A few days after the tragic events of 9/11 were seared permanently into our nation’s collective memory, President Bush presented a formal response, standing before the joint houses of Congress, rows of dignitaries and banks of television cameras. With impressive confidence he spoke of the resolve needed in the forceful campaign the United States would undertake against those who were responsible or were abetting this numbing violence. He summoned world leaders to join in an unprecedented global alliance that would uncover, incapacitate and apprehend the agents of such murderous devastation. Then, alluding to the motives underlying this brutality, he asked, “Why do they hate us?”
This ringing question gave voice to the bewilderment of many Americans listening to their president. The Christian Science Monitor echoed this phrase in a front-page banner headline, printed in red, above the lead article in a special edition devoted to the ominous storm then gathering over Afghanistan. In his speech, President Bush did not pursue an answer to his question, assuming, evidently, that none, or none that would suffice, could be found.
The newspaper, however, answered with a concise jolt of an opening sentence that illuminates a gap in perception almost as disturbing as the emptiness now visible where Manhattan’s two tallest buildings once stood. “Most Arabs,” begins the article, “knew the answer even before they considered who was responsible.”
This blunt journalistic riposte to President Bush’s agonized exclamation illustrates the chasm in the fractured rapport between Islam and the West, and America in particular. Not only does this expose a barrier between two worlds — one in which the motives behind such violence are inexplicable and another in which they are self-evident — but it also portrays the American view as recognizing “hate” as the defining link between an homogenized “us” and “them.”
It is hardly surprising, then, that a wave of suspicion and occasional aggression toward Arabs and Muslims followed in a number of American cities, causing many people considerable anxiety. Meanwhile, legions of imams, muftis, sheiks and scholars condemned the attacks and emphasized that such indiscriminate violence is entirely incompatible with the ethical teachings of Islam.
This tense divide between America and a vaguely construed Islamic Middle East, characterized by hostility, frustration and resentment, can be traced over several decades. Its early stirrings were evident in the years after World War II, when the United States sought to destabilize various regimes it considered hostile and to maintain in power others it considered friendly. At times heavy-handed schemes designed to undermine essentially local or regional political developments burst into public view.
In July 1958, for instance, several thousand U.S. Marines invaded the beaches of Lebanon, supposedly in response to potential repercussions from a coup d’état in Iraq. They met no resistance, only amazement, and stayed for several weeks before departing without firing a shot. In his memoirs, Waging Peace, Eisenhower explains the curious episode as a misreading of the internal dynamics of the Arab world, which were scarcely even considered, since “behind everything was our deep-seated conviction that Communists were principally responsible for the trouble.”
The United States also left its fingerprints on various cases where nationalist uprisings threatened the established order, especially where petroleum was involved. In 1953, clandestine American intervention in Iran proved decisive in bringing down the leader of a newly declared republic and reinstating the deposed Shah. Of course, few Americans even recall such events or they see them in the distance through the telescope of the now-defunct superpower rivalry.
In the Middle East, memory tends to look ahead rather than behind. Against an exaggerated backdrop of victimization, conspiracy theories typically involving American or, by extension, Israeli undercover operations sprout frequently, spread quickly and survive for decades, sometimes centuries.
Since the end of the cold war, and especially with the failure of America’s celebrated efforts to create a more equitable “new world order” after the expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, this dichotomy has become more explicit. Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington famously depicted today’s world as rent by a “clash of civilizations” in which Islam stands out for the “bloody borders” that surrounded it. Making the same point no less cogently, Professor Benjamin Barber of Duke University contributed a streamlined version of this global vision in a mid-1990s book, Jihad vs. McWorld, that went into multiple printings and became a favorite touchstone for conservative security experts, aggressive talk-show hosts and like-minded journalists and pundits.
This reaction, for all its appealing simplicity, is not only short-sighted and superficial, it is also dangerous. It easily adds to the confusion it pretends to clarify. An undifferentiated contrast between an orderly “us” and a disruptive “them” quickly flattens and obscures vital distinctions. It rids the discussion of the complexity inherent in contradictory attitudes, situated experiences and historical particulars that have evolved at various levels among disparate populations, steeped in different cultural traditions, during changing times.
In fact, as some insightful analysts of contemporary terrorism point out, suicide bombings and similar draconian assaults typically arise from a desperate effort to win acknowledgment, to gain respect and to recover a semblance of human engagement. Such acts are often carried out where the basis for significant human contact has disappeared due to the extreme polarization dividing the strong from the weak, substituting only a rhetoric of demonization where dialogue has disappeared.
