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World: Crisis Highlights Anti-American Sentiment

  • Tony Wesolowsky

The world watched in horror as television broadcasts showed the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center burn and collapse on 11 September, killing as many as 6,300 people inside and on the ground. For many, the disturbing images didn't end there. Shortly after, broadcasts showed footage of Palestinian youths celebrating the U.S. attacks. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports that such footage, like the attacks themselves, have left some Americans wondering what the U.S. has done to deserve such hatred -- and others publicly questioning the wisdom of their country's foreign policy.

Prague, 21 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, this week, dozens of angry men made clear their bitterness toward the United States. Pakistan's agreement to help the U.S. locate Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden, the primary suspect in the recent attacks, has outraged some Pakistanis, who say a U.S. attack on Afghanistan will amount to an attack on Muslims worldwide.

In Karachi, Tariq Jameel, the president of Pasban Karachi -- the cultural branch of the Jamaat Islami religious and political party -- addressed the crowd, leveling an angry threat at the U.S.:

"I want to tell the Americans: If you attack Muslims, Afghanistan, or Osama bin Laden, then don't expect us to remain a silent spectator. We will crush you," Reuters quoted him as saying.

Such scenes of anti-Americanism are not uncommon in certain areas of the world -- most notably in the Mideast, where the Israeli-Palestinian crisis continues to widen the gap between the Muslim world and the West. But such expressions of hatred -- and the devastating extremes to which such hatred may be carried, as in the instance of the 11 September attacks -- leave many Americans angry and puzzled.

U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the issue during his speech on 20 September to a joint session of the U.S. Congress:

"Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?' They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Ali Abunimah is vice president of the Arab-American Action League. He applauds efforts by Bush in recent days to distance the terrorists responsible for the recent attacks from ordinary Muslims throughout the world. But Abunimah says that most Americans remain dangerously misinformed about Islam and the Muslim world -- and that such ignorance, in turn, can fuel anti-American sentiment:

"The problem is, even these admirable actions [by Bush] are not enough to counteract decades of misrepresentation of people in the Middle East or in the wider Muslim world as being irrational, and separating their actions and responses from the conditions of their lives. Often people are living in situations of extreme injustice -- none of which would ever justify or provide an excuse for what we saw in New York. But I think that needs to be understood if people are going to begin to see how attitudes toward the United States have been shaped and formed."

Abunimah says for many Muslims, resentment toward the United States stems from Washington's foreign policy. He says, for example, that Muslims see the UN sanctions against Iraq -- which the U.S. supports -- as cruel toward common Iraqis. There is also resentment of the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf and of what is viewed as staunch U.S. support of Israel. It was the permanent stationing of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Gulf War that, in part, spurred bin Laden to call for a jihad, or holy struggle, against the United States.

Patrick Clawson is the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is reluctant to draw a connection between the attacks on 11 September and U.S. foreign policy. But he says there is no justification for terrorism, regardless of what Washington is doing or has done elsewhere in the world.

Pointing to the Mideast, Clawson says he is disturbed by what he sees as a willingness by extremists to view suicide attacks as a legitimate means of achieving political aims:

"I think there are many people throughout the world who are uncomfortable with aspects of U.S. foreign policy. What's unique in the Middle East is that there are people who are prepared to say that it is possibly legitimate to use suicide attacks against civilians as a way to express that dissatisfaction with U.S. policy. That's what we don't find in the rest of the world."

Howard Zinn is a history professor at Boston University and the author of several books highly critical of U.S. foreign policy. He says most Americans are unaware that some people in the world harbor resentment toward the United States. That lack of awareness, he adds, is in part because many Americans are either misinformed or unaware of the role their country has played in world affairs -- not all of it benign:

"Since World War II, the United States has been militarily involved in so many places in the world. [It] has intervened with great force in Korea and Vietnam, in Panama, in the Persian Gulf, and in Yugoslavia. In other cases, [it] has sold arms, given arms to countries that themselves have used those arms to suppress rebellions or to even invade other countries. The United States supported dictators in Central America and in the Philippines and in Indonesia and in the Middle East. The United States has [also] been a great supporter of Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza."

Some observers also cite U.S. and Western "arrogance" in dealing with the rest of the world. European Union development commissioner Poul Nielsen said in a Danish newspaper interview this week that the terrorist attacks should make the West behave in a more "cautious and humble" fashion toward the rest of the world.

But Clawson of the Institute for Near East Policy says the event may, in fact, have the opposite effect. He says if anything, the attacks on Washington and New York could lead to a hardening of American views, especially on the Mideast:

"I would say the terrorists are grievously harming their cause and that many people will reject their cause or be suspicious of their cause because of the techniques they use. So if anything, we see a lot of hostility here in the United States toward Arabs, toward the Palestinian cause and toward the grievances that these radical Islamists say they are fighting about."

Critics of U.S. foreign policy think the United States is the target of terrorist attacks because of its policies and military power, not because of its democracy.

In a commentary published earlier this week in the "New Yorker" magazine, U.S. author Susan Sontag asks: "Where is the acknowledgment that this [the terrorist attack] was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?"

U.S. President Bush might disagree, but Boston University's Zinn says the terrorists' actions were directed not against U.S. democracy, but against U.S. military might:

"They don't carry out acts of terrorism against Sweden or Switzerland because these people are not great military powers spreading their military might and using their military might in other parts of the world. So it's the position of the United States as a super military power, not as a democracy, I think, that is at the basis of these people's anger."

(NCA correspondent Alexandra Poolos contributed to this report.)