Distributed September 19, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by William O. Beeman
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 840 Words

William O. Beeman

Why Middle Eastern terrorists hate the United States

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 waxed and waned as an effective oppositional force in confrontation to secular political systems for more than a century.

American officials may choose to conduct a “war” against terrorism, but unless we address the roots of our political and military heritage in the Middle East, the violence will never stop.

American citizens have short memories; they believe that events such as the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington September 11 happened solely as a result of recent events. Nothing could be further from the truth. The roots of this event go back more than 150 years. All of the confrontations between the United States and the Middle East – ranging from the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis and the current tragedy – arise from a single source. This is the heritage of difficult relations between European colonial powers, with whom the United States is inextricably linked, and the Middle East.

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 waxed and waned as an effective oppositional force in confrontation to secular political systems. 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 Jalal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), an Iranian. Al-Afghani framed his resistance movement as an “Islamic reform movement.” Using an Islamic ideology helped him to transcend ethnic differences in the region and preach a message all would understand. Although most of his message was political, this religious framework has served to give the impression in the West that Middle Eastern opposition was based on religious differences rather than social or political considerations. 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 activities of the reformers were unceasing, but the events of two world wars effectively overshadowed them in Western eyes. Throughout this period the nations of the Middle East were treated largely as war prizes to be divided and manipulated for the good of the militarily powerful Europeans. Every current nation in the Mediterranean-Mesopotamian region was created by the British and the French without consent or consultation on the part of the residents. 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 United States and the Soviet Union for influence in the region dominated politics. 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, secular rulers could easily oppress the religious fundamentalists who opposed them. This added still further to the anger of the religious reformers. This perpetuated the old alliance between the West and the rulers of nations in the region condemned by Al-Afghani. 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 United States 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. The United States, anxious to protect oil supplies from the Soviet Union, 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 the United States with a messy patchwork of military and political detritus. Anxious about Iran, the United States propped up Saddam Hussein. Anxious about Soviet incursions into Afghanistan, it propped up the Taliban. These two monstrous forces are very much an American creation.

To make things worse, when America finally had to confront its former client, Iraq, in the Gulf War, they established a U.S. 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 United States. This action was the basis for Osama bin Laden’s opposition to America.

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 United States 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 teaches anthropology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. A specialist on Mideast culture, he has written extensively on fundamentalism and terrorism. He has worked for the last four years in Tajikistan, where he has been able to monitor developments in Afghanistan.