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Saturday, Oct. 6, 2001

ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS

Fear of modernization is real motivation


LONDON -- Don't worry, Mullah Mohammed Omar told Afghans on Sunday: the Americans won't attack Afghanistan because they are "cowards." As for that business in New York and Washington three weeks ago, it was the Americans' own fault, said the leader of the Taliban regime. "Whatever the Americans are facing is the result of their policies and the U.S. authorities should review their policies and not unnecessarily create problems for Muslims."

Blaming the victims is an old game, and anti-Americanism is a leading indoor sport, but is there any substance in Omar's accusation? Is American foreign policy, and especially U.S. support for Israel, the real reason for the profound dislike and even hatred with which the United States is viewed in the Third World in general, the Muslim world in particular, and most especially the Arab world?

U.S. foreign policy is unquestionably more pro-Israeli than any rational calculation of American national interests would allow. Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign and military aid in the world, although it has a European living standard and a huge arms industry. Even when it brazenly spies on the U.S. to get the few military secrets it isn't freely given, it only gets its wrist slapped gently. And if it comes to a war, then Israel can normally expect U.S. backing whether it is right or wrong.

Recently, however, a certain tension has crept into the U.S.-Israeli relationship. For the past two weeks Washington has been trying to curb the Sharon government's attacks on the Palestinians in the occupied territories, in order to pacify Muslim opinion at a time when it is attempting to build a broad antiterrorist coalition that would include practically the whole Muslim world, and Sharon has been dragging his feet as much as he dares.

Is this a sign that the U.S. government is re-evaluating its relationship with Israel in the wake of the attacks that killed nearly 6,000 people on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the hijacked aircraft? Has it begun to conclude that its traditional unconditional support for Israel is just too dangerous for American citizens?

No, probably not. And if it is evidence of such a change of policy, it is based on a misapprehension about the reasons why so many people in the world hate Americans.

There are many Palestinians who bear a profound hatred of the U.S., which they rightly identify as chief sponsor of the country that has made their lives a misery for half a century. Those Palestinians who are inclined toward terrorism, however, direct their efforts against their chief tormentor, Israel itself.

Most Muslims, and practically all Arabs, feel sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, but the depth of their emotional involvement in the issue tends to decrease as a square of the distance -- and while all 19 hijackers were Arabs, not one had any Palestinian connections. U.S. support for Israel played at most a minor role among their reasons for wanting to kill themselves and as many Americans as possible. Their real motivation was rage at the modern world, which is not susceptible to a quick policy fix.

There is a certain irony in this, since the U.S. is in some respects rather old-fashioned. It remains a profoundly religious country -- American politicians invoke God just as often as Iranian or Afghan ones -- whereas in most other developed countries religion has become a private and marginal matter. There is, indeed, an ongoing and evenly balanced "culture war" between secular modernists and religious conservatives in the U.S. that has no parallel in other Western countries, but many in Third World societies.

But as the biggest and richest of the developed countries, the U.S. has become the symbol of modernity anyway -- and the target of all those who hate and fear modernization. That is what drove those young Arab men to commit their atrocious crime against innocent Americans, not poverty or foreign policy, and no new foreign policy or sudden deluge of aid funds would change it. They killed because of what Americans are, or at least what they symbolize, not because of what they do.

It is not only Arabs or Muslims who are susceptible to this kind of hatred of the developed world. All traditional societies are under great internal pressure to change and modernize, and they all have a culture war between the modernists and the fundamentalists going on within them.

Violent attacks on the "corrupt" West are mainly a byproduct of the way that the conservatives try to define the modernist and secular forces in their societies as the pawns of a foreign cultural invasion, not legitimate participants in a domestic debate. The special prominence of Arabs in international terrorism at this time is mostly due to the fact that the culture wars have been worst, and the actual changes least, in the Arab countries, which now bring up the global rear by such measures as democracy, free media and the status of women.

What does this mean in terms of policy? It means that there is no point in trying to placate the terrorists, no foreign policy change that would make them go away. If Israel vanished tomorrow, they would still be filled with fury toward the West. So they just have to be fought -- but it would help those fighting them to bear in mind that what makes them so furious is that large if mostly silent sections of their own societies long for exactly the kind of modern, secular democratic society that they so loathe and fear.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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