by Asma Barlas
It is deeply upsetting to contemplate that the United States should go to war with large segments of what we misleadingly call "the Muslim world" --- I say misleadingly because the Muslims live in the same world as everyone else does, and just like other religious groups, the world’s one billion Muslims belong to different races, cultures, and ethnicities, not to mention differing religious and political persuasions.
And yet there is a tendency to think of us (Muslims) as one homogenous whole, which then leads so many people to regard the actions of 20 men as somehow constituting a "Muslim" response to the United States. And yet the fact is that the vast majority of Muslims has condemned the actions of these 20 men.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims have known each other for some 1,400 years; if in all this time we haven’t learned anything about each other, I doubt that a 10-minute history lesson from me will suffice. Still, I want to make some general points about U.S. relationships with not only Muslim countries but the world at large.
In the Sunday, August 19, edition of the New York Times, Tim Weiner began his article "Making the Rules in the World between War and Peace" with a quote: "We are facing an implacable enemy. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply. We must destroy our enemies by more clever, more sophisticated, and more effective methods than those used against us. [And citizens must learn to] understand and support this fundamentally repugnant philosophy." The year was 1954, and this was a top-secret memo from the CIA to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
You may draw your own conclusions about what differentiates "us" from our enemies if we believe that acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply in our dealings with others, or why, in the face of such a view of others, they should not come to hate us.
An even earlier secret memorandum, written in 1941 by the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the U.S. economy "is geared to the export of certain . . . products, and the import of numerous raw materials and foodstuffs"; in order to avoid "possible stresses" and "major readjustments" to this system, the United States would need to establish control over a "Grand Area" once the war ended. This Grand Area, in the words of historian L. S. Stavrianos, "consisted of virtually the entire world outside German-dominated Europe," and in particular the Middle East, with its rich oil resources.
Even if we had no examples of how U.S. foreign policy has played out in practice, these two documents reveal its unsavory and, some would say, its antidemocratic ideological underpinnings; it is certainly clear that the majority of U.S. citizens had no role in sanctioning this policy that seeks control over the entire world by any means necessary.
Wanting control over the world is nothing new. What is perhaps new is that the West and the United States want to be loved as they go about the business of making the world subservient to themselves by any means necessary, for how else can one explain the plaintive question, Why do they hate us?
The establishment answer, of course, is because they are jealous of us and the freedoms we enjoy. But if you’re interested in some real reasons, look at political scientist Stephen R. Shalom’s long list in Z magazine.
Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco and former Ithaca College politics faculty member, reminds us ("U.S. Policy toward Political Islam," alternet.org) why the "U.S. must clearly understand the reasons why a small but dangerous minority of Muslims have embraced extremist ideologies and violent tactics. These movements are often rooted in legitimate grievances voiced by underrepresented and oppressed segments of the population. . . . And the U.S. is increasingly identified with the political, social, and economic forces that are responsible for their misery. Many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere are exposed not to the positive aspects of U.S. society --- such as individual liberty, the rule of law, and economic prosperity --- but to the worst traits of American culture, including materialism, militarism, and racism."
Zunes speaks of Western hostility to Muslims dating from the time of the Crusades and refers to the ongoing bombing and sanctions against Iraq; U.S. support for Israeli brutalities against the Palestinians; the U.S. overthrow of moderate regimes, from Iran to the Sudan; and U.S. support of dictators, hard-liners, and extremists, all of whom oppress their own people.
And we have the naiveté to ask, Why do they hate us?
Quite simply, people everywhere are sick and tired of being lifers in the prison of a global political economy based on their systematic abuse, exploitation, expropriation, and degradation. I’m not blaming only the United States for all the ills of the world; nor am I condoning terrorism. It is relevant to bring up U.S. actions not to justify terrorism, but to understand how terrorism and terrorists are bred.
Although the United States talks of extremists and fundamentalists as our enemies, we are allies with some radical and fundamental regimes ourselves --- for instance, Saudi Arabia and even, before September 11, the Taliban, to whom the U.S. government gave $43 million in aid. Now we are being told this is a fundamentalist government that oppresses its own people and that we need to wipe it out in order to save civilization!
However, as Noam Chomsky notes, it is not just a question of fundamentalists versus moderates, since even moderate Muslims share bin Laden’s resentment of U.S. policies in the Middle East. Hence, killing off the extremists will not resolve all our problems. The list of enemies is long. Since I first came to the United States in 1983, the United States has intervened militarily (including bombing and invading) in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Palestine, Iraq, Macedonia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Libya, Grenada, Panama, and Bosnia.
When we ask, Why do they hate us? I believe it is because we don’t want to ask the question we should be asking: Why do we hate and oppress them? By posing the question as we do, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility of answering for our oppression of millions of people around the world --- and we put the onus of loving us on those we oppress.
Mr. Bush says, "This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom."
But make no mistake about it --- this is not the world’s fight or a fight for the world’s freedom. It is a fight for the West’s freedom. But it is insolent to assume that we can remain free and safe in a world of terror and injustice that our own policies have helped to create.
Mr. Bush says, "Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941." Of all the things he has said, this should give us the most pause. What kind of hubris has induced us to believe that we have the right to do things on other people’s soil for 136 years that we won’t tolerate on our own?
A half century ago, U.S. policy makers went out into a world recovering from World War II armed with the belief that the new enemy was implacable, that acceptable norms of human conduct did not apply to it, and expecting U.S. citizens to learn to embrace fundamentally repugnant philosophy." Tragically, even though U.S. citizens had no role in creating this morally repugnant philosophy, they have now had to pay the price of having embraced it. For surely we have created the enemy we once merely defined and imagined.
We should do more than repeat such mistakes. We can begin by recognizing that patriotism does not always equal war: to love one’s country can also mean believing in the possibility of making it better.
Security cannot always be defined in military terms, and military victories don’t always bring peace and safety. If they did, how could we explain the attacks on the United States today?
The enemy is not always the outsider (consider Timothy McVeigh); and while the terrorist is the enemy, not every country in which terrorists live is our enemy. Otherwise, how would we define the United States, where terrorists live in our midst unbeknownst to us?
We cannot destroy the world in the name of civilization.
Others can respect our humanity only to the extent that we respect our own and that of others.
I am sure you have much to add to this list.
Asma Barlas is associate professor and chair of politics and interim director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. Born in Pakistan, she served in the Pakistani foreign service and was briefly assistant editor of an opposition newspaper in Pakistan, the Muslim. Her book "Believing Women" in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an is forthcoming from the University of Texas Press.