Reflections on transnational terrorism
Remembering The Past And Imagining The Future
By Mansour Farhang
September 10, 2002
I fully agree with Afsaneh Najmabadi ["Wrong,
regardless"] that we must categorically condemn the calamity of 9/11
in no uncertain terms. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that many decent people in
all Middle Eastern countries, while expressing sympathy for the victims, tend to
see the pathological attack on America as an understandable response to U. S. policies
in the region.
To the extend that the war on terrorism pursues murderers and murderous organizations,
as distinguished from being a ploy to suppress dissent, it must include a concern
for the legitimate grievances that provide moral harbor for the random killers.
Over the past year I have lectured on this theme before a dozen university
and community groups. Based on the comments I have heard from various audiences,
I am convinced that most Americans are anxious to hear explanations on the sources
of the resentment many Middle Easterners feel toward Washington. This is a delicate
challenge because one has to show the logic of the resentment without sounding soft
on terrorists or insensitive to their victims.
Below is an example of my attempts to meet the challenge. It is the text of
a speech I gave, under the sponsorship of the Vermont Council on the Humanities,
in the Vermont State House in Montpelier on February 6, 2002.
Modern terrorism blurs the distinction between war and crime. The September 11
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon represent both an act of war against
a sovereign state and a crime against humanity. Terrorism has existed throughout
history. The most famous predecessors of modern terrorists are the Zealots who fought
the Romans in the first century CE, the Assassins who operated in the Islamic world
from 11th to 13th century and the Thugs of India who were active for hundreds of
years until the late 19th century. (1)
Contemporary terrorism can be divided into two general groupings, national and
transnational. National terrorists represent separatist, independent or liberation
objectives. They use violence against innocent individuals as part of a strategy
for identifiable political goals. Transnational terrorism, on the other hand, is
ideological, religious, apocalyptic and amorphous in its justification or demand.
What did the planners and executors of the September 11 attacks expect to accomplish?
Psychological explanations may provide a clue to their mindset, but they cannot help
us find a rational or negotiable purpose in their acts.
During the 1960s and 1970s only doctrinaire leftists were associated with transnational
terrorism. Today, all identified transnational terrorist groups seem to be religious.
Terrorists, whether religious or secular, subscribe to an extreme version of consequentialist
morality. They believe an act is just if it produces the right results. To prove
the rightness of their acts, terrorists are quick to produce a list of grievances
and justify their views by referring to sacred texts, ideological tracts, or edicts
by deified leaders.
Violence has been a part of both religion and Marxism
when used as state ideology. Proponents of both religious and Marxist totalitarianism
equally subscribe to the idea that 'there is a time to kill' and a time to praise
the martyrs. Religiously motivated terrorists commit their crimes believing that
they are emulating God. After all, "The fifth plague with which God punishes
the Pharaoh in the story of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt is murrain, a group
of cattle diseases that include anthrax." (2)
Apocalyptic prophecies envision a series of catastrophes as signs of the Messiah's
imminent appearance or reappearance. The millenarians are convinced that God sets
the exact date of the return, but they nevertheless want to speed the process along
through prayer, repentance, self-sacrifice and terrorism.
Members of al Qaeda (Arabic for foundation), like all politically motivated terrorists,
see themselves as inspired heroes at war against powerful enemies. As a manager of
terror, Osama bin Laden claims to speak for Islam and the grievances of Muslims not
only against their own governments but, more importantly, against the secular West
in general and America in particular. His message has various degrees of resonance
among the peoples of the Middle East, not out of sympathy for his terrorism but because
the corrupt and cruel regimes ruling them depend on the American power for their
The first definition of terrorism in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to "government
by intimidation as carried out by the party in power in France during the Revolution
of 1789 - 1797." This definition fits the governing system of nearly all contemporary
Middle Eastern states. It is indeed a sad truth that various forms of despotism or
autocracy reign in the region. In a spectrum ranging from rule by consent of the
governed and rule by coercion, I place Turkey at center right and Iraq at the dead
end, one resembling a semi democracy and the other a truly criminal state. Except
for Israel, the rest of regimes in the area fall somewhere in between.
Israel is a lively democracy for its Jewish citizens
and a semi democracy for its Arab inhabitants, it is a harsh apartheid state for
the three million Palestinians who live under its occupation. The separation of regimes
from peoples in the Middle Eastern countries and Washington's alliance with such
regimes since W. W. II are at the root of popular resentment toward the United States
in the region.
