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Asking Why

Why would a lonely and disenchanted young Muslim like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab try to blow up an American airplane? An article by Roy McGovern, former CIA analyst, raises that question.

    [President Obama said:] “We must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death…while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress. … That’s the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists.”
    But why it is so hard for Muslims to “get” that message? Why can’t they end their preoccupation with dodging U.S. missiles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Gaza long enough to reflect on how we are only trying to save them from terrorists while simultaneously demonstrating our commitment to “justice and progress”? …
    People in the Middle East already know how Palestinians have been mistreated for decades; how Washington has propped up Arab dictatorships; how Muslims have been locked away at Guantanamo without charges; how the U.S. military has killed civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere; how U.S. mercenaries have escaped punishment for slaughtering innocents.
    The purpose of U.S. “public diplomacy” appears more designed to shield Americans from this unpleasant reality….

McGovern’s point is that poor “communication” with the Muslim world isn’t the problem. The problem is America’s own policies and actions. If we want to have better relations with Muslims, we need to examine our actions, such as “propping up Arab dictatorships,” “killing civilians,” and our one-sided support for Israel in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

Unfortunately, this is a conversation most Americans aren’t willing to have. Most of us take the lazy way out, contenting ourselves with viewing the Muslim world as irrational. They hate us “for our freedoms” or “because of who we are.” Their religon drives them to do it, or it is all a misunderstanding that can be cleared up with better public relations.

As an American who has lived for three of the last six years in Morocco, I can say that the Muslims I know don’t hate the U.S. “for our freedoms.” Indeed, they tend to admire our freedoms, and wish they could share them. They do disagree strongly with our actions, such as our military adventures in the Muslim world, or our arming of Israel for its attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. There is anger at that, sure, but it isn’t anger at the U.S.—it is anger at U.S. actions.

What is remarkable is that this anger kept in balance. There is no need to tell the Muslims I know that Al Qaeda offers “a bankrupt vision of misery and death,” as Obama put it. They already know that. Young men like Abdulmutallab are the very, very rare exception. Most Muslims, like people anywhere, are far more concerned with the needs of their families, or getting good grades, or advancing their careers.

Americans seem to think that Muslims are obsessed with hate for the U.S., but it just isn’t so. We like to imagine that others give us the same importance in their own lives that we give ourselves. But the fact is, Muslims live in a multipolar world at the intersection of Africa, Europe and Asia. They do think about the U.S., but not obsessively. And I think it’s safe to say that they view us not with hate, but with regret. They see a nation that has much to offer, but is getting in its own way through misguided policies.

If the U.S. wants to be safe from the Abdulmutallabs of the future, the first step would be to stop overreacting. One man, Osama Bin Laden, has managed to goad us into intervening in five different countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. His assassins killed 3000 Americans in one day, but more Americans have died in our eight-year-long counterattack, along with hundreds of thousands in the nations we’ve invaded, most of them civilians.

If America “stands for justice and progress,” as Obama said, this isn’t the way to show it. America needs to understand that the Muslim world isn’t judging us by our words, but our actions. A nice first step would be to acknowledge the Goldstone Report and put real pressure on Israel. Another would be to open a debate on why we maintain 700 military bases in 130 countries. In any case, the way for the U.S. to earn trust in the Muslim world is to change our behavior.

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