Why Do They Hate Us ?

Anti-American feeling in the Middle East
has everything to do with U.S. policy

by James Akins

In These Times magazine, December 24, 2001


That the world was permanently transformed on September 11 has become a cliché. We are now trying to understand what happened and why. The men who carried out the attacks flew to their certain deaths to hurt the country they considered to be the heart of evil in the world. But the question of why they considered us "evil" must not continue to be dismissed as evil itself. If we do not understand their thinking, how can we hope to combat them?

So far the U.S. message to the world has been, "You are either with us or against us." Will this help us find, capture or kill Osama bin Laden? Highly unlikely. Our faith in technology is boundless, but our "smart bombs" aren't that smart. Has the bombing increased bitterness against us in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim World? Of course. Surely there must be a better way to bring peace and stability to the region.

Since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, every American president has been faced with the "Middle East Problem." Some have tried harder than others to find a solution, but all have excused their failure because "thousands of years" of hatred cannot be overcome quickly. Perhaps our leaders believed this formula, but scholars will tell you there is no such history of hatred between Arabs and Jews. No country in Europe-neither England nor France-has a history of tolerance toward religious minorities, including Jews, remotely comparable to that of the Arab world.

As far back as the Middle Ages-after the Arab conquest in 711-Muslim Spain, with its capital in Toledo, became a center of science, philosophy and literature. The Jewish community flourished. Christian Europe was then in the Dark Ages, and all that we have today of Greek philosophy, science and literature comes to us through Arabic translations and then, frequently, by Jews from Arabic into Latin or Greek. This high period ended with the recapture of Toledo by Christian knights early in the 11th century, but Arabic culture continued in Cordoba to the south where one of its brightest stars was the philosopher Maimonedes-a Jew who wrote in Arabic.

By the time Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade in 1095, the Arabs outshone their Christian adversaries in every civilized activity-except, perhaps, war. Stephen Runciman, the great historian of the Crusades, called them "the last of the barbarian invasions." When the Christian knights captured Jerusalem, they killed all the Muslims, all the Jews and most of the local Orthodox Christians. When Jerusalem was retaken by Saladin a century later, the Christian knights were allowed to leave with their families for the Christian enclaves on the coast. Reading about the Crusades in school (as we used to do), I remember how enthralled I was at the accounts of Richard the Lion-Hearted and other heroes of these noble wars. The word "crusade" has entered the language as a synonym for a noble endeavor. But when Arab children read about the crusades, there is nothing "noble"; they were the conquest of Arabs by cruel, dirty and unlettered foreigners.

When George W. Bush announced his new "crusade" against terrorism, he was shocked by the reaction in the Middle East. He should have fired his speech writer.

If not history, then what explains Arab hatred of the United States? There is now occasionally an editorial or a letter to the editor in this country suggesting that it might be time to ask ourselves if there just might be reasons other than our innate goodness for being hated. This always provokes a flurry of angry responses saying that whatever it might be, it certainly had nothing to do with our Middle East policy. But the anti-American feeling in the Middle East and South Asia has everything to do with U.S. policy. It is not because of our democratic and moral principles, but precisely because we are seen as having betrayed these principles in the Middle East, that peoples of the area have turned against us. If there is ever to be a solution to the problem of terrorism this festering sore must be addressed-and healed.

That solution begins in Israel. Apologists place articles in all the important American newspapers claiming that the crisis has nothing to do with Israel. They insist Muslims would hate us just as much if Israel did not exist. The daily humiliation of Palestinians living under occupation, the plummeting of their standard of living, the reduction of their lands to tiny enclaves divided from each other by Israeli roads connecting Israeli settlements and forbidden to Palestinians all make life miserable. President Ariel Sharon's plan is clearly to make life so difficult for Arabs that they will see no choice but emigration. Many have left. Those left behind have become embittered. Some throw stones at the occupiers; others have used guns or bombs. There is probably not a single Arab who believes that Israel would take these positions, would break agreements it has already signed with Palestinians, if the United States had not given its tacit approval.

The Israeli government and its backers in the United States say that all Arabs today wish to push Israel into the sea. Arafat has a hidden agenda: It's not to have a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, it's to have a Palestinian state in all of Palestine. This proposition is fraudulent. Destruction of Israel is not the Arab or the Palestinian demand. I've no doubt that Osama bin Laden would like to destroy Israel-as he would like to destroy America. But no responsible Arab leader is talking anymore of driving Israel into the sea; all are willing to accept Israel within its 1967 borders. Yet some Israeli partisans have chosen not to recognize this major shift in Arab thinking.

This is not to say that settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have prevented the September 11 attacks, or that it would rid the world of mass murderers like bin Laden. But a fair settlement between Israel and Palestine would dramatically reduce his fields of recruitment-both men and money; the fanatics would lose their appeal to the masses and would fade into history. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would accomplish more in the war on terrorism than any l number of ground troops or cluster bombs.

... Though Israel and the Palestinians may seem further apart than at any time since the Oslo peace talks began, the l outline of a settlement hasn't really changed. If Israel expects to live in peace with its neighbors, it must withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza. No Palestinian or other Arab leader is willing to consider a further division of the 22 percent of Palestine left to the Palestinians. The Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza, which are illegal under any interpretation of international law, must be disbanded. (A possible compromise might be for Israel to keep some of the settlements around Jerusalem and then cede a precisely equivalent area of Galilee to Palestine.)

The Palestinian mini-state must be demilitarized. Israel is by far the strongest state in the Middle East, and many Arabs think the Palestinians must have at least a rudimentary army. But Israel has reason to be paranoid, and the Palestinian state must not be seen as a threat to its existence. The final treaty could include a clause that any tank or equivalent weapon crossing the Jordan river would be a casus belli. Why not? It would be a blessing for the tiny new state. Without an expensive army, the economy in Palestine, which has a very high level of education and an entrepreneurial tradition, could advance rapidly.

In the first Arab-lsraeli war of 1948, 700,000 Arabs fled their homes in what is now Israel; some were driven out by Israeli forces, others fled in terror. The U.N. Security Council decreed that they should be allowed to return to their homes or be paid compensation for them. The "right of return" is considered sacred by most Palestinians. This too must change. There are now close to 4 million Palestinians who could not be accommodated in Israel. A few Palestinian leaders like Sari Nuseibeh have said explicitly that the Palestinians must understand that the "right to return" means "return to the new Palestinian state."

Finally, there is the vexing problem of Jerusalem, which must be an open city with shared sovereignty. It would have a City Council composed of Jews, Muslims and Christians to handle joint problems-garbage collection, utilities, probably police. Other matters-schools, courts, hospitals-would be handled by each community. Obviously, Jews and Arabs alike must have free access to the city. That being the case, there must be an open border between Israel and Palestine.

Is there any evidence that the United States is thinking in these terms? Some, but not enough. Is there any hope that the United States will evolve? Of course. But it will take a combination of moderate Arabs, moderate Israelis, and American Jews, Muslims and Christians to bring it about. The cycle of atrocity followed by revenge, followed by new atrocities and new revenge must be broken. Our response to the tragedy of September 11 offers just that opportunity.


James Akins is a Middle East policy expert who served as a foreign service officer in Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where he was U.S. ambassador from 1973 to 1975

September 11th, 2001

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