International Peace and Conflict Resolution, School of International Service, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington DC, 20016, U.S.A.
The attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the United States on 11 September 2001 was a horrible act and every one should agree that there is no religious or political motivation that justifies it. The loss in human life was tremendous and innocent people now live in fear and danger. In addition, the horrible attack has triggered, as expected, a wave of prejudice, stereotyping, and discriminatory acts against Muslims and Arabs around the world. Many people have reverted to misperceptions and instead of seeking objective information about Islam and the Muslim communities in their midst, they have formulated positions based on ignorance, fear, and rage.
We know from history and science that when a person makes a decision under such circumstances or in response to such feelings, it is most likely that this decision will be uninformed irrational and will bring further violence. Thus declaring war one day after the attack was a major policy mistake and engulfed the entire world in the fever of war. Rallying people by beating the drums of war will only produce further ignorance, dehumanization, and victimization. So let us look at possible reactions and examine options.
The question for us in the U.S. and around the world is (this is a matter that concerns not only the U.S., but eventually, I believe, the entire international community): How do we react? Here we have to think of our target and our purpose (I am using military terms—as they seem to fit the general mode.) Going after those involved in this action, including their alleged leader Osama bin Laden, and bringing them before international or American institutions of justice is a matter that requires time, patience, competent intelligence forces, and careful diplomatic pressure on several governments in the region. Such an approach would send a message of law and order to the entire world. It would also underline the horror of the violence that the perpetrators used in their heinous act. The other possibility is to go after “governments and people” who supported or “harboured” the perpetrators (to use President Bush’s terms). At present, American officials and their strategic analysts are hinting at a road that leads to Baghdad or Kabul, or both.
Although the possibility of using nuclear weapons against these countries or people was raised in the U.S. two days after the attack, it was quickly dismissed for moral as well as tactical reasons. So we assume that there will be no nuclear attacks. Since then, the debate has narrowed to a choice between ground troops and massive bombardments, or both. Both methods are intended to culminate in massive force, an indisputable aggressive response that aims to satisfy the need and desire for retaliation and revenge (some call it justice); to assure American citizens that they are still in control; and to eliminate the groups responsible for the terrorist action.
Let us assume that the U.S. took this path and bombarded Afghanistan. (It seems that troops, airplanes, and the entire American and European war machine are fully prepared and are waiting for a signal from the political leadership.) What are the likely results of this retaliation? Probably thousands of Afghani citizens will be killed. Millions—mainly poor, because the wealthy members of the Taliban regime can afford to hide and escape the attacks—will be displaced (10 000 Afghani refugees have already fled their homes, fearful of U.S. strikes, and there are 2 million Afghani refugees in Iran). Several Afghani cities and towns will be destroyed again. (They have been destroyed twice, once by the Soviet invasion and once by the ongoing civil war, so the American missiles will simply turn the existing rubble upside down.)
Consider the impact of such a massive attack on a country that, as a result of 20 years of war, has 500 000 disabled orphans, where one of every four children dies before the age of five and the infant and maternal death rate are the second highest in the world. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 43 years (compared to 76 years in U.S.), only 12 % of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only 15% of the women and 30 % of the men can read. The average annual income is US$300 (United Nations Report 1998).
Bombarding Afghanistan not only will certainly fail to prevent further attacks on U.S. targets at home or overseas, but might also contribute to the escalation and sophistication of such international violence. The killing of bin Laden and his followers in a massive attack will give someone else the chance to lead his cause, maybe with a more successful campaign to recruit popular support. We have already observed a significant mass mobilization in Pakistan opposing the use of Pakistani land and air space to attack Afghanistan. Iran has registered its opposition to such attacks on Afghanistan and has closed its borders (Iran views an attack on the Taliban as a threat to its security.) I imagine that many Islamic countries will follow once a large number of Muslims begins opposing the invasion of or attacks on Afghanistan.
