Why They Hate Us
By Jose Rodriguez
The course of history was irrevocably altered by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The horrific images of the World Trade Center towers replayed on television screens over and over again, like the recurrence of a frightening nightmare. The common refrain, in the following days, was the question, “Why do they hate us?” Those persons in power had a simple answer: these were evil people who hated American freedom and democracy. This explanation seemed to soothe the general populace, and placed the terrorist acts in a context that was black and white, and thus easier to comprehend. The true reasons are far more nuanced and complicated, and would force the American government to admit some level of guilt. The truth is that the attacks on 9/11 are a direct result of American foreign policy in the Middle East. It is the refusal to acknowledge these truths that has exacerbated anti-Americanism in the region and has led to an increase in terrorism around the world.
The concept of blowback is very controversial and it tends to cause heated debates. The idea that one’s own government is responsible for tragedy is abhorrent to many who would describe themselves as patriotic. However, the purpose of such discourse is not to say that America deserved the attacks, nor would any sane individual justify such attacks or apologize for them. Terrorism is reprehensible, regardless of the perpetrators, and regardless of the victims. In a society such as the United States, with the advantage of the freedom of speech, it is absolutely imperative to allow discussions, such as this, so that the root causes of anti-Americanism can be determined and solutions found. It is in this context of openness that the rest of this argument will be placed.
There really should not be any confusion about why we were attacked on 9/11. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the attacks, laid out his grievances in his declaration of war on August 23, 1996 (Bergen, 164). In that declaration, he has three grievances: the occupation of the Holy Lands (Mecca and Medina), the US-led sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the United States’ unwavering support for Israel’s brutal military occupation of Palestinian territory. This declaration is not some fanatical religious tirade, nor does he express any rage or contempt for American democracy and freedom. What he lays out is a clear and rational criticism of US policy in the Middle East. One “effective weapon” against the United States, he argues, is the boycotting of American goods and services (Bergen, 165). He reiterated these points on May 26, 1998 at a news conference in eastern Afghanistan with Ayman al Zawahiri, and urged his followers to conduct acts of terrorism against the United States (Bergen, 202). Not more than two months later, Al Qaeda carried out terrorist attacks against two US embassies in Africa. In retaliation, President Clinton launched cruise missile attacks against Al Qaeda, but failed to kill bin Laden, which only served to elevate his status in the eyes of the Islamic terrorist groups (Bergen, 219). Although he is a radical terrorist, many of his grievances are shared by the Arab world and his defiance is respected across the region.
Osama bin Laden’s hatred for the United States can be traced back to the beginning of the Gulf War. Indeed, even before the Gulf War started, bin Laden was one of the many mujahideen in Afghanistan that benefited from the support of the United States. US support was welcomed by the mujahideen as they were in an armed struggle to expel the atheist Soviet Union from their country. After the war, with the success of the mujahideen over the Soviet forces, the US packed up and left the country to suffer a horrific civil war that resulted in the rise of the Taliban government. However, the return of the United States to the Middle East during the Gulf War enraged and offended Osama bin Laden.
In the years following 9/11, many people tried to connect Iraq with Al Qaeda in a belated attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq. In reality, Osama bin Laden and his followers have been fiercely anti-Saddam due to the late dictator’s secularization of Iraq during his brutal reign. Jamal al-Fadl, a former Al Qaeda agent, testified during the 1998 trial against the seven men accused of the African embassy bombings that bin Laden had been very critical of Hussein and warned that, “one day he going to take all of Gulf area [sic].” (Bergen, 111) Khaled Batarfi, a former friend of bin Laden’s, recalls that in the months before the Kuwait invasion bin Laden had said, “We should train our people, our young and increase our army and prepare for the day when we are eventually attacked This guy [Saddam] can never be trusted.” (Bergen, 111) The warnings were prophetic as Saddam invaded neighboring Kuwait in August 1990. Osama bin Laden went to Saudi intelligence officials and proposed that he be allowed to gather 100,000 mujahideen fighters, trained in the Afghan war, in order to defend itself from Hussein’s expansion (Bergen, 112; Abukhalil, 77).
