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Shedding tears, shedding light | We teach peace | Economic forecast | Unveiled

Finding the Middle in Middle East

By Manochehr Dorraj
Professor of political science

For those of us who have touched and been touched by humanity of more than one culture, eruption of political conflict that divides the two worlds is a particularly painful experience. As a bridge between the two cultures, amidst a world of conflict and violence, I have always seen a moral duty to humanize both cultures. And as an educator, I have sought to explain the underlying political causes and the social context of the conflict.

But there was no humanity or apparent explanation in the act of criminals that took more than 5,000 innocent lives Sept. 11. They saw their victims as faceless enemies. They denied them their humanity. As such, this was a crime against our common humanity.

The global outpouring of grief and condemnation that followed in the aftermath of the terror confirms this reality. Not only the heinous act itself must be condemned but also the political culture that sanctions it. Finding justification for such acts, no matter how deeply felt or how politically "just" the cause, is a part of the problem, not the solution. The killing of more than 5,000 civilians in order to make a political statement is wrong, regardless. Desperation and hatred cannot be a moral foundation upon which to build a just and humane political order.

As the emotional avalanche of outrage, anger, shock, grief, hurt, sadness and fear unleashed by the tragedy of Sept. 11 subsides and the nation begins to heal, it is time to put this politically motivated crime in a broader context of the social and political forces that produced it. It is also important to go beyond the event and reflect on its broader meanings and ramifications.

If there were illusions that foreign policy was something that happened to foreigners out there, and the capital gains tax cut was more important than understanding and engaging the world, Sept. 11 shattered such illusions. It has become abundantly clear that the United States is no longer an island of safety and security amidst a world of poverty, repression and violence.

The tragedy also revealed that due to the magnitude and projection of American power, what is "their problem" can become "our problem." In no other time in history is America's fate as a nation so closely linked to the fate of the rest of the world. Globalization and living together in the global village are our common destiny. We cannot go back to our isolated sanctuaries.

Political explosions, like volcanoes, reveal the contradictions of the old order when they erupt. Buried in the rubble of the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon is the old paradigm of thinking about the world. The survival of our interdependent, fragile and vulnerable world requires a new way of political thinking and a new agenda on all sides.

American history reveals that wars and conflicts are also opportunities for renewal. Heir to a relatively short history and free of "the burden of the past," Americans have been particularly adept at using national conflicts as opportunities to redefine their society and initiate new policies. This ability has been the key to American vitality as the major global power.

The "new war of the new millennium," epitomized by the Sept. 11 tragedy, represents another turning point in American history and an opportunity for renewal. It is high time to reassess America's foreign policy toward the Middle East and the Muslim world and to address the "root causes" of terrorism. It is also paramount for the Middle East and the Muslim world, instead of blaming all of their problems on the West, to look at their own demons and engage in critical self-reflection.

While it is important to bring to justice the masterminds and perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we must also be clear that Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda organization are a branch of a tree. We can cut the branch, but the tree will grow new branches if the status quo persists. The long-term solution to terrorism does not lie in military response or preparing ourselves for chemical and biological warfare, but rather in rendering arid the social soil from which the tree of terrorism sprouts. The real battlefield is winning hearts and minds. To do that we must understand the roots of anger in the Arab and the Muslim world and examine the arsenal of grievances that feed this anger.

The wave of anti-American sentiments we witness in the Middle East and the Muslim world is a post-World War II phenomenon. Unlike Great Britain, France and Russia, which were the main colonial powers in the region, America lacks a history of colonial dominance. There was a great deal of goodwill toward Americans and admiration for American democracy in the region. But when U.S. military, economic and political involvement in the region intensified and U.S. policies on many issues were at odds with nationalist aspirations of the people, anti-Americanism began to grow.

Since the inception of the state of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been a major radicalizing issue pervading the regional political landscape. Because the U.S. government and, to a lesser extent, the European Union, support Israel, and the sympathy of the overwhelming majority of the people in the Arab countries and the Muslim world is with the Palestinians, this emotionally charged conflict is not a mere regional conflict. It is transnational in scope. Therefore, its political reverberations are felt around the world.