It is important to add that anti-Americanism is not always the result of Washington's
action or inaction. America's popular cultural products have penetrated the living
spaces of many poor people in distant lands. This phenomenon, emanating from Hollywood,
the capital of America's soft power, makes America both a seducer and a menace in
many societies throughout the world.
The familiar images of sex, violence and consumer goods are provocative and give
rise to the kind of expectations that are bound to be frustrated, which, in turn,
causes resentment toward the source of the seductive but inaccessible images. This
resentment, however, has nothing to do with terrorism; otherwise we should be facing
armies of terrorists from Africa, Asia, Latin America and other places where acute
poverty exists. The causes of terrorism are too complex to be reduced to economic
deprivation or cultural alienation.
Given the potential of transnational terrorism to restrict freedom of movement and
assembly in democratic societies, it is an urgent duty of democratic states to use
all the resources at their disposal - military, intelligence, and diplomacy - to
deter and punish the perpetrators and supporters of terrorist acts. Counterterrorism
is a more accurate term to describe this struggle than the metaphor of war. In conventional
warfare there is a known enemy and a prospect for closure. These attributes are absent
in countrterrorism, which is a long-term and multidimensional campaign without the
expectation of a clear conclusion.
The American government and its allies have done an effective job of responding
to the planners and sponsors of the 9/11 attacks. What remains to be done is to address
the moral harboring of terrorists. We can eliminate terrorists and their training
camps with cruise missiles, precision bombing, and Special Forces, but these instruments
are not helpful in attending to the people who provide a base of popular sympathy
for terrorists or terrorism. We need to persuade the poor, the frustrated, the humiliated
and the oppressed that America does not see them as objects to be manipulated and
abused. Cruse missiles can deal with the terrorists, but they cannot remedy the kind
of hurt and abandonment that enhance the cultivation of new terrorists.
Sustained transnational terrorism requires self-sacrificing individuals;
covert or overt state support and some sympathy among those in whose name cruel acts
are committed. Public approval, however silent and implicit, for al Qaeda and other
transnational terrorists in the Middle Eastern countries is the focus of my analysis.
What is the nature and extend of this support? Where does it come from? Why does
it exist? Is it logical in the sense that other human beings with a different religion
or cultural orientation could comprehend it?
To understand how ordinary people could come to resent U. S. policies to such
an extend that they are willing to overlook the cruelty and criminality of terrorist
acts, I will briefly illustrate four instances of American involvement in the political
affairs of the region in the course of which common people came to perceive U. S.
behavior as callous, insulting and humiliating. The anti Soviet Afghan war, the Iran
- Iraq war of the 1980s, the Persian Gulf war 1991 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
are the four cases I will discuss to illustrate my point.
DURING THE ANTI SOVIET AFGHAN WAR, the United States encouraged the formation of
the first transnational religious movement against the Soviet Union. According to
Milton Bearden, the CIA agent responsible for the agency's covert action in Afghnistan,
among the fighters who joined this movement "there were genuine volunteers on
missions of humanitarian value, there were adventure seekers looking for paths to
glory, and there were psychopaths.
As the war dragged on, a number of Arab states discreetly emptied their prisons
of homegrown troublemakers and sent them off to the jihad with the fervent hope that
they might not return. Over the ten years of war as many as 25, 000 Arabs may have
passed through Pakistan and Afghanistan." (3) This was the time when Osama bin
Laden and America were fighting on the same fight.
The United States spent an estimated $6 billion in aid to the mujahedeen (holy
warriors) between 1980 and 1992. American funds were matched by Saudi Arabia. Other
Islamic countries and a number of European states also made financial contributions
to the anti-Soviet struggle. Most of the international aid to the mujahedeen was
in the form of lethal modern weaponry given to a simple agricultural people who used
it with devastating results.
Prior to the war, militant Islamic fundamentalism had little support in Afghan
society. American and Saudi money enabled the Afghan and Pakistani radical puritans
to build a movement and wield clout among Afghan warriors. The orphan children of
the war were sent to madrasses (religious schools) in Pakistan to study the
Koran and learn fighting skills to become future soldiers. Many of these children,
often referred to as the children of jihad, were born in Pakistan refugee camps.
