The Gadfly Bytes -- November, 2001
Why Do They Hate Us So Much?
By Ernest Partridge
In my mind there is absolutely no justification and no way of rationalizing what happened on September 11. I am convinced that Islam does not shape the perpetrators' values and their beliefs. Islam is a religion of peace and I pray that good Muslims will rescue Islam from the clutches of those who use it for their political purposes. Until Americans revisit their foreign policy practices and good Muslims challenge distorted interpretations of Islam consistently, we may not come out of the circle of terror and counter-terror.
Prof. Muqtedar Khan
"Why do they hate us so much?" How often have we heard that question since September 11?
This was George Bush's answer in his speech to Congress: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber – a democratically elected government... They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote..." And in his news conference: ""I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us... I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."
And Colin Powell, on the PBS "News Hour" answered: "They don't like our value system, they don't like a system that treats each individual as a creature of God with the full rights of every other individual. They don't like our political system, our form of democracy... They resent in many instances our success as a society." (9/13)
If this smug display of a-historical self-righteousness is to be our answer to that question, "why do they hate us?," this will be a very long struggle with an uncertain outcome.
Nothing that we have done with the governments or to the people of the Islamic world can remotely justify the vicious, brutal and meticulously executed slaughter of three thousand innocent persons, many Moslems among them. But we will be ill-equipped to deal with such fanaticism if we fail to comprehend the source of the white-heat of hatred that could motivate at least a dozen intelligent and educated individuals to put aside universal moral constraints and to sacrifice their own lives and the lives of those innocents.
The atrocities of September 11, though totally without justification (to say the least of it!), were not without cause.
The list of complaints against the United States is long. Here is a sample: First of all, in 1953 the CIA engineered the overthrow of a popular and democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammed Mosaddeq, and put in his place the tyrannical regime of the Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mosaddeq's "crime"? He dared suggest that Iran's oil belonged to the Iranians, and that the nation was thus entitled to the control of that resource and to a fair distribution of the income from its sale. The eventual "blowback," of course, was the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an "Islamic Republic" under Ayatollah Khomeini.
Furthermore, rather than fulfilling the role champions of the "freedoms" that Bush and Powell celebrate, the United States has propped up a series of despotic regimes, most conspicuously Saudi Arabia, in return for protection of US investments in the region.
And most grievously to the Moslems, the United States has been an uncompromising advocate, supporter and armorer of Israel, showing virtually no acknowledgment of the plight of the Palestinians, much less the justice of their cause.
There is much more to account for the hatred in the Islamic world toward the United States, but let this much suffice.
And tragically, this hatred is quite unnecessary. In fact, it is quite recent.
As the wise and eloquent Palestinian, Hanan Ashrawim recently pointed out on CNN, at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel in May, 1948, Americans were widely admired in the Arab and Islamic world. The United States had no part in the hated Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, in which Britain, France and Russia drew artificial national boundaries and divided up "zones of influence," thus betraying their Arab allies in the ongoing World War. (This disgraceful diplomacy is vividly portrayed late in the movie, "Lawrence of Arabia"). Moreover, in 1957, when the traditional American allies, Great Britain, France and Israel, went to war against Egypt to reclaim the Suez canal, the United States intervened on the side of the Arabs and put an end to that war.
Unlike the British and French, the Americans were regarded in the Arab world, not as colonialists but, on the contrary, as a nation that had successfully struggled and prevailed over a colonial empire: Great Britain.
But then, over the past five decades that admiration has eroded and has been replaced with hostility, especially in the streets and markets of the Moslem world: a hostility sufficient now to motivate a few to commit suicidal acts of cruel and random murder and with senseless destruction.
In the explicit words of one leader of this "Jihad," Osama bin Laden, the simple condition of being an American is a capital offense. "It is the will of Allah that we kill all Americans." There has been no clearer declaration of genocide since the fall of the Third Reich.
Published in The Online Journal, November 25, 2001
Long ago, an Israeli friend remarked to me that the Israel-Palestine conflict was especially tragic, "because both sides are right." That observation goes to the heart of this ongoing calamity.
On behalf of the Israelis, one can only be amazed at how the Jewish people have managed to maintained their identity throughout two-thousand years of diaspora, amidst numerous cultures and tongues, and despite persistent persecution. After all that, and in particular, after the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, how could the community of nations deny these people a homeland? Furthermore, against overwhelming odds, the Israelis have valiantly defended their new state throughout a series of conflicts launched by a surrounding cluster of hostile states.
