“Why do they hate us?” What deeply held resentments could have led the 19 hijackers to work a catastrophic wave of terrorism against the United States Sept. 11? Why is there such bitterness in the Muslim world toward the United States? Why, on learning of the collapse of the World Trade Center, would refugee children dance in the street?
If we ask what fires Osama bin Laden's hatred of the West, the alleged master terrorist has been outspoken about his motives. The Saudi-born millionaire was exiled from his own country for his opposition to its royal government. His complaint? By permitting foreign, that is, U.S., troops on its soil, the government of King Fahd has defiled “the Holy Land” of Arabia, home to the most sacred Muslim shrines, Mecca and Medina. His aim? Departure of American forces from the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf.
Bin Laden's desire to purify Saudi Arabia of the “infidel” presence is only the first step in his attempt to purge Arabia of impiety. While the Saudi royal family adheres to a strict form of Islam, led by the Wahabi sect, their observance is not strict enough for bin Laden. The extravagant lifestyles of the royals and the Saudi elite offend bin Laden's puritanical moral sense. Furthermore, the corruption resulting from the country's oil wealth violates his sense of justice. He hopes to recapture the oil resources of the Arabian peninsula and the entire Middle East to serve Muslim interests and the Arab masses.
Behind the hatred of the terrorists like bin Laden, however, lie the resentments of the multitudes. The bitterness found in the Arab and Muslim worlds has many sources, but what brings it to bear on the United States is America's role in the recent history, going back a half-century or so, of the Middle East and Central Asia.
The ‘Great Game’ Today
In the 19th century, the European powers, especially Britain and Russia, competed for dominance in Central Asia and the Middle East in a struggle of diplomacy, espionage and military adventures the “players” called “the Great Game.” Since the end of World War II, the United States and, before its collapse, the Soviet Union, carried out a similar struggle. It was hard-ball politics of an unsavory kind.
In 1953, the CIA helped overthrow the elected government of Iran and placed the Shah on the Peacock Throne. When the Shah was overthrown in an Islamic revolution, the United States was named “the Great Satan.” Later when the Islamic Republic of Iran was at war with Iraq, the United States supported Iraq, only to make it a pariah state after its aggression against Kuwait. In Afghanistan, after a communist coup was defended by the Soviets, the United States supported Muslim mujahedin, among whom was Osama bin Laden, in a guerrilla war to oust the Soviet invaders. In the ensuing civil war, the Taliban, the most ruthless and puritanical of the factions, won out.
Militant movements like the Taliban or bin Laden's al-Qaida see the United States as the adversary because in the 21st century version of “the Great Game,” the U.S. government has supported and still supports the governments they oppose. In the case of the oil states of Arabia and the Gulf, in particular, it is U.S. military forces which help keep the rulers in power.
Then, too, there is U.S. support of Israel which, in Arab eyes, has stood in the way of an equitable settlement of the Palestinian question for three generations now.
Only recently, almost as an afterthought, has bin Laden added to his objectives the liberation of Israel and Palestine from the infidel Israelis. Yet, after Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem is the third holiest site in Islam. For much of Muslim history the rest of what Christians and Jews call the Holy Land was considered a Muslim waqf, or trust.
The intense anger toward America found in the Arab and Muslim worlds has many sources. We do well to consider them.
Recent developments, especially perceived Israeli assaults on the Haram al Sherif (or Temple Mount), may have roused bin Laden's zeal for the holy places there. That sanctuary is home to the Dome of the Rock, the site of Mohammed's “night journey” to heaven. Naturally, then, Muslims would regard any infringements of this holy ground as an attack on Islam.
For Jews, of course, the Temple Mount is the location of the Second Temple, the most sacred site in ancient Israel. In 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu, then Israel's prime minister, opened a tunnel underneath the Haram al Sherif to the public. For some years, Israeli archaeologists had been excavating the area inside the Western Wall to explore vestiges of Israeli history from Maccabean times.
For many Muslims, the tunnel opening stirred fears that radical Jewish and apocalyptic Christian groups might use the access to dynamite the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque as a prelude to building a Third Temple on the site. After the opening of the tunnel, the first serious fighting between Palestinians and Israelis in the post-Oslo period commenced. It raged for weeks.
Three times in the last year the Haram has made headlines. A year ago, Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, then an opposition Member of the Israeli Knesset, visited the Haram in the company of more than a thousand Israeli soldiers and police. Palestinian protests over his visit set off the current Palestinian intifada.
Last fall, under President Clinton's leadership, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed peace talks. Jerusalem became a sticking point. At issue was sovereignty over the Temple Mount. The U.S. and Israeli teams tried various formulas to resolve the rival claims: divine sovereignty, shared sovereignty, U.N. control. In the end the Palestinians, looking over their shoulders at the wider Muslim world, demanded total sovereignty. The Israelis sought sovereignty on the Western Wall and in subterranean areas under the mount.
The Palestinians drove the Israelis to despair with allegations that the Temple had never existed on the site. The Israeli demand for subterranean sovereignty inspired nightmares for the Palestinians about plots against their holy sites. Almost as if to underscore Muslim anxiety, in July, a group called the Temple Mount Faithful received permission from the Israeli High Court to lay a symbolic cornerstone for the Third Temple at the Old City's Mugrahbi Gate.
Thus, while the Israeli-Palestinian issue appears only recently and at the end of bin Laden's list of complaints, the controversies swirling around the Temple Mount this last year make it plausible that missteps in the struggle over Jerusalem may have given added motive to a zealot like bin Laden for acts of terrorism against the United States as Israel's protector.
Already the Bush administration seems to have learned that, to prevent terrorism in the future, the United States must address the resentments others have toward us. Remarkably, they have begun with what one would have thought to be the most intractable problem of them all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have pressed the two sides to return to the negotiating table and made clear for the first time that the cornerstone of any resolution must be a viable Palestinian state.
If it is possible to tackle that century-long dispute head-on, who is to say ways will not be found to respond to other grievances of the Arab and Muslim worlds as well?
For the short term, there is no substitute for bringing the master terrorists and their networks to justice. In the long run, however, U.S. security and that of the world will depend more on eliminating the sources of resentment against us by building just and abiding relationships with the peoples of the region.
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen is senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.,and counselor on international affairs to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.