The United States and the Muslim World Today

Apr 13, 2005

Karabell examines some of the most pervasive myths about the Middle East, including those surrounding the U.S. quest for oil, the Israel connection, and xenophobia.


ZACHARY KARABELL: I will make some general remarks, but I am more interested in your thoughts and questions.

I spent many years studying the Middle East, and some time actually in the Middle East, and many years learning Arabic, and several months completely forgetting it.I got interested in the Middle East while growing up in New York in the 1970s. At the time, American foreign policy was focused on the Sinai talks, on Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, and on the first oil embargo, after the 1973 war. Abscam, a huge congressional scandal in 1977—where FBI agents dressed up as Saudi sheiks videotaped themselves offering bribes to congressmen—was also formative for me. To this day I am interested in figuring out what it is about this part of the world that draws us in so profoundly. Since the 1970s, everyone says that the only reason we care about the Middle East is oil. But is that the whole picture? I don't think so.The Arab world, broadly construed—including Morocco and Tunisia, and extending to Iraq and Yemen—is fewer than 300 million people, with a combined gross national product of somewhat less than $500 billion. (The GNP of Iraq is about $28 billion. The annual earnings of IBM are about $80 billion, to give a sense of scale.)Yet we pay much more attention to the Middle East than to all of Latin America. That hasn't always been true, historically, but it has been the case in the past thirty years. We pay substantially more attention to the Middle East than we do to all of sub-Saharan Africa—also an area of about 300 million people, and significantly poorer than the 300 million people that the Arab world represents. We pay more attention to the Middle East and the Arab world than we do to Southeast Asia, which has more people.Let me outline a few of our most common myths about the Middle East that in my view, have fed into our obsession with it.Myth #1: The region deserves our attention because of our need to secure oil.The world consumes 87 million barrels of oil a day; we consume 21 million a day, or one quarter of that. We import 13 million barrels of oil a day. It therefore follows that any country with oil will want to sell it to the United States. If you were Iran right now, there would be few things you'd want more than to be able to sell oil to the "Great Satan." The issue is not, does Iran want to sell the United States oil? The issue is, does the United States want to buy Iranian oil?The fact of oil, in and of itself, is not really an issue. As long as it is in the ground to be pumped and we are one of the largest consumers—anyone with control of that resource, whether they are fundamentalists who hate us or free-market capitalists who love us, will want to sell it to the United States.There could be Khomeinis in every single oil-producing country, but that wouldn't, in and of itself, jeopardize our access to this resource we so clearly need. (The only time anyone in the Middle East cut off oil supplies to the United States was in 1973. OPEC did a lot of saber rattling. The Venezuelans have been more willing to say, "If you do X, we won't sell you oil.") Then there is the issue of who controls the oil and their revenues from our purchases. Concern about that was clearly a major issue in 1990-1991. The fear was that Saddam Hussein could be a danger, because oil money would give him the necessary fuel—pun intended—to purchase weapons. This gets more to the strategic issue of not wanting any one group whose stated interests are contrary to our own to have control of oil revenues—an element of U.S. policy toward the Middle East since the late 1960s.Myth #2: The region deserves our attention because of our historically close relationship with Israel.Even the notion of the United States being a close, enduring friend of Israel is historical fiction. It was true from the mid-1970s onwards, but not before then. There was a huge battle between the U.S. State Department and the Truman administration about whether to recognize the state of Israel in the first place. The State Department was adamantly opposed—not so much because of rampant anti-Semitism in the WASP-oriented State Department as some would claim but because, why recognize Israel when you also have a series of Arab states, and isn't this a British issue?We refused to sell Israel arms throughout the 1950s. A young Shimon Peres went off to Paris in 1954, 1955, and 1956 to convince the French to sell Israel arms. If anything, we took a very strong stance against Israel in 1956, when the Israelis, French, and British attempted to reverse the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Even the Kennedy administration found it rough going with Israel. To some degree, U.S. support of Israel was the result of an historical accident. Israel's surprising, stunning victory in the 1967 war—with the preternaturally telegenic, one-eyed Moshe Dayan leading the troops across the Jordan River and seizing, in lightning strikes, all this territory—bolstered the United States, mired down as it was then in Vietnam. We were happy to have an ally that was winning a war and fighting the good fight.Only then do we see the United States beginning to support Israel, and even then it is complicated. We did not tilt totally toward Israel and away from the Saudis or the Egyptians.Myth #3: The region deserves our attention because Arabs are being taught to hate us.You have heard the frequently repeated phrase: "Every day throughout the Middle East, in places like Pakistan and Iran, children are being taught hate—hate of America, hate of Israel—dogmatic readings of the Qur'an. It will be generations before that changes, and we will be living with the legacy of that hatred for a long time to come."If we had sat here in 1988 talking about the Soviet Union, we would have said, "Every day kids go to school in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and they are told about the evils of the capitalist system, the evils of the United States. Undoing that will be so complicated, because they are brainwashed and indoctrinated." Four years later, these same brainwashed and indoctrinated people