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
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
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
... 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
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
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