All Writings
July 27, 2005

What The West Still Doesn’t Get

The recent suicide bombings in London stunned not only the British but people in other European counties and elsewhere. I, for one, perhaps like many other observers who have followed how al Qaida has evolved since its defeat in Afghanistan, was not in the least surprised. Among other important changes in al Qaida since 9/11 is that its mode of operations has been decentralized, with a greater focus placed on recruiting Arabs and Muslims without criminal records who reside in the West. Certainly, the Iraq war and England’s role in it have only intensified anti-British and anti-Western feelings among Arabs and Muslims. It was only a matter of time before the first suicide bombers would strike.

Whether Arab and Muslim grievances are based on reality or perception, the Western nations have for decades neglected festering anti-Western sentiments, allowing them to permeate every Arab and Muslim nation. To this day, Arabs continue to blame the colonial powers for their sufferings and the dismal condition of their societies during colonial rule. Nasser’s revolution in Egypt in 1952 and the Algerian revolution in 1954 were both responses to the colonialism that, from the perspective of the revolutionaries, brutalized their societies. A majority of Arabs believe that not much has changed in the post-colonial era. British and French colonialism may have ended, but it was gradually replaced by that of the United States, which continues to exploit Arab resources by shaping the modes of production and controlling the political systems in the region to fit its needs.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and its humiliating defeat of seven Arab armis in the war that immediately followed (the war is remembered by the Arabs as “the Catastrophe”) marked a turning point in Arab nationalism. The Arabs saw Israel as a “foreign organ” planted in the heart of their lands to do the West’s bidding and as a form of payback to the Jews for Nazi crimes which Arabs had no part in and hence no responsibility for. For these reasons, the creation of Israel not only galvanized Arab nationalism but deepened suspicion of, and antagonism toward, the West.

Nasser’s attempt to create a lasting united Arab front–with a socialist bent–with other Arab states like Syria and Iraq was dealt a massive blow after the second disastrous defeat by Israel of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in the Six Day’s War of 1967. The defeat, which resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai peninsula, caused the Arab masses to become profoundly disillusioned with their governments. Feeling lost, people sought answers and salvation from the clergy. They flocked to mosques throughout the Middle East in the hope of finding in religion something affirmation that not everything had been lost. So, in an odd way, the Six Day’s War eventually led to the creation of a strong religious component to Arab nationalism. It also gave rise to an Islamic radicalism that came to see terrorism as an expression of defiance. The process had already begun two years before the war, when various Palestinian factions came together under the umbrella of the PLO. Then, the war and its outcome, provided the impetus for intensified acts of indiscriminate terror inside and outside of the region. Today, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to feed into Arab anti-Western and anti-Jewish sentiments. The Israeli occupation provides an always fresh daily reminder of Arab ineptitude and humiliation, which keeps these fires burning.

Meanwhile, the growing strategic interest of the United States in the Middle East and its increasing dependence on Arab oil made the region’s political stability a critical element in shaping America’s policies toward the Arab states. This dependence helps explain why the United States has supported and continues to support corrupt Arab regimes that oppress their people by military or royal dictatorship. Arabs from every social and economic strata denounce the United States for its blind support of their governments, blame America for its lack of evenhandedness in dealing with the conflict with Israel, and accuse Washington of hypocrisy in trying to cover for its misdeeds by declaring it is pushing for democratic reform in the region. Surely, the Internet and the information revolution have exposed Arab youth to the outside world, and they have gained a better understanding of the sources of their plight. Although they have reserved much of their contempt for their own governments’ subservience to the whims of the West, they also harbor deepening reservoirs of resentment and even hatred for the West.