are tearing down statues, saying "The hell with this whole system" and asking: "How can I sign up for the first cell phone license in the Eastern Bloc?"In 1968, Jerry Rubin sent his girlfriend into the Chicago National Convention nude with a boar's head, to make fun of the political system. Eleven years later, he hosted yuppie networking parties at New York nightclubs, and was enforcing a dress code.So things change—sometimes much more rapidly than we might like to believe. While it is true that hatred is being preached every day, children in any country, once they become adults, have a way of questioning the sacred cows. If you want to go to a place in the Middle East where religion has been discredited, go to Iran. That doesn't mean that the "mullocracy" does not have an increasingly nasty and harsh hold on power in Iran, or that it hasn't coopted groups that see it as being in their best interests to support the mullahs. No matter what the state system dictates, people don't necessarily buy into it—just because that's how people are.Myth #4: Our feelings about the Middle East have nothing to do with racism.We have a tendency to extrapolate in this country: so things are, so they were, and so they shall be—our interests in that region are, have always been, and will always be security and oil. In fact, there is an ideological dimension of our relationship with the Middle East that has nothing to do with oil or with the Arab-Israeli conflict per se, though it does have to do with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is an undercurrent that we shy away from, but occasionally it rises to the surface—and then we try to brush it under the rug.When we hear Lieutenant-General Boykin, who is the head of one of the intelligence arms of the Pentagon, talking about this being the "righteous fight" and referring to Islam as the "forces of darkness," or Franklin Graham getting up and talking about Muhammad as an "evil pederast," we say, "No, that's not true. Islam is a great and noble religion." A preacher will get up in a mosque in Cairo and talk about the evils of Judaism or of America, and Mubarak or another official will say, "Oh, that's just a preacher giving an opinion in a mosque."I don't agree with the clash-of-civilizations argument because no one goes to war on behalf of a civilization. Nobody, including suicide bombers, kills for a civilization. It is too amorphous. There is no loyalty to it.Yet I'm convinced that monotheistic competition forms an element of why we are so focused on Israel. It helps to explain why people who belong to these three religions continue to be so focused on each other—sometimes in a violent way, sometimes purely in a class and religious way. (It is a mistake to assume that the competition has always had a military dimension.)Historically, Islam has been the least competitive of the three monotheistic faiths, partly because it came last and believes its "lastness" makes it more right than the other two. Islam also began with a great deal of strength.Christianity has been the most competitive of the three. Christian states and Christians have had the hardest time accepting the presence of Jews or Muslims, the before and after—Jews for obvious reasons having to do with Christianity being an outgrowth of Judaism, and Islam because Muslims repudiated Christianity and for 900 years, seemed to be winning.There are non-state, non-security, and non-economic factors that draw our attention to this part of the world. No one, in government or out, has an intellectually consistent answer to: "Explain to me why Iran with nuclear weapons should be a more alarming concept than North Korea with nuclear weapons." Responses are consistently irrational across the board.We don't function perfectly rationally when it comes to the Middle East, to Arab Muslims. (Now, Iran is not Arab-Muslim, but let's face it, our ability to distinguish between Persians and Pashtuns and Arabs is limited—although somehow we seem to be able to do it with Kurds.) Our perspective on the Middle East is colored by history.There is a hilarious musical playing now called Avenue Q, which is like the X-rated version of Sesame Street. They sing, "Everybody's a little bit racist. Aren't you?" Sometimes I wonder: wouldn't it be better if we could just acknowledge that and move on?Some acknowledgement, at a cultural/policy/political level, of the racist element would clarify matters when it comes to the Middle East. (I am not a politician, so am free to speak in the realm of what I think should happen.) That would shed further light on our motives and our reactions, and it would give more clarity to our intellectual and policy analyses, which are frequently clouded in ways that we try hard to deny, because it doesn't suit our cultural image. It is as if everyone has been reading the text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, trying to force themselves to behave as if they believed every word of it: "I do not discriminate on the basis of age, religion, ethnicity, or sex."Would that that were so. But this denial of our discriminatory tendencies does lead to a lack of clarity in policy circles about why, exactly, Iran is more dangerous than North Korea. We could argue that they are equally dangerous. But if they were equally dangerous, then, presumably, we should be paying at least as much attention to North Korea as we do to Iran.One standard response I get to this claim is that Iran could attack Israel. Then the interesting question is, why are Israel's security interests perceived to be parallel to U.S. security interests—Taiwan and Thailand are allies, but every time China threatens to invade Taiwan, we don't see speeches in the U.S. Congress about how evil the Chinese are. There is a lot of backdoor discussion as well as speeches to the Taiwanese saying, "You're welcome to be independent, but don't tell anybody that you are. We will back you to the hilt, as long as you don't ask us to and don't do anything that means we'll actually have to help you."It is an interesting concept: "We support our friends, and Iran might attack our friends." Well, yes, and China might attack Taiwan, and North Korea might attack Japan. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has lived for more than a few years that bad things happen in a world of states and of people who have power.