From this perspective, it is not hatred that drives people to such catastrophic extremes but a crazed, despairing desire on the part of powerless, marginalized and demoralized victims to force a measure of moral accountability upon an oppressor who refuses to recognize any normal form of humane mutuality.
Many, especially those who have lost confidence in leaders’ ability to bring about improvement, have found relief for their discontent, if only partially, in a form of Islamic messianism. While this utopian vision has deeper roots, the enthusiasm it now enjoys was largely forged on the front lines in such places as Algeria, Lebanon, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia and Afghanistan. Here, too, militancy has been cultivated with increasing technical expertise, not only on the fringe of a shattered Islamic world but also in its heartlands.
Animosity toward America, seen through this lens as the chief source of the corrosive influence of a godless modernity, does not arise from a fossilized remnant of medieval thinking. The doctrines invoked by Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network have a more recent origin, and, more importantly, they borrow opportunely for their dubious support from the anger and sympathy generated from conflicts that have little or no discernible religious basis. Thus bin Laden’s celebrated “declaration of jihad” against America cited three specific justifications: the basing of American troops in Saudi Arabia; the continuation of international sanctions against Iraq; and America’s virtually unbounded support for Israel in its refusal to concede to Palestinians the right to establish a state of their own in the occupied territories.
In an idealized context of religious fervor, setting Realpolitik aside, it is undoubtedly true that most Muslims object to America’s policies on all three of these issues, although constructing a convincing case for “jihad” upon this foundation requires a great deal more than shared opinions.
The image of America, against which such rage is directed, arises out of a collision of aspiration and elite power that has been in the making for most of the last century. But more recently, rising expectations across the Middle East have clashed with a pattern of economic and political developments that have favored the relative few while leaving most others feeling overrun, excluded and insecure. In his recent book Affluence and Poverty in the Middle East, Professor Riad el-Ghonemy of Oxford University singles out seven oil-rich Arab states and Israel as having less than 10 percent of the region’s population but upwards of 40 percent of its income, and the gap is widening. This portrait represents a massive inversion of the way things were only a half century ago; the dramatic benefits from oil profits mostly date back to the mid-20th century, roughly the time of Osama bin Laden’s birth.
Thus, the burning of an American flag in protest on the streets of Ramallah, Jakarta or Kabul hardly represents a refutation of our nation’s high principles, such as the Bill of Rights, as one might gather when we are told “our way of life” is under attack. In fact, most of those cheering as the stars and stripes go up in flame have little grasp and still less experience of the extensive stable civil institutions that underlie American society. Their assault upon this symbol typically conveys, rather, a refusal to accept local social, economic or political realities recognized to be fundamentally unjust. It is a rejection of a distant and alien culture seen to be supporting these injustices. It reflects an anger born of the lack of effective means to press for change and little opportunity to freely criticize their own leaders.
Thus profound divisions within the Middle East reflect a complex and changing calculus of interests, perceptions and alliances that make it difficult to speak sensibly about any encompassing “them.” On one level, within the Arab League or the Islamic Conference Organization, serious rifts often occur, as demonstrated in 1991 by the response to appeals for support of the American coalition to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Over this issue the member states were split almost exactly down the middle.
Likewise, divisions within countries follow the fault lines of clan loyalties, ethnicity, religion, region, patronage networks and class, as well as political orientation. However, in almost all instances, it is access to power through possession of valuable natural resources, notably petroleum, and control of strategic territory that have emerged as determining the haves and the have-nots (or as it was known in earlier centuries, between rulers and the ruled).
In today’s Middle East ideological expressions vary, pointing to the left and to the right, toward absolutist dynasties, as in Saudi Arabia; toward self-proclaimed theocracies, as in Iran; or toward ardently secular states, as in Turkey. But most structures of government retain deep continuities with the imperial heritage that operated under the Ottomans and were maintained under the fairly brief European colonial hegemony — both of which ruled in an autocratic, paternalistic fashion with heavy reliance on force.
However, the nature of the societies — that is, the citizens — governed in this way no longer fits the old mold. Over the past half century especially, almost all the countries in the Middle East have experienced massive population increases, maintaining growth rates that are double, triple or quadruple that of the United States.
Rates of urbanization have also soared, far outstripping infrastructure capacities. This phenomenon is most visible in the mushrooming of slums and shanty towns in such great metropolitan centers as Cairo, Istanbul, Teheran and Casablanca. It is also reflected in other ways. One example is the prominence of the so-called informal economy, a term for everything from massive systems of unregulated manufacture and commerce to extensive underground networks for smuggling, extortion and trade in drugs, gems and arms.