The Saudi royal family turned down bin Laden’s offer and opted, instead, to allow US forces to defend Saudi Arabia. This was a crucial decision and was opposed not only by bin Laden, but also by Muslim clerics and the crown prince, who warned “that US troops may never leave Saudi territory once they (arrive)”. (Abukhalil, 73) According to the Wahhabiyyah clerics, the presence of non-Muslims, especially when they are soldiers from a predominantly Christian nation, are strictly prohibited from stepping foot on the Holy Lands of Mecca and Medina. Yet, President George H.W. Bush deployed the military to the Holy Lands anyways. Despite being there to defend Saudi land from Iraqi aggression, it was the Saudi military that was responsible for expelling Iraqi troops. The arrival of US forces marked the departure of bin Laden from Saudi Arabia, his homeland. Since then, he believes that the American presence has caused the moral decline of the Saudi royal family. Bin Laden also viewed the presence of US forces as an attempt to establish hegemony over a country rich in oil, oil that belongs to the Arabs.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait ended his country’s privilege of being a client state and entered them into the category of “Rogue State”. During the eighties, the United States was providing Saddam with military and diplomatic support as they waged war with Iran (also a former client state). The weapons of mass destruction that the United States harshly criticized Saddam for having, came from the United States to begin with. The mass killings of the northern Kurds was possible because of those weapons, and was later made possible by the refusal of the United States to acknowledge that the atrocities had even occurred (Chomsky, “Middle East Illusions” 201). It was only when the client state got out of control and decided to act without US consent that Iraq became a “Rogue State”. Iraq had to be punished.
The US led sanctions on Iraq fueled anti-Americanism in the region and served as a daily reminder of American hegemony. UNICEF estimates that 1.5 million people died as a direct result of the sanction imposed on Iraq; of those deaths were among children under five years of age (Chomsky, “Acts” 60). When confronted with these statistics on 60 Minutes in May of 1996, Madeline Albright said that, “We think the price is worth it,” when referring to civilian deaths. Iraqi hospitals were filled with people who were dying of illnesses that are perfectly curable, such as dysentery, and the flu. For those individuals with cancer, the only prospect was death. The sanctions prevented the importation of machines for hospital use, medicine, and ambulances (out of fear that they could be used as a troop transporter). Doctors in Iraq struggled to help the elderly, the children, and the chronically ill even without the basic tools they needed. It is difficult to imagine the frustration they felt as they watched, helplessly, as their patients died of completely curable diseases. With such poor conditions and limited tools, it is no wonder that so many people died in Iraqi hospitals.
The sanctions have also prevented Iraqi’s from having the basic necessities for life. Because of these sanctions, Iraqi’s are unable to have the tools or supplies (such as chlorine) necessary for purifying water, which has become filthy and disease-ridden. The conditions were so despicable that the UN’s Humanitarian co-coordinator in Baghdad, Dennis Halliday, resigned in protest, saying, “I don’t want to administer a programme that satisfies the definition of genocide.” (Chomsky, “Middle East Illusions” 200) His successor, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest over the sanctions. The US, until after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, supported the sanctions, believing that they would weaken Saddam Hussein. On the contrary, all evidence suggests that the sanctions only strengthened Saddam’s control over the suffering Iraqi people. They argue that the sanctions are Saddam’s fault., yet the United States government persists in helping him devastate his own population (Chomsky, “Middle East Illusions” 201).
The central issue in the Arab region that inflames anti-Americanism, is the US’ unwavering support for Israel’s brutal military occupation of the Palestinian territories. The UN created the state of Israel as a Jewish homeland in 1948, creating some 1,380,000 Palestinian refugees (Reinhart, 7). These refugees, to this day, have not been allowed to return to their homeland, even though a UN Resolution demanded Israel do just that. This was the beginning of a pattern. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet to be resolved because of American intervention. In 1967, Israel expanded its border by seizing the Sinai, Gaza, the Golan heights, and the West Bank, which created another wave of about 250,000 refugees (Reinhart, 8). The United States, watching the situation unfold, took steps to ally itself with Israel. Israel, the logic went, would be a formidable ally in the region and could serve as a base of operations against the Soviet Union. A 1976 UN resolution calling for a Palestinian state was vetoed by the US, a move which signaled to the Arab world that the United States had no intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state (Chomsky, “Hegemony” 168). So, the military occupation of the Palestinian lands continued with the full diplomatic support of the United States.
