WHY DO THEY HATE US?
The reasons are many, the history long
'The harm done to innocents'
By Chris Toensing, 9/16/2001
In December 1998, I met a waiter in the quiet Egyptian port of Suez. As I
sipped tea in his cafe, he pulled up a chair to chat, as Egyptians often do to
welcome strangers. Not long into our amiable repartee, he looked me in the
eye. ''Now I want to ask you a blunt question,'' he said. ''Why do you
Americans hate us?'' I raised my eyebrows, so he explained what he meant and,
in doing so, provided some insights into why others hate us.
Numerous United Nations resolutions clearly define Israel's occupation of
the West Bank, Gaza Strip , and East Jerusalem as illegal. Yet Israel receives
40 percent of all US foreign aid, more the United States' annual foreign aid
total, more than $3.5 billion annually in recent years, roughly $500 per
Israeli citizen. (The average Egyptian will earn $656 this year.) Israel
uses all of this aid to aid money to build new settlements on Palestinian land
and to buy US-made warplanes and helicopter gunships. ''Why do Americans
support Israel when Israel represses Arabs?'' the waiter asked.
He went on: Evidence clearly shows that the US-led economic sanctions on
Iraq punish Iraqi civilians while hardly touching Saddam Hussein's regime. A
UNICEF study in 1999 backed him up, saying that 500,000 children under five
age 5 would be alive today if sanctions did not exist. Surely Iraqi children
are not enemies of international peace and security, the waiter expostulated,
even if their ruler is a brutal dictator.
The United States presses for continued sanctions because Hussein is
flouting United Nations resolutions, but stands by Israel when it has flouted
UN Resolution 242 (which urges Israel to withdraw from land occupied in the
1967 War) for over 30 years. Arabs and Muslims suffer from these and other US
The only logic this young Egyptian could see was that America was pursuing
a worldwide war against Islam, in which the victims were overwhelmingly
Muslim. America is a democracy, he concluded, so Americans must hate Muslims
to endorse this war.
I groaned inwardly. Here, I thought, was a person as woefully
misinformed about America as most Americans are about the Middle East.
Painstakingly, in my rusty Arabic, I explained that although the United States
is a democracy, we Americans do not choose our government's allies, nor do we
select its adversaries. We do not vote on the annual foreign aid budget. There
are no referenda on the ballot asking whether the United States should send
abundant aid to Israel, or whether the United States should press the UN
Security Council into maintaining sanctions against Iraq, or whether the Fifth
Fleet should prowl the Persian Gulf to protect our oil supply.
Americans do have the ability to vote out of office politicians who embrace
various foreign policies, but Americans rarely have accurate information about
the effect of those policies, in the Middle East or elsewhere. If they knew, I
argued, they would speak up in opposition, because Americans have a
fundamental sense of fairness. I concurred that it was imperative to debunk
Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as wild-eyed, Koran-waving
fanatics. These are pernicious ideas that stand in the way of fair judgment.
Our conversation lasted for hours. When we reached a pause, the waiter
invited me to dinner at his house. There I met his brother, a devout Muslim.
He too asked me why America hates Arabs and Muslims. I spent two more hours
talking with him. When I left, he told me warmly how happy he was "to connect
with an American on a human level." He and I shook hands like old friends, as
we agreed that both Americans and Arab Muslims should strive to puncture the
myth that "we" are somehow essentially different from "them."
A civilized human society cannot afford to think in those tribal terms.
That type of thinking leads to despair, and thence to wholly unjustifiable
disasters such as Americans have just experienced. Most Americans who have
lived or traveled in the Arab world can relate similar experiences: Arabs are
entirely capable of differentiating between a people and the actions of its
government, or the values of a people and the political agenda of a narrow
minority of them. What confuses, and, yes, angers them is that we do not seem
to return the favor.
Scant days after I returned from Suez to Cairo, President Clinton ordered
US fighter-bombers to attack Iraq, ostensibly because Hussein had expelled UN
weapons inspectors from his country. The "surgical strikes" of Operation
Desert Fox, like previous and subsequent campaigns, maimed and killed
defenseless Iraqi civilians. Meanwhile, virtually every news outlet in Egypt
ran pictures of grinning US seamen painting "Happy Ramadan" on the missiles
destined for Baghdad. Those pictures mocked the suffering of Muslims, just as
they mocked my attempts at playing cultural ambassador.
To the Arab and Muslim world, Americans project an image of utter
indifference to the Iraqi civilian casualties of sanctions and bombing -
people who were also "moms and dads, friends and neighbors," as President Bush
said of the Americans we mourn today. During Desert Fox, there was no outrage
at the callous black humor of the missile-painters, or the purposeful insult
to Islam's holy month. Despite the obvious failure of bombing to achieve our
stated objective (ridding Iraq of Hussein), and the harm done to innocents in
the process, no mass antiwar movement spilled into our streets to force a
change in US policy. Hardly anyone has suggested since that US officials
should be held accountable for willful acts of terror, though terror is surely
what Iraqis must feel when bombs rain from the sky.
Only days after Desert Fox, the Iraq story faded from the front pages
entirely, and the nation returned to its obsession with the Monica Lewinsky
scandal. What could that waiter in Suez have been thinking of my careful
He does not have "links" to Osama bin Laden. He is not a prospective
suicide bomber, nor would he defend their indefensible actions. Today I have
no doubt that he feels intense sympathy for "us."
After watching unjust US policies continue for years without apology, after
hearing of incidents of racist anti-Arab backlash following the execrable
crimes of Sept. 11, perhaps he also senses great tragedy in that the hijackers
spoke to Americans in a language the US government speaks all too well abroad.
Chris Toensing is the editor of the Middle East Report, published by
Middle East Research and Information Project.
This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 09/16/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.