The young Taliban (religious students) grew up knowing nothing about their own
country. They lived and were indoctrinated in a community of brothers, without women
- mothers or sisters. These orphan boys only studied or memorized the Koranic injunctions
and edicts. As Ahmad Rashid has observed:
The mullahs who had taught them stressed that women were a temptation, an unnecessary
distraction from being of service to Allah. So when the Taliban entered Kandahar
and confined women to their homes by barring them from
working, going to school and even from shopping, the majority of these madrassa
boys saw nothing unusual in such measures. They felt threatened by that half
of the human race, which they had never known and it was much easier to lock that
half away, especially if it was ordained by the mullahs who invoked primitive Islamic
injunctions, which had no basis in Islamic law. The subjugation of women became the
mission of the true believer and a fundamental marker that differentiated the Taliban
from the former mujahedeen. (4)
In its decade long war with the Soviet Union, Afghanistan suffered more than a
million dead and 2 million injured. At the end of the war, there were 6 million Afghan
refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Moreover, most of the wealthy and educated
Afghans moved to Europe, North America and Australia. In February 1989, the Soviet
troops left Afghanistan but their departure, instead of bringing peace to the country,
turned out to be the beginning of a national disaster.
Of all the resources the United States devoted to the task of containing the Soviet
Union during the Cold War, the amount spent in Afghanistan has to be regarded as
the most profitable investment of the period. For the defeat the Afghan fighters
inflicted on the Soviet army contributed to and expedited the demise of Communism.
Given the immense human costs the people of Afghnistan
paid for their victory, many of them thought Washington would remain engaged in their
country at the end of the war and give the competing fighters some incentive for
cooperation and reconstruction. After all, President Ronald Reagan had described
the mujadedeen as freedom fighters and considered them allies in the struggle to
One could expect that Mr. Reagan's successor would want to help the people who
were so generously praised by his boss. Instead, President Bush quit Afghanistan
and passively watched it to "spun into anarchy [and become] the home of a new
and little understood threat; the grieved Arab extremists." (5)
In early 1990s, the Arab extremists, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden,
took sanctuary in lawless Afghanistan and transformed al Qaeda, an already existing
militant group in Egypt, into a unique transnational terrorist network. Ben Ladin's
financial resources and organizational skill were crucial to al Qaeda's appeal and
operation. Thomas Friedman has described Osama bin Laden as a cross between Charlie
Manson and Jack Welch. It is hard to improve this description.
Once the United States exited the Afghan scene, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran quickly
moved to support their favorite warlords in order to gain sectarian advantage and
become influential in the evolving politics and economics of Central Asia. Rivalries
among these and other players in the area intensified the ongoing fratricide in Afghanistan
and paved the way for the ascendancy of the Taliban and al Qaeda. One could argue
that Washington had little leverage to mediate the country's factional rivalries,
but the fact that it did not try was a betrayal of the Afghan people. In the decade
before September 11 Washington revisited the abandoned land twice, in very contradictory
On August 20, 1998, the United States launched one hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles
into Osama bin Laden's residence as retaliation against his presumed involvement
in the bombing of U. S. embassy buildings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. And then
again in May 2001 the Bush administration gave the Taliban $43 million for
supposedly outlawing the cultivation of opium. This was a reward for an ally against
the drug war. To my knowledge, Robert Sheer of the Los Angeles Times was the only
journalist who wrote a critical article about the gift to the Taliban.
It is worth noting that in the winter of 2000 a scholar connected to the Republican
party, Zelmay Khalilzad published an insightful article about Afghanistan in The
Washington Quartery, urging American foreign policy makers to reengage in Afghanistan
and try to confront Taliban's sponsorship of terrorism and to regional stability.
Since Afghanistan was hardly on the American radar screen, it is doubtful that either
the Clinton administration or anyone on candidate Bush's foreign policy team even
read the article. Mr. Khalilzad is an American of Afghan origin and after the establishment
of Hamid Karsai's interim government, President Bush appointed him as his special
envoy to Afghanistan.
WASHINGTON'S CALLOUSNESS AND OPPORTUNISM was also on display during the Iran-Iraq
war. This war was a feud between two megalomaniacs, Khomeini and Saddam Hussein.
It was a clear assault on the interests and sensibilities of the two nations. Nearly
a million Iranians and Iraqis died in the fighting and their national economies were
devastated, but Washington did everything in its power to prolong the war. Former
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expressed the essence of United States policy
when he said "the ultimate American interest" in the Iran-Iraq war would
be served if "both sides lose."