At the top of the pyramid, economic resources remain, for the most part, concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, inevitably converging with those who govern, whether through a military elite, as in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Pakistan, Yemen and, to a large extent, Egypt; through a monarch, as is the case in Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Morocco; or through claims embedded in religion, as in Iran, the Sudan and, more eccentrically, Libya.
Another highly volatile feature of this complex has been put succinctly by the historian Stephen Humphreys in a recent book with the revealing title, Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. He notes that “most Middle Eastern governments since World War II have been haunted by the specter of illegitimacy, by the fear (usually quite well founded) that in the eyes of their subjects and of neighboring states they have no right to rule.” One significant byproduct of the quest for security has been a heavy concentration of military force in this region, a factor that also adversely affects economic and social progress.
For example, by the end of the 1970s, Middle Eastern states, on average, were spending 14 percent of their gross national product on military expenditures. Although this striking figure fell in the 1980s and 1990s, current World Bank statistics confirm that the Middle East today continues to import more than twice the amount of weapons purchased by any other region. Nor should it be overlooked that the United States ranks first as the source for these arms. Likewise, the proportion of the population serving in the military is more than double the next highest ratio for any other region.
Despite these tensions, the ruling structures have been remarkably stable in recent decades, although the winds of change never cease to threaten them from below as well as from abroad as the urge for greater democratization steadily increases. Only in rare instances have efforts in this direction led to a consistent broadening of participation in government that has made way for a significant redistribution of power and wealth. On the contrary, the experience of multiparty elections in the style of Western democracies has most often run aground due to all manner of manipulations, restrictions and boycotts. The cumulative effect is the postponing of new hopes or burying them under the weight of familiar disappointments.
But the frustration of many who feel oppressed, some of whom have also come to regard themselves as the vanguard of liberation for others, has taken a decisive turn recently as the resonant moral rhetoric of Islam was adopted by some opposition movements and employed as a vehicle of mass mobilization. This resort to a religious foundation for political assertion fits well with classical theories of Islamic jurisprudence: The Muslim tradition envisages a fusion of worldly power and spiritual authority (as exemplified by the idealized memory of the original umma or community of believers under the guidance of the Prophet in Medina).
This has the clear advantage of providing what seems to be a ready-made and divinely sanctioned agenda. Its advocates can reference the sacred text with unimpeded confidence, even if its actual applications to particular circumstance remain less specific. Hence, slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “The Koran is our constitution” have rapidly won a fair measure of enthusiastic, if not broad, support in many contests. But it has often remained unclear whether the ultimate objective is to replace those in power with more righteous representatives or to overthrow the existing system of rule altogether and install a theocracy of sorts with little or no tolerance for dissenters.
This religio-political impulse, promoted by those who call themselves “Islamicists,” (while others have labeled them fundamentalists or revivalists), is said to have started amid the traumatic nexus of the late 1960s, with the Six Day War as the pivotal experience. This 1967 military encounter, marked by its one-sided devastation no less than its brevity, subsequently bred a mythology of miraculous triumph among some extremist Zionists, who continue to insist that their right to occupy the West Bank and Gaza was confirmed by a divine hand behind Israel’s victory. But it provoked the inverse reaction among many Arabs and Muslims, who saw in their catastrophic defeat a heavenly judgment upon their leaders and upon themselves — for straying from the straight path by flirting with nationalism, secularism, socialism, liberalism or other foreign ideas, all of which lack God’s approval and are therefore destined to fail.
This late 20th century turn to Islam did not lack earlier models, notably in the teachings of the charismatic founder of the Society of the Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Banna and his more radical protégé, Sayyid Qutb. Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher from the Suez Canal Zone, had founded his society in the late 1920s as a basis for resistance and reform in the face of what he saw as the corrupting impact of a creeping complicity between the colonial powers and the educated Muslim elite. However, his organization quickly expanded to become a popular front, which induced its leaders to attempt a series of fateful confrontations with those in power, for which many paid the ultimate price.
Hassan al-Banna himself was killed in 1949 by agents of King Farouk after the Muslim Brothers had assassinated the Egyptian prime minister. Sayyid Qutb was hung by Nasser in 1965 when it became clear that his prison writings had drifted toward an absolutist stance which effectively called for the violent elimination of those holding power, all justified in the name of Islam.
But the Muslim Brotherhood was itself inspired by still another movement that also had challenged what its founder saw as a similar pattern of impiety prone to alien influences that would lead to defeat and dispossession. This movement was advanced in the Arabian Peninsula by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1791. But its historical impact was felt more widely a century and a half later, when Abd al-Wahhab’s teachings were institutionalized as a cornerstone of the new state founded by Abd al-Aziz ibn Sa’ud, the first in a dynasty that continues to rule the land which bears the Saudi name.