The two Gulf wars have added insult to injury. Whereas the Arab masses were willing to forgive the United States for the first war, especially since the conflict was quicky contained, Kuwait liberated, and American troops promptly withdrawn, the Iraq war has confirmed their worst fears. Most Arabs believe that America is for America, and oil and only oil drives U.S. policy in the Middle East. The many thousands of Iraqis that have died since the war are, according to the prevalent view, sacrificial lambs on the altar of American imperialism. The British come off as little better: they are seen as a co-conspirators. Young Western Arab and Muslims citizens wonder aloud why such grief and outrage are expressed for the British citizens who died in the subway and bus bombings while hardly any laments are heard regarding the brutal deaths of Iraqis, including children, killed daily in multiple suicide bombings or by the occupation forces.

Another element helps explain the current situation. The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 introduced a new dimension into radical Islam. Since then Iranian clergy have not only attempted to export their brand of Islamic Shiiatism, undermine Arab states, and torpedo the Arab-Israeli peace process, they have made the West, especially the United States, a target of hatred and disdain. Thus, while the governments of most Arab states, with the exception of Syria, distanced themselves from Teheran, Iran’s anti-American fervor resonated throughout much of the Arab world, making Islamic radicalism increasingly fashionable. Extremely concerned over Iran’s regional influence and despising Shiiatism in any form, the Saudis determined to blunt Iran’s ambitions by supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran (1980 1988) while intensifying the effort to spread their own brand of Sunni Wahabism throughout the Middle East and beyond. Toward this end, the Saudis spent billions of dollars to support tens of thousands of schools (madrasat) in Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and other Arab and Muslim nations. The Saudi government have used these madrasats to indoctrinate millions of young male Muslims with Koranic studies of Wahabism and to spread hatred for the West and the Jews. Probably nothing has, or will, contribute more to the rank and file of terrorist groups than what these schools produce The intense rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has thus created a new generation of radical Muslims, who although coming from a different poles of Islam, converge in their hatred toward the West.

The problem with radical Islam is surely not found in Islam itself as a religion but with the fanatic anti-Western and anti-Jewish Muslims who hijacked their religion by perverting and distorting its meaning to suit their own twisted outlook. The Iraqi war and the daily carnage of the occupation have combined with the continuing violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians to provide radical Muslims with the precise images they need to make their case. The war on terrorism is viewed from this perspective as a war against Islam; consequently, the fact that 80 percent of the global conflicts involve Muslims is not seen as a Muslim shortcoming but rather as a Western conspiracy to subdue Muslims everywhere and so prevent them from claiming their rightful place in the world. More than any other Muslim revolutionary since the turn of the 20th century, bin Laden has been able to tap into Arab disgust with the West and the region’s internal discord and discontent. He has been able to offer Arab youth the promise of renewal, giving them the hope of redeeming themselves and their national dignity. Dying in the process becomes a noble act–a form of martyrdom that paves the way to national and personal salvation.

The West, especially the United States, should have no illusion about what it would take to stem the tide of terrorism and eventually reduce it to a manageable nuisance. The road to achieve this critical goal, however, is long, hazardous, and costly but travel it the West must.

First, the West must change its beliefs regarding the causes of terrorism. In a major speech about Global terrorism nine days after the London bombings, Prime Minister Tony Blair emphatically stated: “In the end it is by the power of argument, debate, true religious faith, and true legitimate politics that we will defeat this threat.” At least on its face, this statement represents a clear departure from earlier pronouncements by Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush that merely called for confronting terrorism with relentless force. Terrorism will not be ended by killing or capturing every terrorist we find or destroying every terrorist cell we uncover, although these are necessary. It will require debate and argument as Mr Blair said, and it will also require dialogue. To end terrorism, there must be legitimate politics based on understanding the grievances of millions of Muslims. There must be an understanding that both a cultural and ideological clash exists that cannot be reconciled by bullets or bombs. Instead, the West must finally begin to understand the root causes of terrorism and change a policy that consists of occupying Iraq while insisting that the West is pursuing benevolent policies designed to advance Arab causes! This contradiction infuriates and frustrates the Arab world.