The Reagan operatives' diligent pursuit of this
"ultimate American interest" led to secret arms deal between the White
House and the two protagonists; it also intensified the fighting and contributed
to the massive buildup of the Iraqi military machine. Forty-two states sold arms
to the uncontested despots in Tehran and Baghdad; and twelve, including all five
members of the United Nations Security Council, sold arms to both sides. According
to the United Nations envoy charged with negotiating an end to the war, in July 1988,
days before a cease-fire agreement was to be signed by the warring states, Secretary
of State George Schultz made a bold attempt to halt the U. N. mediation. (6)
When Iraq dropped chemical bombs on Iranian troops, Washington chose to be mute.
A number of European states and international human rights organizations raised the
issue but the Reagan administration remained indifferent. Saddam Hussein was considered
an asset at the time and Washington chose to overlook the incident. Days after the
ceasefire took effect in August 1988, Iraq used poison gas against its own Kurdish
population and Washington did not object. Thousands of civilians died as a result
of Iraq's repeated use of chemical weapons, but there was no talk of U.S. or UN sanction
against Iraq. Washinton's silence in the face of Iraq's use of chemical weapons gave
Saddam Hussein the impression that he could continue his weapons program unimpeded.
It is necessary to remember America's accommodating treatment of Iraq during the
1980s, if we want to understand why Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait in August
1990. The turning point in this sorry history was the 1982 decision of the Reagan
administration to take Iraq off the list of countries known to sponsor terrorism,
making it eligible to receive high-tech items generally denied to those on the list.
Since the end of the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the US has repeatedly accused Iraq
of maintaining a program to develop "nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons
and the missiles to develop them." (7) What most of us do not know is that the
US supplied Iraq with much of the raw material for creating a chemical and biological
warfare program. (8)
During the 1980s, US companies sold Iraq more than 1 billion dollars worth of
the components needed to build nuclear weapons and diverse types of missiles, including
the infamous Scud. According to a 1994 Senate report, private American suppliers
licensed by the US Department of Commerce, exported a variety of biological and chemical
materials to Iraq from 1985 through 1989. As the Senate report states, "these
biological materials were not attenuated or weakened and were capable of reproduction.
It was later learned that these microorganisms exported by the United States, were
identical to those the United Nations inspectors found and removed from the Iraqi
biological warfare program." The exports continued to at least November 28,
1989, despite evidence that Iraq had used chemical and biological weapons as early
as 1984. In short, Saddam Hussein interpreted the attitude of the Reagan and Bush
administrations toward him as a green light to pursue his own expansionist agenda.
THE PERSIAN GULF WAR OF 1991 is the third example I wish to use to develop my argument.
In the early days of America's confrontation with Saddam Hussein, President George
Bush generated the hope of a new dawn in United States policy toward the Middle East
when he repeatedly referred to Saddam as "Baghdad's dictator." Such condemnation
had an unsettling sound. We all knew the despotic character of the Iraqi leader,
but hearing it from Bush, who until the day of the invasion had viewed him as a person
with whom he could work, was somewhat mystifying. After all, the eight Arab states
participating in the coalition against Iraq had a bloody record of suppressing dissent
in their respective countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and the
United Arab Emirates were family or tribal dictatorships; Egypt showed a touch of
political tolerance in those days but since then it has become increasingly repressive.
The eighth ally was Syria under Hafez Assad, a man not much different from Hussein.
In mid-February 1991, when the United States began its bombing of Iraq's military
and industrial targets, President Bush made an explicit call for Saddam Hussein's
American planes dropped millions of leaflets on Iraqi cities, towns and villages
calling on people to rise up against their rulers. A CIA sponsored clandestine radio
station in Saudi Arabia, broadcasting in Arabic, sent the same message to the Iraqis
during the war. This announced American objective reverberated among the Shiites
and Kurdish people of Iraq, who apparently concluded that if they rebel against Saddam
Hussein the United States would support them.
In early March 1991 heavy clashes in Basra, a city in southern Iraq, were reported
between Shiites and the Republican Guards, Saddam Hussein's elite troops. The next
day Iraq expelled all foreign news reporters from the country and acknowledged that
it was facing an internal rebellion. After the signing of the cease-fire agreement
between Iraq and the U. S. led alliance, we also learned that Baghdad's 300,000 strong
Republican Guard had largely survived the war. When the Republican Guards used helicopter
gunships and shelled the civilian demonstrators in Basra and Karbala in southern
Iraq, president Bush declared that Iraq's use of the helicopters to suppress the
rebellion violated the cease-fire agreement but he did nothing about it.