The Wahhabi vision of Islam is distinctive in that it claims the Koran and the authoritative sayings of the Prophet, known as the Sunna, to be the sole sources of doctrine and morality. It strongly opposed not only the authority of the immense and elaborate medieval heritage of Islamic legal learning and opinion, generated by centuries of scholarly industry, but it also aggressively combated the rich devotional tradition that was the basis of popular religiosity, revolving around sufi saints, shrines and related ritual practices.
Pursuing their reforms, the Wahhabi movement insisted, for instance, on a strict interpretation of the injunction that God alone is to be worshipped. Later activists, such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni and the Taliban’s Sheik Muhammad Omar, have advanced this same vision and have argued that the modern sovereign state is fundamentally godless and therefore to be rejected by Islam (except when it is ruled directly by Islamic clerics).
Wahhabi doctrine also advanced the principle of tafkir, which, contrary to traditional Islamic opinion, authorized Wahhabi’s followers, as a true believers, to judge the sincerity of fellow Muslims to determine whether their profession of faith and their conformity to normal religious practice qualified as authentic. If not, such persons could be designated, in the Koranicc usage, as “hypocrites,” regarded as nonbelievers, or kafirs, and treated accordingly. It was precisely this logic that was used by the assailants of President Sadat to justify their successful assassination plot carried out in October 1981.
It is not difficult to see how Wahhabi formulas such as these would appeal greatly to many eager to throw off the cumbersome complexities of learning and lore associated with the mastery of Islamic sciences related to scripture, jurisprudence, ethics and spirituality — all constituting a sophisticated intellectual and moral heritage thought to have failed as a defense against undermining foreign intrusion. But Wahhabism went still further to reclaim for itself the ancient practice of ijtihad (independent or free reasoning), which for centuries had been regarded as a privilege accorded only to those most learned scholars who lived during the first formative generations after the Prophet’s death.
In doing so, Wahhabism made virtue of necessity as it arrogated to its followers, unschooled as most of them were, the right to effectively disregard the colossal corpus of legal precedent, exposition and commentary, while insisting that their own judgments in the name of Islam had far greater merit as they were based only upon the Koran and the words of the Prophet. The result of such a strict reliance on revelation, its proponents contended, would be to re-create the conditions of harmonious prosperity and military might known by that blessed community guided directly by God through the Prophet.
Thus, while new states throughout the Middle East have long been engaged in laborious efforts to develop functioning systems of modern law, modeled variously on European codes and procedures, the Wahhabi vision, largely ignored by Western observers, has advanced its parallel but quite different agenda. Also, as these ideas spread, the Wahhabi name was frequently sloughed off by more sophisticated followers, preferring to identify their orientation as Salafism, referring to early Islamic forebears. They sought to disassociate themselves from some of Wahhabism’s widely condemned puritanical excesses, like the destruction of the Prophet’s own tomb in Medina (which was later reconstructed).
Theories and militancy
One further effect of the blow dealt to the major powers of the Arab world by the Six Day War of 1967 was only felt a few years later, in 1973, when the price of petroleum soared virtually overnight after OPEC staged a brief embargo. This sudden fourfold increase introduced a decade of windfall profits to oil-rich Gulf states that substantially shifted the balance of resources, influence and prestige in the region, providing the Wahhabi cause immensely broadened exposure and bolstered confidence. This combination of a shocking defeat felt by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, followed by an unanticipated El Dorado enjoyed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and the Emirates also played a significant part in the promotion of an explicitly Islamist political activism over a wide geographical compass.
But the very qualities of simplicity that made this Wahhabi vision so easy to export also left it vulnerable to radicalizing tendencies that were no longer filtered by a dense intellectual and moral tradition. As the political ambitions of Islamists grew, often aided by material support from wealthy Gulf states, and as success eluded them, their thinking began to draw on ideas and experiences that belonged less to religious reflections and more to the revolutionary spirit of the times.
Into the vacuum created by their righteous dismissal of the Islamic legal and philosophical heritage, which they rejected as sterile, obsolete and obscure, a tide of “Third World” views — with distant echoes of popular Marxism, Che Guevara, Franz Fanon and the Red Brigade — became increasingly discernible in much of their analysis and indoctrination. Especially in places of armed confrontation, such as Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Algeria and Afghanistan (after the Soviet invasion of 1979), this muted fusion of lofty Koranic rhetoric and fiery liberation rhetoric became a hallmark of the leading theories accompanying the strategies of Islamic militancy.