Most of what we assume was always true about our relationship with the Middle East—the Arabs hate us; we are a staunch ally of Israel; it is all a big cabal conspiracy—wouldn't have been true forty years ago. Nor would it have been true twenty-five years ago, in the middle of the period of shuttle diplomacy.Yes, America has had oil interests in Saudi Arabia going back to the 1920s; but for most of the twentieth century, U.S. involvement in the Middle East was either nonexistent or benign—benign in the sense of being ancillary to the British. We were not engaged in what was going on with the politics of the Middle East or the Arab world, until the late 1960s.In closing I should point out that, in addition to the history of violence and conflict in the Middle East, there is also a long history of the three religions living together, finding common ground, interacting without religion being the first point of identity. This powerful history doesn't enter into the current conception of what is possible because it doesn't fit the template created by the Bush administration. Still, the antagonism between Islam and Christianity, between Muslims and Jews and Christians, and between Arabs and the West is not a given.


PARTICIPANT: We could argue that Islam, historically speaking, has been more open and more tolerant of other religions than Christianity. Today, however, some say that Islam is in its Middle Ages and needs to undergo a reformation. Do you agree, or is this something that the Bernard Lewises of this world would have us believe?ZACHARY KARABELL: I am of two minds. The notion that every society, to be structured in a way that supports its citizens' aspirations, ultimately has to look like liberal democracy in the West is simply wrong. It may be a universal that humans aspire to live with a certain amount of physical and material safety, and also with some sense of control over their own destinies; but the social structure that makes that possible can take a variety of forms.Currently, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia wouldn't pass the aspirations test. They may provide shelter and bread—i.e., people have houses and enough to eat—but they clearly don't make space for individuals to take control of their lives. China, by contrast, is able to do that, without any democracy and no substantial calls for it. In China you can get rich, you can get poor, you can move where you want, you can travel where you want—all of this in the past fifteen years—but the trade-off is that you cannot have a say in the nation's military, foreign, or political affairs without becoming part of the party. There is no such thing as government by the people.Likewise, I could imagine a trade-off in a Muslim society where people have some say in the government and considerable personal freedom to make a living and live a life—but only limited say over law and morality.Islam does not have to be relegated entirely to the realm of the private. In fact, the separation of church and state, or the distinction between religious morality and public life, is substantially more blurred in this country than our criticisms of Islamic societies would suggest.Clearly, however, most parts of the Arab world could use some reform in terms of doing more to allow individuals and groups to feel that they have the capacity to change, alter, and improve the material, social, and cultural circumstances under which they live. Jordan is somewhat of an exception. Morocco is working out some balance in this respect. We will see what happens with Lebanon. But in much of the Arab world—Syria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen—the balance between state control and personal freedom just isn't there.My problem in taking on someone like Bernard Lewis is that I lack the ability to sleep the sleep of the just and possess an equal and opposite certainty that meets his thesis.I think that Lewis is wrong in terms of what needs to be done. But his analysis is right in the sense that, when you hear an Egyptian government official saying, "There is an Egyptian way to liberalize. It is our society and we will do it in our time," it is usually a smokescreen for: "We will try to retain as much of current power as possible, before something makes us give it up."PARTICIPANT: So why does the United States perceive Iran's nuclear capability to be a greater threat than North Korea's?ZACHARY KARABELL: Imagine if the United States government based its foreign affairs on the following premise: "We are a powerful country. We're a third of the global economy. We have a larger military than our fifteen nearest rivals combined, and we are untouchable in conventional military terms. We believe in security, and we want the rules of international commerce to reflect a system that we can operate effectively and competitively in, and we will counter any threats to our supremacy." If we stated this up front, then we'd be on much firmer ground if we said: "We perceive this place, for reasons of our own strategic interests, as posing more of a