Who We Are and What We Do

It is now nearly three years since nineteen young men from Saudi Arabia and Egypt opened the Pandora’s Box by attacking the World Trade Center and Pentagon with hijacked planes. But the answer to “why did they do it?” still remains unsettled. “They did it because of what we do,” some say. Others contend, “they did it because of who we are.” Alternatively, the answers appear as “they hate us for what we do,” or “they hate us for who we are.”

Those who give the first answer often discuss various US policies in the Middle East in the 20th century. These policies could include such things as:

1) the establishment of the state of Israel on the Palestinian land and the nourishment and protection of this American-European settler state at the cost of the brutalized, outraged, dispossessed, displaced, terrorized, homeless indigenous population of the land;

2) maintaining corrupt, dictatorial, brutal, oppressive, and, at times, medieval regimes who are friendly to the US and, at the very least, tolerant of Israel, such as the Shah of Iran, Sadat and Mubarak of Egypt, Hussein and Abdullah of Jordan, the Emir of Kuwait, the Saudi family;

3) having military ties with many of these regimes and even establishing bases in their countries, an establishment that is often viewed by the indigenous people of the region as an insult not only to their independence but to their religious belief and code of ethics and conduct;

4) allying with some brutal regimes, such as that of Saddam Hussein, or helping to create these regimes, such as the Taliban.

In addition to tallying these kinds of policies, the advocates of “they hate us because of what we do” also point out that if you pose the same question to the natives of the Middle of East, you would get basically the same kinds of answers. The devoutly religious people, however, might add to the answer a thing or two about Islam and how the US-Israeli policies resemble those of the crusaders. Indeed, if one listens to the likes of Osama bin Laden, one hears much of the above complaints wrapped often in a religious cloak.

In sum, the first answer that one gets to “why do they hate us?” is straightforward, nonchalant, and somewhat behaviorist or empiricist in the sense that it relies on what the patient, the native of the Middle East, reveals to be the causes of his or her ailment. This answer, however, is quite rare. It is found mostly in some independent journals and online magazines.

The second answer, “they hate us for who we are,” is the predominant one. It appears in the mainstream, corporate media. It is heard in the radio talk shows. It is found in numerous online magazines and websites. It is written by some academics, who have found fame and fortune by writing about “who we are.” It is spoken by the US government officials. It can even be found in the 9/11 Commission Report.

Given the large size and heterogeneity of those who advocate “they hate us for who we are,” the issue of exactly “who we are” remains mostly unclear. But by putting together bits and pieces of some unintelligible and disparate arguments, we can come up with some basic characteristics of “us.” “We” are: people with values and culture, civilized, capitalist minded, democratic and free. In other words, “they” hate us, because “they” are without values or culture, uncivilized, anti-capitalist, and despise democracy and freedom. Another version of this same answer argues that they are envious of our values, culture, civilization, capitalism, freedom, etc.

This widespread answer is not as straightforward and nonchalant as the first. It is somewhat Freudian in the sense that the patient would never divulge these as the causes of his or her ailment. Thus the analysis tries to go beyond what appears on the surface, locating beneath appearances deep-rooted causes, such as envy. These invisible causes, it is believed, will manifest themselves as the patient’s symptoms.

The above explanation is, of course, risky and ironic. It is ironic because most of those who advocate this answer, particularly the academicians, usually have no love for Freud and Freudian analysis. It is risky because, as any good Popperian knows, one can never falsify such explanations and, therefore, they are, at the very best, pseudo-scientific explanations alongside astrology and parapsychology.

The answer is also vague and, by academic standards, nonsensical. For example, any first year college student who takes cultural anthropology would realize that it is virtually impossible to define unambiguously “values” and “culture.” Even defining “capitalism” or “democracy” is not easy in a course dealing with economic history or development. Such difficulties, however, do not seem to concern the proponents of “they hate us for who we are,” and, as a result, they often fall into numerous contradictions.

For example, “capitalism” is often used by these individuals in the sense of “consumerism.” Or, at times, it is understood by them to mean an economic system based on trade or private ownership of means of production. But none of these understandings would explain why Muslims should hate capitalism. After all, Islam originated from the teachings of a traveling merchant who, by profession, could not oppose private ownership of anything, including the means of production. His modern day followers have also nothing against contemporary consumerism. If anything, a look at the Islamic societies shows the same symptoms of commodity fetishism as anywhere else in the world.

