Why Many Muslims Hate the West
Exclusive: Many Americans and Westerners are baffled by the violent rage expressed by many Muslims, but the reasons for their anger are real, deriving from a “deep history” of anti-Islamic wars and colonial exploitation of the Middle East, as ex-U.S. diplomat William R. Polk describes.
By William R. Polk
The issue of terrorist attacks on America has been so politically sensitive that most commentators have simply wrapped themselves in the flag and closed their eyes and ears. Yet, even in fairy tales, ostriches were never saved by burying their heads in the sand. It is not a good defensive posture and it wouldn’t be wise for real-life Americans to behave like make-believe ostriches.
If we want to be safe rather than sorry in the dangerous world we now inhabit, we need to be clear-headed, logical and informed. Those characteristics do not arise from anger or impulsiveness. They can arise only from sober assessment of causes and intelligent evaluation of possible actions. Achieving these qualities has become ever more necessary because we face an uncertain and increasingly complex future.
So in this first of two essays I will put together and consider what motivates terrorists, what they remember and what we have done; in Part 2 I’ll look at what we can do and what we cannot do to achieve what I have called “affordable world security.”
I begin with a simple fact of human nature: human beings, like even puny and ill-armed animals, strike out when they perceive an attack or threat to their psychological, cultural or physical existence. Protecting what Freud called the “ego,” the intrinsic sense of being, is the ultimate form of self-defense. Whether the attack is real or not, intended or accidental, it is perception that triggers and shapes the response. The key word is “perceive.”
Legal or moral justification, while usually vigorously proclaimed, does not play a key initial role in determination of action. Justification is usually claimed by both sides. It is usually equivocal and can be “proven” only by a selective gathering of events. That selection, naturally, is governed by the mindset of each side.
Moreover, it is time sensitive: yesterday’s attack may justify today’s response, but what about events that occurred the day before yesterday? The clock starts at different points for each party and the flow of events cannot be “cherry-picked,” except for propaganda purposes.
If we wish to understand not to condone but to understand we need at least temporarily to put aside the issues of guilt and justification. Rather, we need to attempt to see whole patterns including the views of our opponents. This is not a simple procedure and is not undertaken with slogans in a sound bite. So, how to do it?
My answer is analogous to the procedure of physicians in their attempt to understand an illness taking a case history. That case history, by definition, cannot be just the events of the present or the immediate past. It requires digging into what I have called “deep history.” Only if the past is “squeezed” to bring out angers, hopes, fears and perceptions from their origins and through their mutations can a sensible approach be made to designing successful policies to deal with the present and the future.
Otherwise, we are likely to make snap judgments that may exacerbate rather than solve the problem. That, I will argue, is what we are now doing with insurgency, guerrilla warfare and terrorism.
Hardest Step: Understanding
The first step in moving toward understanding may be the hardest. To understand, we need to credit the fact that our opponents believe in the rightness of their cause, just as we believe in ours. It is puerile to ascribe to them trivial or inappropriate motivations.
The second step is to inform ourselves. As the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote nearly 3,000 years ago, “Know yourself. Know your enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
Despite his admonition, even such statesmen as Napoleon (in the Spanish guerrilla war against the French) and Churchill (in the Greek guerrilla war against the Germans first and then the British) denigrated their opponents.
As Churchill said of the Andartes, they were just “miserable Greek banditti.” Churchill got away with his blindness because America bailed out Britain’s Greek policy with the Truman Doctrine.
Napoleon was not so lucky. He lamented from his exile that the Spanish “little war,” la guerrilla, “destroyed me. All the circumstances of my disasters are bound up in that fatal knot.” Too late, Napoleon began to understand that the Spanish guerrillas were motivated by ideas similar to those that gave his own forces and his own people their unity and power.
Ideas mattered then. Impelled by them, farmers became guerrillas. Similar ideas today are turning tribesmen, farmers, fishermen, religious students, teachers, shopkeepers and even lawyers into guerrillas, terrorists and suicide bombers. So what are the ideas?
The ideas that matter today usually grouped under the headings of nationalism and religion have long pedigrees. They began to take shape at the dawn of animal life on Earth. How this happened is now a fairly well-known story, but it was not a widely known story at the beginning of my own academic career and still may not be entirely familiar; so at the risk of duplication, allow me to touch on the main points.
