Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why do 'they' 'hate' 'us'?

Well... why not ask them?
When you pose a question about two disparate cultures and their intertwined relationship, common sense leads you to involve both parties. Yet, for the past six years, I have watched the D.C. circles fail to do just that. Each anniversary, I witness Americans asking Americans, discussing among other Americans, the topic of something none of them are – Arabs. Six years after the devastating attacks, Americans are still asking that ubiquitous question: "Why do they hate us?"

Efforts to answer this question have been prolific. Conventions, speeches, research, opinion polls, books, articles, the list goes on. But in the end they lack the necessary depth and rigor, failing to listen to Arab voices and enhance understanding of the Arab world.

Six years after the attacks, there is more prejudice, more fear, and, regrettably, more distance to overcome in order to adequately understand one another.

Now, there are many things wrong with this infamous question, "Why do they hate us?" First, it leads one to assume that Arabs, in general, hate America – a mendacious statement containing a respectable amount of prejudice.

Second, the word "us" suggests a misleading conflation of American policies and citizens. In other words, the phrasing implies that the alleged hatred from Arabs is directed toward the American people and not toward specific US institutions or policies. Although terrorists like Osama bin Laden have claimed that any American citizen is a target, the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims oppose this attitude.

US policies, more than anything, are the source of animosity toward America. In fact, Arabs, for the most part, recognize the difference between America's citizens and its policies, citing their grievances with the superpower not in regard to the "American way of life," but to the Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and America's double standards in promoting democracy.

Finally, by identifying Arabs as "they," the misleading notion that the Arab world is a monolithic, homogenous unit enjoying a single worldview is brought about. The question's rationale poses Arab liberals and political Islamists, as well as "radical" and "moderate" Islamists, as Arabs sharing the same attitudes and feelings – not only a deceptive view of any eclectic society, but an ignorant one as well.


Part of this failure stems from the flawed question most often used by Americans in regards to the Arab world: "Why do they hate us?" Yet, if Americans insist on posing this question, I pose another. "Why don't 'you' ask 'them'?" Arab involvement, plain and simple, is key.

Well, guess what? Somebody did! A multi-national Gallup poll tried to get at the root of just that and found--contrary to the beliefs of those bigots who believe that any Muslim who's friendly is just pretending--that politics, not religious fanaticism, really irked them.
At the heart of the Cold War analogy is the belief that religious fanaticism fuels extremism and therefore replacing Muslims' worldview with Western liberalism is the path to victory against terrorism. To begin to understand the danger of this diagnosis, we must first understand the factors that do and do not drive sympathy for violence.

As a starting point, Muslims do not hold a monopoly on extremist views. While 6% of Americans think attacks in which civilians are targets are "completely justified," in both Lebanon and Iran, this figure is 2%, and in Saudi Arabia, it's 4%. In Europe, Muslims in Paris and London were no more likely than were their counterparts in the general public to believe attacks on civilians are ever justified and at least as likely to reject violence, even for a "noble cause."

After analyzing survey data representing more than 90% of the global Muslim population, Gallup found that despite widespread anti-American sentiment, only a small minority saw the 9/11 attacks as morally justified. Even more significant, there was no correlation between level of religiosity and extremism among respondents. Among the 7% of the population that fits in the politically radicalized category -- those who saw the 9/11 attacks as completely justifiable and have an unfavorable view of the United States -- 94% said religion is an important part of their daily lives, compared with 90% among those in the moderate majority. And no significant difference exists between radicals and moderates in mosque attendance.

Gallup probed respondents further and actually asked both those who condoned and condemned extremist acts why they said what they did. The responses fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, in Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, many of those who condemned terrorism cited humanitarian or religious justifications to support their response. For example, one woman said, "Killing one life is as sinful as killing the whole world," paraphrasing verse 5:32 in the Quran.

On the other hand, not a single respondent in Indonesia who condoned the attacks of 9/11 cited the Quran for justification. Instead, this group's responses were markedly secular and worldly. For example, one Indonesian respondent said, "The U.S. government is too controlling toward other countries, seems like colonizing."

The real difference between those who condone terrorist acts and all others is about politics, not piety. For example, the politically radicalized often cite "occupation and U.S. domination" as their greatest fear for their country and only a small minority of them agree the United States would allow people in the region to fashion their own political future or that it is serious about supporting democracy in the region. Also, among this group's top responses was the view that to better relations with the Muslim world, the West should respect Islam and stop imposing its beliefs and policies. In contrast, moderates most often mentioned economic problems as their greatest fear for their country, and along with respecting Islam, they see economic support and investments as a way for the West to better relations. Moderates are also more likely than the politically radicalized to say the United States is serious about promoting democracy.

While the politically radicalized are as likely as the moderate majority to say better relations with the West is of personal concern to them, they are much less likely to believe the West reciprocates this concern and therefore much less likely to believe improved relations will ever come. In short, perceptions of being under siege characterize those who sympathize with extremism.

The Cold War analogy of the war on terror also assumes that Muslim grievances are rooted in a rejection of modernity and Western values, not specific policies. Statistical evidence indicates otherwise.

For instance, while the United States and Great Britain are generally viewed unfavorably, respondents' opinions of France and Germany are relatively positive, even when compared with respondents' opinions of other Muslim nations, suggesting negative sentiment is drawn along political, not cultural or religious lines.

Moreover, despite intense political anger at some Western powers, Muslims do not reject Western values wholesale. Citizens of countries from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, from Indonesia to Pakistan, express admiration for Western technology and democratic values such as freedom of the press and government accountability. The politically radicalized are actually more likely than the moderate majority to say greater democracy will help Muslims progress.

As the kids say these days, read the whole thing.

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