Nevertheless, the Shiites managed to take control of Hilla, a town about a hundred
miles south of Baghdad. During the same period, the Kurds rebelled in the northern
part of country and claimed control of wide areas, including Kirkuk, a major oil-producing
center and fourth largest city in Iraq. After a week of vacillation and issuance
of vague threats, it was reported on March 27 that President Bush had decided to
let Hussein put down the rebellions rather than splintering Iraq. After suppressing
the Shiites in the south, the Republican Guards went north to attack the Kurds. As
the Kurdish irregulars faced Saddam's superior forces, hundreds of thousands of Kurds
fled into the snow-covered mountains, facing the threat of death from starvation
and disease. In short, the United States incited the rebels and then deserted them,
accepting the annihilation of tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites. The result
was that the rebels' praise for Bush turned to curses. Many came to believe that
Washington purposely betrayed them.
It is now evident that when allied forces expelled Iraqi troops from Kuwait in late
February 1991, the Bush administration had to choose between two unattractive options:
either to disarm the Baathist machine, force Saddam Hussein into exile, help a coalition
of anti-Saddam Iraqis to rescue their country from the inevitable chaos of the postwar
political environment and be ready for an uncertain outcome, or keep Hussein in power,
leave him enough weapons and troops, tolerate his decimation of the Kurds and the
Shiites, watch him restore order, and then try to use him, once again, in the regional
balance of power game.
Both alternatives involved uncertainty. President Bush chose the second path because
it promised to restore American policy to its prewar status. In this scenario, Bush
would have liked to replace Hussein with another strongman, but the nature and organization
of the Baathist regime precluded such as possibility. The first choice could have
shocked the Persian Gulf dictatorships because it would have implied that the United
States was willing to cope with the unpredictability of popular political competition.
It is no wonder, then, that the president embraced the second option and quickly
informed his critics that the war "was not about democracy."
Indeed, it soon became evident that Bush's characterization of Hussein as "Baghdad's
dictator" was intended more to please the American public than to condemn dictatorship
in the Middle East. However one might disagree with the decision to let Hussein reconsolidate
his power, it was not too difficult to see the cold logic of the move in persuading
Washington's allies in the Persian Gulf to see American military presence in the
area necessary for their security. In this regard, the emasculated Saddam Hussein
has been quite useful to U. S. strategy over the past decade.
THE AMERICAN POSITION IN THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN ONFLICT is the most intense and
widespread source of resentment toward the United States among the ordinary peoples
of the Middle East. The Oslo peace agreement implicitly promised the creation of
an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but Israeli
settlements in the occupied territories never stopped expanding.
From the very beginning Ariel Sharon, a militant and influential promoter of the
settlements, rejected the idea and set out to destroy it. Sharon was opposed to both
the Israeli-Egyptian and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties. He was also opposed
to the withdrawal of Israeli army from Lebanon. American officials acknowledge that
Israeli settlements are a violation of the UN Security Counsel Resolutions 242 and
338, but they fall short of admitting that the settlements will negate the central
promise of the Oslo accord in regard to the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian
The counsel of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza considers peace talk
with Palestinians to be a betrayal of the Jewish faith. The right-wing Israelis who
regard Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a hero and a martyr,
have become a strong force in Israeli politics. They demand Israeli control over
the West Bank and the Gaza strip and regard giving up any part of the biblical land
as heretical. After Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo accord in 1993, he and his wife
Leah, discussed the possibility of violent reprisal against the Prime Minister from
members of Hamas, but they could not imagine that a Jew would attack him. In the
words of Leah Rabin, "we simply did not think it possible that one Jew would
even think of killing another." (9)
Rabin's killer expressed 'no regret' for his deed and simply claimed that he had
"acted on orders from God." On the Palestinian side, Hamas (Islamic Resistance
Movement), the promoter and organizer of terror against Israeli civilians, immerged
in the late 1980s from the poorer segments of Palestinian society. There is a parallel
development between the growth of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories
and the expansion of Hamas as an organization. In early 1990s, Hamas was a marginal
group with limited political influence. Today, it has become a popular movement easily
capable of recruiting suicide bombers.
