[OPE-L:7646] One year on: A view from the Middle East

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Wed Sep 11 2002 - 10:38:10 EDT

One year on: A view from the Middle East
The September 11 attacks were an undoubted outrage. But, says The 
Independent's Middle East correspondent, they were an inevitable 
result of the great gulf between the Arabs and the US
By Robert Fisk
11 September 2002

September 11

One year on: A special report

September 11 did not change the world. Indeed, for months afterwards, 
no one was allowed even to question the motives of the mass 
murderers. To point out that they were all Arabs and Muslims was fair 
enough. But any attempt to connect these facts to the region they 
came from - the Middle East - was treated as a form of subversion; 
because, of course, to look too closely at the Middle East would 
raise disturbing questions about the region, about our Western 
policies in those tragic lands, and about America's relationship with 
Israel. Yet now, at last, President Bush's increasingly manic 
administration has spotted the connection - and is drawing all the 
wrong conclusions.

For, as the days and weeks go by, it is becoming increasingly 
difficult to recognise in the words of Americans - and in their 
newspapers - the Middle East, the region in which I have lived for 26 
years. While cocooned within the usual assurances that Islam is one 
of the world's great religions and that the United States is only 
against "terrorists", not Muslims, a brutal and cruel fate is being 
concocted for Arabs, a world in which more than a score of nations 
are being fingered as "terrorists" or "haters of democracy" or 
"kernels of evil". Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of 
State, last week decided to include the Lebanese Hizbollah. With a 
vague, though unspecific, reference to the 291 American servicemen 
killed in the suicide bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut in 
1982, he announced that "they're on the list, their time will come, 
there's no question about it. They have a blood debt to us...".

List? Is that what it is now? A list as unending as Mr Bush's 
so-called "war on terror"? Does Hizbollah come above al-Qa'ida on the 
list these days? Or after Iraq? Or maybe after Iran? "They have a 
blood debt to us" is a remark as frightening as it is infantile; it 
suggests that what the United States is embarking upon, far from 
being a titanic battle of good vs evil, is a series of revenge 
attacks. One wonders what Tony Blair thinks of all this. Does he, 
too, have a blood debt owed to him? And what - a question that is 
never asked - do Muslims make of this nonsense?

I have to say that I have yet to meet a Muslim who has expressed 
anything but horror about September 11. But I have yet to meet a 
Muslim who said they were surprised. Indeed, after so long in the 
Middle East, I have to say that I wasn't surprised when, high over 
the Atlantic, the pilot of my America-bound plane told his astonished 
passengers that four commercial airliners had been crashed into the 
United States. Stunned by the awesome nature of the crime, yes. 
Appalled by the sheer cruelty of the mass killings, of course. But 
surprised? For weeks I had been waking up each morning in Beirut, 
wondering when the explosion would come. So had most Arabs I have 
talked to during the past year. How and when the explosion would take 
place, they had no idea - but that the detonation would occur was 
never in question. And in a part of the world so steeped in blood, it 
was perhaps understandable that both the intellectual and the public 
response to September 11 was somewhat less emotional than in the rest 
of the planet.

For example, if you talk to a Palestinian in Lebanon about the 
September massacre, he will assume you are referring to the 
slaughter, at the hands of Israel's militia allies, of 1,700 
Palestinians in Beirut in September of 1982. Just as Chileans, when 
hearing the phrase "September 11" - as that fine Jewish writer Ariel 
Dorfman pointed out - will think of 11 September 1973, when an 
American-supported coup d'état led to the overthrow of the Allende 
government and the deaths of thousands of Chileans. Talk to Syrians 
about a massacre and they will think first of all - though they will 
not say the words - of the killing of up to 20,000 Syrians in the 
Islamist uprising at Hama. Talk about massacres to the Kurds and they 
will tell you about Halabja; to the Iranians and they will tell you 
about Khorramshahr; to the Algerians and they will think of Bentalha 
and a whole series of other village atrocities that have cost the 
lives of 150,000 Algerians.

The truth is that the Arabs - like Chileans and other people far from 
the new centre of total world power - are used to mass killing. They 
know what war is like, and quite a number of Lebanese asked me in the 
days after September 11 - our September 11, that is - if George Bush 
really did think America was at war. They weren't doubting the nature 
of the attacks. They were just wondering if the US President knew 
what a real war was like. In Lebanon, you have to remember, 150,000 
men, women and children were killed in 16 years; 17,500 of them - 
almost six times the total of dead of September 11, and almost all of 
them civilians - were killed in just the summer of 1982, during 
Israel's bloody invasion of their little country, an invasion to 
which the US had given a green light.

And in many cases, of course, the dead - particularly in Lebanon, and 
ever more frequently in the Israeli-occupied territories - are being 
killed by American weapons. In the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, for 
example, almost all the missiles fired into Palestinian houses were 
made by the Boeing company. Only in the Arab world has a terrible 
irony been noted: that the very same company that proudly made those 
weapons - "all for one and one for all" is the logo for Boeing's 
Hellfire missile - also produced the airliners that were used to 
attack the United States. Having endured the company's weapons, Arabs 
turned their airplanes into weapons as well.