Second, Islamic terrorism will not end as long as the carnage begun by the Iraqi war continues and there no strategy to stop it. The Iraqi war and occupation have not only failed to make a real dent in the war on terrorism, they have actually led to an increase in terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe because Iraq has become a training ground for terrorists, as the CIA itself recently confirmed. And, while the British government continues to deny any linkage between the London bombings and Iraq, a confidential British terror threat assessment given to the government weeks before the bombings stated: “Events in Iraq are continuing to act as motivation and a focus of a range of terrorist-related activity in the U.K.” And as if this were not enough to lift the veils of denial about the linkage between Iraq and the increased possibility of terrorism, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a private research organization also known as Chatham House, concluded in a recent report that Britain’s participation in the war and as a “pillion passenger” of American foreign policy has made it vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Third, Islamic terrorism will not end as long as the Israelis and Palestinians slug it out, allowing violence to consume what remains of any civility and trust between them after nearly five years of relentless violence. Here too, the West, particularly the United States, must understand that, for most Arabs, the Palestinians are the victims, and their plight offers both rationale and motivation for acts of terror that fulfill three objectives: to inflict pain and anguish on the West and Israel, defy Western and Israeli policies, and offer the terrorists personal and national salvation. The administration’s decision to leave the Israelis and Palestinians to their own devices during much of President Bush’s first term has led to tragedy while severely undermining America’s credibility and intentions in the Arab world. And the situation is bound to worsen if the United States does not make the conflict’s resolution an urgent priority.

Fourth, Islamic terrorism will not end unless the United States develops an energy- independence strategy that will permit it to stop courting corrupt Arab oil-producing states and so compromise its long-term interests. As long as regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia receive unqualified American support and protection, we can count on the Arab masses to intensify their hatred toward the West and America in particular while attempting to undermine their governments from within. The curse of America’s addiction to Arab oil precipitated two gulf wars at an enormous cost in human and material resources. Energy experts estimate that the money spent on the Iraq war, now approaching $300 billion, would have made America energy-independent by 2015. Continuing dependence on oil will invite more frequent and spectacular terrorist acts and far greater American sacrifices in the future.

Defeating terrorism is obviously not limited to dealing with these four root causes. A host of other measures need to be taken, such as more comprehensive sustainable development projects in key countries like Egypt and Pakistan, which will also provide models for democratic reform. In addition, the United States must work more cooperatively with other nations, especially in the area of intelligence sharing and provide the means so that Arab and Muslims may develop their own intelligence capabilities, especially, human intelligence in the form of education. The task is enormous, costly, and will take years to accomplish. But then, it was decades of neglect and misguided policies on all sides that brought us to this sorry state of affairs.

For now, however, I fear that it may take other bombings in London and elsewhere before the Western powers grasp what precipitates these outrageous behaviors and begin to deal in earnest with the root causes of terrorism.


Seventh, finally, allowing Palestinian Islamic radicals to hijack the political agenda: Perhaps the one factor that has undermined the Palestinian cause more than any other is the rise of militant Palestinians and their ability to hijack the national political agenda to serve their own interests, despite their representing only about one-third of the Palestinian population. Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, that are sworn to achieving the destruction by any means, have skillfully yoked the Israeli problem to the fate of Islam itself, making any overtures of peace and moderation toward Israel into a betrayal of both the Arab people and Islam. They have regularly distorted Koranic verses, making them seem to portray Israel as an evil entity that must be exorcized from the Arab body before there can be any possibility of Palestinian salvation or true redemption. These groups consider the entire land of Palestine as an Arab matrimony (wakf), and no Arab or Muslim leader whether he is king, prince, or prime minister, has the right to surrender a single inch of the territory for any price, including that of peace. They have terrorized Israel through suicide bombings that have killed hundreds and injured thousands of Israelis. And they remain an extremely potent force. To consolidate their power base, Hamas and other militant groups have developed a social and economic system providing education, health care, and economic assistance, including jobs. Riddled with corruption and increasingly weaker in the wake of the second Intifadah, the Palestinian Authority has lost much of its influence among the people, especially in Gaza. Capitalizing on the Authority’s weakness, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have become serious political contenders of the mainstream Palestinian groups, led by the Fatah faction of the PLO. Having registered tremendous gains in municipal elections, Hamas is now poised to enter the national elections for the Palestinian Council. After the elections, Hamas and other Islamic groups at the least will influence the political process and the course of the negotiations with Israel. But Israel and the United States may soon have to face the reality of negotiating with Hamas as part of the Palestinian Authority. To what extent Mahmoud Abbas, who has been unable or unwilling to disarm Hamas and Jihad, can curb their militancy and violence remains, as indicated, to be seen. Whatever the outcome, Hamas or Islamic Jihad will not wither or die naturally and so must be dealt with in one form or another.

