Why the muslims Misjudged Us by Keith David Hanson

From: Joe Dees (joedees@addall.com)
Date: Thu Jan 10 2002 - 04:21:42 MST

('binary' encoding is not supported, stored as-is) Why the Muslims Misjudged Us
By Victor David Hanson
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 śjust as
despicable a crimeť 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 śIslamophobiať or śArab smearing,ť 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 (śconstitution,ť
śfreedom,ť and ścitizenť), 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 śdifferentť 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 canon, and moved their capital to European Constantinople.
Moreover, their śdominanceť 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 naďve 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
Every Western intellectual knows Edward Said™s much-hyped theory of
śOrientalism,ť a purely mythical construct of how Western bias has
misunderstood and distorted the Eastern śOther.ť In truth, the real
problem is śWesternismť”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
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
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

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