Over the next 40 years, Israel continued its hostile attitude towards the Arab people. In 1982, for example, the Israeli army invaded and occupied southern Lebanon, which left roughly 20,000 Lebanese dead (Chomsky, “Hegemony” 167). However, hostilities actually began in 1976. The UN tried to stop Israeli aggression with a UN resolution, but it, too, was vetoed by the United States. According to Israeli sources, the purpose was to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization and to “persuade Palestinians to accept Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” (Chomsky, “Hegemony” 168) However, in 1987 the Palestinian people organized themselves into an uprising (intifada) against the military occupation of Israel. With this uprising was a formal recognition of Israel’s right to exist in its pre-1967 borders and a call for a free and independent Palestinian state (Reinhart, 10). The first intifada came to an end as both sides came together for the Oslo Accords.
There was an aura of euphoria and excitement as it seemed that peace was at hand. There was rejoicing in the streets and many PLO militants put down their weapons in anticipation of what they believed to be an end to the conflict (Reinhart, 14). However, as the process got underway, it became clearer and clearer that the status quo was to stay the same. Israeli settlements continued unabated, and unemployment in the Palestinian territories increased. The promises made in the Oslo agreements by Israel were never met, nor did they really intend to meet those agreements.
In 2000, President Clinton convened the Camp David meetings in an ostensible attempt to bring about a peace agreement. However, the what the Israeli’s offered Yaser Arafat was nothing more than control over municipal affairs. The Palestinian lands were divided up into cantons that were surrounded on all sides by Israeli territory. In other words, the food, electricity, water, and freedom of movement would still be controlled by Israel. The offer was not acceptable to Arafat. Had he accepted it, he would have been renounced all across the Arab world as a traitor. The failure of Israel to offer anything substantial, the failure of the US to pressure Israel to comply with the Oslo accords of 1993,and Ariel Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount, led to the second Intifada.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved quickly and easily, but there is no desire to do this. The United States has vetoed and rejected symbolic resolutions and treaties that might affect Israel. For instance, in 1987 the UN put forth a resolution condemning terrorism, but the US effectively vetoed the condemnation because it include a clause that gave the right of self-determination and the right to armed struggle against an occupying force. The General Assembly overwhelmingly supported the resolution, with only two votes against it: the US and Israel. Another similar vetoed occurred when the US rejected a Human Rights treaty made in Vienna that included a sentence declaring that, “foreign occupation is a human rights violation.” (Chomsky, “Middle East Illusions” 187) The tanks that roll through the streets of the occupied territories, and the helicopters that rain missiles upon the homes of civilians, are all provided by the United States. The victims and their families all know this. The United States could withhold its economic and military aid (which is the most given to any nation in the world) from Israel until it agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state. This is unthinkable in Washington and would never happen.
The claims by some that the motivations behind the 9/11 attacks are religiously based miss the point entirely. Yes, the people use religious imagery and language, but so too does every other religious nation. The reasons for the attacks are clear. Bin Laden stated clearly that his grievances are with US forces on the Holy Lands, the Iraqi Sanctions, and the support of Israel in its occupation of Palestinian territory. These views are not unique to him, but are shared by virtually all of the Arab world. The only way to combat terrorism is to recognize the root causes of anti-Americanism and then find ways to solve those issues. Violence and the continued support of state terror is not going to end these feelings of resentment, but will only inflame them further. Instead of asking, “Why do they hate us?” we should be asking, “What can we do to help?”
Abukhalil, As’ad. Bin Laden, Islam, and America’s New “War on Terrorism”. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
Bergen, Peter. The Osama bin Laden I Know. New York: Free Press, 2006.
Carter, Jimmy. Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2006.
Chomsky, Noam. 9-11. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
— Acts of Aggression: Policing “Rogue States”. New York: Open Media, 1999.
— Hegemony or Survival. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003.
— Middle East Illusions. New York: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.
— The Umbrella of US Power. New York: Open Media, 1999.
— Power and Terror. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Reinhart, Tanya. Israel/ Palestine: How to End the War of 1948. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.
Zinn, Howard. Terrorism and War. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002.