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Why the Muslims Misjudged Us
Since September 11, we have heard mostly slander and lies about the West from radical Islamic fundamentalists in their defense of the terrorists.
Winter 2002

Since September 11, we have heard mostly slander and lies about the West from radical Islamic fundamentalists in their defense of the terrorists. But the Middle Eastern mainstream—diplomats, intellectuals, and journalists—has also bombarded the American public with an array of unflattering images and texts, suggesting that the extremists’ anti-Americanism may not be an eccentricity of the ignorant but rather a representative slice of the views of millions. For example, Egyptian Nobel Prize–winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz reportedly announced from his Cairo home that America’s bombing of the Taliban was “just as despicable a crime” as the September 11 attacks—as if the terrorists’ unprovoked mass murder of civilians were the moral equivalent of selected air strikes against enemy soldiers in wartime. Americans, reluctant to answer back their Middle Eastern critics for fear of charges of “Islamophobia” or “Arab smearing,” have let such accusations go largely unchecked.

Two striking themes—one overt, one implied—characterize most Arab invective: first, there is some sort of equivalence—political, cultural, and military—between the West and the Muslim world; and second, America has been exceptionally unkind toward the Middle East. Both premises are false and reveal that the temple of anti-Americanism is supported by pillars of utter ignorance.

Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins, or history of democracy, a word that, along with its family (“constitution,” “freedom,” and “citizen”), has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring. Consensual government is not the norm of human politics but a rare and precious idea, not imposed or bequeathed but usually purchased with the blood of heroes and patriots, whether in classical Athens, revolutionary America, or more recently in Eastern Europe. Democracy’s lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty.

Afghan tribal councils, without written constitutions, are better than tyranny, surely; but they do not make consensual government. Nor do the Palestinian parliament and advisory bodies in Kuwait. None of these faux assemblies is elected by an unbound citizenry, free to criticize (much less recall, impeach, or depose) their heads of state by legal means, or even to speak openly to journalists about the failings of their own government. Plato remarked of such superficial government-by-deliberation that even thieves divvy up the loot by give-and-take, suggesting that the human tendency to parley is natural but is not the same as the formal machinery of democratic government.

Our own cultural elites, either out of timidity or sometimes ignorance of the uniqueness of our own political institutions, seldom make such distinctions. But the differences are critical, because they lie unnoticed at the heart of the crisis in the Muslim world, and they explain our own tenuous relations with the regimes in the Gulf and the Middle East. Israel does not really know to what degree the Palestinian authorities have a real constituency, because the people of the West Bank themselves do not know either—inasmuch as they cannot debate one another on domestic television or campaign on the streets for alternate policies. Mr. Arafat assumed power by Western fiat; when he finally was allowed to hold real and periodic elections in his homeland, he simply perpetuated autocracy—as corrupt as it is brutal.

By the same token, we are surprised at the duplicity of the Gulf States in defusing internal dissent by redirecting it against Americans, forgetting that such is the way of all dictators, who, should they lose office, do not face the golden years of Jimmy Carter’s busy house-building or Bill Clinton’s self-absorbed angst. Either they dodge the mob’s bullets or scurry to a fortified compound on the French coast a day ahead of the posse. The royal family of Saudi Arabia cannot act out of principle because no principle other than force put and keeps them in power. All the official jets, snazzy embassies, and expensive press agents cannot hide that these illegitimate rulers are not in the political sense Western at all.

How sad that intellectuals of the Arab world—themselves only given freedom when they emigrate to the United States or Europe—profess support for democratic reform from Berkeley or Cambridge but secretly fear that, back home, truly free elections would usher in folk like the Iranian imams, who, in the manner of the Nazis in 1933, would thereupon destroy the very machinery that elected them. The fact is that democracy does not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus but rather is an epiphenomenon—the formal icing on a preexisting cake of egalitarianism, economic opportunity, religious tolerance, and constant self-criticism. The former cannot appear in the Muslim world until gallant men and women insist upon the latter—and therein demolish the antidemocratic and medieval forces of tribalism, authoritarian traditionalism, and Islamic fundamentalism.