"A land without a people, for a people without a land," proclaimed the Zionist motto. Unfortunately, this was a half-truth, for the land contained a people: the Palestinians – Jewish, Christian, and predominantly Moslem. At the time of the partition in 1947, there were 600,000 Jews and 1,300,000 Palestinians in the region. (Encarta, 2002). Whatever rhetoric might arise from this conflict, that fact remains and must somehow be accommodated. And there is another stubborn fact: To the Moslems, as well as the Christians and the Jews, this is sacred land.
The People of the Land. Friends and allies of the Israelis overlook what the Moslem world will never forget: the land of Palestine was populated by people who had lived there for centuries and for many generations. This point was made vivid to me by my late father, who was for a time the President of the Near East Foundation. He told us of the day he stood on a hillside on the West Bank with a Palestinian gentleman. Looking west across the valley and the boundary line, the Palestinian said, "do you see that olive grove over there? That was once owned by my family for hundreds of years; it is the place where I grew up as a boy and where our family prospered. It was taken from us in the last war, and now we live over here in poverty." That story can be repeated, thousands of times over, by similarly dispossessed individuals.
Israelis will reply that the Palestinians left "voluntarily" – a controversial claim to say the least of it. Moreover, it is pointed out that those who fled were not permitted to assimilate into the neighboring Arab states, Jordan excepted. Palestinians will reply that to accept residence elsewhere would have been to forfeit their claim on their ancestral lands. "Give up our land, that we tilled and built upon for generations, and in which our forefathers are buried? Would you?"
The Covenant. Orthodox Jews will tell us that the land of Israel was given to them by God, through the Lord's covenant to Abraham:
And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
And God said unto Abraham. Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. (Genesis 18:8-9)
From the point of view of secularists such as myself (not to mention a large portion of Israeli citizens), this is from a text of uncertain origin and authorship, much more myth and tradition than history. But no matter. For those who take this text to be the literal word of God Himself, there is a serious problem: "The seed of Abraham" includes the Arabs – through the lineage of Hagar and Ishmael.
So from both a secular and an orthodox religious point of view, the Palestinians are entitled to their land, and can only justly relinquish it voluntarily and with fair compensation.
But the orthodox will reply, "This is our land, God gave it to us. And if the other side says God gave it them, then they are just mistaken, and worse, their dispute is not with us, it is with the Almighty." Of course, those same words are spoken by both sides. Bring the Lord God Almighty into a political dispute, and there is no possible solution – only endless conflict. The founders of the American republic recognized this, and thus ratified the first amendment. From the perspective of this neutral and secular observer (I am neither Jewish, Moslem, nor in the traditional sense, Christian), the only solution is mutual respect and tolerance: "I disagree with your religious views, but I respect them mindful that you adhere to your faith as devoutly and sincerely as I adhere to mine." This is an attitude equally absent from both suicide bombers and Israeli settlers on Palestinian lands, and as long as this attitude prevails on both sides, there will be no end to this conflict.
The face of "the enemy." Students of the psychology of warfare have noted, time and again, that the first principle of warfare is the depersonalization of "the enemy." The enemy is regarded as a species apart, who has no right to life, and who surely does not respond or have the emotions that "we" have.
This mind set is vividly exemplified in the endless cycle of violence that we find today between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "Our side" is convinced that if "their" act of violence is met with retaliation, "they" will be deterred from further violence. On the other hand, if "our side" suffers violence, then we will never be deterred, on the contrary, we must and will retaliate.
Both sides believe this – in this respect, they are identical. Yet both sides are deceived by the contrary belief that "we" are fundamentally different from "them." "They" will be deterred and eventually give up, while "we" will never be deterred and will never surrender. Fifty years of unvarying refutation fails to budge this dogma, as every act of violence results, not in deterrence, but in further violence. Did the Israelis really believe that the targeted assassination of the Hamas leaders would not be answered? And when Hamas replied with the assassination of the Israeli Tourism Minister, did they really think that would be the end of it? Apparently so, and experience and logic have nothing to do with it.
And so it continues, with no end I sight.