It does not excuse the September 11 killers their hideous crime 
against humanity to record that in the Middle East, you do often hear 
the thought expressed that now the US knows what it is to suffer. 
It's not intended to suggest that the United States deserved such 
horrors; merely a faint hope that Americans will now understand how 
much others have suffered in the Middle East over the years. I have 
to say, of course, that this is not the lesson that Americans are in 
any mood to learn.

Indeed, one of the most extraordinary - and patently absurd - 
elements of post-September 11 America is the way in which the Bush 
administration has steadily transformed a hunt for international 
criminals into a biblical struggle against the Devil incarnate. The 
Devil started off with a beard and a propensity to live in Afghan 
caves. Then it turned out that he wore a military beret and had a 
hankering for poison gas and weapons of mass destruction. And by last 
week, when Richard Armitage was claiming that Hizbollah may be the 
"A-team of terrorists" - al-Qa'ida being demoted to the "B-team" - 
the Devil had apparently moved residence from Baghdad to Beirut. Add 
to all this Iran and the non-Muslim Dear Leader who lives in North 
Korea and really does have nuclear weapons - which is why we will not 
bomb him - and a very odd picture of the world emerges. In general, 
however, that world, however distorted, is a Muslim world.

Now, along with this transformation has come a whole set of policies 
intended to show the superiority of our Western civilisation - 
centred on the need for the Arab world to enjoy "democracy". It isn't 
the first time that the US has threatened the Arabs with democracy, 
but it's a dodgy project for both parties: first, because the Arabs 
don't have much democracy; second, because quite a lot of Arabs would 
like a bit of it; and third, because the countries where they would 
like this precious commodity include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other 
regimes that the Americans would like to protect rather than destroy 
with democratic experiments. The Palestinians, President Bush has 
told us, must have a democracy. The Iraqis must have a democracy. 
Iran must have a democracy. But not, it seems, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, 
Egypt, Syria and the rest. Naturally, all these ambitious projects 
have set off a good deal of discussion in the Arab world - perhaps 
one of the few fruits of September 11 that hasn't yet turned sour.

A recent study in the United States - by Pippa Norris at Harvard and 
Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan - demonstrated 
convincingly that Samuel Huntington's grotesquely overrated "clash of 
civilisations" is a load of old baloney. Muslims, the study 
discovered, were as keen on democracy as Westerners - there 
presumably being no Christians left - and in some cases even more 
enthusiastic than Americans and others. The differences between the 
two emerged on social issues; on homosexuality, women's rights, 
abortion and divorce. Norris and Inglehart concluded that it would be 
a gross simplification to suggest that Muslims and Westerners hold 
fundamentally different political values.

Over the past few weeks, Arab intellectuals have been adding their 
own gloss to this, especially in Egypt. They have been challenging 
Huntington. Egyptians and Moroccans and even Saudis have been trying 
to make a cultural defence of Arabism, rejecting the idea of 
"globalisation" - a word I hate but which turns up in Arabic as 
awalameh (literally "world inclusivity") - and the notion that to be 
for globalisation is to be pro-Western and to be against it is to be 
against development. But development is not democracy, and the 
question remains: why is there no serious democracy in the Arab 
world? Although Ayatollah Khomeini created the theological machinery 
to emasculate Iranian social democracy, Iran's elections, and the 
repeated victories of President Mohammad Khatami, were undoubtedly 
fair; Mr Bush's remarks about how he wants to "bring democracy to 
Iran" are thus off course.

But it is the Arabs who have never developed a modern political 
state. If they had, might September 11 have been avoided? This was 
certainly an initial Bush suggestion; the suicide killers, he 
informed the world, had attacked America because they "hated 
democracy". The trouble is that the 19 murderers wouldn't have known 
what democracy was if they had woken up in bed with it. But let's not 
avoid the question: why only police states and torture chambers in 
the Arab world?

A historian might go back centuries. When the Crusaders reached the 
Middle East in the 11th century, it was the Arabs who were the 
scientists; the Westerners - the "Franj" - were the political and 
technological numbskulls. And when the Arabs did develop a kind of 
social order under the remnants of the Abbasids in medieval Spain, in 
the Andalusia of El Cid, the Arabs - along with their Christian and 
Jewish brothers and sisters - experienced something like a cultural 
renaissance. In the Middle East, however, the Arabs felt they were 
under pressure from the West - from Western military prowess and 
economic power - and went on to the defensive. To question your 
caliph - or, even worse, to advance in theological philosophy - was a 
form of subversion, even treachery. When the enemy is at the gates, 
you don't question authority. Rather like the Americans after 
September 11 - when to seek the motives for the massacres was 
regarded as something akin to a thought crime - any intellectual 
enquiry was suppressed. The Western powers did much the same to the 
Arabs after the 1914-18 war. They chopped up the Ottoman empire, 
sprinkled dictators and kings across the Middle East, and then - in 
Egypt and Lebanon, for example - locked up anyone exercising their 
democratic opposition to the regime. If the opposition was not going 
to gain political power democratically... well, it would stage a coup 
d'état. And this has largely been the fate of the Middle East since: 
a series of coups - rather than revolutions on the Iranian model - 
which had to be backed up with armies and secret policemen and 
torture chambers.