How much easier for non-voters of the Arab world to vent frustration at the West, as if, in some Machiavellian plot, a democratic America, Israel, and Europe have conspired to prevent Muslims from adopting the Western invention of democracy! Democracy is hardly a Western secret to be closely guarded and kept from the mujaheddin. Islam is welcome to it, with the blessing and subsidy of the West. Yes, we must promote democracy abroad in the Muslim world; but only they, not we, can ensure its success.

The catastrophe of the Muslim world is also explicable in its failure to grasp the nature of Western success, which springs neither from luck nor resources, genes nor geography. Like third-world Marxists of the 1960s, who put blame for their own self-inflicted misery upon corporations, colonialism, and racism—anything other than the absence of real markets and a free society—the Islamic intelligentsia recognizes the Muslim world’s inferiority vis-`a-vis the West, but it then seeks to fault others for its own self-created fiasco. Government spokesmen in the Middle East should ignore the nonsense of the cultural relativists and discredited Marxists and have the courage to say that they are poor because their populations are nearly half illiterate, that their governments are not free, that their economies are not open, and that their fundamentalists impede scientific inquiry, unpopular expression, and cultural exchange.

Tragically, the immediate prospects for improvement are dismal, inasmuch as the war against terrorism has further isolated the Middle East. Travel, foreign education, and academic exchanges—the only sources of future hope for the Arab world—have screeched to a halt. All the conferences in Cairo about Western bias and media distortion cannot hide this self-inflicted catastrophe—and the growing ostracism and suspicion of Middle Easterners in the West.

But blaming the West, and Israel, for the unendurable reality is easier for millions of Muslims than admitting the truth. Billions of barrels of oil, large populations, the Suez Canal, the fertility of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates valleys, invaluable geopolitical locations, and a host of other natural advantages that helped create wealthy civilizations in the past now yield an excess of misery, rather than the riches of resource-poor Hong Kong or Switzerland. How could it be otherwise, when it takes bribes and decades to obtain a building permit in Cairo; when habeas corpus is a cruel joke in Baghdad; and when Saudi Arabia turns out more graduates in Islamic studies than in medicine or engineering?

To tackle illiteracy, gratuitous state-sanctioned killing, and the economic sclerosis that comes from corruption and state control would require the courage and self-examination of Eastern Europe, Russia, South America, even of China. Instead, wedded to the old bromides that the West causes their misery, that fundamentalist Islam and crackpot mullahs have had no role in their disasters, that the subjugation of women is a “different” rather than a foul (and economically foolish) custom, Muslim intellectuals have railed these past few months about the creation of Israel half a century ago, and they have sat either silent or amused while the mob in their streets chants in praise of a mass murderer. Meanwhile millions of Muslims tragically stay sick and hungry in silence.

Has the Muslim world gone mad in its threats and ultimatums? Throughout this war, Muslims have saturated us with overt and with insidious warnings. If America retaliated to the mass murder of its citizens, the Arab world would turn on us; if we bombed during Ramadan, we would incur lasting hatred; if we continued in our mission to avenge our dead, not an American would be safe in the Middle East. More disturbing even than the screaming street demonstrations have been the polite admonitions of corrupt grandees like Crown Prince Abdallah of Saudi Arabia or editor Abdul Rahman al Rashed of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Al Sharq al Awsat. Don’t they see the impotence and absurdity of their veiled threats, backed neither by military force nor cultural dynamism? Don’t they realize that nothing is more fatal to the security of a state than the divide between what it threatens and what it can deliver?

There is an abyss between such rhetoric and the world we actually live in, an abyss called power. Out of politeness, we needn’t crow over the relative military capability of 1 billion Muslims and 300 million Americans; but we should remember that the lethal, 2,500-year Western way of war is the reflection of very different ideas about personal freedom, civic militarism, individuality on the battlefield, military technology, logistics, decisive battle, group discipline, civilian audit, and the dissemination and proliferation of knowledge.