problem than that place." The issue would be, "Given our strategic interests, we know we don't want someone too near those oil fields. We happen to prefer Israel as an ally to a lot of other places. Thus we see Iran as more of a problem—and also because they are an ideological regime—than we do North Korea or Zimbabwe or whatever other anti-democratic regimes crop up and turn out to be developing unconventional weapons."That would be a very difficult position to assail. The foundation of our actions would be explicitly one of self-interest, in which there is no embedded hypocrisy. You are telling the world, "We're doing this because we can and because we want to. And unless you can stop us, that's what we're going to do."The problems start to arise when you say you are defending an international state system of liberalism, that you are a beacon of freedom and democracy—which entails human rights and support of all individuals' rights. The problems start to arise as soon as you say you believe in a community of nations that should do something to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction at the state level. Under those conditions, when you start differentiating between one state and another, you have a serious problem, because people will say, "Excuse me, if that is the foundation, then how do you differentiate between State A with nuclear weapons and State B with nuclear weapons?"PARTICIPANT: I dislike Kim Jong-il as much as the next person; but the United States has a very large military presence in North Korea, and there is a sense of containment. Our military presence in the Middle East is relatively new, dating back to around five years ago, and is so spread out that a conflict with Iran could mean chaos in Afghanistan and Iraq.If North Korea launches a nuke at Japan or South Korea, we will destroy them, period. If Iran launches a nuke at Israel, we'll have one more guy on our "most wanted" list. Also, Asia as a region is much more stable. Even China is going more capitalist. North Korea is an outdated island of communism. Their leader will die—maybe in forty years, maybe in twenty. His regime goes with him.PARTICIPANT: There is also a sense that we "lost" Iran, whereas we never "lost" North Korea. The people in the current administration were the same ones who lost Iran. That may be a factor in the tension or the hostility towards Iran that we don't have with North Korea.Also, there are few links with North Korea, whereas—paradoxically—we have strong intellectual ties with Iran. There are huge Iranian communities in Europe and in the States.ZACHARY KARABELL: Actually, your last comment would suggest that our policy toward North Korea should be much more confrontational and the policy toward Iran, more diplomatic.The administration paints a grim picture of North Korea as a way of explaining why we can't be confrontational. If we attacked, they say, the North Koreans would flatten Seoul with weapons both conventional and unconventional, and then would attack Japan.One issue with North Korea is its willingness to sell its weapons to other states and individuals. That is also an issue with the Iranians—although the Iranians, perhaps because they are much more familiar with the ilk to whom they would sell, are not willing to sell biological, chemical, and, presumably, nuclear weapons to people unhinged enough to use them just about anywhere, depending on who the target is at a given moment. Iran has been much less willing to support groups it doesn't control because of the potential blowback.There are three different Iranian governments: the one we like, which is Khatami; the one we don't like, which is the bazaaris, or merchants [the conservatives]; and the one we really don't like, which consists of those who are still fighting the revolution.Proliferation is a real issue, but right now we have a series of state systems that are set up to deal with state threats and not threats by groups or individuals. Technology will proliferate whether we like it or not, and the capacity of individuals to obtain these technologies is bound to increase. At some point, we will have to find a way to deal with this reality. How do you prevent an angry individual, of whatever color, race, or persuasion, from doing disproportionate harm with technology that allows him to do so?We are scared of ideologies that we don't understand or can't control, because we think that people with these ideologies are more likely to inflict harm. (We are usually less scared of mad dictators. Saddam was the exception. On the whole, we haven't minded dictators, if you look at the past fifty years. Sometimes we even put them in power.)The United States would be on stronger ground globally if we were a little more Kissingerian or more nakedly "We're an empire; get over it." Obviously, we are not culturally comfortable doing so.PARTICIPANT: But even if the United States is uncomfortable with a self-interest-based foreign policy, so what? Does that change whether Iran is a greater threat than North Korea? However you look