The news reports of uprising in the occupied territories often give the impression
that Palestinian resistance or violence is caused by religious zeal or hatred. Another
way to understand why individual Palestinian demonstrators endure beatings and imprisonment
in violent encounters with Israeli Defense Forces is to consider the socioeconomic
and psychological factors that make life under military occupation intolerable. According
to Israeli historian Benny Morris, "a few months before the  Intifada
(Arabic for 'shaking off') broke out, an Israeli study used two images to describe
Gaza: 'a cancer,' which would eat away at the Israeli polity, and 'a time bomb,'
economic, social, and demographic, of almost unimaginable potency." (10)
Another "researcher compared the Gaza Strip on the eve of the Intifada to
a pressure cooker, containing 'overcrowding, poverty, hatred, violence, oppression,
poor sanitation, anger, frustration, drugs and crime'" (11) Fifteen years ago,
2500 Israelis settled in the Gaza Strip controlled 28% of the land. Today, the number
of settlers has increased to 6500, and they keep increasing their control of the
During the same period, the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank increased
from fewer than 30,000 to over 200,000. So much of the underground water reserves
in both the West Bank and Gaza are diverted toward the settler areas that the settlers
use twelve times as much water as do Palestinians. As a consequence, the amount of
irrigated Arab land in the occupied territories has drastically declined. Even in
East Jerusalem, writes Amos Elon, former senior editor of Ha'aretz, "despite
repeated warnings that unfair treatment of Palestinian Jerusalemites in providing
education, housing, sanitation, and other social services might lead to disaster,
the discrimination against them Öcontinued to this day." (12)
Avishai Margalit, in a revealing article about the political, economic and security
implications of the settlements, reminds us that " Sharon, more than anyone
else, was the prime mover in building the existing settlements as the minister in
charge of the occupied territories in the Begin and Shamir governments. He has talked
of 42 percent of the West Bank being allotted to the Palestinians, the rest to Israel
- a huge expansion of Israeli territory." (13) It is no wonder then, suggests
Professor Avishai Margalit of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, that:
over 40 percent of the population in the settlements is employed by the state
- 38 percent in public services, the rest in security - in comparison to the 26 percent
of the population of Jerusalem, where all the major state institutions are located.
The rate of unemployment in the settlements is nearly zero, as compared with the
current overall rate in Israel of about 9 percent. (14)
Since the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem began
in 1967, the population of these areas has more than doubled. This means that the
mindset, the perceptions and the sensibilities of nearly 90% of Palestinians living
in the territories are shaped by the harsh and humiliating conditions of life under
military occupation. Palestinians want their own state. They resent being stateless
and ruled by foreign military occupiers who plan to make their lives so miserable
that they would choose to leave in mass. It may well be that an independent Palestine
will become another dictatorship in the region.
As the sorry human rights record of the Palestinian Authority shows, citizens
of the future Palestine may have to initiate a new democracy movement against their
own entrenched rulers. In such eventuality some Palestinians will probably continue
to blame outside powers for their plight, but this type of scapegoating is a symptom
of post-colonial mentality and largely benign. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is
about nationalism and occupation. Terrorism is largely a bi-product of the stalemate
in the conflict.
In 1993, when the Oslo accord was made public, 90% of Palestinians were hopeful
that negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority could
result in the creation of a sovereign Palestine and peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Today, over 90% have lost all hope in negotiation with Israelis. They are convinced
that Israel intends to expel them from their land. The continuation of the confrontation
can only serve the religious fundamentalists of both sides who reject the idea of
a peaceful solution to their conflict as sinful treason.
As a general rule, terrorism helps the position of right-wing elements in the target
country. Conversely, the hard-line policy of a right-wing government toward the aggrieved
population enhances the popularity of violent resistance. Benjamin Natanyahu's success
in the 1996 Israeli elections was made possible by a series of Hamas suicide attacks
on Jerusalem buses. Before the bombings, Natanyahu's rival, Shimon Peres, successor
to the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, held 20% lead in the polls.
Ariel Sharon's landslide victory in the 2001 elections was also the result of
terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. Similarly, the growing popularity of Hamas
in the occupied territories is the result of settlement expansion and Sharon's policy
of assassination and bombing. In Israel, the violence of the last two years has led
to the development of a mutually reinforcing perception and perspective between Hamas
and Likud hardliners.
The important point to bear in mind is that the hardliners on each side hold to their
views irrespective of what the other side does or says. A religious mission motivates
the Jewish fundamentalists who promote land confiscation in the occupied territories.
As Thomas Friedman observed in the wake of Rabin's assassination:
Yigal Amir, Mr. Rabin's assassins, was a product of the best religious -Zionist
schools in Israel. How could that system have produced such a person, and his accomplices?