Americans, Europeans, and other industrial nations who support U.S. policy in the Middle East and other Muslim countries should ask themselves: Why did the U.S. become a target? What is the larger political context of the 11 September attack? What is the message? And how is it being perceived by people in the Middle East and the Islamic world?
For groups and individuals who are privileged to live in denial of and disconnection from the suffering of communities in the southern hemisphere, recognizing their connectedness and the implications of their countries’ policies for other people in the rest of the world is a major step. Thus when I began raising these questions (since the evening of 12 September), American media correspondents and interviewers interrupted and some were quit upset and aggressive. I began receiving hate messages through electronic mail. It is very understandable that people are angry and have feelings of revenge and rage after such a horrible tragedy. But it is different when such feelings are expressed over and over again (even after the phase of immediate shock and rage is over) and are deployed to dehumanize and to contribute to the denial that “we” who live in industrial nations have done anything wrong or have any responsibility for the existence of the people around the world who are willing to commit such crimes against us. It is even more dangerous when the narratives and feelings of rage and retaliation are fed by political leaders, religious figures, and media experts. Five days after the horrible action we—Americans—are fully wrapped in the flag and are beating the drums of war and revenge.
Sadly and unfortunately, the American and European response to this terrorist action will neglect (as previous ones did) without any consideration of larger contextual questions. Thus it will be blind, purposeless, and ineffective. Policy makers and their constituencies once again will miss the opportunity of transforming their attitudes and behaviours in dealing with the “other.” “We” will continue to feed each other the myth that “we” are “good” and “virtuous,” while “they” are evil and inhuman. Yet, when we expand this generalization to include 7 million Muslims in the U.S. and the 1 billion Muslims around the globe (one fifth of the world), this type of attitude and belief can itself become extremely dangerous, and is mainly based on ignorance. This time, we have to ask why.
Consider the following demands often made by those in the Middle East
as well as by Bin Laden’s group:
1 Clear the U.S. and European military and security presence from Saudi Arabia (the land of Medina and Mecca—the holiest places for Muslims.)
2 Stop U.S. intervention in the affairs of the Muslim countries in which dictatorial regimes are supported and trained in effective methods to control their people. These corrupt kingdoms and regimes are maintained by U.S. military and security forces.
3 End the historical support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Stop American aid and weapons from being used to kill Palestinians who fight for their homeland.
4 Prevent U.S. and Western culture from imposing its norms, values, and its global secularism and consumerism on Islamic societies. Such cultural and social invasions are diverting Muslims from their faith and identity.
5 Stop U.S. occupation of and sanctions against Iraq. Bring an end to the suffering of the Iraqi people who have been bombarded by U.S. and European armies for the last ten years with the compliance of the Arab and Muslim regimes. (Among Muslims it is often mentioned that the total explosive power of the bombs that have been dropped on Iraq equals seven times the power of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan in the World War II.)
The above are the main demands that bin Laden has been using for the last ten years in recruiting support among Muslim communities. He and other groups have mobilized their supporters by repeating these demands. They are fertile soil not only for the creation and operation of bin Laden but for the mobilization of other “fundamentalist” movements throughout the Middle East.
Without realizing that the above demands are the context for bin Laden’s effective campaign, this conflict can not be resolved. So what do we do? How can the U.S. address these issues? I think that reviewing U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with an eye to addressing these concerns is the most effective way to prevent future attacks on the U.S.
The preventive policy of investing in and facilitating the genuine economic, social, and cultural development of Muslim and Middle Eastern communities is the only guarantee that radicalism will not grow and find popular support The basic change necessary is to transform the existing international economic, political, and social development policies of the World Bank, the U.S., and Europe from a policy that focuses on maintaining dictators and corrupt elites into a policy that emphasizes civil liberties, human rights, and dignified and empowering development strategies. Providing equitable and fair aid to these communities is the only long-term guarantee of international and domestic security. The U.S. and European governments cannot continue to support regimes that kill and suppress any voice for freedom and justice because they ensure the supply of resources to the West. Stop aiding such groups when industrial nations need them to fight other battles. (The U.S. supported the mujahedeen movement in Afghanistan; the U.S. supported Sadam in fighting Iran in the 1980s.)
