A horrendous crime against humanity was committed presumably in the name of Islam, a religion of universal values with no less than a billion adherents world -wide. As a religion that preaches peace and justice, and which also frowns upon suicide, the kamikaze style assault on innocent civilians stood in direct conflict with its most elementary principles, teachings and spirit. In fact, Islam defines explicit rules of engagement that prohibit harming non-combatants, women and children, and requires notice before army attacks. The tragedy of September 11th may have been the work of Muslims but not the product of Islam.
How then did 19 presumed devout Muslims wake up early in the morning and proceed to implement their evil plan ramming passenger airplanes through tall buildings filled with ordinary people doing their jobs, killing them and killing themselves in the same process? Were they driven by a religious edict issued from a cave somewhere in Afghanistan, reinforced by religious inspiration?
The motivation behind that act was unmistakably political, yet wrapped in a religious package. The impetus was anchored in socio-political conditions in the Arab/Islamic world but rationalized in a selective and distorted reading of the Koran. Ben Laden, who belongs to the ultra-conservative Wahabi sect of Islam (like the Saudi dynasty), is hardly an authority on Islamic jurisprudence. Whatever fatwa (religious edict) he may enunciate would not be heeded even in Saudi Arabia where he is a renegade, let alone in the rest of the Islamic world, where Wahabism is considered a fringe movement.
In a region where the channels of free expression and political organization are non-existent, due to authoritarian rule, certain type of dissidents and the aggrieved turn to organizations, not necessarily because these organizations cater to their spiritual and social needs, but also because they serve as a channel for political mobilization. Their religious character has traditionally granted them immunity from the restrictions imposed by autocratic rulers, and blessed by foreign control.
Historically, religion has been utilized by rulers as well as by their foreign patrons as a counterweight to the secular nationalist opposition. It had been utilized by opposition to colonial rule, as was the case in Egypt during the late 19th Century. Later on, during the 1960s, the United States, which replaced Europe as the primary colonial power in the Middle East, sponsored Islamic alliances to counter the Arab nationalist movement led by former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul-Nasser, in order to secure its hegemony in a strategic region. And during the previous uprising in the West Bank and Gaza, the United States' client and chief benefactor, Israel was soft on the Islamist forces as it directed its wrath against the non-violent resistance by the secular nationalists.
Today, religion is being exploited by legitimate domestic opposition forces, denied participation in a disorderly political process, and by terrorists willing to die, not necessarily to go to heaven, but in order to create their own style of pursuing rapid political change. The two elements share similar grievances, yet they differ radically over the remedy. The overwhelming majority that turns to the mosque for satisfaction of social, spiritual, and political needs, abhor suicidal terrorism, and view religion as an element of sustenance, a cure for low self-esteem, and an avenue for political expression. The minority, on the other hand, which resorts to terrorism, utilizes religion in its confrontation with corrupt rulers, who are backed by the United States, in order to achieve their own form of redress. The militants tend to be recruited from the ranks of the disaffected, the down -trodden, as well as from the un-deprived and educated.
These exploiters of Islam view the kamikaze attack as an instrument of instant and effective redress. While their arsenal of plastic knives and flight manuals is no match for that which boasts F-16s, B 1 Bombers and Apache helicopters, it was able to achieve the same results: massive physical and psychological damage. From their vantage point, their modest arsenal is more effective than that of Arab armies when they were equipped with Soviet MIGs and Sukhois, and even now when many of them possess advanced U. S. fighters and missiles, seen largely as symbols of state glory rather than instruments of national defense.
Why is such anger focused on the United States? The United States used to enjoy a benign non-colonialist legacy in the Middle East, particularly during the post-World I division of the Arab world into spheres of influence for the European colonial powers. When Britain was offering Palestine as a homeland for the Jews, the U.S dispatched the King-Crane Commission, whose findings, however, failed to curtail British efforts to ultimately cause the dispossession of the indigenous Palestinians. While France was extending its imperial rule in Arab North Africa to Syria and Lebanon after the First World War, the United States was preaching self-determination and enjoying good will through its social and educational institutions, such as the American University of Beirut, among others.
Recounting recent history could never justify the horrible acts of September 11th, but for a sizable sector of the Islamic public, America's positive legacy was squandered away after the Second World War, when the U.S. was seen as the promoter and protector of autocratic and corrupt Arab and Islamic regimes, whose interests ran counter to that of their constituencies. That is what makes President Bush's assertion, that the terrorists hate America because of American values, such as freedom and democracy, rather unusual. It is precisely the opposite: their main grievance is that the U. S. promotes these values for Americans only, while at the same time it supports regimes who suppress freedom and democracy in the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world. Such is the case with U.S. support of the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan, Suharto's Indonesia, Zia's Pakistan, and more dramatically its role as bankroller, chief diplomatic backer and military supplier of Israel, particularly as the latter tried to regularize its military occupation of Arab territories. The past quarter of a century, since the June 1967 war, has witnessed an accumulated build up of resentment, due to what is widely seen in the region as U.S complicity in Israel's consolidation of its occupation. The U.S military presence in the Arabian Peninsula is seen by religious elements as a desecration of the Islamic holy places, and by the secular nationalists as a form of re-colonization in the age of post-colonialism. Moreover, the ten-year old sanction regime, imposed upon U.S insistence, leading to the death of a million Iraqis, the majority of whom are children, is a major factor in the rising militancy.
Beyond the Arab Middle East, the U.S role in Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, Pakistan and other non-Arab Muslim countries is seen as the work of an imperialist superpower, acting not on behalf of freedom and democracy, but in accordance with its geo-strategic interests. Washington's previous alliance with Osama Ben Laden and the fundamentalist Taliban Afghani rulers during the 80s is often compared to similar relationships with Manuel Noriega, Hikmatyar, Rabbani and Saddam Hussein. In fact, the Islamic Mujahideen of Afghanistan during the 80s were touted by the Reagan administration as " freedom fighters."
The horror that befell America on September 11th was a sounding alarm for the danger ahead. The terrorist network behind these acts is not a new phenomenon in world history. The Nineteenth Century imperial domains of tsarist Russia, Ottoman Turkey, and Britain were confronted by the forerunners of today's terrorists, whose strategy was to provoke these empires into launching savage attacks that would only create fertile grounds for new recruits. Hopefully, the U.S. will not fall into the same trap by bombing a war-torn poor country that possesses not a single target worth the cost of one cruise missile.
What is then to do? First, this is not the first war of the 21st century, but a continuation of the wars of the 20th century. Above all, it is a crime against humanity, which must be governed by the international judicial apparatus. Second, it is a crime of such considerable proportions that it requires rigorous international police action to apprehend the perpetrators and their co-conspirators in order to assure that these people and their followers do not target more innocent civilians. Third, we must work within the international framework to build a real consensus against the notion of targeting civilians in political conflicts. The scourge of terrorism can be better overcome by diplomatic means coupled with serious action geared towards de-legitimizing the practice, not only in the first world but in the third world as well. And most importantly, we must address the root causes of terrorism and reexamine our own foreign policy and support for forces that foster the resentment and oppression, which these terrorists capitalize on. That is not necessarily to turn the other cheek, but to mobilize international civil society throughout the world in promoting the ideals of freedom and democracy, not just only for Americans and Europeans, but for all people of the world.
Chancellor Professor emeritus of political science at the
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.