To live in what Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century philosophers Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau called “the state of nature,” early humans had to secure access to sources of food and water. So little groves of fruit and nut trees and patches of edible roots and legumes around a spring or pond became miniscule “states.” Among our remote ancestors, such “states” were no larger than a day’s walk across.
Living in them were miniature “nations,” usually composed of less than a hundred individuals whose survival depended on their defending, feeding and caring for one another. The tie that bound them together was kinship. But, because kinship erodes as generations pass, clans tended to sunder and move apart. Over about two million years, this process of continuous alienation populated the planet. Alienation is deeply “programmed” in all of us.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, people found ways to intensify their sources of food and to improve their means of collecting it. Doing so enabled them to gather together in unprecedented numbers. Hunters and gatherers became herders and farmers. Having more, they were less able to scatter.
Little bands settled into villages that grew into towns and then into cities. As they settled together and grew more numerous, kinship no longer was immediately evident and no longer provided a satisfactory means of defining their relationship to one another.
We don’t know exactly how it happened, but roughly 5,000 years ago, in various parts of the world, peoples independently discovered other sources of affinity. They became aware that even those they no longer recognized as cousins spoke in the same way, dressed in a similar fashion, ate the same foods and did not eat other foods and accepted as suitable shared customs and beliefs.
While they may still have thought of one another as somehow kindred, they began to enlarge that concept into the combination of custom and locality. Thus, they began to think of neighbors as surrogate kinsmen. As they grew closer together, they came to regard themselves as “the people” and to regard aliens as enemies or as virtually “non-people.” In fact, many of the words we use as names of primitive societies actually mean “the people” while some of the names of other societies mean “the enemy.” Fear of the foreigner is deeply ingrained in us.
As I have argued, perhaps the single most compelling force in the evolution of our social, political, commercial and military institutions has been the tension inherent in having to live contiguous to those who do not share “our” customs: that is, the dilemma of being simultaneously both neighbors and strangers. [See my book Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs (2000) for the results of this tension in the origins of all aspects of world affairs.]
“Imprinted,” generation after generation, century after century of warfare, with fear of foreigners, and despite sporadic and feeble attempts to achieve a sense of a common humanity, we still have trouble comprehending those whom we regard as “not us.”
This worldview is obvious in all our foreign relations and in many aspects of our domestic affairs. It is crucial in trying to reach an understanding of what I have called violent politics. [See my book Violent Politics (2008)]. So how are we doing in that quest?
Affinities and Animosities
Most of the books and articles I have read and practically all of the discussions I have heard, on insurgency, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and counterinsurgency, skip lightly over motivation to portray events. Many seem almost to revel in the ugliness of the conflict. This obviously sells books but hardly enlightens us.
While individual reporters are often very good at describing events, they rarely offer much help in guiding us to an understanding of causes. The media does not have much time for analysis. But their reports at least make clear that the situation we face has not improved and in many aspects is getting more dangerous.
What we read in the press is not much improved by the advice offered to governments by “think tanks.” Not surprisingly, the available reportage and advice has led to a dead end. We, the French, the British, the Russians reached that dead end in Afghanistan. The Chinese in Tibet and Central Asia are also approaching it.
That is where the governments of all the major powers now find themselves. Despite huge expenditures of blood and money, the rich “North” has not been successful in subduing conflict in the poor “South.” Nor, do intelligence and security services believe we can prevent attacks from the “South” on our own homeland.
The sequence appears unending: insurgents hit; dominant powers respond; they respond; we respond; they re-respond And warfare becomes not only everlasting but ever more brutal and ugly.
As the great Nineteenth Century French student of war, Antoine-Henri Jomini, wrote on what he called “wars of opinion,” such wars “enlist the worst passions [of whole populations and] become vindictive, cruel and terrible” Attacks and reprisal without restraint become virtually inevitable. [See: The Art of War (PrÃ©cis de l’art de la guerre), which was first published in English in 1862 and was used as a textbook at West Point.]
