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October 2001
Why Middle Eastern Terrorists Hate the U.S.

By William O. Beeman



The Bush administration’s projected war on terrorism is designed to eradicate and de-legitimize terrorists. Both aims are futile. The grievances of the terrorists who committed the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th have deep and persistent roots going back more than 150 years. The terrorists harbor a hatred that will not die, and their grievances cannot be de-legitimized through military attacks.

Middle Eastern opposition to the West is far from being a phenomenon invented by Osama bin Laden, or the Taliban, or for that matter Iran, Iraq or the Palestinians. It has grown consistently since the beginning of the 19th century as an effective oppositional force both to the West and to local secular rulers. Western powers were blind to Middle Eastern opposition forces throughout the 20th century because they were overshadowed by great power rivalry during this period.

The original leader of the opposition to the West was Jamalludin Al-Afghani (1838-1897). Called the “Father of Islamic Modernism,” Al-Afghani was educated in Iran, Afghanistan and India. He traveled throughout the Islamic world promulgating an “Islamic reform movement.” Using an Islamic ideology helped him to transcend ethnic differences in the region, and preach a message all would understand. He sought to mobilize Muslim nations to fight against Western imperialism and gain military power through modern technology. Al-Afghani claimed that Britain, France and Russia in particular were operating in collusion with Middle Eastern rulers to rob the people of their patrimony through sweetheart deals for exploitation of natural and commercial resources in the region.

As a direct result of the efforts of Al-Afghani and his followers, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood evolved throughout the region. These groups generally espoused three methods in their political and religious activity: personal piety coupled with evangelism, religious modernization, and political resistance to secular regimes.

The Western nations have committed a litany of crimes against the Muslim world according to the Islamic opposition. After World War I, the Middle Eastern peoples were treated largely as war prizes to be divided and manipulated for the good of the militarily powerful Europeans. The British and the French without consent or consultation on the part of the residents created every nation between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf for their own benefit. This increased the resentment of the fundamentalists against the West and against the rulers installed by Westerners.

After World War II, the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union fought over the Middle East nations like children over toys. Governments such as those of Egypt, the Sudan, Iraq, and Syria were constantly pressed to choose between East and West. The choice was often prompted by “gifts” of military support to sitting rulers. With ready sources of money and guns in either Washington or Moscow, Middle Eastern rulers could easily oppress the religious fundamentalists who opposed them. This added even more to the anger of the religious reformers. At this point the oppositionists abandoned political action through conventional political processes and turned to extra-governmental methods—terrorism—to make their dissatisfaction felt.

The U.S. became the sole representative of the West after 1972, when Great Britain, poor and humbled, could no longer afford to maintain a full military force in the region. Anxious to protect oil supplies from the Soviet Union, Washington propped up the Shah of Iran and the Saudi Arabian government in the ill-fated “Twin Pillars” strategy. This ended with the Iranian revolution, leaving America with a messy patchwork of military and political detritus. When Iran went to war with Iraq, the U.S. supported Saddam Hussein to prevent Iran from winning. Anxious about Soviet incursions into Afghanistan, it propped up the Taliban. These two monstrous forces—Saddam and the Taliban—are very much an American creation.

The final blow came when America finally had to confront its former client, Iraq, in the Gulf War. Americans established a military base on Saudi Arabian soil—considered sacred by pious Muslims. Saudi officials had been resisting this move for years, knowing that it would be politically dangerous both for them and for the U.S. This action was the basis for Osama bin Laden’s opposition to the U.S.

All of this meddling only confirms the century-old assertion that the West was out to rob the people of the Middle East of their prerogatives and patrimony. The current revolutionaries in the region, including bin Laden, have political pedigrees leading directly back to the original reformer, Al-Afghani. Willy-nilly, the U.S. keeps reinforcing these old stereotypes. It is essential that we find a way to break this pattern, or we will be mired in these troubled relations forever.

William O. Beeman is an anthropologist teaching at Brown University. A veteran Middle East researcher, he is author of Language, Status and Power in Iran (Indiana University Press), and numerous publications on terrorism and religious fundamentalism. He has been working for the past four years in Tajikistan. This article is reprinted with kind permission from the author. (c)2001 William O. Beeman.


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