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Protest against the United States (Photo: radioaustralia.net.au)

Why Anti-Americanism?

OurIndonesia – A year after the 11th September tragedy, anti-American sentiment within Arab and Muslim countries is on the increase. For example, in The Jakarta Postseveral days ago, a report claimed that although many Muslim societies have conveyed their sympathy towards the victims of the WTC tragedy, hatred towards the US is escalating. Large numbers of Egyptian people, for instance, are expressing their rage toward the US due to its policy regarding Israel and Iraq.

In Syria, the newspaper Tishrin has even claimed that it is Arab nations who have paid “the highest price” for the 11 September, while Israel is free-riding the campaign against terrorism by unjustifiably comparing the Palestinian struggle with terrorism. Even in Kuwait, which in 1991 crowned the US as the liberator in the Iraq invasion, people now take Osama bin Laden for a hero.

Where does this anti-Americanism come from? Why do people hate America? A year ago, following 9-11, many Americans ask themselves these questions. As President George W. Bush, in his statement before the congress on the 20thSeptember 2001 said: “Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate our freedom—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” According to Bush, the hatred towards the US is a hatred of freedom. Others would argue that the terrorists hate the US because of their jealousy of America’s wealth and supremacy.

This kind of answer might partially explain why the flames of American patriotism have burnt so brightly over the last year during the war against the international terrorism’s network. Indeed for the US, the idea of freedom is at the heart of their identity, so when it is attacked the spirit of patriotism becomes inflamed.

Bush’s response fails to explain the anti-Americanism that is growing in Arab countries. Bush statement even confirms one belief is frequently affirmed about America that it is increasingly inwardly oriented. Moreover their mass media is parochial rather than global, it is not sensitive to the outside world, especially the Islamic world. When they were attacked, their myth of isolation was destroyed. Subsequently, their comprehension of global anti-Americanism remains insufficient as seen in George W. Bush’s response.

The anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is not in the main generated by an abhorrence of American freedom, and not by jealousy towards American prosperity, but due to the deep frustration toward the US policy over the Middle East, which is constantly based on short-term American interests.

US policy in the Middle East is based on access to 2/3 of the world’s reserves of oil and natural gas. At the same time, minimal attention is given to the democratization process there. The US frivolously supports the secular authoritarian regimes that are corrupt and repressive as long as they can maintain stability and sustain production.

Islamic regimes that are undemocratic and oppress human rights but maintain American interests such as Saudi Arabia are considered as partners. In other words, what matters are US interests, and not democratization or human rights.

Another feature that decreases US honor in the Muslim world is the lenient and passive attitude toward the Palestiain affair. The state terrorism that is practiced by Israel upon the Palestinians is obvious but the US seems to merely understand the Israel’s justification for state terrorism that it is a form of self-defense. Meanwhile, the US agrees with Israel’s view that Palestine’s resistance is terrorism.

I think the Palestinian affair is one of the main reasons driving anti American sentiment. This sentiment has deepened particularly after the Arab defeat in the six day war against Israel in 1967 in which the US supported Israel. This defeat was the lowest point of Arab dignity in recent history.

This anti-American sentiment could have been hardly imagined as emerging in the 1950s or beginning of 1960s because at that time the US was a model for Arab nation’s progress. A famous Egyptian journalist Mohammad Heikal illustrates the mood of that period very well: “The total picture of the United States of America… is a glamour world… British emporium and France has been faded and hated. The Soviet Union is so far away, and the communism ideology is anathema for the Muslim. But America after the Second World War appear as the more prosperous, more powerful and more attractive than before.”

The re-evaluation of US policy in the Middle East, especially in regards to Palestine should be reconsidered if they want to fight terrorism. The US should ask itself, using the title of Bernard Lewis latest book “what went wrong?” Lewis also suggests that the Muslim world should similarly ask themselves “What went wrong?” How could the 9-11 terrorists have been born among them?

It is unnecessary for the Muslim to deny that there is something pathologically wrong with the Muslim community as exemplified by the Al-Qaida network, Abu Sayyaf Group and etcetera. These terrorist groups have hijacked Islam for their own objective by impressing the world that they are the true bearers of the face of Islam.

To cure this kind of disease, resorting to ideas of a Western conspiracy against Islam is contra productive. The right attitude is admitting to the pathology and healing it by promoting an alternative image of Islam as friendly, pluralist and inclusive.

Nevertheless, Muslim introspection should be matched by American introspection regarding its attitude to the Middle East affair. America should have been supporting the democratic and pluralistic regimes and upholding civil society in the Middle East. Secondly, America should be more open to the suggestions of Arab society concerning Israel and be more emphatic toward Palestinan suffering.

These two preventive actions would be effective in the long-term in reducing terrorism. Through committing themselves to democracy and the freedom of expression, the Islamic movements could moderate their views and by entering into a dialectic with democracy reject terrorism. If they could gain support democratically, the terrorists would find themselves alienated.

That sort of alienation is what is happening now within the al Qaeda network. On this point, Gilles Kepel’s analysis is enlightening. In his latest book, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, this French sociologist reverses the public assumption that the terrorist attack on America last year represents a growing threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

According to Kepel, that attack is instead a sign of the bankruptcy of the radical Islam movements, that such acts are “symbolic of the despair due to the isolation, fragmentation, and the declination of the Islam movement, and not the sign of its power and greatness.

Ironically, the US is not asking, “what went wrong. Their approach against terrorism is unilateral and works on the principal that “whoever is not with us is our enemy.” The US also insists on categorizing Iraq and Iran as the axis of evil and subsequently planed the invasion of Iraq even though none of the WTC terrorists came from either country.

Saddam Hussein is certainly a repressive tyrant but attacking Iraq now would only uphold its position. Moreover everyone knows that Iran, through the leadership of moderate president Khatami is clearing a path towards democracy. History does not side with the Mullah as in Iran now. But what can be done about it? The US has been blind on this matter.

Whereas the US has been working out a more romantic relationship with Saudi Arabia even though the fact is that 15 out of 19 of the WTC terrorists were identified as Saudi nationals. The US does not want to damage their relationship with the Saudis because their interests are being fulfilled there.

The excessive fear of terrorism has also led the US to give priority to security issues above everything else, even at the risk of sacrificing civil liberties and human’s rights. In the name of the fight against terrorism, thousands of people could be arrested and interrogated secretly without any access to legal assistance.

In the name of the fight against the terrorism, hundreds of Taliban captive have been brought to Guantanamo without sufficient human rights safeguards. And in the name of the truth, the US supports the third world’s military including the Indonesian military despite their human rights problems as long as they are capable of arresting anyone accused of being a terrorist.

In conclusion, this campaign against terrorism ends up being used by authoritarian rulers to suppress political pposition. So the government of China for instance, dares to prosecute the Uighur Muslim resistance in Xinjiang province. The government of Singapore is using ISA to arrest anyone considered as terrorist and Mahathir in Malaysia as well as president Nursultan Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan and Askar Akaev from Kirgizstan are using it to suppress the opposition.

Last but not least, in the name of anti terrorism, Ariel Sharon has used it to increase the intensity of the attack on Palestinians.

If America continues down this road, the chain of terrorism will not be cut, instead, its seeds will find fertile ground to grow in. Don’t be surprised then if anti Americanism doesn’t vanish but grows instead.


The Indonesian version of this article was published in IslamLib.