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|The myth of the insane terrorist|
|04/17/05 at 09:38:19|
Do they really hate freedom? The myth of the insane terrorist
April 15, 2005
By Patrick Rael
Of all the misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies about
terrorism put forth by the Bush Administration, none is as pernicious as
the one repeated by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer last Friday during his
talk at Bowdoin College on "Iraq and the War on Terrorism." Echoing a
claim Bush has frequently made since the attacks on September 11, 2001,
Bremer asserted, with all the authority his 14 months as special envoy
to Iraq confers, that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda attacked the U.S.
because they "hate freedom."
However reprehensible the attacks on September 11 were, responding
effectively to the threat they represent requires the courage to
confront the situation truthfully. Seeking to comprehend Islamist
Jihadists by facilely asserting that they simply hate freedom is about
as sensible as, well, invading a non-Islamist state such as Iraq in the
hopes of destroying Islamist terrorism. It does not serve the truth, nor
the security of the American people, but only the short-sighted and
misguided political aims of those in power.
Even before the attacks on September 11, bin Laden repeatedly sought to
state his motives. In 1996, he explained that the attacks of that year
on U.S. embassies in Africa were meant "to kick the Americans out of
Saudi Arabia," which he claimed had become "an American colony." Later
the same year he cited the U.S. embargo of Iraq and Israeli killings of
Palestinians as further justification for terrorist attacks. In 1998,
bin Laden again set forth his reasons for taking up arms against the
U.S., this time citing U.S. intervention in Saudi Arabia, the site of
Islam's two holiest places.
In the aftermath of September 11 bin Laden has explained himself on
numerous occasions, though U.S. media seldom relate the substance of his
missives. In a videotaped speech released last October, bin Laden
accused Bush, Sr. of perpetrating "the greatest mass slaughter of
children mankind has ever known" in the First Gulf War, and Bush, Jr. of
using the Second Gulf War "to remove an old agent and replace him with a
new puppet to assist in the pilfering of Iraq's oil and other outrages."
While few may agree with bin Laden's analysis of the U.S. role in the
Middle East, it cannot be said that he has no clear argument. Rather, he
has consistently pointed to three factors in justifying his actions: the
presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and
Israel's policy toward its Arab neighbors.
Bin Laden has even directly addressed Bremer's claim that he hates
freedom. To the contrary, bin Laden believes he is acting on behalf of
freedom. Were we actually to listen to bin Laden, we would hear him
employing the same rhetoric of liberty as does Bush. "We fight because
we are free men who don't sleep under oppression," bin Laden has said.
"We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our
nation." Last December, bin Laden said that Bush was wrong to claim that
al-Qaeda hated freedom. "If so, then let him explain to us why we don't
strike, for example, Sweden."
If you don't believe bin Laden's own words, consider those of the
Defense Science Board, a federal advisory committee that issued a report
on "the war on terror" last November:
Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies. The
overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as
one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and
the long-standing, even increasing, support for what Muslims
collectively see as tyrannies....Thus, when American public diplomacy
talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no
more than self-serving hypocrisy.
The critical point is that there is no single, objective ideal of
"freedom" over which one party may claim a monopoly. Rather, as
historian Eric Foner argues in The Story of American Freedom, freedom is
a contestable notion, open to a wide range of interpretations. Islamist
Jihadists are, at the least, every bit as committed to their vision of
freedom as we are to ours.
So why do they hate us? They hate us because they believe, not without
cause, that the U.S. has long acted against the freedoms of everyday
people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. What do they want? They want to
pursue their vision of freedom by liberating Saudi Arabia and the Arab
and Muslim worlds from U.S. influence.
No one should give bin Laden what he wants, because the order that would
result would be at least as unjust as the one that currently reigns
throughout much of the Middle East and Islamic world. It would also
foreclose the possibility of constructive cooperation with the developed
Yet as misguided as we believe al-Qaeda's notions of freedom to be, we
would do well to remember that those on the "Arab street" who support
the Jihadists believe our rhetoric of freedom to be just as specious as
we believe bin Laden's to be. The only purpose served by the "they hate
freedom" claim is to tar those who attacked us with the brush of
irrationality. As Bremer stated, it is impossible to give or concede
anything to those who hate our guts on principle. How can one negotiate
with evil madmen? Extermination can be the only option.
In perpetuating the falsehood that bin Laden and the terrorists have no
specific grievances, Bremer did this community a disservice. Bin Laden
may be wrong and cruel, but he is not crazy. For reasons it is
imperative for us to figure out, he makes a tremendous amount of sense
to many people in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Bremer's
approach cannot further the cause of understanding the disaffection that
leads to terrorism, because it is simply not the case that we face
insane and irrational foes with inscrutable motives. But by granting
some small measure of legitimacy to the grievances of the dispossessed
rank-and-file to whom al-Qaeda appeals, we may open a doorway into a
safer future for all.
Instead, the myth of Islamist irrationality has caused us to pursue an
unwise and dangerous course. It may be that U.S. forces can simply
exterminate those who oppose us in the Islamic world, but given the
course of events in Afghanistan and Iraq it doesn't seem likely. And
such a policy doesn't sound very much like the "freedom" we hope to
champion throughout the world. If it is true that we cannot completely
eradicate "terror"—that instead we must somehow learn to live with those
who presently hate us—then treating them as madmen may not be such a
good way to start.
Patrick Rael is Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin.
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