Or, take “democracy.” From its inception, the term was vague, since the “rule of the people” only meant the rule of a small number of “people” and excluded such “people” as women, slaves and metics. The term is still ambiguous if one engages in a serious analysis of the electoral process in the modern, Western countries, particularly the US. But, again, the advocates of “who we are” are usually not interested in such analyses and understand democracy to simply mean “one man, one vote” or a consensual and representative government. If that is the case, then it is never explained by these individuals why the US is hated most in those countries that are highly dictatorial and, at the same time, closely allied with the US. After all, the 9/11 hijackers originated from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two brutal dictatorships, whose citizens rightly view their lack of consensual and representative government to be at least partially related to the support of the US for their rulers. Indeed, the biggest quandary that the US has faced since it claimed that invading Iraq was for the sake of making it democratic, is that the edict of “one man, one vote,” or a consensual government, will most likely result in an Islamic government in Iraq, a prospect that, even though highly “democratic,” is unacceptable to the US and Israel.

In sum, it is relatively easy to show that the semi-Freudian arguments of the advocates of “who we are” can’t hold much water. It is vague and full of hard-to-define concepts; and once the concepts are defined in a popular manner, as is often the case, the arguments usually become internally incoherent and even contradictory. So why do the “they hate us for who we are” crowd stick to such a lame explanation? The answer, once again, goes back to the US and Israeli policies, their aims and objectives, and the architects and propagandists of these policies.

As an empire the US is bound to exercise control over the Middle East and its natural resources. This was accomplished throughout the 20th century by means of indirect control, i.e., through close ties with surrogate regimes, such as the Saudi family and the Shah of Iran. But the 1979 Revolution in Iran, continued Palestinian resistance to occupation and subsequently a former ally, Saddam Hussein going solo, shattered this policy of indirect control and required dealing with the rebels in the region head on. Hence, we got the old fashioned colonial invasion and direct occupation of Iraq, the brutal and unrestrained attack against the Palestinians by the Israelis, and the continuous attempt to isolate Iran or scare it with military threat.

Israel, on the other hand, is first and foremost interested in the real estate itself, which could potentially stretch, if one goes by the Biblical prophecy, from the “the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.” This aim, Israel has figured, can best be achieved by riding on the back of the giant empire. The result of this alignment of aims is the creation of a modern Holy Empire, an alliance between US and Israel that requires architects and propagandists who would form public opinion and prepare the masses for wars. Such a role in the US has been assigned to numerous think tanks, institutions and groups, such as the American Enterprise Institute, Project for the New American Century, Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Washington Institute for Near East Policies, Hoover Institution, and many others. The task of these spin masters and public opinion makers is an old fashioned one: demonize those who resist your aims and objectives.

We see this act of demonizing throughout the history. Indeed, the act is as old as history itself. Herodotus, presumably the first historian, divided the world into the Greeks and the “barbarians.” As opposed to the Greek race, the “barbarians,” or the “strangers,” he argued, are in every respect inferior people. When it comes to thinking, Herodotus writes, the “Greeks have been from very ancient times distinguished from the barbarians by superior sagacity and freedom from foolish simple-ness.” Even when it comes to warfare, the “barbarians” are inferior, he contends, since the Spartan king is told by the ruler of Ionia that “the barbarians are an unwarlike people; and you are the best and bravest warriors in the whole world. Their mode of fighting is the following: they use bows and arrows and a short spear; they wear trousers in the field, and cover their heads with turbans. So easy are they to vanquish!”

Similarly, Aristotle, that “giant thinker” of the “Western civilization” who believed “that some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter slavery is both expedient and right” opens his Politics by stating that “among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves, because there is no natural ruler among them: they are a community of slaves, male and female.” He then goes on to recount a whole host of inferior traits of the “barbarians,” such as the fact that they-as opposed to the Greeks who own private property-have “common property,” or are “tyrannical,” “despotic,” “servile,” “have a custom of plunging their children at birth into a cold stream,” or “are ready enough to kill and eat men.”

Are the above descriptions of the “barbarians” not familiar in the context of the present time? Are they not, almost word for word-except, perhaps, for such things as cannibalism!-the kind of demonizing that the advocate of “they hate us for who we are” use? It is unnecessary to quote other propagandists of the “Western civilization,” such as those of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, etc. to prove the point? Suffice it to say that even the most famous, enlightened and respected thinkers of the “Western civilization” could not escape the prevalent and grotesque images of the victims of the empire and glorified pictures of themselves. In the first few chapters of Adam Smith’s famous The Wealth of Nations there are, at least, 7 references to the “savages,” i.e., the North American Indians, and 15 references to the “civilized” society, i.e., the “Great” Britain.

