“Why do they hate us?” several reporters asked me in the days following the horrifying, criminal attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In fact, they – the great majority of Arabs and Muslims – do not hate us, the American people. Americans who travel to the Arab or Muslim world are usually welcomed and treated with great generosity.
However, many Arabs and Muslims who would never condone or commit acts of terror such as those perpetrated on Sept. 11 have become increasingly angered by the foreign policy of the United States government and its impact on the Middle East.
The criminal and fanatic fringe of political Islam – elements like Osama Ben Laden and Al Qaeda organisation – has emerged from this broader anger, which has been brewing for many years. Yet because most Americans know so little about the Middle East, they do not know why our government’s policies are so disliked.
The longest standing grievance is the Arab-Israeli conflict. This has been exacerbated by Israel’s disproportionate use of force in attempting to suppress the Palestinian uprising over the last year, which has been extensively broadcast on Arab television.
The sight of American-supplied F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters bombing civilian targets and carrying out over 50 extra-judicial assassinations has raised opposition to the American-Israeli alliance to new levels.
The United States has effectively supported Israel’s 34-year occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. It provides Israel with nearly $5 billion in aid every year, nearly one-third of the United States’ entire foreign aid budget.
Our government has vetoed or threatened to veto dozens of UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, its establishment of settlements in the occupied territories, or its denial of Palestinian human rights. Most recently, a threatened American veto removed a resolution to establish an international force to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories from the Security Council’s agenda.
The Reagan administration gave Israel a green light to invade Lebanon in 1982, an operation resulting in some 17,500 civilian casualties. As many as 2,000 innocent Palestinians were slaughtered in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in the wake of the Israeli invasion.
That massacre was partly facilitated by the fact that US Marines who had been dispatched to protect Palestinian civilians in Lebanon left precipitously, leaving the Palestinians to the mercies of their Lebanese and Israeli enemies.
For over a decade since the Gulf War, sanctions have been in place against Iraq. They have neither fully demilitarised Iraq nor caused the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. His power has actually increased while the Iraqi people have suffered. Over one million civilians, half of them children under five, have died due to the effects of the sanctions.
In May 1996, Leslie Stall asked former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on “60 Minutes” about this high level of human suffering. Albright responded: “We think it’s worth it.” Others may beg to differ.
When the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed in 1998, the Clinton administration accused Osama Ben Laden of responsibility. In addition to firing cruise missiles at him in Afghanistan, the only pharmaceutical plant in Sudan – built by Ben Laden’s construction company – was destroyed on the grounds that traces of a chemical involved in the embassy bombings were found there.
The Clinton administration later quietly admitted that its intelligence on the involvement of the pharmaceutical plant was mistaken. But when Sudan requested that the United Nations investigate the incident, the United States blocked the investigation. How many innocent people died needlessly because this intelligence error deprived them of medicine? Was it necessary to act so precipitously? These and other grievances, no matter how legitimate and sincerely felt, can in no way justify the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Those attacks were crimes against humanity, and their perpetrators should be captured and brought to justice. There is a difference between a justification and an explanation.
The grievances mentioned here, and others, do explain the deep sense of outrage and frustration felt widely throughout the Arab and Muslim world over the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East.
Before we embark on a long campaign against a shadowy enemy, it would be useful to know something about the historical and social conditions that nurtured the fury of those who attacked us on Sept. 11.
The writer is a professor of Middle Eastern History in the Stanford History Department and currently a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley. He contributed this article to the Jordan Times.