“Infidel idolaters! Great Satan colonial oppressors! Israeli lackeys!”
Resentment, anger, even hatred among Islamic peoples boils over toward the United States. What causes it? What motivates them to plot and undertake large-scale, lethal action against innocent American civilians, along with other nationalities, sometimes deliberately at the expense of their own lives? The simultaneous bombings of two American embassies in Africa and of course the World Trade Center catastrophe spring to mind. And what causes at a lower level of intensity the apparently widespread resentment of America?
The answer of many Western conservatives—envy of America’s riches and free institutions—carries simplistic overtones, along with an embedded connotation of superiority. “They’re angry because of the United States’ economic and political successes, especially the former! They’re envious! “ One hears such an explanation these days on radio talk shows.
The judgment of many liberals—it’s because of America’s failure to heed the aspirations and sensibilities of the region’s disadvantaged—highlights the fact that U. S. foreign policy has been unwise in some important respects over the past half century. “We must give up our efforts to exert hegemony everywhere and over everybody! We’re to blame!” But that explanation, too, carries the burden of oversimplification and additionally is too broad to add much to our understanding of the problem. One hears that argument these days on university campuses.
Explanations verging toward one end of the political scale or the other miss vital points. In between, those who support the general thrust of U. S. foreign policy point out that for close to half a century the United States, inescapably the leader of the Western world, was locked in a global contest with the Soviet Union involving vital national interests. Both sides possessed the ability to unleash nuclear holocaust; it was, off and on, a highly dangerous period. The struggle to contain communism, eventually won by the West at enormous cost, occasioned many of the imperious American initiatives now deplored. Just one example is the U. S. -generated 1953 ouster in Iran, for strategic reasons associated with oil supplies, of a popular nationalist prime minister. “America had to take its allies where it could find them! And a Great Power must act like a great power, especially when faced with do-or-die alternatives.” Washington long seems to have held the position that opposition to communism excused a multitude of sins in governments around the world. This too seems to be an argument mostly of the political right.
A middle-of-the-spectrum interpretation acknowledges, as well, the present-day burden of European colonial rule through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning with Napoleon at the close of the eighteenth century, French, British, and Italian incursions carved up the Ottoman Empire to the extent that nearly all North African and Middle Eastern “countries” were held in colonial thrall until the second half of the twentieth century. “The problem is the hated legacy of European rule and the bureaucratic-military form of government forced on the Muslim peoples!” One hears about the resented legacy of colonial power on occasion in select discussion circles.
Finally, the Islamic Middle East holds an almost universal, deep-seated antagonism toward Israel. This has led to resentment of America for its support of that nation for more than a half century, often at the expense of Muslim peoples’ interests in Palestine and elsewhere in the immediate area. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a given, a fundamental and intractable problem in any construct of Middle Eastern dislike, or worse, of the West.
So, what does it all add up to as explanation of the enmity that leads to terrorism? Such a complex problem requires a complex explanation. Elements of each of the above apply, that is, and probably yet more. No one explanation explains adequately.
True, America has made policy judgments in the Middle East that have outlived the usefulness they might have had during the crisis times of the Cold War.
True, the United States’ very success in promoting political and economic ideals for the rest of the world has led to envy, both economic and political, by the “have-nots.”
True, America’s actions have had the unintended consequence of furthering the legacy of European colonialism through its policy of support for often-unpopular successor regimes, providing only that they were noncommunist.
True, the United States has not followed a detached policy of evenhandedness in the intractable Arab-Israeli dispute, coming down instead, partly for strategic Cold War reasons, usually on the side of Tel Aviv.
A melange of reasons why they resent or, at the extreme, hate America, some reasons more compelling than others.
No one reason or combination thereof, however, justifies terrorist atrocities except in the warped minds of the extremists themselves. America must, in self defense, pursue vigorously its ‘war’ on terrorism. But with understanding of some of the problem’s complexities an adjustment of American attitudes can begin. Understanding if arrived at on both sides of a conflict can lead to resolution of that conflict—or at least open the way for progress in that direction.
Undertaken, as well, might be judicious reconsideration of U. S. policies in the region. That area poses more problems even than changed personal beliefs, however, and will have to be addressed in this journal at a later date.
The Editor, February 2002