In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many Americans are looking for answers. What could have motivated the hijackers to sacrifice their lives to kill thousands of innocent people? What is their hatred based on? Are these the acts of isolated extremists, or do the terrorists represent something larger to which the United States had best pay careful attention?
Rami Khouri, former editor-in-chief of the Jordan Times and currently a fellow at the Nieman Foundation, attempted to answer some of these questions in an Oct. 4 talk titled, “The Attack Against America: An Arab View.”
“Why was the attack made?” Khouri asked. “Who are these people? What do they represent? The enormity of the attack compels us to go to a deeper level. We must understand why it happened.”
Khouri is well qualified to address these questions. A Christian Palestinian who was raised and educated in the United States, he is at home in the Arab world as well as in the West, and, in his syndicated columns, lectures, and books, regularly interprets each of these worlds to the other.
Khouri compared the terrorists to the extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement in the United States.
“While there are many people in the U.S. who are against abortion, only a few violent people bomb abortion centers,” he said. “Although there are many people in the world who hate the U.S., there are only a few bombers, but they are the edge of a wider phenomenon.”
Khouri sketched out a list of reasons why many in the Arab world feel resentment against the United States. He cautioned that the list reflects the view “of one Arab, myself. But I believe that it also represents public opinion in the Arab world.”
First, much of this hatred and resentment “comes with the territory,” Khouri said. It is a natural reaction to America’s power in the world, and, as such, not much can be done about it. But there are other reasons, he said, rooted in the actions of the U.S. government.
The United States has had a habit of making use of smaller countries when they serve U.S. short-term interests and then abandoning them when they are no longer useful, Khouri said. This pattern, he asserted, has been played out in Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, to name a few, and, from the point of view of the countries involved, “it can be pretty irritating.”
The Arab world is also “fed up” with the United States government’s “pro-Israeli tilt,” and its reluctance to recognize the Palestinians’ right to sovereignty, Khouri said. From the Arab point of view, the United States is following a double standard when it sends in troops to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqis or Bosnia from the Serbs, but not South Lebanon or Gaza from the Israelis.
Arabs blame the United States for supporting what they regard as corrupt police states such as Saudi Arabia, Khouri said, although he added that no Arab state is a true democracy and all are open to criticism.
The severe economic distress of those states that have not benefited from oil is also a factor, Khouri added. There is also a very large population of educated young people who are unable to find employment. “This is a recipe for catastrophe and explosion,” he said.
The use of language by U.S. government officials plays a part in stirring up anger among Arabs, he said.
“President Bush should not talk about smoking human beings out of their holes,” he said. “American officials should rethink the vocabulary they use, even when it’s a question of clear criminality.”
Globalization, a trend most closely connected with the United States, is resented by many Arabs, Khouri said.
“Many Arabs who are not benefiting from globalization see it as a new form of colonialism, an effort to dominate other countries through the economy.”
Similarly, the United States is seen as “unilaterally dictating new norms of global morality although it doesn’t have the political mandate or the moral right,” he said.
Khouri admitted that all the reasons he listed are debatable and that, in many cases, Arabs are to blame for making the United States a scapegoat instead of taking the more dangerous approach of criticizing their own leaders.
But what is striking, he said, is the “cumulative and continuing nature of these grievances, which are the cause of distress and indignity and lead to the dehumanization of the average person.” It is this dehumanization, raised to a “crazy, suicidal” level, that results in attacks such as those of Sept. 11, he averred.
Khouri spoke of the attacks as “a pivotal moment” for the United States. “Everyone feels sympathetic with the United States and they are prepared to work with the United States to end terrorism.”
It is a moment when the United States “has the opportunity to reshape global moral values that define interaction among states. The United States should draw on its intelligence and maturity and realize what this opportunity is,” he said.