at it, isn't Iran still a threat?ZACHARY KARABELL: Under self-interest, we would have more latitude to deal with one problem at a time, the way we seem to want to. By the way, if you're talking naked power politics, then you could argue that none of these countries has the capacity to threaten us, as states. Their capacity to threaten us is much more in selling very low-level weapons that could, if smuggled into this country, do a lot of harm to its citizens. But, strategically, neither Iran nor North Korea is a threat to us, nor will they be in the next twenty years.PARTICIPANT: You acknowledged that religious competition was a factor, which is why we pay more attention to the Middle East than to other parts of the world. But then can't you argue that Iran is a greater threat because they also play that game of religious competition, whereas the leaders in North Korea couldn't care less about religious idelology. They just want to stay in power.Iran is about more than just staying in power. They have a worldview based on their religious beliefs, the same way some of our leaders do in this country. They will fight us because they think their views are superior to ours. Based on that, they are the greater threat.ZACHARY KARABELL: When is a threat a perception, and when is it a reality? What is an actual threat versus a fear? The distinction is blurred at the level of policy and politics, which are often about emotions, passions, and fears of the moment, as opposed to cool-headed analysis.The good thing about cold, calculating realists is that they are capable of distinguishing between a low-level nuclear device and a firebomb. Realists were opposed to going into Iraq because from a pure power-politic perspective, the country didn't pose a threat to American security.We live in a society that is woven with our own particular fictions and ideologies. We will not become Bismarck-like just because it would make our lives easier. But this fact creates certain issues and constraints globally. Much of what the world has reacted to in the past forty years has to do with our mixed messages. Is this self-interest? Is this ideology? Is this democracy? Is this proliferation? And then the arbitrariness with which we seem to apply it to Place A and then to Place B.When we look at Iran, there is an element that has nothing to do with strategy or threat assessment, but everything to do with ideology and history. And they have their own version of it towards us. The two feed on each other in a way that is particular to monotheisms and their history of competition. Judaism has not been a part of it until recently, because Jews never had the power to compete.PARTICIPANT: You said that twenty-five years ago, we didn't think this way. What has changed?ZACHARY KARABELL: What changed was our immersion in the world. American culture, until the 1950s, didn't think much about the world. And now we've inherited some of Europe's thinking.For many years, we had a generic opposition to, or dislike of, Islam. You can find lots of unfriendly sermons and books about Muhammad in the 1880s in the United States. That said, it was never a hot issue. And it wasn't a strong element of U.S. foreign policy until we became more prominent as a global actor. In the 1950s, we were just beginning to fill in where Britain and France were ceding, a trend that became even more pronounced in the 1960s.As France and England withdrew or were pushed out, we had increasing contact with the Middle East. Christian groups in the 1960s and early 1970s soon began to see Israel as the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. But there was a long period when we simply didn't care about this part of the world, even though we were interested in its oil.PARTICIPANT: How much of this is a hangover from the Cold War? (In the words of the illustrious Alexander Haig, "We were fighting Marxism, goddammit!")ZACHARY KARABELL: Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. government was desperately searching for a unifying theme and enemy, and now, in the early 21st century, they've found it in terrorism and Islam. But what if Aum Shinrikyo decided to put sarin gas or other biological agents into New York's subways instead of Tokyo's? We wouldn't be paying attention. I wonder if someone like Richard Clarke is sitting around right now saying, "Damn it, this is what we should be paying attention to. Osama and al-Qaeda have disbanded, and there is this Zimbabwean resistance group that hates our guts and that has been trying to obtain anthrax."There is definitely a Cold War hangover. And now we have found our unifying theme, one that leads us to believe that Iran is more important than North Korea. What's the next place, and is it more important than Pakistan?PARTICIPANT: Our whole infrastructure was built around fighting neo-Marxism, and then when that collapsed, our infrastructure didn't know how to adjust.ZACHARY KARABELL: During the 1990s we created a national drug czar to deal with the war on drugs. Now all of the people who were dealing with