The rut of violence is compounded by the demand that "the other side" must end all violence, if retaliation is to end and negotiations resume. Thus the Sharon (or Arafat) government appears to believe that Arafat (Sharon) can, by personal decree, put a total and complete stop to all acts of violence. But suppose that both leaders and 98% of their respective populations devoutly desired an end of all violence. Even so, a defiant small group, or even a single fanatic, can sabotage the peace. Thus, by demanding that the other side "end all violence," Sharon (or Arafat) in effect relinquish their leadership. Will there be peace? The issue is under the control of a small coterie of independent fanatics, and we already know their answer.
As our Israeli friend observed, the tragedy is that "both sides are right." The Palestinians have at least a plausible claim to their land, and a reasonable case that they have been unjustly treated, both by the Israelis, and by the constant allies of the Israelis, the Americans. But however just their claim, the Palestinian tactics have been deplorable, and I speak here less of the morality of those tactics than the practicality thereof. The Intifada and the suicide bombs have not accomplished their objectives, and there is no reason whatever to believe that in the future they will yield any desirable results. Stones vs. bullets, and suicide bombs vs. tanks and helicopters can only produce the mismatched casualty figures of which we are all aware. And as we have noted above, there is an unvarying historical record to prove that the Israelis will not submit to violence. They have not done so in fifty years – they will not suddenly do so next week. Meanwhile, all this violent résistance has transformed the image of the Palestinians in the Western media, from that of aggrieved victims to fanatical thugs and terrorists. In the Islamic world, as we have seen, it is the Israelis that are so regarded.
And yet, almost contemporaneous to the establishment of the State of Israel and the beginning of the "Fifty Years War," the wiser course of action found fulfillment in the establishment of the State of India. Mohandas Gandhi's Satyagraha – non-violent "soul force" – had triumphed over the full military might of the British Empire. And then again in the United States, in the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. In both these cases, the public and international support of the non-violent oppressed became irresistible.
Would a Palestinian Gandhi or a King have had similar results? I dare say that it is more than likely. However, it is difficult to imagine that the attempt would have had more disastrous consequences than those which followed from the cycle of violence that has scarred and desecrated that unhappy Holy Land.
It is never too late to try the non-violent approach.
Published in The Online Journal, December 6, 2001
George Bush tells us and the world that Islam is a peaceful religion. Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden disagree, as they call upon all Moslems to join them in a "Jihad" – a holy war against the infidel Americans.
Is Islam a religion of peace, or of war? It is both.
Consider the following passages from the Holy Quran:
Kill the disbelievers wherever we find them (2:191)
Fight and slay the pagans, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem. (9:5)
Slay or crucify or cut the hands and feet of the unbelievers, that they be expelled from the land with disgrace and that they shall have a great punishment in the world hereafter. (5:34)
And the Lord our God delivered him before us... and we took all his cities at that time and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.
Of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God give the for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.
OK, I lied: the last two verses are from the Holy Bible (Deuteronomy 2:33-4 and 20:16). I'll return to that point shortly.
However, elsewhere in the Quran, there is a contrasting message. "Even if you stretch out your hand against me to kill me, I shall not stretch out my hand against you to kill you," and "if anyone murders an innocent person, it will be as if he has murdered tho whole of humanity."
There are comparable contrasts in the Bible (which, after all, is not really a "book" – it is a library of books written over several hundreds of years). In addition to the genocidal slaughters of Deuteronomy listed above, there is the destruction of Jericho and this little encounter with the Midianites:
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with them, keep alive for yourselves. (Numbers, 31:17-18)
Compare this with the gentle ethics of Micah, the Sermon on the Mount ("blessed are the peacemakers...") and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Several years ago, I participated on a panel on WNBC in New York. When I read that passage from Numbers, a conservative Christian preacher responded, "you have to understand that the Midianites were a very wicked tribe, deserving annihilation. ("Including all those children?" I asked). The Reform Rabbi at the table had a very different take on it: "when we consider the context of the entire scripture, we ‘interpret out' such passages as these." ("Interpret out" – what an elegant euphemism!)
Scriptural literalism can be a heavy moral burden to bear!
Secularists such as myself have an entirely different interpretation of "holy books" such as the Quran and the Bible. We regard these scriptures, not as the immutable Word of God Almighty, but rather as evidence of the historical evolution of tribal mores. As such, these chronicles convey an inspiring message of moral advancement. Early on in these books, we read of the murder and mayhem committed by conquering nomadic tribes – atrocities justified by the impious claim that the Lord sanctioned such behavior. Then, through time, an ethic of toleration, peace and love emerges as the circle of interdependence extends beyond "our tribe," and as a common humanity and nobility is recognized and acknowledged in "the other" – even in the person of the despised Samaritan. (We encounter very few "Samaritans" nowadays. But who can doubt that if Jesus were to preach today to the Israelis, he would relate the parable of "the Good Arab," and to the Palestinians he would speak of "the Good Jew").