Values and traditions—not guns, germs, and steel—explain why a tiny Greece of 50,000 square miles crushed a Persia 20 times larger; why Rome, not Carthage, created world government; why Cortés was in Tenochtitl`an, and Montezuma not in Barcelona; why gunpowder in its home in China was a pastime for the elite while, when stolen and brought to Europe, it became a deadly and ever evolving weapon of the masses. Even at the nadir of Western power in the medieval ages, a Europe divided by religion and fragmented into feudal states could still send thousands of thugs into the Holy Land, while a supposedly ascendant Islam had neither the ships nor the skill nor the logistics to wage jihad in Scotland or Brittany. Much is made of 500 years of Ottoman dominance over a feuding Orthodox, Christian, and Protestant West; but the sultans were powerful largely to the degree that they crafted alliances with a distrustful France and the warring Italian city-states, copied the Arsenal at Venice, turned out replicas of Italian and German cannon, and moved their capital to European Constantinople. Moreover, their “dominance” amounted only to a rough naval parity with the West on the old Roman Mediterranean; they never came close  to the conquest of the heart of Western Europe.

Europeans, not Ottomans, colonized central and southern Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas—and not merely because of their Atlantic ports or ocean ships but rather because of their long-standing attitudes and traditions about scientific inquiry, secular thought, free markets, and individual ingenuity and spontaneity. To be sure, military power is not a referendum on morality—Pizarro’s record in Peru makes as grim reading as the Germans’ in central Africa; it is, rather, a reflection of the amoral dynamism that fuels ships and soldiers.

We are militarily strong, and the Arab world abjectly weak, not because of greater courage, superior numbers, higher IQs, more ores, or better weather, but because of our culture. When it comes to war, 1 billion people and the world’s oil are not nearly as valuable military assets as MIT, West Point, the U.S. House of Representatives, C-Span, Bill O’Riley, and the G.I. Bill. Between Xerxes on his peacock throne overlooking Salamis and Saddam on his balcony reviewing his troops, between the Greeks arguing and debating before they rowed out with Themistocles and the Americans haranguing one another on the eve of the Gulf War, lies a 2,500-year cultural tradition that explains why the rest of the world copies its weapons, uniforms, and military organization from us, not vice versa.

Many Middle Easterners have performed a great media charade throughout this war. They publish newspapers and televise the news, and thereby give the appearance of being modern and Western. But their reporters and anchormen are by no means journalists by Western standards of free and truthful inquiry. Whereas CNN makes a point of talking to the victims of collateral damage in Kabul, al-Jazeera would never interview the mothers of Israeli teenagers blown apart by Palestinian bombs. Nor does any Egyptian or Syrian television station welcome freewheeling debates or Meet the Press–style talk shows permitting criticism of the government or the national religion. Instead, they quibble over their own degrees of anti-Americanism and obfuscate the internal contradictions of Islam. The chief dailies in Algiers, Teheran, and Kuwait City look like Pravda of old. The entire Islamic media is a simulacrum of the West, lacking the life-giving spirit of debate and self-criticism.

As a result, when Americans see a cavalcade of talking Middle Eastern heads nod and blurt out the party line—that Israel is evil, that the United States is naïve and misled, that Muslims are victims, that the West may soon have to reckon with Islamic anger—they assume the talk is orchestrated and therefore worth listening to only for what it teaches about how authoritarian governments can coerce and corrupt journalists and intellectuals.

A novelist who writes whatever he pleases anywhere in the Muslim world is more likely to receive a fatwa and a mob at his courtyard than a prize for literary courage, as Naguib Mahfouz and Salman Rushdie have learned. No wonder a code of silence pervades the Islamic world. No wonder, too, that Islam is far more ignorant of us than we of it. And no wonder that the Muslims haven’t a clue that, while their current furor is scripted, whipped up, and mercurial, ours is far deeper and more lasting.

Every Western intellectual knows Edward Said’s much-hyped theory of “Orientalism,” a purely mythical construct of how Western bias has misunderstood and distorted the Eastern “Other.” In truth, the real problem is “Westernism”—the fatally erroneous idea in the Middle East that its propaganda-spewing Potemkin television stations give it a genuine understanding of the nature of America, an understanding Middle Easterners believe is deepened by the presence in their midst of a few McDonald’s franchises and hired U.S. public-relations firms. That error—which mistakes ignorance for insight—helps explain why Usama bin Ladin so grossly miscalculated the devastating magnitude of our response to September 11. In reality, the most parochial American knows more about the repressive nature of the Gulf States than the most sophisticated and well-traveled sheikh understands about the cultural underpinnings of this country, including the freedom of speech and inquiry that is missing in the Islamic press.

