Friday, December 28, 2007

On the roots of Arab rage.

Someone wrote recently and asked for a copy of a comment that I offered in the autumn of 2001, shortly after September 11, that fateful day. Here it is as published six years ago in Bostonia magazine.

Alumni Web :: Bostonia :: Winter 2001

Why do they hate us? Before September 11, few Americans felt compelled to ponder the ferocity of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world. But Richard Augustus Norton, a CAS professor in the departments of international relations and anthropology, has been studying the question for years. A scholar who favors academic cross-pollination and "eclectic research tools," Norton has authored or coauthored several books about Middle Eastern politics and civil society and has been a consultant to both the National Security Council and the State Department. "This is a moment for a serious rethinking of U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world," Norton says. "While U.S. policymakers are loathe to explicitly concede the point, we must recognize that we have a huge stake in understanding that our policies are not inert. That is not to say that we're responsible for the wanton destruction of innocent people as one of our own fundamentalists, Jerry Falwell, has asserted, but to note that we need to be concerned that the constituency that bin Laden and people like him have been able to exploit reflects an antagonism to the United States that we really have to take seriously.

"Norton identifies two key causes for the broader Arab resentment of the United States. The first is "our blinding penchant for stability - the drug of choice in Washington - which has led us to a policy of support for unattractive, repressive regimes. Our rhetoric about democracy is the butt of sardonic humor in many Muslim countries," says Norton. "I've heard it myself many times." The second cause is what he terms our "blind support" for Israel. "However commendable our friendship with Israel may be - however useful our relationship may be geopolitically - we also pretend to be an honest broker" between Israel and the Palestinians, he says. "The blindness of key U.S. policy-makers - some of whom during the 1990s seemed almost to have second homes in Israel - to the suffering going on in the West Bank and Gaza is stunning.

"So how should U.S. policy change? "The least we need to do is to raise the bar. Pointless, quiet démarches by diplomats are not the answer," Norton says. "We need to talk openly about governance, rights, and the dead end of corruption." Moreover, he says, we should resist looking at Afghanistan as an isolated problem; most of what we face there - politically, militarily, culturally - revolves around issues that resonate throughout the Muslim world. "It's hard to imagine the United States just packing up its equipment and going home as it did in Somalia, as opposed to changing the attitudes that are a result of our policy," he says. "The stakes are very high, and we need to be clear-headed about the importance of demonstrating a commitment to lifting the people from the wretched conditions that they now face."

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