this are suddenly doing terrorism. The same resources have been reallocated.PARTICIPANT: I wonder if the emphasis placed on Iran has less to do with the preferences of our government officials and more to do with the tendency of the American public to worry about the Middle East—even though the threat posed by North Korea is equal, if not greater. Plenty of people in the Bush administration, not just Asia experts but also people in the State Department, have been paying attention to North Korea because they think the North Koreans are crazy. ZACHARY KARABELL: For a time after 9/11, there was a heated debate within the State Department, the White House, and the policy community on the roots of Islamic terrorism. One camp said, "This is an issue of the breakdown of states. It is an issue of vacuums and ideologies, and calls for international law enforcement with a military component." Another camp argued, "No. Terrorism can only exist with state sponsorship. If you remove state sponsorship, then you undercut the ability of terrorist organizations to function."This latter camp has been more dominant. The USA Patriot Act is about cutting off routes of state financing to organizations. It is about targeting regimes that fund terrorist organizations, like the Taliban. Iraq was a little murky insofar as it was about undercutting state sponsorship of terrorists, but also about believing that proliferation is more dangerous at the state level.There are people in the State Department who recognize the threat posed by North Korea. That group, within the bureaucratic infighting of Washington, has lost to the White House or the Pentagon, which is not as focused on North Korea as a high-level issue. The Pentagon doesn't take North Korea as seriously as it does Islamic terrorism. Military plans for invading North Korea have been on the books for thirty-five years. While updates have been made, the plan is not new. It is implementable.I don't agree that within the government there is an equal-opportunity sense of threat perception. But I am not so much attempting to compare the relative merits of North Korea and Iran as to illustrate the particular way we deal with the Middle East and to show that it is unlike the way we deal with other regions. I could have made the same point by asking: why has Nigeria's historically corrupt, human rights-eviscerating dictatorship been considered okay? (Now it's becoming more of a democracy.) Nigeria is a country of 100 million people. Thousands of people have been killed by the government. They have targeted their neighbors militarily. They also have a lot of oil. Why did Nigeria never become an issue for us?PARTICIPANT: But Japan and China have been issues. They have both been demonized by the United States. Before 9/11, China was well on the way to becoming public enemy number one.ZACHARY KARABELL: The plane episode was interesting. Our first reaction was, "Okay, we'll cut off the Chinese." I loved the fact that the Chinese returned our plane in parts. "Yes, you can have your plane back. We looked at every little inch of it—and we'll sell you ten of them in a few years."Getting back to an earlier question about whether Arab societies are in need of a reformation: There is an increasing tendency, both in the Middle East and in the West, to define Islam as it is projected by the fundamentalists—as an absolute religion encompassing all aspects of human life, from the political to the social to the spiritual. But that is only one way of looking at it. If you studied the course of Islam over the past 1,400 years, you would not have found it a familiar notion. Someone living in a Muslim society in 1200 would not have thought about religion in this way.Islam is simply one aspect of life, and certainly not any more or less prominent than anything else. If you drive through Jacksonville or Pensacola today, there's a billboard saying, "Abortion kills babies," and another says, "NASCAR," and yet another has somebody scantily clad selling beer. There is a religious element, and then there are cars, and then there's sex.In many societies in the Middle East, Islam is a factor culturally, but it is not the driver in most people's lives that the fundamentalists and the radicals would like it to be. If it was embraced by everybody in those societies, then the fundamentalist groups wouldn't need terrorism; they wouldn't need to resort to violence.Gilles Kepel has argued that people in the West are collateral to what is a cultural and civil war within many Muslim societies about who they are going to be. He sees a battle taking place between liberal reformers and radicals (what we call the fundamentalists). I think he is right. We are not as central to the Islamic struggle as we perceive ourselves to be or as groups in those societies want to make us. Of course, if you are hanging out in the streets of Tehran or Cairo, you are likely to be much more aware of the Bush administration than someone living in Dayton, Ohio, would be about Khatami or Mubarak. But even then, you spend most of your life