Understanding Anti-Americanism and Radical Islamist Terrorism
By Ned Rinalducci, professor of sociology at Armstrong Atlantic State University
President Bush gave a rousing speech to the United States Thursday that included his explanation for why America was attacked. The rationale included the hatred of democracy and freedom. While this may be a useful in the effort to gain American's support for the "war against terror," it is somewhat misleading. To fight and prevent terrorism, we must understand the perspective and motives of those who propagate terror. This does not mean we have to sympathize with their grievances or in any way excuse their actions. However, as long as the conditions that foster ideologies that support terrorism persist, so will terror. Which brings us to the motives and grievances of the terrorists we believe to be responsible for the horrific acts of September 11, Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida. They are described in the media radical Islamists, which is the more appropriate term for Islamic Fundamentalists. As we read accounts of Arab-Americans hassled and Mosques in the U.S. being vandalized it is important to understand the differences between radical Islamism and the Islamic faith practiced by most of the world's Muslims. Islam, the third largest religion in the world with over one billion adherents, is an established good and moral faith. The radical ideology preached by the likes of bin Laden and his organization, Al-Qa'ida, are considered by most Muslims to be a corruption of and an affront to Islam.
Islamism is not one ideology, but the name for several strains and interpretations of the faith that share similar ideas such as a full implementation of the Sharia (Islamic Law) and the creation of an Islamic state. Islamists feel their culture has been tainted by Western ideas and is still threatened by Western influences.
Experimentation with Western economic and political systems such as capitalism, socialism, and even nationalism are seen as having failed in the Middle East, and as such Islamists are working to re-establish an Islamic alternative. Part of the ideology of Islamism includes a nostalgic longing for the golden age of Islam. The Islamic world once stood at the pinnacle of advanced civilizations. While Europe muddled through the Dark Ages, the Middle East was a center of science and intellectual enlightenment. For many Islamists, the decline can be attributed to Western culture and Western influences. They see the West as having tainted Islamic society through both physical colonization and cultural imperialism, the spread of Western ideas and images through the dominant Global culture. To overcome this, Islamists believe a new system based on the old one must be implemented -"Islam is the solution."
Just as Islam cannot be seen as a single monolithic force in the world, neither can Islamism. In Egypt there are Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood that have rejected violence and some of the more radical ideological positions. In fact, the Brotherhood has stated that they are horrified by last week's attack which they describe as "against Islamic morals." At the same time, Egypt is also home to groups such as Al-Jihad that are allied with Al Qa'ida and see terrorism as a legitimate strategy to achieve their ends.
Al-Qa'ida stands clearly on the extreme fringes of radical Islamism. The very idea of a suicide bomber or hijacker goes against Islamic teachings, not only because violence of this sort is indefensible, but because suicide is forbidden in the Islamic faith. Not only are Al-Qa'ida not representative of Islam, they are not representative of many Islamists. Their grievances, however, and the ideology that fuels them are not dissimilar to other Islamist groups and even others in the Middle East with whom they have little in common ideologically. In fact, to understand growing Anti-American sentiment in the Middle East it is imperative that Americans understand these grievances.
The first of these is America's support for Israel. Many Americans do not understand how important the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been in shaping Arab and, to a lesser degree, Muslim opinion about the United States. In the U.S., we view Israel as a stalwart ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. Most Americans, however, know embarrassingly little about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not an age-old conflict or, at its core, a religious conflict. It is a conflict over land. Today Israel and the occupied territories make up what was British Mandate Palestine. Following World War I, when Britain took control of this land over 90% of the population was Arab, while less than 10% was Jewish. The subsequent Jewish immigration from Europe into Palestine and the eventual founding of a Jewish state on land that had been home to Palestinian Arabs for centuries, was understandably not taken well by the Arab world. All the wars that followed, all the terrorism and violence that has ravaged the area since then, can all be traced back to the initial conflict and claims to the same stretch of land.
As Arabs today see it, Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East and the 17th wealthiest nation in the world continues to oppress the Palestinian people throughout the occupied territories with American support, weapons, and money. America is not seen as an honest broker by the Arab world in this conflict. The U.S. ignores and/or blocks all United Nations actions against Israel, disregards all Human Rights organization reports that document the brutal oppression of the Palestinian people, and refuses to allow international bodies to take a role in negotiations between the two. There is also the issue of our support for the building of new Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip, a practice condemned by almost every other nation in the world. Americans tend to think of Palestinians as the antagonists. Americans see Palestinian terrorists and bombers on our nightly newscasts and form negative stereotypes that erode our sympathy for their plight. Arabs, on the other hand are more aware of the many atrocities that have been committed against Palestinians by the Israelis and their Middle Eastern allies. Americans know almost nothing of such things. It is no wonder we see the situation so differently.
For radical Islamists, the conflict does have a religious character. They see Palestine as Muslim land that has been colonized by a proxy-American state. For them, the land must be liberated and the enemy is Israel and the United States.
A second grievance that drives Islamist furor and some general anti-American sentiment is the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. Most Americans see our military presence in Saudi Arabia as a defense against Iraq and for the protection of the worlds oil supply. However, many Muslims, both moderate and radical believe that to allow non-Muslims into Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam is offensive.
There is also the issue of American supported sanctions against Iraq and its effect on Iraqi civilians. Many in the Arab world see the international punishment of Iraq through sanctions as only punishing Iraqi children and civilians. Saddam Hussien lives comfortably in his palaces, while his people struggle to survive. A 1997 Unicef report estimates that over half a million Iraqi children have died due to U.S.-led sanctions. Today, that number would no doubt be larger. In the US we blame Saddam for the situation, in the Arab world most blame us both, some blame only us.
America's hypocrisy abroad, preaching democracy while supporting despotism and dictatorships is another common complaint. All over the world we advocate democracy while many of our closest allies in this region, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are run by governments that are a far cry from free and democratic and in many cases are seen as oppressive regimes propped up by American money. Many also point to the hypocrisy in our steadfast insistence that Iraq be held to every letter of every United Nations resolution, while ignoring and officially defying U.N. resolutions dealing with Israel. The U.S. is seen as pursuing our self-defined national interests with minimal consideration for others.
What does all this mean for our future and our fight against terrorism and the anti-American sentiments that fuel it? Ultimately, there is no excuse for the killing of innocent people under any circumstances. But to oversimplify terrorist acts as simply the work of madmen who despise freedom is naive. Terrorists should be held accountable for their actions and punished severely, but we must also understand the situation that helps to foster an ideology that would allow such horrors to be seen as justifiable. If we are going to declare war on terrorism we must examine its roots.
Ned Rinalducci is a professor of sociology at Armstrong Atlantic State University. He studies religious and ethnic Social Movements, including Middle Eastern Islamism.