The orthodox believe that their scriptures provide moral instruction. But is it not even more likely that these cryptic and ambiguous ancient texts offer justification for moral sentiments acquired independently? Torquemada, Jerry Fallwell and Martin Luther King all read the same Bible, but take note of different portions thereof. Today, anyone who took it upon himself to follow the Biblical instructions to kill witches and to stone to death disobedient children, would quite correctly be tried and convicted of murder. So instead, we have come to "interpret out" the ethnocentric savagery and archaic folkways of the scriptures, and to focus instead on the civic and moral virtues of justice, toleration, respect and love.
So we return to our original question: Is Islam a religion of peace or of war? The question assumes a significant misconception; namely, the Islam is a unified and singular religion. On the contrary, like Christianity, Islam is a family of religions united by a common historical focus and origin. Among this family of contending sects are, on the one hand, peaceful, tolerant and universalistic creeds , and on the other hand, and militant, fanatical and exclusionist sects. It is this latter branch which bears the poisonous fruit of Osama Bin Laden and his Jihad.
To assess the dominant moral legacy of Islam, or of any other great religion, we are best advised to look, not to the scriptures, but to history. And by this measure, Islam comes off somewhat better than Christianity. In the first place, Islam is inclusive: to the Moslems, Moses and Jesus are revered as prophets. Neither Judaism nor Christianity recognize Mohammed as a prophet. Because Islam recognizes and accepts Judaism and Christianity as "religions of the book," Christians and Jews have, for the most part, been accepted in Islamic countries. For example, when the Moslems came to Egypt, they encountered the Coptic Christians, a sect as ancient as Roman Catholicism. The Copts have survived and flourished there ever since, amidst the Moslem majority..
To be sure history, like scripture, is equivocal. Following the death of Mohammed, Islam spread rapidly, by preaching, by commerce, and by the sword. And its advancement into Western Europe was halted by force of arms in France at the battle of Tours in 732. On the other hand, much of Islamic militancy has been defensive, most notably when the Christians invaded their lands and slaughtered their people during the Crusades, and again when they were thrown off their ancestral lands following the establishment of the State of Israel.
Is Islam "a peaceful religion"? It can be, if the Moslems so choose – as most of them have. And our behavior in "The West" is, of course, a crucial ingredient of their choice. There are abundant scriptural, cultural and historical resources in all the "Abrahamic religions" (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) to support a peaceful, tolerant, and mutually respectful accommodation. But there are also darker strains and precedents which, along with contemporary injustices, feed the rage, cruelty and fanaticism of Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden. These fanatics are dangerous. But so too are the orthodox Jewish settlers on Palestinian land, the "end-of-times" evangelical Christians, and the bigots who refer to the faith of over one billion of our fellow humans as "a gutter religion."
Consider the legacy of this so-called "gutter religion."
When my European ancestors were groveling in the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages, the Arabic scholars of Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were translating and preserving the philosophy and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They improved the number system and invented algebra, which were to become the foundation of our mathematics and physical sciences. Their universities advanced the sciences of medicine and biology, and they built architectural masterpieces that stand today: the Alhambra palace in Granada, the Dome of the rock in Jerusalem, the shrine of the Kaaba at Mecca.
As a philosophical secularist, I am equally outside of Judaism, traditional Christianity and Islam, yet I find much to admire in each of these great world religions. There are resource in each for accommodation and mutual respect -- as the Moslems have shown us in the past. There is also a potential for a "clash of civilizations." The choice is ours.
In our midst and throughout the world there are millions of intelligent, virtuous and admirable Moslems. I suspect, and dare to hope, that a majority of Moslems today abhor and reject the fanaticism of Al Qaeda, and furthermore are eager to strive with us to achieve a just and peaceful world order.
But that desirable result can only come about through our combined and mutually respectful cooperation. We are united with our enlightened Islamic brethren in a struggle against common adversaries: injustice, and the blind hatred and terror that issue from fanaticism. And the scourge of fanaticism neither defines, nor is it confined to, any of the great world religions.
The urgent question before us now is whether we can emulate the tolerance and accommodation of Saladin toward "the people of the book," following his triumph over the Crusaders.
Copyright 2001, by Ernest Partridge