Cleaning House

The reasons we're resented aren't as simple as President Bush would have you believe

Oct 10, 2001 at 4:00 am
It's been a whole month now of shock, sorrow, fear, compassion, rage -- a tsunami of emotions -- and America was just beginning to regain some sense of normalcy. And then, on Sunday, President George W. Bush unleashed the military, and bombs and Tomahawk missiles rained on Afghanistan. More death and dying. The only rejoicing is probably among the men behind the Sept. 11 terror -- Osama bin Laden and his circle of fiends. The American "war" improves their standing and, despite statements to the contrary by Bush, it validates their goal: It's Islam versus the West. And it's bound to breed more suicide missionaries, willing to inflict more murder and mayhem in America. We're back to fear.

Perhaps it is too early for America to look in the mirror. Too early to grapple with the question at the core, the question many Americans have been asking since Sept. 11, the question the president raised in his Sept. 20 speech to the nation: "Why do they hate us?"

Arsalan Iftikhar can think of a few reasons but believes it's not yet time to speak out. Iftikhar is a 24-year-old American who grew up in Chicago and is studying law at Washington University. A quiet, soft-spoken, devout Muslim of Pakistani descent, he is the executive director of the local chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the leading Muslim-advocacy organization in the country. And he worries about Muslims in America who are feeling the heat.

"I think this isn't the right time," he says. "This is the time when Arabs and Muslims need to be extra-cautious when going out. I mean, myself, I have to worry about civil-rights issues right now. You can't address foreign policy when your brothers and sisters are getting beaten up. I think it's for a good reason why people aren't saying anything about foreign policy, because right now it would fall on deaf ears."

Says another prominent local Muslim, who, like many others, only agreed to talk anonymously: "When I visit my homeland [Iran], I get into all kinds of fights with my friends and relatives who can't understand why I've become a citizen here. I tell them Americans aren't bad people, even if their government sometimes does bad things overseas -- you know, like in Iraq and the Middle East. But when I'm here, I become very critical of America; I talk like the people back home. But not now, because I'm afraid."

Bill Ramsey, probably the most persistent and principled pacifist St. Louis has ever seen, doesn't think it's too early to talk about why there has been growing anti-Americanism around the world, especially among Muslims. In fact, he worries that it may already be too late.

And he understands the current need of American Muslims to wrap themselves in red, white and blue, to carry the message that Islam is all about peace, to condemn the perverse acts of the terrorists and to not speak loudly about why they believe America inspires both respect and revulsion among Muslims worldwide. On a visit to a local mosque two weeks ago, says Ramsey, he received a warm welcome. "I've never been in a room with that many American flags at one time," he says with a chuckle. "And as I looked around, there was a banner saying 'Justice, Not War,' but the rest [of the event] had to do with them professing their patriotism.

"They have a right to that space right now," he continues, "and a need for that kind of space, and if these other issues have to be brought up, it's my responsibility and the larger peace movement's responsibility to carry those issues right now." Ramsey runs the Human Rights Action Service and works with a host of local groups promoting peace. On Sunday, he was out at the vigil for peace, hours after the bombing of Afghanistan began.

So: Why do they hate us?

President Bush, speaking before a joint session of Congress last month, had this answer: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government.... They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Ramsey disagrees. "He's doing a real disservice to the American people," he says. "There are very clear, explicit reasons why people in the Middle East resent us and are angry with us over our policy there, and if we come through this crisis -- and I don't think it's the first thing we need to talk about in this crisis -- but if we come through this crisis with the American public feeling that somehow Islamic fundamentalists hate us because we're free, we've lost a huge opportunity to understand ourselves and our world."

A couple of things need to be said about the president's statements. The first has to do with the definition of "they," the ones who hate America. It isn't just Osama bin Laden and his octopuslike network of militants, it is a much larger group of Muslims around the globe who do find America less than a beacon of democracy and freedom. Second, they don't hate the American people or the American way of life; what they hate are the actions of the American government and American corporations outside America, actions that have destroyed the quality of life -- and the lives -- of millions abroad.

Probably the most heartrending situation has been in Iraq, which Ramsey has been monitoring ever since the Persian Gulf War. Although the best estimates of Iraqi deaths during the war itself ranged from 70,000-100,000 (both soldiers and civilians), a far greater number of civilians have died in the decade since, as a result of both the effects of the war and the U.S.-championed sanctions that are still in place. "What we're talking about here is not simply a collateral effect of the sanctions or an unintended effect of the sanctions," says Ramsey, but, rather, the intended effects. And although the sanctions were imposed by the Security Council of the United Nations, Ramsey is quick to note that all the other members, with the exception of Britain and the U.S., have been ready to lift them incrementally.