Millions in the Middle East are obsessed with Israel, whether they live in sight of Tel Aviv or thousands of miles away. Their fury doesn’t spring solely from genuine dismay over the hundreds of Muslims Israel has killed on the West Bank; after all, Saddam Hussein butchered hundreds of thousands of Shiites, Kurds, and Iranians, while few in Cairo or Damascus said a word. Syria’s Assad liquidated perhaps 20,000 in sight of Israel, without a single demonstration in any Arab capital. The murder of some 100,000 Muslims in Algeria and 40,000 in Chechnya in the last decade provoked few intellectuals in the Middle East to call for a pan-Islamic protest. Clearly, the anger derives not from the tragic tally of the fallen but from Islamic rage that Israelis have defeated Muslims on the battlefield repeatedly, decisively, at will, and without modesty.

If Israel were not so successful, free, and haughty—if it were beleaguered and tottering on the verge of ruin—perhaps it would be tolerated. But in a sea of totalitarianism and government-induced poverty, a relatively successful economy and a stable culture arising out of scrub and desert clearly irks its less successful neighbors. Envy, as the historian Thucydides reminds us, is a powerful emotion and has caused not a few wars.

If Israel did not exist, the Arab world, in its current fit of denial, would have to invent something like it to vent its frustrations. That is not to say there may not be legitimate concerns in the struggle over Palestine, but merely that for millions of Muslims the fight over such small real estate stems from a deep psychological wound. It isn’t about lebensraum or some actual physical threat. Israel is a constant reminder that it is a nation’s culture—not its geography or size or magnitude of its oil reserves—that determines its wealth or freedom. For the Middle East to make peace with Israel would be to declare war on itself, to admit that that its own fundamental way of doing business—not the Jews—makes it poor, sick, and weak.

Throughout the Muslim world, myth and ignorance surround U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. Yes, we give Israel aid, but less than the combined billions that go to the Palestinians and to Egypt, Jordan, and other Muslim countries. And it is one thing to subsidize a democratic and constitutional (if cantankerous) ally but quite another to pay for slander from theocratic or autocratic enemies. Though Israel has its fair share of fundamentalists and fanatics, the country is not the creation of clerics or strongmen but of European émigrés, who committed Israel from the start to democracy, free speech, and abundant self-critique.

Far from egging on Israel, the United States actually restrains the Israeli military, whose organization and discipline, along with the sophisticated Israeli arms industry, make it quite capable of annihilating nearly all its bellicose neighbors without American aid. Should the United States withdraw from active participation in the Middle East and let the contestants settle their differences on the battlefield, Israel, not the Arab world, would win. The military record of four previous conflicts does not lie. Arafat should remember who saved him in Lebanon; it was no power in the Middle East that brokered his exodus and parted the waves of Israeli planes and tanks for his safe passage to the desert.

The Muslim world suffers from political amnesia, we now have learned, and so has forgotten not only Arafat’s resurrection but also American help to beleaguered Afghanis, terrified Kuwaitis, helpless Kurds and Shiites, starving Somalis, and defenseless Bosnians—direct intervention that has cost the United States much more treasure and lives than mere economic aid for Israel ever did. They forget; but we remember the Palestinians cheering in Nablus hours after thousands of our innocents were incinerated in New York, the hagiographic posters of a mass murderer in the streets of Muslim capitals, and the smug remonstrations of Saudi prince Alwaleed to Mayor Giuliani at Ground Zero.

Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti Westernized elites find psychological comfort in their people’s anti-American rhetoric, not out of real grievance but perhaps as reassurance that their own appetite for all things Western doesn’t constitute rejection of their medieval religion or their thirteenth-century caliphate. Their apologists in the United States dissemble when they argue that these Gulf sheikhs are forced to master a doublespeak for foreign consumption, or that they are better than the frightening alternative, or that they are victims of unfair American anger that is ignorant of Wahhabi custom. In their present relationship with the terrorists, these old-fashioned autocrats are neutrals only in the sense that they now play the cagier role of Franco’s Spain to Hitler’s Germany. They aid and abet our enemies, but never overtly. If the United States prevails, the Saudis can proclaim that they were always with us; should we lose a shooting war with the terrorists, the princes can swear that their prior neutrality really constituted allegiance to radical Islam all along.