Having examined things from the Israeli perspective, let’s look now at the Palestinian take on the current realities. The Palestinians accuse Israel of undermining the peace process by its expansionist and uncompromising policies. They cite three major problems:

First, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza: The settlements are viewed by Palestinians as indisputable proof of Israel’s determination to hold onto the territories. Israeli policies over the years provided the Palestinians with all the evidence they needed to support their case. From the building of the first Israeli settlement in the West Bank more than 35 years ago, a mixture of national security concerns, ideological zeal, religious convictions, and political circumstances have motivated the settlement movement. The Labor party, which was in power in 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza were captured during the Six Days War, initially sought to establish a ring of settlements, mainly around Jerusalem to protect a city that an overwhelming majority of Israelis vowed never to relinquish. Committed to the idea of Greater Israel, Likud, which came to power in 1977, laid an historic claim to the entire West Bank and Gaza, immediately embarking on the expansion of political settlements, with the express purpose of changing the demographic makeup of the territories on behalf of Israeli Jews. Mr. Sharon himself was the architect of the settlement movement, and scores of settlements were constructed during the first decade of Likud-led governments. Subsequently, successive Labor and Likud governments built new settlements and expanded existing ones, tasks made more urgent because of the Palestinians’ continued refusal to accept Israel’s right to even exist. Regardless of the changing demographic and political realities, especially following the 1993 Oslo accord, settlements’ activity proceeded unabated. The Israeli public was led to believe that the settlements were synonymous with the country’s national security, and people were offered economic incentives and military protection to become settlers, irrespective of how such a policy might affect the prospects for peace. From the Palestinian perspective, however, every new or expanded settlement was another nail in the coffin of a future Palestinian state. Hence, the wide-spread skepticism about Israel’s ultimate intentions.

Second, a lack of Israeli consensus: While the Palestinians have suffered greatly from internal division and factionalism, Israel has not been immune from the same problem. In the past, these divisions prevented a national consensus from emerging on exactly what concessions had to be made for peace. And the current debate in Israel is not focused on the Palestinians’ demands but on what Israel is prepared to offer. Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal plans from Gaza and the opposition to them by a large segment of his own party suggests how uncompromising and factional Israel is, especially about hot-button issues such as the fate of the settlements. Further complicating the emergence of a consensus is that from the day of Israel’s inception, no party has been able to muster an absolute majority in parliament. This means that the party with the greatest number of votes is asked by Israel’s president to form a coalition government. In general, coalition party members have agreed to disagree on a host of critical issues, including the disposition of the settlements, the future of Jerusalem, the building of the fence, and the final borders, all of which are of great concern not only to them but to the Palestinians. Evacuating the settlements in Gaza, much less the ones in the West Bank, for example, will be one of the most traumatic experiences the Israelis have ever endured, even to those not directly affected. These issues, and many others that have impeded progress toward peace, continue to exist today. This reality helps to explain why we can expect future negotiations to be arduous, if not intractable, with the additional difficulty for the Palestinians that Israel is on the giving end and they are on the receiving end regarding issues of territory and the future of Jerusalem, to name a few.