"We're not dealing with somebody flying a jet into a building in Iraq, but we are dealing with a policy that was deliberately designed to affect the civilian population of Iraq," he says. "What we're dealing with here is 500,000-600,000 children alone that have died over the last 11 years as a result of not having clean water, adequate food and adequate medical attention. So if you work out this calculus, which I hate to do, what you're talking about is, the Iraqi people have had a catastrophe of the same magnitude [as the events of Sept. 11] in terms of human life, every month, since 1991 and that most of the victims in that catastrophe have been children. Basically, 5,000-6,000 people a month have died as a result of the sanctions. And the rest of the world, the Muslim world, is very aware of it."

But not the American public. Unlike the saturation coverage of Sept. 11, the grief of Baghdad hasn't shown up on our television screens. Nor has the fact that some American corporations have violated the sanctions on Iraq, including Halliburton Co., an oil-field-supply corporation, when two of its subsidiaries signed contracts to sell more than $73 million in oil equipment and spare parts to Iraq. The head of Halliburton, until last year, was none other than Vice President Dick Cheney, who prosecuted the Gulf War as secretary of defense. Asked about the situation last fall, Cheney said he wasn't aware of the contracts.

Among the "explicit reasons" America is resented in the Muslim world, Ramsey lists "the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel with U.S. support, the sanctions and bombings on Iraq which continue, the positioning of troops in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries and -- this is an irony the president doesn't want to talk about -- our support of repressive Arab regimes, because we keep saying, 'Israel is the only democracy in the region.' Well, the subtext is 'Thank God!' because we could not deal with a real democratic Arab world. It's much easier for us to deal with kings and princes and royal families than it is to deal with the Arab street.

"So if we can come out of this crisis with the understanding that those four things, that we have to make adjustments there, not in response to terrorism but in response to the need for justice and cooperation and good relationships, that will do more to protect us against another act of terror. A clean house is our best protection against terrorism."

Recent published stories from around the Muslim world corroborate Ramsey's analysis. In a lengthy Sept. 27 report from a dozen Muslim nations, the Christian Science Monitor said: "From one end of the region to the other, the perception is that Israel can get away with murder -- literally -- and that Washington will turn a blind eye." The same report quoted a Palestinian member of Hamas, a radical group sending suicide bombers into Israel, saying: "Even small children know that Israel is nothing without America. And here America means F-16, M-16, Apache helicopters, the tools Israelis use to kill us and destroy our homes." In an Oct. 2 story in the New York Times, a Kuwaiti political scientist said "The story [here] is not bin Laden, the story is the injustice to the Palestinian people." In a Sept. 23 emergency meeting, reported the Times, "the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Saudi Arabia and its five small neighbors, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar -- coupled their support for the coalition against terrorism with condemnation of what they called terror acts by Israel." As America's closest ally, Israel receives more than $3 billion in aid from the U.S., the largest amount of such aid given to any nation.

John Esposito, head of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University and the author of several books on Islam, told a reporter: "Since the Cold War ended, America has talked about promoting democracy. But we don't do anything about it in repressive regimes in the Middle East, so you can understand widespread anti-Americanism there."

Not only do we not do anything about the repressive Arab regimes, we have established permanent U.S. military bases there -- more than 5,000 troops each in Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia, in which Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites of Islam, are located -- after repeatedly saying during the Gulf War that the American presence would be temporary. Again, among Muslims worldwide, this has been akin to a colonial power's establishing a beachhead.

Iftikhar, who has been doing a round of media interviews lately, says he has noted a recurring theme as he faces the cameras and microphones.

"On many of the TV shows and radio shows, people ask, 'Where does this hatred for the United States come from?' and I've said that many people in the Middle East view the United States as a repressive regime. They've placed sanctions on Iraq for 10 years, and the United Nations says it kills more than 5,000 children a month. You have the United States' complete complacency with Israel in which every bullet, every gun, every tank of the Israeli Army is funded with United States taxpayers' dollars. And so when a people have become so politically and economically and socially marginalized, it creates an element of despair. And although no human on earth can condone the acts of Sept. 11, it's important to understand why that happened.

"The truth will come out," he continues, "whether it be now, a year from now or two years from now. As Muslims, we have that faith in God that justice will prevail."