living your life, not thinking about the United States. "The light bulb went out in the stairway." "I need to pick up some bread because my mom told me to." "My uncle wants to watch this soap opera at 7:00, and I want to watch the Egyptian version of American Idol, and we only have one TV." "I want an iPod. How can I save up enough money?" We are not the central focus in most people's lives.PARTICIPANT: So did 9/11 take you by surprise?ZACHARY KARABELL: Totally, but not because I didn't think there were some people who wanted to do huge harm. You could see the potential during the 1990s, when the Israelis and the Palestinians kept clashing. One minute they were killing each other and the next minute they were opening casinos together in Jericho, and now they are killing each other again.But I'm persuaded that 9/11 is a lot less about Islam than about the increasing tendency for disillusioned, angry people to do enormous harm. The fear about the next attack being more high-tech is legitimate. But that has absolutely nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.PARTICIPANT: The people who carried out the attacks weren't your poor Muslims in the middle of nowhere in Jordan. They were highly educated.ZACHARY KARABELL: Look at Japanese kamikazes; look at the person who walks into the McDonald's and shoots twenty-seven people and then kills himself. People become radically disillusioned with life for different reasons.In the Middle East in particular, there are people who, because of their lack of autonomy or inability to fulfil their material and social desires, are prone to anger and violence.Yet the 9/11 violence was in no way particular to the Middle East. If sub-Saharan Africa keeps breaking down at the current rate, and we continue to be indifferent, we are just as likely to be blindsided by terrorists from that part of the world. By virtue of our global position, we will be drawn into people's anger and blamed for their societies' failures to provide them with the ability to lead stable lives. There is a danger in saying that 9/11 represents something unique about Islam. Indeed, if negative views of the West are such a strong strain in contemporary Arab-Muslim culture, why have we not had other attacks?PARTICIPANT: You can find many examples of terrorists from religions other than Islam. But it's interesting that terrorism so often has a religious component. Your first argument about religious competition is a huge, unacknowledged factor.ZACHARY KARABELL: Yes, and that will continue to be the other question. Do these competitive forces get channeled more benignly—i.e., into a healthy situation where they want to beat us and we want to beat them? Or does the competition take a very unhealthy turn, where they want to kill us? PARTICIPANT: Perhaps some of the Arabs' anger towards us has to do with the fact that we armed Osama Bin Laden. And then there was the Egyptian element: the Egyptian government has jailed many well-educated people, many of them doctors and lawyers. Perhaps some Arabs felt that the U.S. government was propping up the Egyptian government to choke off its own society. Ditto for Saudi Arabia.ZACHARY KARABELL: Except for the Crusades, there has been very little religiously motivated violence toward the Islamic world. And Islam has directed little aggressive conflict toward the West.This undercurrent of competition and ideological rivalry has had a lot of flavors, most of which, between Islam and Christians and Jews, have not been violent. Between Christians and Jews, and between Christians and Muslims within Christian societies, it has been extremely violent—the Reconquista and so on. Traditionally, few Muslims have lived under Christian rule. Historically it has been the reverse, with Jews and Christians living under Muslim rule.Our remembered history of violence is an incredibly selective reading of the past. Rivalry, dislike, distaste, disdain, scorn, indifference—yes; but not violence.You should remember that there hasn't been a lot of love lost among various Christian sects. Religious freedom in the United States was not based on everyone saying "I respect your religion." It was based on twenty-seven different sects saying, "Okay, we have Option A, which is that we fight each other to the death, and nobody wins, or we have Option B, which is that we deal with it, and we don't have any state establishment of religion."I don't extrapolate from 9/11 that there is a violent strain within Islam per se. There is clearly a violent strain within Islam today that has proven remarkably successful in the absence of other compelling ideologies. But it is a very recent phenomenon. People point to Sayyid Qutb—and, to some degree, to the Muslim Brotherhood—as the granddaddies of fundamentalism. You could point to the Almohad and the Almoravid dynasties in Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Wahhabism came out of Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century, but they were remarkably unsuccessful in spreading beyond the desert, which was populated by