Roots Of Rage

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

America's detractors complain that the U.S. is impervious not only to Arab rights but also to Arab suffering. If the Palestinians are Exhibit A, the Iraqis are Exhibit B. While most Arabs detest Saddam for his own brand of brutality and arrogance, they don't understand why the U.S. continues to insist, 10 years after the Iraqis were forced out of Kuwait, on worldwide sanctions that are devastating the Iraqi people. According to the U.N., some 5,000 Iraqi children die every month of malnutrition and disease because of the sanctions.

"Would we tolerate this kind of boycott, the starving of Czechs, for example?" asks A. Kevin Reinhart, professor of religion at Dartmouth. "No. We've done some specific things that are perceived as reflecting either an indifference to or a hostility to Muslims." Islamic radicals keep a list of what they consider our casual cruelty, although their definition of who is inflicting the pain sometimes includes all of Christendom. They list the U.S. sanctions against Syria, Libya, Iran and Sudan--all Muslim countries (and all, not coincidentally, considered by the State Department to be sponsors of terrorism). They list the U.S. missile strikes in 1998 on a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan (Washington originally claimed the plant was making chemical weapons but has quietly backed off the charge). They believe Western powers tolerated for too long--from 1992 until the NATO bombings in 1995--the ethnic cleansing by Christian Serbs of Bosnian Muslims and the later killings by Serbs of ethnic Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. Another grievance is the fact that the U.S. has done little to stop Russia's savage war against separatist Muslims in Chechnya because it considers the conflict an internal matter for Moscow. To Americans, all these matters are proof that it is a messy world out there. To many Muslims, it looks like a conspiracy against their fellow believers.

Underlying all these laments is a deep resentment that the Arab world is not the geopolitical player it feels entitled to be. The wound is aggravated by a historical memory of grandeur, of Islam's expansion from Arabia in the 7th century to the conquest of the Levant, northern Africa and much of Europe, culminating in a final rebuff at the gates of Vienna 10 centuries later. The question many Arabs ask the U.S. and the West in general, says Professor Jean Leca of the Institute of Political Science in Paris, is, "Why are you leaning so heavily on us when we already had a civilization while you were still living in caves?"

The brutality of Christendom's efforts to conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims in the Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries is not forgotten in the Middle East (making President Bush's early use of the word crusade to describe America's antiterror effort an unfortunate choice). An even greater sore is the sense that, in the centuries since, so much dignity has been lost, and to an inferior people. In Islamic belief, Muhammad is God's last prophet; he built upon the revelations of Moses and Jesus to propound a superior, perfect faith. But the world that faith created was broken apart: after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the colonial powers of France and Britain carved the Middle East into arbitrarily drawn mandates and states governed by handpicked local leaders. "Many Arabs and Muslims feel they had 10 centuries of great cultural achievement that ended with European colonialism," says John Esposito, director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. "Now they feel impotent. The West, they feel, looks at them as backward and is only interested in their oil. Their sense of self-worth and identity is wounded."

Colonialism and the advance of Western modernity have nurtured the modern version of Islamic fundamentalism: if Islam is perfect and its kingdom is in retreat, it must be that its practitioners have strayed from the fundamentals of the faith. This notion gained increasing currency after 1979, when a popular uprising overthrew the corrupt, Westernizing, U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and paved the way for the Ayatullah Khomeini to launch an Islamic revolution in Iran and beyond. Khomeini called Muslims to violence to conquer "the land of the infidel."

Khomeini's export project had limited success, given that the Iranians, as Shi'ites, belong to a sect of Islam disdained by the majority Sunnis. But the Iranian revolution nevertheless inspired Muslims all over the Arab world to action. Egyptian writer Abd al-Salam Faraj wrote their manifesto, a pamphlet called The Neglected Duty, in which he argued that holy war was necessary to defend not just Muslims but Muslim dignity. Faraj, like many other Muslim radicals, singled out those parts of the Koran and the Hadith, the collected sayings and deeds attributed to Muhammad, that seemed to support his argument.

Bin Laden has come to fulfill the Neglected Duty. He talks a lot about dignity. Of the terrorists who killed 24 U.S. servicemen and two Indians in attacks in 1995 and 1996 in Saudi Arabia, he once said, "They have raised the nation's head high and washed away a great part of the shame that has enveloped us." Bin Laden fancies himself a modern-day Saladin, the Muslim commander who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders. "I envision Saladin coming out of the clouds," bin Laden says in a videotape released earlier this year to his supporters. "Our history is being rewritten."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3