In matters of East-West relations, immigration has always been a one-way phenomenon. Thousands flocked to Athens and Rome; few left for Parthia or Numidia unless to colonize or exploit. People sneak into South, not North, Korea—in the same manner that few from Hong Kong once braved gunfire to reach Peking (unless to invest and profit). Few Israeli laborers are going to the West Bank to seek construction jobs. In this vein is the Muslim world’s longing for the very soil of America. Even in the crucible of war, we have discovered that our worst critics love us in the concrete as much as they hate us in the abstract.

For all the frothing, it seems that millions of our purported enemies wish to visit, study, or (better yet) live in the United States—and this is true not just of Westernized professors or globe-trotting tycoons but of hijackers, terrorists, the children of the Taliban, the offspring of Iranian mullahs, and the spoiled teenage brats of our Gulf critics. The terrorists visited lap dancers, took out frequent-flier miles, spent hours on the Internet, had cell phones strapped to their hips, and hobnobbed in Las Vegas—parasitic on a culture not their own, fascinated with toys they could not make, and always ashamed that their lusts grew more than they could be satisfied. Until September 11, their ilk had been like fleas on a lazy, plump dog, gnashing their tiny proboscises to gain bloody nourishment or inflict small welts on a distracted host who found them not worth the scratch.

This dual loathing and attraction for things Western is characteristic of the highest echelon of the terrorists themselves, often Western-educated, English-speaking, and hardly poor. Emblematic is the evil genius of al-Qaida, the sinister Dr. al-Zawahiri: he grew up in Cairo affluence, his family enmeshed in all the Westernized institutions of Egypt.

Americans find this Middle Eastern cultural schizophrenia maddening, especially in its inability to fathom that all the things that Muslim visitors profess to hate—equality of the sexes, cultural freedom, religious tolerance, egalitarianism, free speech, and secular rationalism—are precisely what give us the material things that they want in the first place. CDs and sexy bare midriffs are the fruits of a society that values freedom, unchecked inquiry, and individual expression more than the dictates of state or church; wild freedom and wild materialism are part of the American character. So bewildered Americans now ask themselves: Why do so many of these anti-Americans, who profess hatred of the West and reverence for the purity of an energized Islam or a fiery Palestine, enroll in Chico State or UCLA instead of madrassas in Pakistan or military academies in Iraq?

The embarrassing answer would explain nearly everything, from bin Ladin to the intifada. Dads and moms who watch al-Jazeera and scream in the street at the Great Satan really would prefer that their children have dollars, an annual CAT scan, a good lawyer, air conditioning, and Levis in American hell than be without toilet paper, suffer from intestinal parasites, deal with the secret police, and squint with uncorrected vision in the Islamic paradise of Cairo, Teheran, and Gaza. Such a fundamental and intolerable paradox in the very core of a man’s heart—multiplied millions of times over—is not a healthy thing either for them or for us, as we have learned since September 11.

Most Americans recognize and honor the past achievements of Islamic civilization and the contribution of Middle-Eastern immigrants to the United States and Europe, as well as the traditional hospitality shown visitors to the Muslim world. And so we have long shown patience with those who hate us, and more curiosity than real anger.

But that was then, and this is now. A two-kiloton explosion that incinerated thousands of our citizens—planned by Middle Easterners with the indirect financial support of purportedly allied governments, the applause of millions, and the snickering and smiles of millions more—has had an effect that grows not wanes.

So a neighborly bit of advice for our Islamic friends and their spokesmen abroad: topple your pillars of ignorance and the edifice of your anti-Americanism. Try to seek difficult answers from within to even more difficult questions without. Do not blame others for problems that are largely self-created or seek solutions over here when your answers are mostly at home. Please, think hard about what you are saying and writing about the deaths of thousands of Americans and your relationship with the United States. America has been a friend more often than not to you. But now you are on the verge of turning its people—who create, not follow, government—into an enemy: a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come.

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