One of the most widely asked questions in the weeks and months following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against our nation has been, “Why do they hate us?”– the “they” in this question ostensibly referring to the world’s Arabs and Muslims. Many in our country, among them American Muslims, initially were reluctant to answer this question. This reluctance was born of a fear of being labeled unpatriotic, un-American-or worse, apologists for terrorists-by some of the ubiquitous commentators and talking heads who vociferously attacked anyone who dared pose this question in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
Now, one year later, this question finally should be addressed. And yet I stilI hesitate because of concern that my loyalty, and that of our nation’s seven million American Muslims, yet again will be questioned.
This despite the fact that every major American Muslim organization and leader has condemned the horrible events of Sept. 11 and those responsible for them. We have repeatedly and unequivocally stated that there is no possible justification (religious or otherwise) for these acts on the basis our faith, and that those who claim to commit such acts in the name of Islam have heinously twisted its teachings. And yet if we dare to explore the roots of this evil, our loyalties become immediately suspect in the eyes of some cynical pundits searching for an excuse to brand all Muslims-and indeed Islam itself-as civilization’s new enemy.
In trying to characterize the motives of those suspected of perpetrating the terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush proclaimed that “they hate our way of life.” This is at best a gross oversimplification, and at worst dangerously naive. Such jargon may sound nice for an 11 o’clock news sound bite, but it does not accurately answer the question, “Why do they hate us?”
Indeed, I would argue that the question itself is a misleading generalization, based on the erroneous assumption that Muslims and Arabs “hate us.” The vast majority of Muslims and Arabs do not hate America, per se. Any statement to the contrary is a myth which only serves to perpetuate the dangerous, false “Islam-as-the-enemy” doctrine promoted by some self-styled experts on Islam. In fact, a great many Muslims and Arabs would cherish the opportunity to immigrate to the United States and enjoy the political, religious, economic, and educational freedoms that many of us take for granted. Immigrants to the U.S. from the Arab and Muslim worlds and their descendants have been successful, educated, productive members of our society. We are the objects of envy among our friends and relatives overseas.
Of course, this does not mean that there are some aspects of our society that are frowned upon by the generally conservative communities of the Muslim world. Many express displeasure with the excesses of our overly materialistic culture, with a presumed emphasis on money, sex, and entertainment. While this may be a stereotypical perception on their part, we must bear in mind that this is the image of America exported by Hollywood. It is these elements of American society-as represented in movies, television soaps, and the latest music videos-to which individuals in the Muslim world are the most directly exposed and from which they derive their basic assumptions about our country. Similar complaints have been heard from all corners of the world-and indeed from within our own nation as well.
Of course, there are fringe elements in all societies who do not see shades of gray, but rather only the stark contrast of black and white, good and bad. These elements are prone to rejecting everything American as being inherently corrupt and a danger to their way of life. In a way, these individuals are the counterparts of those extremists in our country who today clamor that Islam itself poses a clear and present danger to our country. Ironic, isn’t it? That said, most Muslims are sophisticated enough that they “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Most Muslims and Arabs know that, like any other society or culture, America has its strengths and faults-and they hope to emulate these strengths in their own societies while avoiding those elements they deem undesirable.
Muslim and Arab resentment grows exponentially when they look toward many foreign policy stands of our country that are perceived as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. Chief among these issues: the blind, unconditional support provided by the U.S. to Israel’s continued brutal military occupation of Palestinian lands. Daily on Al-Jazeera they view images of American Apache helicopter gunships and <U.S.-provided> tanks, fighter jets, and missiles wreaking death and destruction on Palestinian towns and refugee camps. And they hear the somber pronouncements of American officials condemning “Palestinian terrorism” while failing even to acknowledge Palestinian suffering.
Arabs and Muslims also resent our country’s decade-long sanctions policy against Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children from starvation and disease but left the brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein more entrenched in power than ever. Why, they ask, do the innocent and noble Iraqi people have to suffer for the sins of their leader-a leader they did not choose and who for so long was supported by America?
And Muslims and Arabs resent our nation’s policy of promoting democratic reform and human rights in every corner of the globe–except for the Middle East and Muslim lands. As long as the fertile breeding ground of discontent and resentment persists, more Bin Ladens will emerge in the years to come. And, unless our nation’s policymakers make an earnest attempt to end the double standard and promote democracy and human rights uniformly and universally in the Middle East and Muslim world, I fear that the message of these new bin Ladens will once again resonate with a disaffected and disenfranchised Muslim world. For Muslims, ironically, will be continuing to ask the same question: “Why do they hate us?”
Riad Z. Abdelkarim, MD, is Western Region communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He also writes the monthly “Islam in America” column for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.