeding on the frenzy of bigotry and stereotyping. The media more often than not focuses on the eccentric and extraordinary, and as such brings distorted pictures of Middle Eastern realities. Rather than showing that radical Islamic groups standing on the fringe outside mainstream society, the media reverse the picture by projecting radicalism and extremism as the norm in the Middle East. The sight of handful Palestinian youth celebrating an American calamity is newsworthy, but a demonstration by thousands of sympathetic Arabs is not.
Rethinking US Foreign Policy
US foreign policy that aligns American support behind tyrants and dictators, and against the legitimate aspirations of popular movements pursuing national independence or democratic rule, is informed by notions and principles advanced by political realists. That is, they are informed by the nationalist political culture of nineteenth-century Europe. The political realist approach to international politics insists that national leaders have one paramount obligation, i.e. advancing the national-interests of their nations. Political realists justify this position by pointing out that in the absence of international law that can be enforced by a central authority, nations are justified in enforcing their own interests and way of life. To do otherwise, political realists stress, is to give unprincipled foreign powers to grow unchecked.
The pursuit self-defined national interest led Europe to two devastating world wars. This, however, did not put and end to political realism, even after the US introduced new approach to international relations based on UN organization and International Law, as many of its advocates found in the cold war atmosphere a basis for reproducing a bit more sophisticated argument to place national interest over the demand of right and justice.
The US is the sole superpower today, and has the opportunity to restructure world politics so as it begins to resemble the internal politics of the United States. That is, international politics should no more be based on the notion of might makes right. The American people have long rejected such a notion in national politics and fought a war of independence, and later a civil war, to ensure that those that have been endowed by their creator with equal freedoms and dignity are treated as such. Indeed, the United States and the American people are uniquely situated to expand the values of freedom, equality, and rule of law from the national to the international domain. Not only does the United States is an unrivaled superpower, but Americans constitute a microcosm of world population. America is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society whose ethnic and religious groups represent the major ethnic and religious communities that form the modern world. Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Africans, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, Irish, Latinos live peacefully in America, and work together in pursuit of their individual and collective dreams, and confess and practice freely different religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with a host of other religions.
Global Peace and American Leadership
The recent tragic events put the world in general, and the US in particular, on a crossroad. We have the choice of marching forward toward global peace, rooted in rules of equitable law, and fairly administered to all, the strong and the weak, the far and the near, or to immerse ourselves in empire building in which the strong conquer and dominate the weak.
The choice is ours, and the United States is in a unique position-culturally, economically, and politically-to lead the world in either direction. And given this choice, I am confident that Americans would choose global peace over world empire. But for America to make the right choice, political leaders, as well as the leaders of public opinion, have to play a pivotal role in helping the public make the right move by choosing American values over America’s narrow and short-term interests. It is true that lending support to corrupt Arab and Muslim governments makes it a bit easier, in the short run, for the US to influence the foreign and domestic policies of these governments. In the long run, however, a foreign policy oblivious to moral standards is bound to corrupt American politics. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have brought loud voices calling for compromising the precious freedom Americans enjoy in exchange for false sense of security.
Terrorism cannot be fought through military war, but by bringing justice and eliminating the roots of desperation. History, both old and new, is rampant with examples of great powers that wasted its resources, and hence lost its privileged position in the world, by improving war apparatus and overlooking the system of justice.
Global peace cannot be achieve by relying extensively on military might. Rather, it requires that we first and foremost strive to see the values of freedom, equality, and dignity for all prevail throughout the world.