The Islamic revolution in Iran constitutes an excellent example of this heady mix of the ideas arising from Third World struggles for independence and a peculiarly Shi’ite form of religious chauvinism that exploits a traditional cult of martyrdom to mobilize popular support. The single most influential thinker preparing the ground for the struggle that succeeded in overthrowing the Shah was the sociology professor, Ali Shari’ati, who had studied in Paris where he learned to fuse anti-colonial French leftist arguments with his own Islamic convictions. But Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumph in Teheran in 1979 proved to be an exception that a number of others tried to reproduce, but failed. Instead, throughout the 1980s many Islamic activists turned to grassroots social services, often winning considerable respect and at times finding this a platform for entering open political contests.
Those who continued the violent struggle for control of state power were increasingly frustrated. Some scholars were already announcing “the failure of political Islam” by the mid-1990s, pointing to its repression, co-option or dissipation before decisive counter measures in those states where it had once seemed to pose the greatest threat.
But some exceptions to this pattern of reasserted state control stand out, where an Islamist movement persists, but often with a changed focus. As it became increasingly clear that battles to take over the government, echoing the great wars of national liberation, were no longer realistic, a new vision began to take shape — shifting the objective from confronting the state to an assault upon the perceived foundations of the offending culture. The targets would not be political institutions in any normal understanding of the term, but symbolic icons of global hegemony.
This move, expressed plainly in Osama bin Laden’s interviews and videos, and so daringly enacted by the devastating suicide attacks in New York and Washington, retains its references to social justice, although these justifications are increasingly offset by a logic of rage, resentment and revenge.
A new generation
The tragic human setting that brought the Taliban to power and thus provided Al Qaeda with an indispensable base for the transnational recruiting, training, planning, coordinating and executing of its deranged vision of jihad is located in northwestern Pakistan, where Afghanistan’s war refugees have been massing. The madrasas or traditional Islamic institutions that gave the Taliban (meaning “students of Islam”) their name are not exactly schools by the usual Western definition. Not only is their curriculum largely restricted to religious learning, meaning the rote memorization of the Koran, but also their instructors are themselves the semiliterate products of a similar education, now heavily influenced by two decades of unending bloodshed and turmoil, leaving little to look forward to other than more fighting.
Nevertheless, these madrasas also function as a massive social welfare system in an environment where there is nothing to replace them. A New York Times reporter, writing earlier this year, estimated that there are some 2,000 to 3,000 madrasas in Pakistan which provide food and shelter, plus some education, to more than 700,000 children, mostly boys. These are clearly the sort of conditions where it is easy to built a cult of hatred against a distant superpower, like the United States, that did not hesitate to use Afghanistan’s warriors in a colossal escalation of the last great East-West proxy war following the Soviet invasion of that nation in1979. The fact that American afterward ignored the chaos and ruins that followed has only helped to embitter a new generation of victims.
It is most unlikely that any high-minded “war on terrorism” will succeed until such densely populated and heavily armed havens of misery are provided with the means for a more constructive and humane future.
But ameliorating these most wretched conditions, while certainly essential, does not resolve the full scope of the problem. A recent incident in Paris illustrates the point. Last October, for the first time since Algeria gained its independence 40 years ago, it faced off against France, the former colonial master, in a soccer match. Many Muslims among the fans present booed and whistled during the playing of France’s national anthem. At several points during the game they shouted “bin Laden, bin Laden” and threw bottles at the two French government ministers, both women, who were attending. As the game approached its end and it became clear that Algeria would lose, a large number of its supporters again took up the “bin Laden” chant and stormed the field, stopping the match.
This public evocation of bin Laden as a hero in the heart to Europe, less than a month after the attacks in the United States, demonstrated a refusal to let Algeria’s pride suffer on the sporting field. It also made clear that it is not just among disaffected Islamists, Afghan refugees and Palestinian camps that serious work and reconciliation are urgently needed.
The Muslims in our midst represent the human face responding to the great impersonal corporate, strategic and media presence that our own society maintains in Islamic lands and from which we benefit enormously. Nothing indicates that American Muslims support indiscriminate violence against innocent people, any more than American Christians support the abominable deed of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City (which he also justified in the name of this religion).
But Muslims and Arabs generally are enormously hungry for fundamental change, indeed some are famished to the point that even a catastrophe can briefly seem a dark sign of hope. It may be beyond anyone to ever explain the horrors of 9/11, but a failure to recognize the deep and desperate cry of disappointment among the millions to whom bin Laden makes his appeal would only increase misunderstanding and compound the tragedy.
Patrick Gaffney is an associate professor of anthropology at Notre Dame and a fellow of the University’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and its Kellogg Institute.