‘Why do they hate us?’
PARAPHRASING Disraeli there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and half-truths. They can be in the form of statements or even questions such as the chorus led by President Bush after 9/11 on ‘why do they hate us?’ Questions are premised on assumptions that are often implicit rather than explicit. Politically motivated questions are designed to insinuate assumptions and elicit answers premised on such assumptions even when they do not agree with the question itself.
Nevertheless, much of the criticism directed at contemporary Muslim society and Islamist or Takfeeri (anathema) ideology is not without basis. It is largely true that Muslim societies need to deal head on with the image of Islam their political, social and religious leaders have helped to project. Their willing or unwilling tolerance for extremist misinterpretations of specific Islamic injunctions has provided space for individual or group acts of terrorism in response to Western excesses. Nevertheless, these terrorist acts, even when in response to acts of state terrorism, flagrantly violate the tenets and purpose of the Quranic message that is embodied in the injunction that “there is no hate or compulsion in faith because what is righteous (ar-rushd) has been made clear from what is sinful (al-ghayy)”.
However, corrupt and fearful leaders in the Muslim world simply cannot summon the courage to stem the tide of ideological extremism that is engulfing the world of Muslims today. It is their greed and disloyalty to the people they govern as well as their collaboration with external exploiters and transgressors that have exacerbated the fissures and fractures in Muslim societies.
The truth is Muslims do not hate America or its people. What they do hate are its policies.
The first four rightly guided Caliphs of Islam made clear that polarising extremists who don the attire of uncompromising faith (the ‘Khwarij’) have no place in the ummah ie the community of the faithful. To pronounce anathema and death upon anyone, especially one professing to be Muslim, is an arrogation of divine authority which is the gravest sin in Islam.
Why Muslims supposedly hate America has been asked many times before 9/11. Today, however, the question informs the political discourse of the West to an unprecedented degree. It contextualises so many political issues Europe and America are faced with. The driving political motivation behind the question is an adamant refusal to discuss either ‘root causes’ of the mindsets that led to 9/11, or the contagion of terror let loose by the so-called war on terror.
Even so, there are still voices of sanity and wisdom in the West. According to them four fundamental questions arose in the aftermath of 9/11: who is responsible? What are the reasons? What is the proper reaction? What are the longer-term consequences? The US and its allies never made an honest effort to answer any of them. The recent Chilcot report is just another confirmation of Western impunity. Instead, George Bush and his ‘Beagles’ posed the disingenuous and dishonest question: why do they hate us? This allowed the US to self-righteously act as a wounded and enraged superpower that would not tolerate any question that might imply its own actions, including state terrorism, over decades contributed to such a desperate and heinous response.
Almost half a century earlier, president Eisenhower reportedly discussed “the campaign of hatred against us” … in the Arab world … “not by the governments but by the people”. The US National Security Council advised him the answer lay in “the Arab people’s recognition that the US government supports corrupt and brutal governments that block democracy and development, and does so because of its concern to protect its interest in Near East oil”. This was a precursor for American car bumper stickers as the US prepared to invade Iraq which read: ‘kick their ass and get their gas!’
But American and Western commentators prefer ‘comfortable’ explanations. Accordingly, Muslim anger and alienation is rooted in resentment of America’s freedom and love of democracy. The failings of Muslim culture and religious doctrine have prevented Muslim societies from participating in contemporary modernisation and globalisation. These are indeed half-truths. But there is no recall of the scars of imperialism and colonialism, the betrayal and trauma of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the even greater trauma of the creation of Israel which according to former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was merely the “creation of a state for a people without land in a land without people!” Etc.
Can all this ever justify acts of terrorism? Never. But they do explain why this menace has spread. The truth is Muslims do not hate America or its people. What they do hate are its policies which have devastated their lives and societies for so long. Unfortunately, this is carefully ignored in contemporary Western discourse. Western liberals may defend Islam and Muslim societies against the fulminations of the anti-Muslim lunatic fringe which have entered mainstream discourse. But it consciously fails to condemn the US and its allies for their wars and destruction of political and civil society; their interventions and contempt for international law; and their abhorrence of the strategic independence of strategically important developing (including Muslim) countries if it clashes with US strategic interests.
Westerners, however, sometimes ask that given that the US has devastated so many people around the world why is the Muslim response so particularly ‘hateful’? In my view it has a lot to do with the specific failure of contemporary Muslim governance to provide essential public goods and the range of human and political protections to the governed which is essential to deal with contemporary challenges. Instead of taking up this challenge, narratives are developed to distract public attention from the betrayals of their elected and unelected elites at home towards the excesses of external powers. Moreover, some of our ‘brother-benefactors’ have cynically fattened our leaders while financing the spread of an alien puritanical extremism that ensures an all-consuming instability at home and a debilitating hostility with most of our neighbourhood.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.