To a patriarchal society - and to one in which there had been no 
theological development comparable to the European Renaissance - was 
added our own Western determination to support undemocratic regimes. 
If we had democracy in the Middle East, the people who live there 
might not do what we want. So we supported the kings and princes and 
generals who did our bidding, unless they suddenly nationalised the 
Suez Canal, set off bombs in Berlin discos or invaded Kuwait, in 
which case we bombed them. Not by chance has Osama bin Laden raked 
over these historical coals. He wants the downfall of the Saudi 
regime - how he must have loved the Rand corporation's lecturer who 
called Saudi Arabia the "kernel of evil" - and he wants the downfall 
of the pro-Western Arab dictators.

Amid the twisted rhetoric now coming out of Washington - a linguistic 
barrage sounding more and more like the authentic voice of bin Laden 
- it is becoming ever more difficult to believe that Mr Bush is 
planning any kind of democracy in Iraq. Nor in "Palestine". After 
all, Yasser Arafat was not rejected because of his failure to create 
a democracy; he was rejected because he didn't do the job of a 
dictator well enough. He failed to create law and order in the small 
portions of land awarded to him in return for his putative good 

But something much bigger is going on today. Almost every Arab nation 
is being lined up by the United States, eagerly encouraged by Israel. 
Palestine must have "regime change"; Iraq must have "regime change"; 
Iran - most recently accused, without any proof, of shipping 
al-Qa'ida gold to Sudan - must have democracy; Saudi Arabia is a 
"kernel of evil"; Syria is now to be sanctioned for "supporting 
terrorism"; Lebanon is accused of harbouring al-Qa'ida members - a 
patent untruth, but one that is already finding its way into The New 
York Times; and Jordan may have to serve as a launch pad for an Iraqi 
invasion (which, possibly, would mean goodbye to our plucky little 
king). The United States ends extra financial support for Egypt 
because it locks up an American Egyptian for stating the truth - that 
Egyptian elections are a fraud. What, Arabs are asking themselves, 
are the Americans up to? Are they planning to reshape the map of the 
Middle East? Is this to be another exercise in colonial planning, 
akin to the one the British and French wrought after the First World 
War? Are we planning to topple all the Arab regimes?

In other words, are we now trying to turn Huntington's third-rate 
book into a success story? Are we actually now in the process of 
starting a clash of civilisations? Never before have Muslims and 
Westerners been so polarised, their conflicts so sharpened - and Arab 
hopes so fraudulently raised. We are no more planning to give those 
Arabs "democracy" than we planned to honour our promise of 
independence at the end of the 1914-18 war. What we want to do is to 
bring them back under our firm control, to ensure their loyalty. If 
the House of Saud is collapsing of its own volition, the Americans 
seem to be saying, then let it collapse. If Jordan's King Abdullah 
won't play ball on the Iraqi invasion plans, what's he worth anyway? 
In the Arab press, there is a slow but growing suspicion that "regime 
change" might turn out to be Middle East change.

But let's remember two things; that the killers of September 11were 
Arabs. And they were Muslims. And the Arab world has held no debate 
about this. There have been plenty of stories to the contrary: that 
the 19 murderers were working for the Americans or the Israelis; that 
hundreds of American Jews were warned not to go to work on the day of 
the attack; even that the planes were remotely controlled and had no 
pilots at all. This childish and sometimes pernicious rubbish is 
widely believed in parts of the Middle East. Anything to duck the 
blame, to avoid the truth.

And it's a strange thing that is happening now. The Americans want 
the world to know that the killers were Arabs. But they don't want to 
discuss the tragedy of the region they came from. The Arabs, on the 
other hand, do want to discuss their tragedy - but wish to deny the 
Arab identity of the killers. The Americans have created a totally 
false image of the Arab world, peopling it with beasts and tyrants. 
The Arabs have adopted an almost equally absurd view of the US, 
believing its promises of "democracy" but failing to grasp the degree 
of anger many Americans still feel over the attacks.

Yet still there are double standards at work here. George Bush can 
rightly condemn the killing of Israeli university students as making 
him "mad", but blithely brush off the slaughter of Palestinian 
children by a bomb dropped from a US-made Israeli plane as "heavy 
handed". Yet it's not just the pitiful remarks of President Bush, but 
the double standards of whole peoples. Here's what I mean. Today, 11 
September, our newspapers and our television screens are filled with 
the baleful images of those two towers and their biblical descent. We 
will remember and honour the thousands who died. But in just five 
days' time, Palestinians will remember their September massacre of 
1982. Will a single candle be lit for them in the West? Will there be 
a single memorial service? Will a single American newspaper dare to 
recall this atrocity? Will a single British newspaper commemorate the 
20th anniversary of these mass killings of 1,700 innocents? Do I even 
need to give the answer?
Also in Americas
September 11
Tight security in force around the world
America on high alert after terror threat
Church abuse case settled for $13.5m
Jeb Bush's daughter found with cocaine

Legal |  Contact us |  Using our Content |  © 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu Sep 12 2002 - 00:00:01 EDT