In the final analysis, the architects and the propagandists of the Holy Empire are doing precisely what has been done for 2500 years by all empires: calling the victims of their aggression “barbarians,” “savages,” “uncivilized,” “undemocratic,” etc. to make conquering them easier. But this act of demonizing has certain drawbacks.

First, an empire whose citizens are fed fantasy, and not facts, might be in for a very long and costly war which could destroy the fabric of its society, both economically and socially. The length of the war and its cost could become so intolerable to the citizens of the empire that they might ultimately prefer capitulation to a state of permanent war. What the modern Holy Empire faces is not a few “terrorists” that can be eradicated, but numerous brutalized “barbarians” living on the periphery that are now adopting a unifying ideology. The ideology is cloaked mainly in religion. But this is not unusual; the ideology of the masses often takes a religious form. As Karl Marx once observed, “Religious suffering is at the same time the expression of real suffering and the protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation.”

Ironically, for many oppressed people in the twentieth century it was “Marxism” itself which became a powerful, unifying religion. This was not the esoteric economic and philosophical theories of Karl Marx, but simple ideas that every liberation movement weaved uniquely for itself under the rubric of some unclear “Marxism” to fight colonial aggression and oppression. Now, with the passing away of “Marxism,” it is under the rubric of some even less clear “Islam” that the masses of the Middle East are congregating. These masses, these new “barbarians,” have very little technology to combat the “civilized” empire. But they are patient, and have time on their side. They can lie in wait and slowly, very slowly, chip away at the empire. In the long run they might even succeed in bringing the empire down to its knees as the Germanic “barbarians,” led by Odoacer, made Emperor Romulus Augustulus kneel down before them or as, in modern times, the “Gooks,” led by Ho Chi Minh, made the giant empire take flight from the roof of its embassy. Are the citizens of the Holy Empire willing to put up with such prolonged warfare? Are the economic and social costs of such a war acceptable or tolerable? Is the outcome certain?

Second, as time passes, the effectiveness of repeated propaganda diminishes. It becomes increasingly apparent to everyone, including the citizens of the empire, that no one has a monopoly over “barbarism” and “savagery.” The Greek, Roman, and British empires, for example, all showed that they could act more savagely and barbarically than their victims. This has already become apparent in the case of the Holy Empire. We all witness on a daily basis what Coetzee vividly describes as the ruthless empire that sends its bloodhounds everywhere and feeds on “images of sacked cities, rape of the population, pyramid of bones, and acres of desolation.” Some of these images have already made their way into the US corporate news by default: the pyramid of naked prisoners at Abu Ghraib; the torture, sadism, rape, sodomy, and hooding of prisoners; the smiling faces of the “civilized” soldiers who get satisfaction from acts of perversion; the torture and humiliation of the prisoners; the terror in the faces of the “savages” facing the bloodhounds of the “civilized”; the grins on the faces of military personnel giving thumbs up next to the rotting corpse of a prisoner, etc.

Other images are hardly ever shown on the US daily news: the invasion of houses in Baghdad or Ramallah in the early morning hours; the shattering of doors; the terrifying men with headgear and assault rifles breaking into private residences; fear in the faces of the occupants; the demolition of houses in Fallujah and Gaza; planes and helicopters attacking civilians; craters left by bombs; blood stained streets; bodies of Iraqis and Palestinians laying in waste in the streets of Najaf and Rafah; the siege of cities; lines of detainees; the cages in the sun designed for unruly prisoners; the dead animals in the zoos of Baghdad and Rafah; the tanks and bulldozers waiting to attack defenseless Palestinian refugee camps before dawn; the bullet ridden walls; giant holes in the bedroom walls; dwellings turned into rubble; Palestinian women and children sitting with dazed faces on piles of concrete, where their houses used to be; the terrified Iraqis and Palestinians carrying their belongings before the assault begins; the uprooted olive trees with grieving Palestinian women standing in front of the bulldozer, trying to save their livelihood; overflowing morgues; dead bodies wrapped in shrouds; funerals, etc. Indeed, the world has seen, in just the past few months alone, what “civilization” can do. The more time passes, the longer the war, the more we see the real face of this “civilization.”

Ironically, one has to say that the answer, “they hate us for who we are,” is correct, but there is a catch: “we” are everything that we say “they” are! This solves the puzzle of “why do they hate us?” It resolves the dichotomy and produces a single answer: They hate us for what we do and who we are, since “what we do” cannot be separated from “who we are.”

We are the Holy Empire, and we do as we are.

SASAN FAYAZMANESH is a professor of economics at Fresno State University.


Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics at California State University, Fresno, and is the author of Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” He can be reached at: sasan.fayazmanesh@gmail.com.