Indeed, the salience of the issue in the Muslim world is such that both Saddam Hussein and bin Laden, who were not particularly known as the champions of the Palestinian cause, in order to mobilize public opinion in their favor during their respective military conflicts with the United States, suddenly transformed into staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause. As a polarizing issue that feeds radical politics in general and Islamic extremism in particular, a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will have a moderating political impact.

A more balanced U.S. policy on this conflict would also quell some of the anti-American sentiment in the region. It remains to be seen how the Bush administration's support for a Palestinian state will unfold politically. However, if the scenario of the Persian Gulf War of 1991 repeats itself, whereby U.S. need for an Arab and Muslim coalition to achieve its war objectives led to several promises that remained unfulfilled once the war was over, then another opportunity to end this imbroglio will be lost.

According to the United Nations, the U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq since 1991 have led to the death of more than half a million Iraqi children and civilians. The sanctions have not led to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein; they have led to the suffering of innocent Iraqis.

While U.S. allies favor lifting the sanctions, the Clinton and Bush administrations have opposed this. While the United States and Great Britain quickly bombard Iraq when she violates U.N. resolutions, the repeated violations of U.N. resolutions by the Israeli state go unpunished. Many in the Arab world regard this as a double standard in U.S. policy. This imbalance in U.S. policy further accentuates the feelings of humiliated national pride, desperation and anger that many Arabs harbor.

The U.S. support of some of the authoritarian regimes whose rule is marked by political corruption and repression is another major source of discontent. Saudi and Egyptian nationals figured prominently among the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Both of these countries are ruled by governments that are among the closest allies of the United States in the Arab world, and U.S. military and financial support is crucial to their survival. Frustration with unresponsive political systems and a lack of opportunity for meaningful political participation and expression of dissent pushes many angry youth into the arms of Muslim extremists.

Finally, U.S. troop deployment in Saudi Arabia, a country that hosts the holy shrines of Islam, thus regarded as a sacred space, violates the religious sensitivity of many devout Muslims. In the last decade, as U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia have been targeted by terrorists several times, some scholars and policy makers have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a U.S. armada at the annual cost of more than $30 billion, in order to safeguard the flow of oil, much of which goes to Western Europe. If maintaining the security of the Saudi regime is the objective, enlisting regional powers' support in a collective security pact to ensure Saudi security is an alternative worth exploring.

In the post-Cold War era, much has been written about the "clash of civilizations," and "the Islamic threat," exhorting a call to arms against Muslims. In the last decade, from Bosnia to Kosovo to Chechnya, Muslims have been the target of genocide, ethnic cleansing and hate crimes. Given the reality of global demography, the projections are that 1.3 billion Muslims are going to become the majority faith globally in the next 30 years.

Because the overwhelming Muslim population also resides in the Third World, where poverty and powerlessness are pervasive, it would be prudent to include this marginalized and persecuted people in the Judeo-Christian dialogue and engage them culturally and politically. A constructive interfaith dialogue, encouraging American regional allies to democratize their political systems and replacing the old policy of occupation and dominance in Palestine with a win-win strategy, where all parties can live in dignity, will go a long way to reduce tensions and build trust and goodwill, thus paving the way for genuine peace.

There are limitations to military solutions, especially when they are responses to symptoms that are at their roots social and economic problems. The French experience in Algeria, the Israeli experience in Palestine, the British experience in Ireland and the Indian experience in Kashmir all indicate that there are no long-term military solutions to politically motivated terrorism. Conflicts that feed terrorism ultimately have to be negotiated and solved peacefully.