Third, resorting to extreme methods to enhance security: Although it has every right to do whatever it considers necessary to protect its citizens, the Palestinians accuse Israel of using extreme and unjustified methods to punish the Palestinians in the name of Israeli national security. Palestinians refuse to accept the premise that Israel can act unilaterally to protect itself while they have to suffer the daily hardships and humiliations that come with occupation. Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories, targeted killings, and destruction of militant sanctuaries all seem harsh methods, disproportionate to the acts of violence that Palestinians view as their right to commit in resisting occupation. The demolition of the homes of families of suicide bombers is seen one of the most brutal examples of collective punishment. In fact, of all the preventive security measures Israel has taken over the years, the destruction of homes has left behind a residue of hatred and animosity the depth of which is almost impossible to exaggerate. It is, however, possible to say that for every home that Israel has destroyed, dozens if not hundreds of Palestinian youth have joined militant groups to avenge what they viewed as a fundamental desecration. Because they believed they had to stop the suicide bombings at all costs, Israelis overlooked the depth of anger and the fury that the demolitions provoked. The net result has been a rise in mutual hatred and an even more profound lack of trust that have permeated the social fabric of both societies. These consequences continue to hover over the heads of the negotiating teams.

Finally, although the Israelis and Palestinians are the main players, and they alone must bear the responsibility for previous failures, this discussion will be incomplete without considering the critical role the United States has played and will continue to play. While the Palestinians do not view the Americans as being evenhanded in their approach, they also recognize that only the United States can exact from Israel the desired concessions. Meanwhile, Israel, which benefits greatly from its special relations with Washington, is convinced that only the United States can exert the pressure that will effect a real change in Palestinian behavior. Unfortunately, however, during his first term president Bush basically left both sides to their own devices. Under pressure from Britain and some of the Arab states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the administration finally announced the so-called Road map for peace, which was not dissimilar from the Clinton-Barak plan it had previously rejected. The Road map was accepted in principle by Israel and the Palestinians, but then was left languishing. Whether this hands-off policy was intentional or the result of the administration’s attention being directed elsewhere–certainly the preoccupation with Iraq and the belief that any Israeli- Palestinian peace had to await a regime change there–were influences, it led to dramatically worsened relations between Israel and the Palestinians. During those four years, the Second Intifadah was stripping away every vestige of trust and civility between the two sides, and the losses to human life and the destruction of property have left scars not likely to heal for years. Clearly, although the parties themselves must want to make peace for it to happen, the psychological, historical, and religious dimensions of the conflict make it impossible for them to reach it on their own. This is why direct U. S. involvement is necessary. The current historic opportunity for peace created by the death of Arafat may be lost if the Bush administration does not become fully engaged in the process and pressure both parties to make the concessions required for peace.

The United States must now insist that violence and peace negotiations simply do not go together. Israel cannot be expected to make any meaningful concessions as long as Palestinian militants continue to use violence as the method of choice to force Israel’s hand. The administration must demand that the Palestinian Authority with American support (through training of the Palestinian police and financing to repair the infrastructure) bring it to an end; otherwise, America’s leverage with Israel will be dramatically reduced. By the same token, the administration must insist that, with the exception of the settlements slated to remain under Israeli control (based on the Camp David 2000 Clinton/Barak peace plan), settlement activities must end. Nothing demoralizes the Palestinians more, robbing them of any hope for a future state, than its continuation.

Surely, there are many other issues the United States will be directly involved in, including the future of Jerusalem and the final border and security arrangements. But the one indispensable prerequisite is that the administration remains fully engaged at the highest possible level to bring about a permanent attitude change. And if the Israelis and Palestinians have learned anything from what went wrong their troubled history, it is that neither can have it all and that only peaceful coexistence will prevent the tragic repetition of past failures.

How to rebuild trust on the ruins of the second Intifadah is next.