The answer, say some religious-Zionist scholars, is that too many of their schools
and rabbis give more emphasis to the value of land than to the value of life. They
stress Jewish teachings about preserving sovereignty over the land of Israel more
than Jewish teachings that say he who sheds the blood of another human being destroys
the image of God in the world. (15)
When Palestine Liberation Organization under Arafat's leadership began negotiation
with Israelis in 1991, Hamas and Islamic Jihad issued leaflets 'denouncing the impending
'conference of surrender' and the 'sell-out of Palestine'" (16) The leaders
of these organizations have repeatedly rejected the idea of Israel as a sovereign
The hard-line elements opposed to dialogue and reconciliation used to represent
a small part of the population on both sides of the divide, but in recent years their
political clout has been increasing along with settlement expansion and mounting
casualties in violent encounters. The more fearful and frustrated people feel in
their everyday life, the more the hard-line fanatics influence their perception,
behavior and expectation. Today, the hardliners control both the Israeli government
and the Palestinian struggle against the occupation.
In this confrontation, the United States government is neither neutral nor an honest
broker. It supports Israel politically and militarily with deeds, while expressing
empty concern for the plight of Palestinians. It overlooks or justifies the Israeli
violence against Palestinians, while condemning the Palestinian violence in no uncertain
terms. I happen to believe that the strategic alliance between the United States
and Israel is a necessity. It is imperative that Washington remains committed to
the safety and territorial integrity of Israel, even if Israel is militarily superior
to the combined forces of the despots who rule the states of the region.
The problem in the U. S. - Israeli alliance arises when the men with most influence
over the actual Israeli design for the occupied territories claim to have a religious
mission to control the 'biblical land' of Israel; and they quote the Genesis to prove
their case: "to your offspring I assign the land, from the river of Egypt to
the great river, the Euphrates" (Genesis: 15:18.) The question facing American
foreign policymakers is whether they should finance and defend the enactment of revealed
edicts. We need an answer soon because the government of Israel is currently using
U. S. military equipments to fulfill the mission. There is another voice in Israel
to which we should all listen with care. It is the voice represented by Amos Oz:
Perhaps it is only human that underneath the shock and the pain there is a small
voice in some of us here in Israel, which says, "now at last they will all understand
what we are going through" or "now they will all finally take our side"
But this small voice is extremely dangerous for us: it may easily seduce us into
forgetting that with or without Arab terrorism, there is no justification whatsoever
for the lasting occupation and suppression of the Palestinian people by Israel. We
have no right to deny Palestinians their natural right to self-determination. Two
huge oceans could not shelter America from terrorism; the occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza by Israel has not made Israel secure - on the contrary, it makes our
self-defense much harder and more complicated. The sooner this occupation ends, the
better it will be for Palestinians and Israeli alike.
IT HAS BECOME A TRUISM TO REFER TO AMARICA as the only superpower in the world.
To appreciate the global concerns of the United States, it is helpful to see America
as the world's last imperial power as well. The American empire is not legally or
formally constituted, but it is a de facto reality nevertheless. How else can we
describe a nation that commands more than 60 military base complexes in 20 different
The CIA coined the term 'blowback,' but it is now widely used in writings on international
relations and American foreign policy. In his new book, Blowback, Chalmers
Johnson defines the term as "the unintended consequences of policies that were
kept from the American people." Then he goes on to add that "what the daily
press reports as the malign acts of 'terrorists' or 'drug lords' or 'rogue states'
or 'illegal arms merchants' often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations."
In the four cases discussed above U. S. policies benefited the despotic regimes or
armed extremists, while aggravating the predicament of the oppressed populace. Needless
to say, the American government did not wish such results, but in each case it chose
a course of action or inaction that made the eventual disasters largely predictable.
In other words, during the 1980s and 1990s American policies in the cases examined
resulted in harming the potential for civility in the affairs of Afghanistan, Iran,
Iraq and Palestine by strengthening, however paradoxically and unintentionally, the
hands of the Taliban, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Hamas and the expansionist right-wing
Managers of imperial America maintain that their decisions are informed by realism
or pragmatism, as distinguished from idealism or visionary aspirations. I have tried
to show how 'realism' or Realpolitik in theory can become nihilism in practice.
Evidence suggests that infatuation with quick pay off in the foreign policy arena
tends to neglect the costs and consequences of likely consequences decisions beyond
their instant reward. Such reflections have little appeal to imperial officials because
they see little value in remembering the past and imagining the future. For as a
general rule, it is the circumstances at hand that absorb the bulk of their attention
and energy. They are compelled to remember the past only when the blowbacks come
to embarrass them.
Between 1989 and September 11, 2001, Washington quite accurately considered its
support for the Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet army a success story. During
this period, Afghanistan was hardly an issue on the American foreign policy agenda.