In these circumstances, trying to suppress guerrilla warfare and terrorism by using lethal force has proved to have an effect similar to trying to douse a fire with gasoline. So what are the circumstances? What are Jomini’s “wars of opinion?”
A careful reading of history shows that what Jomini called wars of opinion are actions that whole societies come to believe aim at destroying not only their governments and institutions what is now called “regime change” but also their way of life and beliefs.
Feeling embattled, both sides believe themselves to be the victims; neither side is willing to understand, much less to excuse, the other. “Common ground” is demarcated by fear and hatred. “War” is transmuted from an issue one partly governed by law between governments into a deeper, unbridled, even primordial conflict among peoples.
And, as incident follows horrifying incident, this “opinion” comes to be shared ever more widely by both insurgents and counterinsurgents. Each side, virtually each person, comes to think of his opponent as intrinsically evil and himself as justified in taking any action, adopting any tactic, no matter how brutal or indiscriminate that is judged to be effective.
That cycle of hate, as I will illustrate is where we are today in the clash between “us,” the established nation-states of the “North,” and the Muslim insurgents of the “South.” (Ironically, when Samuel Huntington wrote “The Clash of Civilizations,” it was a gross simplification, but, inspired by it, governments have helped to turn the interpretation into reality.)
This conflict is not solely a matter of contemporary “opinion.” Rather there are deep and still vivid indeed constantly renewed memories that shape actions and beliefs today.
As with the physician’s case history, knowing and understanding them is crucial to our interpretation of our current dilemma and our possible choices of what to do about it. To elucidate them, I will touch on key elements in our past relationship that form the backdrop to the present. I begin where both insurgents and counterinsurgents begin, with religion.
Islam is the third and most recently announced of the great monotheistic religions, along with Judaism and Christianity. Each religion claims a direct and essentially unique relationship to the Divinity, but to a secular historian, the relationships among the three are obvious.
Judaism and Islam are particularly close and share many beliefs and customs. As the Quran defines Islam, it is “the religion of Abraham” from whose “true faith” Muslims believe the Jews strayed; to the contrary, Jews have always regarded Islam as an imperfect attempt to copy Judaism.
Islam and Christianity are less similar. Islam views Jesus as a prophet with a special relationship to God but holds that treating Jesus as “the son of God” or as a god himself is to commit the mortal sin of polytheism (Arabic: shirk). As viewed by the Christian Church Muslim denial is sacrilege. Even worse in Christian eyes was Judaism’s total rejection of Jesus.
So, despite or even because of their similarities, the three religions regarded one another as perversions. Each saw the very existence of the others as a sin against the true God-ordained faith which it alone held.
The attitude of each was partly shaped by geography and history. Christian Byzantium (East Rome) was the established world power defending against Islam. As the Islamic Caliphate expanded, conquering much of the Byzantine empire and all of the Sasanian Persian empire, it acquired resident Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish communities. (And, ultimately, it acquired whole societies of Hindus whose polytheism it gradually came to ignore.)
Except in the heat of warfare, Islam incorporated these peoples into its system but left them free to practice their religions, engage in their distinctive diet and dress, enforce their own laws and customs and to govern themselves under their own authorities. This pattern of autonomous “nationhood,” (Arabic/Turkish: millet) grew out of the pagan Arab tribal custom of granting hospitality to a “protected stranger,” (Arabic: jar).
Both Christians and Jews generally lived securely in communities within Muslim states whereas both Jews and Muslims were always at risk and often persecuted, occasionally driven away or even slaughtered in Christian states.
Over centuries many Christians and Jews converted to Islam. That Islam forcibly converted them is a myth; actually, the Islamic states were keen that the conquered peoples remain non-Muslim because that status required them to pay an extra tax.
As Persian Zoroastrians converted, they continued to stress their non-Arab identity by a distinctive interpretation of Islam, Shiism. The development of Shiism within Islam, like Protestantism within Christianity, is complex but in part both were determined by ethnicity. The bitter relationships between Sunnism and Shiism today are reminiscent of the religious wars in early modern Europe. (And, as poorer Hindus converted to Islam, they escaped the tyranny of the caste system, exchanging the virtual slavery of being an “untouchable” (achuta or dalit) for the “brotherhood” (ikhwaniya) that is one of the most attractive aspects of Islam.) Historically, Islam has been the most tolerant of the three religions.