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the main thorn in the Middle East and in the relationship between Western countries and Islamic countries, is essential. Granting the Palestinians their right to self-determination and an independent state with a dignified set of arrangements, without compromising the need of Israelis and Palestinians for security, is certainly possible. Every Muslim believes that the U.S. and European governments, if they want, are capable of putting enough pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and allow Palestinians to live in freedom. This may not be a fully justified belief; however it is derived from the fact that such governments act as a supplier of weapons and a protector of Israeli interests and policies in every international setting. (The recent decision to pull out of the conference on anti Racism in South Africa is prime example of such policy.)
Bring an end to the inhuman sanctions against and bombardments of the Iraqi people and the violation of its territorial integrity. This policy has been viewed by Muslims around the world as a prime example of a double standard and Western hypocrisy.
I can go on and on with the many changes that need to take place in order to address the grievances of Muslims in dealing with U.S. and European policies. However, a good start would be with the recognition and acknowledgement that there is a problem and that those who live in the Western Hemisphere and their governments have a lot to do with it. Thus the appropriate and effective reaction to the recent attack on U.S. superpower symbols is not to launch a mighty, massive, violent attack on the civilians or on the governments of barely subsisting countries. It is to act as a genuine leader of the world, to take responsibility for past foreign policy mistakes, and to address the root causes of a deep-rooted conflict.
An additional grave mistake is being committed by political leaders, media experts, and the general public who use phrases such as “Muslim killers” “Islamic Jihadist” “Islamic-Barbaric groups” “crusader’s war against these international terrorists” (Bush’s terms on Sunday evening.)” When Timothy McVeigh destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma, people in the U.S. or around the world, did not highlight his religious affiliation and target people of the same colour, race, religion, or even ideology. Muslims are afraid to leave their houses and have shut their businesses in America and Europe from a fear of being harassed and attacked because they worship Islam or in some cases because they look different (Indians and Southeast Asians have also been attacked in public.) Polarization, intolerance of differences, and blind violence and hatred against “the other” are the type of feelings that feed the mode of war.
Finally, Islam is a religion of peace and submission to God. It teaches its followers tolerance and a respect for differences. Nevertheless, I think it is important to respond to those who still have doubts about the fact that such criminal acts are unaccepted and illegitimate in Islam. It is true that Islam, like Christianity and other religions, has a set of principles and beliefs that followers can interpret as a basis for using force or violence in dealing with their enemies. However, according to the Prophet the Qur’an (Islamic Holy Book), the use of force should be limited and force should be used only under certain and specific circumstances (such as in response to those preventing Muslims from practising their faith). Islam unequivocally prohibits attacking civilians, destroying property, or mistreating prisoners. The Prophet, the Holy Book, and the Khalifas (the first four religious and political leaders who led Muslims after the Prophet died) spoke clearly against such methods. The fact that there have been many groups who violate such teachings does not make violent methods legitimate or acceptable to the majority of the population, and violence is certainly not to be associated with the religion itself.
In addition to the arguments in Islam for a “just and restricted war,” there are hundreds of examples from Islamic history and religion that illustrate non-violent and restrained methods through which Muslims have resolved internal as well external conflicts. In fact I, myself, and other scholars and practitioners of peace building have been practising, as well as advocating, the need for a comprehensive reinterpretation of the Qur’anic message from a liberation theology perspective. The events of last week and current reactions to those events provide additional proof of the need for this type of non-violent mobilization not only among the Muslims, but among all humans¹. Maybe we can finally begin to learn and practise how to resolve our conflicts without destroying each other’s lives.
1 For more information on the various studies of peace building and non-violence in Islam, see Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. 2000–2001. Framework for nonviolence and peacebuilding in Islam. Journal of Law and Religion 15(1–2): 217–65.
(Submitted 11 October 2001)
© The Arab World Geographer