It is also high time for the Arabs and the Muslim world to stop blaming everyone but themselves for the extant problems of the region. Much critical self-reflection is in order. Many Arab nationalist leaders from Saddam Hussein in Iraq to Mu'amar Qaddaffi in Libya are tyrants. Hence, the Islamic nativist alternatives to pro-Western secular regimes have not proven to be the shining examples of democratic governance and equality. At the end of the day, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, the promise of an Islamic utopia as represented by the example of the Taliban's government has led to a nightmare reign of virtue and terror. The worst manifestation of repressive Taliban policies is the inhuman and oppressive treatment of women in Afghanistan. This is particularly notable in a society in which until 20 years ago women were active participants in social life and constituted more than 40 percent of the workforce in public service.

The massive destruction of the economic infrastructure during the Soviet occupation and the ensuing civil and ethnic conflict in the last 20 years led to the rise of the Taliban and their peculiar, twisted interpretation of Wahabbi Islam as their ideological creed. In addition to massive poverty, the fact that Afghan civil society has been decimated, the educated middle class has fled the country, and out of a population of 26 million, six million people are refugees further explains why the Taliban regime and bin Laden have found a home in Afghanistan. Such dire social conditions are not conducive to enlightened religiosity, tolerance and intellectual pluralism. The real victims of the Taliban's policies are ultimately the suffering Afghan people. After two decades of resistance against the Soviet occupation and the civil war, they are embroiled in and will bear the devastating consequences of yet another war, not of their own making.

The United States and her NATO allies fought two wars in the last six years against the "Christian" Serbs and in defense of "Muslim" Bosnians and Kosovars in the former Yugoslavia. Unlike bin Laden's view, this is not a world divided between "crusaders and the Jews" on one hand, and Muslims on the other; or between the army of believers and the army of non-believers. Bin Laden and his supporters not only hijack ed planes and killed innocent civilians, but they have also hijacked Islam.

Like any other religion, Islam provides a spiritual refuge for the faithful. The Islamic culture is not all about "Jihad" (the holy war), as we have come to know through our selective perceptions, through the prism of conflict and through the sound bites; there is another dimension to the culture that is imbued with a profound humanitarian tradition. Islam does not have a tradition of anti-Semitism. It recognizes Christians and Jews as "the people of the book," thus recognizing the Bible and the Torah, and considers Moses and Jesus as prophets of God. The post-1948 conflict with the state of Israel is a political conflict, not a religious one. Those who use Islam to legitimize their message of hate have betrayed the essence of its teachings. Bin Laden wants to depict his campaign as one of Islam verses the West. In that polarized world, he has many potential recruits. The Bush administration wisely has chosen the opposite strategy, trying to put a wedge between bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda organization and Islam and the Muslim world.

Bush's inclusion of a Muslim imam for the first time in addressing the nation during the day of mourning and remembrance in New York Cathedral on Sept. 14, followed by his visit to a mosque in Washington, D.C., and his admonition to those citizens who took out their anger against innocent Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. are all good initiatives to bring us together in these difficult times.

Locally, the statements by Christian and Jewish leaders denouncing attacks on mosques and Muslims were also heartening to see. Internationally, the gathering of foreign ministers from the 56-member organization of the Islamic conference in Qatar on Oct. 10, denouncing the terrorist attacks against the United States in the strongest terms, was a major blow to bin Laden and his supporters and a victory for the global community.

The global impact of the Sept. 11 tragedy has already proven to be significant. The United States is in the process of forging relationships with countries with which previous relations were restrained or non-existent, including China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, Sudan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, to name a few. The realization of vulnerability has made the United States reach out to other countries and build new alliances and foster a new spirit of cooperation. Both the United States and Great Britain have declared their support for a Palestinian state and pledged to play a more active role in resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These are positive and hopeful signs that if followed by substantial policy initiatives have the potential to change our world, thus making it a safer global village for all.

Let's hope that we use this tragedy to build a more humane social order. Let our tragedy be also our moment of triumph. We can find compassion amidst our anger and rage. Our past is an indication of who we were, not what we can become.

Manochehr Dorraj is a professor of political science at TCU. He has published extensively on the politics and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. E-mail him at