Judaism began, as we know from the Old Testament, as a far more militant and ruthless conqueror of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. It offered no means for non-Jews to achieve safety comparable to the status of protected community in Islam: its God, Yahweh, authorized the massacre of all who stood in the way of the Jewish nation.
It was the Roman Empire that pacified the Jewish nation. Breaking out of Israel, Jews became among the most civilized and cosmopolitan of the Romans. They drew back from militarism and, although they continued to convert distant peoples in Africa, Asia and Europe, they became politically passive. For that they have paid a terrible price. It was this tradition of passivity against which Zionists revolted and returned Judaism to militarism.
Christianity has been generally intolerant and violent in its relationship with both Jews and Muslims. Christians forced European Jews into ghettos, made them wear distinctive dress and subjected them to all sorts of indignities and dangers. The Crusades began with attacks on Jews resident in Europe.
Except in what became Spain, which was partly Muslim for about 700 years, and areas of southern Italy and France, Muslims were effectively banned from Europe. Whereas Jews and Christians established trading posts through the Islamic world, Muslims hardly ever dared visit Europe and until the rise of the Ottoman empire in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries none became residents. [One of the great contributions to medieval history is the multivolume portrayal of the Jewish communities in the Mediterranean and particularly in Egypt by S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society (1989)]
Wars between Christians and Muslims began during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. This was partly because Islam was founded on the frontier of the great Christian empire of Byzantium. The first Christian-Muslim clash was in 636 AD. Wars have occurred intermittently ever since.
In campaign after campaign, European Christians fought Spanish, North African, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Central Asian Muslims. The campaigns of what we think of as the Crusades lasted 176 years from 1096 to 1272. Among the victims were both European Jewish communities (the First Crusade started with an attack on them) and resident Christians in Palestine (who were burned to death in their Jerusalem church by the Crusaders when they finally reached Jerusalem).
Struggle became endemic in more modern times. And the nature of the conflict was partly transfigured from religion to imperialism. The record is both clear and asymmetrical: it was the Christian “North” that attacked the Muslim “South.” Here briefly are some of the key events:
The Wars on Islam
Portugal and Spain continued their moves against the “Moors” into Africa and then on to India while Russian tsars beginning with Ivan the Terrible moved south to crush kingdom after Muslim kingdom in Central Asia.
By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the French and the British had gained overwhelming military, commercial and organizational advantage. For them, as for the Russians, Muslim India was the ultimate prize. But the road to India was blocked by Muslim states that had to be subdued.
Relatively speaking these states lagged far behind Europe. Partly blinded by their vision of their past, the Muslim rulers and their medieval armies almost literally did not know what hit them. On the east, Peter the Great and Catherine defeated the horsemen of Asia one after another. The Russians were matched by the French on the west.
In one of the most colorful battles of all time, the gloriously dressed and splendidly mounted Mamluk horsemen of Egypt charged Napoleon’s artillery. They were not only slaughtered but humiliated. That was to be the fate of the Muslims in the centuries to follow.
In India, Britain first conquered Bengal and then set about destroying the great Mughal Empire. Already intent on blocking Russian expansion, the British then pushed toward Central Asia and the Middle East. They fought Afghan Muslims along the “Northwest Frontier” for generations; took over and ruled Egypt; defeated the Muslim revivalist movement, the Mahdiyah, in the Sudan; established hegemony in the Persian Gulf; dominated Iran; and ultimately acquired control over what became Iraq, Jordan and Palestine.
Some of these conquests were particularly violent: in Afghanistan, the British killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans (but lost a whole army in one of its three wars), and in Iraq, the British wiped out Arab tribesmen with poison gas. Only on the “Northwest Frontier” was warfare still at least partly a Great Game.
For the Italians, war was no game; in Libya it became genocide. They tried to wipe out not only the Islamic revival movement, the Sanusiyah, but also the entire tribal population. Everywhere, the colonial campaigns were ugly.
“Subduing the natives,” as the Dutch did in their wars in Indonesia were brutal affairs. They reached the nadir in Congo where the Belgians killed between 10 and 15 million Africans about twice the number of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust engaged in systematic rape, cut off the hands or feet of unproductive natives and stripped Congo of its raw materials.