about 75,000 people in 1727. The minute they tried to go outside, they found no support, and were slaughtered.PARTICIPANT: You go back to the Christian Crusades. But even the Crusaders were not, on the whole, religious fanatics trying to convert everyone. They were people wanting to perpetuate their own power, for whom religion was a mask. Likewise, today we find people who are bent on religious ideology, determined to keep all women covering their faces. But those aren't necessarily the people who will take up machine guns and slaughter people. Rather, it's people like Yasser Arafat, who marries a Christian and doesn't care about Islam whatsoever, who tend to do the most harm. Islam was his excuse for doing bad things so that he could stay in power.ZACHARY KARABELL: It is also a very convenient foil for people like Mubarak or the Tunisian or Algerian government to say, "You have a choice. It's either us or them, and they are worse."PARTICIPANT: We use the same rhetoric here in the States, with a different religion.PARTICIPANT: Going back to oil: Andrew Bacevich was here recently, suggesting that we should go back to Carter to understand the present. Carter made the crucial decision not to require the American people to conserve energy because he could see that such a policy would go nowhere politically. He decided to let America continue down the road where the Middle East would become more and more important to us. Bacevich identified Carter's decision as the turning point that led to 9/11 and our current situation.ZACHARY KARABELL: Academic history has one thing to recommend it: a willingness to look at the past to explain the present. Everyone else says, okay, 9/11 happened; let's look back and see how we got to that point.It is relatively easy to go through all the intelligence documentation pre-9/11 to find evidence that we missed. But even with all kinds of fixes to our national intelligence system, it would have been nearly impossible to uncover the vital clues at the time, because taken in context, we had what looked like a series of disconnected dots.Rather than trying to look at the past to explain the present, I try to look at both past and present to see what they have in common, what are the common themes.Many factors led to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda doing what they did. There has been a generic, widespread inability of Arab societies to deal with the past 200 years. Some cultures deal better with defeat than others. The Japanese reacted well to defeat by saying, "Okay, we lost. So how are we going to win?" Many Arab societies dealt with defeat by saying, "We lost. Who's to blame?" (Likewise, if the United States is supplanted by China in fifty years, nothing in American culture right now suggests that we would deal well with defeat.)Arab societies have failed to deal with population explosion and the increased needs and aspirations of their people, other than by providing subsidized housing and food to ensure that people don't riot. They have also been effective in installing the nasty security services that ensure the effective silencing of dissent.Those factors, coupled with the lack of any compelling vision as to who they are and their purpose in life, have created a vacuum for others to step in and answer those questions. The Islamic fundamentalists have provided the most successful responses to date. Their take on reality is extremely radical and well articulated. Ironically, the fundamentalists have used all the best tools of modernity to articulate and spread their message. They have also taken advantage of global markets to acquire weapons.PARTICIPANT: The Arab nations' monotheism might explain their not taking defeat well.ZACHARY KARABELL: This is probably where I agree with Lewis. There is some tradeoff: the truth has been revealed by your religion, and if you sign on, you'll incur rewards in the form of prosperity, power, and strength. In this country as well—whether it's the Bible or the Constitution—if you follow its proscriptions, then, in return, you will become the most powerful, most successful people on the face of the earth. But what if suddenly we aren't? What then?

You may also like

MAR 23, 2022 Podcast

Tech, AI, & Global Norms

How do tech, AI, and global norms intersect to generate political, legal, and ethical dilemmas? In this event, Carnegie New Leader Josephine Jackson leads a ...

JUL 21, 2021 Podcast

The Heartbeat of Iran: Real Voices of a Country and Its People, with Tara Kangarlou

In today’s interconnected global village, Iran remains a mystery to much of the rest of the world―especially to those living in the United ...

Left to Right: Ramu Damodaran, Barbra Lukunka, Ambassador Ali Naseer Mohammed, Scott Pohl. CREDIT: Juhi Desai.

JUN 25, 2024 Video

Unlocking Cooperation: Climate Change and Human Mobility

On World Refugee Day, Carnegie Council hosted a discussion on enhancing multilateral cooperation at the intersection of climate change and human mobility.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation