Perceptions of the “Unpeople”

It is comforting to attribute the alleged “clash” between Islam and the West to their hatred of our freedom and values, as the president proclaimed after 9/11, or to our curious inability to communicate our true intentions. A New York Times headline reads: “US Fails to Explain Policies to Muslim World, Panel Says,” referring to a study by the Defense Science Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, in December 2004.

The conclusions of the panel, however, were quite different. “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies,” the study concluded, adding that “when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.” As Muslims see it, the report continues, “American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.”

The Defense Science Board study was reiterating conclusions that go back many years. In 1958, President Eisenhower puzzled about “the campaign of hatred against us” in the Arab world, “not by the governments but by the people,” who are “on Nasser’s side,” supporting independent secular nationalism. The reasons for the “campaign of hatred” were outlined by the National Security Council: “In the eyes of the majority of Arabs the United States appears to be opposed to the realization of the goals of Arab nationalism. They believe that the United States is seeking to protect its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress.” Furthermore, the perception is understandable: “Our economic and cultural interests in the area have led not unnaturally to close US relations with elements in the Arab world whose primary interest lies in the maintenance of relations with the West and the status quo in their countries,” blocking democracy and development.

Much the same was found by the Wall Street Journal when it surveyed the opinions of “moneyed Muslims” immediately after 9/11. Bankers, professionals, businessmen, committed to official “Western values” and embedded in the neoliberal globalization project, were dismayed by Washington’s support for harsh authoritarian states and the barriers it erects against development and democracy by “propping up oppressive regimes.” They had new grievances, however, beyond those reported by the National Security Council in 1958: Washington’s sanctions regime in Iraq and its support for Israel’s military occupation and takeover of the territories. There was no survey of the great mass of poor and suffering people, but it is likely that their sentiments are more intense, coupled with bitter resentment of the Western-oriented elites and the corrupt and brutal rulers backed by Western power who ensure that the enormous wealth of the region flows to the West, apart from enriching themselves. The Iraq invasion only heightened these feelings, much as anticipated.

Writing about the same 2004 Defense Science Board study, David Gardner observes that “for the most part, Arabs plausibly believe it was Osama bin Laden who smashed the status quo, not George W. Bush, [because] the 9/11 attacks made it impossible for the west and its Arab despot clients to continue to ignore a political set-up that incubated blind rage against them.” Saudi Shiites share that belief, as the New York Times reported.

The evidence concerning Washington’s actual stance and role, virtuous declarations aside, is clear and compelling, surely by the standards of complex world affairs. Nonetheless, it is always possible that Washington’s actions might have an incidental positive effect. It is hard to predict the consequences of striking a system as delicate and complex as a society with a bludgeon. This is often true of even the worst crimes.

As noted, Osama bin Laden’s atrocities are reported to have had a positive effect in spurring democratization in the Arab world. The terrible crimes of imperial Japan led to the expulsion of the European invaders from Asia, saving many millions of lives — in India, for example, which has been spared horrifying famines since the British withdrew and was able to begin to recover from centuries of imperial domination. Perhaps what many Iraqis and others see as another Mongol invasion will end up having positive consequences as well, though it would be disgraceful for privileged Westerners to leave that possibility to chance. The United States is very much like other powerful states in pursuing the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its exceptional dedication to the highest values. It should come as no surprise that the evidence for Washington’s dedication to its proclaimed messianic mission reduces to routine pronouncements, or that the counterevidence is mountainous. The reaction to these facts is of no slight significance for those concerned with the state of US democracy, as noted at the outset. Abroad, democracy is fine as long as it takes the “top-down form” that does not risk popular interference with primary interests of power and wealth. Much the same doctrine holds internally.

Noam Chomsky is the author, most recently, of Failed States (Metropolitan Books), from which this commentary is excerpted.

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