Feminist groups in Europe and North America and international human rights organizations
repeatedly condemned the cruelties of the Taliban, but they were hardly noticed in
the circles of power. Only 3 countries had recognized the Taliban as the legitimate
government of Afghanistan, but the non-recognition was more the result of an abstract
contempt for the medieval ways of the Taliban then out of concern for their victims.
So long as repressive regimes rule in the Middle Eastern countries, publicists of
violence and sectarianism can find enough desperate listeners who could come to see
terrorism as an answer to their frustration and political impotence. We should also
bear in mind that high technology weapons have continued to flow unabated to the
area since the end of the Cold War. With dictators remaining in power, it is simply
a matter of time before weapons of mass destruction are added to the arsenals of
various despots. Thus the struggle against moral harboring of terrorists must include
human rights advocacy and promotion of democracy.
There is a significant middle class with a modern education and a secular orientation
in nearly all nations in the region. These middle classes are currently silenced
or marginalized, but sooner or later they will become influential actors in the politics
of their respective countries. The worldwide democracy movement is bound to reach
the gates of the Middle East and Washington, in the interest of America's national
security and democratic values, ought to encourage and be identified with this eventuality.
The paradox and its challenge are clear: the United States has to acknowledge the
dilemma and begin to search for an innovative approach to the unique circumstances
of each country in the region.
I WISH TO CONCLUDE MY REMARKS by noting that the media
and the vast majority of American political and religious leaders ought to be complimented
for dismissing as false and demagogic the attempt to blame the Arabs or Muslims as
a people in the September 11 terrorist attacks. When stereotypical clichés
like 'Muslim mindset' and 'Arab character' are used for judgmental purposes, they
are intended, consciously or otherwise, to exclude and discriminate against a collectivity.
The crimes of September 11 were committed by a group of psychopaths, not a people
or a nation. Such creatures are rare but known to all human groups regardless of
race, religion or nationality. Fanaticism can plague both believers and non-believers;
cruel actors are not bound by metaphysics in justifying their acts. In the age of
nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, the cruelty of terrorism is the ultimate
threat we face. Thus while the assault on the agents and sponsors of terror continues,
we should do our utmost to deprive the terrorists of the popular sympathy they receive.
We must deal with the conditions and circumstances that produce this sympathy. American
foreign policymakers can lead the world in meeting this challenge by becoming more
sensitive to the daily humiliation and resentment of those who live under the rule
of cruel governments.
Mansour Farhang is professor of Diplomatic History/International
Relations at Benningtron College, Vermont. He received his B.A. from the University of Arizona in 1965 and
Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School in 1970. He served as revolutionary Iran's
first ambassador to the United Nations, resigning in protest when Khomeini regime
refused to accept U.N. Commission of Inquiryís recommendation to release American
hostages in Teheran. Early in Iran-Iraq war served as envoy in negotiations with
international peace missions. Current advisory board member of Middle East Watch,
a branch of Human Rights Watch.
1 - Rapoport, David C., "Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious
Traditions," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, September
1984, No. 3, pp. 658 ó 677.
2 - Stern, Jessica, The Ultimate Terrorists, Harvard University Press,
1999, p. 70.
3 - Bearden, Milton, "Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empire," Foreign
Affairs, November/December 2001, p. 24.
4 - Rashid, Ahmad, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil & Fundamentalism In Central
Asia, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 33.
5 - Bearden, p. 24.
6 - Giandomenico Picco, Man Without A Gun: One Diplomatís Secret Struggle
to Free the Hostages, Fight Terrorism, and End a War, Times Book, 1999, pp. 88
7 - Blum, William, "Anthrax
for Export: U.S. companies sold Iraq the ingredients for a witchís brew"
The Progressive (April, 1998).
8 - Ibid.
9 - Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of
God, University of California Press, 2000, p. 47
10 - Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist ó Arab Conflict,
1881 ó 2001, Vintage Books, p. 564.
11 - Ibid.
12 - Amos Elon, "The Deadlocked City," The New York Review of Books
(2001), p. 10.
13 - Avishai Margalit, "Settling Scores," The New York Review of
Book (September 20, 2001), p. 24.
14 - Avishai Margalit, p. 23.
15 - Thomas L. Friedman, "Land Or Life?" New York Times (November
19, 1995), Sec. 4, p.15
16 - Morris, p. 615.
17 - Amos Oz, "Struggling Against Fanaticism," New York Times
(September 14, 2001), opinion page.
18 - Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and
Consequences of American Empire, Owl Books, 2000, p. 8.