[While these horrible crimes were not attributable to Americans, natives both there and throughout the colonial world tended to group Americans with Europeans as “whites” so we have been damned by association. On the Congo see Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (1997). A summary was published by Andrew Osborn, “Belgium confronts its colonial demons,” The Guardian, July 18, 2002. Osborn points out that the scale of massacre was almost double that of the Holocaust yet Belgium has made neither apology nor restitution.]
Meanwhile, the French conquered North, West and Central Africa, killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims and destroying their social and religious organizations. The French invaded and brutally suppressed the people of Algeria, stealing their lands.
Having invaded Syria, they twice bombarded Damascus when the Syrians tried to prove that Europeans were wrong that they were “not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world”
The Covenant of the League of Nations proclaimed a more polite version of “the White Man’s burden,” the “sacred trust of civilization.” France espoused the words but violated them in deeds.
The European thrusts into the “Muslim world” were combinations of religious, nationalist, colonial and imperialist ventures. They were often brutal, frequently nearly continuous and uniformly destructive of civic and religious institutions.
Except for the Philippines, these were not American wars, but the American role in the slave trade that bought millions of Africans to America is now being reevaluated. No one knows much about the enslaved peoples of Africa, but certainly a large portion of them were Muslims.
In short, Muslim experience mainly with Europeans but also to a lesser extent with Americans has been a key element in their attitude toward the white, Christian “North.”
Even if we, the Northerners, choose to ignore the history of our relationship, the descendants of the victims will not. Muslims, like Jews, increasingly probe into and publicize their holocaust. The memory of the “deep past” already plays a significant role in the growth of Muslim sentiment toward the Christian North. It will play an important role in international affairs far into the future. [Further, as Graham Fuller pointed out, “there are a dozen good reasons why there is bad blood between the West and the Middle East today, without any reference to Islam or to religion.”]
Memory of the “deep past” is a cause in the growth of Muslim hostility today in such movements as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, various movements of Salafiyah and more recently, the Islamic State. [Salafiyah is a complex doctrine and has been generally misunderstood: It is roughly comparable to the Puritan movement in Protestant Christianity. That is, it sought to gain strength and purity, and so to advance, by returning to the “pure” religion at its origin. I have discussed it in detail in my 2013 essay.]
But, one may object, that is all so far in the past that it surely can be put aside. To consider that opinion, look briefly at the more recent past. What has been the recent relationship of the Christian “North” and the Muslim “South.”
The Modern Era of Warfare
Dividing history into periods is useful for analysis, but it is a simplification. For the vast majority of the “Southern” people there was no new era; they continued to live as their parents and grandparents had lived. More rapidly and more nimbly, their rulers often tried to copy the drill, the uniforms and the weapons of the European invaders. This military modernization was particularly marked in Egypt under Mehmet Ali Pasha and in the Ottoman Empire under Sultans Selim III and Mahmud II. They thought that if they looked modern, they would be strong.
Deeply disturbed by change but growing aware of their weakness, some religious leaders tried to gain strength by going back to draw on their heritage. None of these activities slowed Western penetration.
The Industrial Revolution had given the West irresistible power. Handicraft industries collapsed before cheap imported goods. Governments became enmeshed in debt they hardly understood. Food crops were replaced by cotton for export. Intermediaries proliferated. Traditional patterns of land ownership were overturned by changes that converted Indian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Egyptian farmers into serfs.
Even styles in dress changed so the turban gave way to the Fez. Local authorities from Morocco to Indonesia were replaced or became puppets of the new, European-imposed order.
Among the small elite, nationalism was espoused as it had been in Italy, Greece, Poland, Germany and France as the guide to liberty and dignity. It was thought to be the “secret” of Western power. For many younger Arabs, Caucasians and Indian Muslims, the “Young Turks” became role models.
Then, encouraged by the proclamations of the First and Second World Wars, nationalist movements gained momentum. Those were heady days of manifestos, marches and the first real political parties. A new day seemed to have dawned. And, step by step, nationalism itself was refined toward its apex, secular Baathism.
But, along the way many of those who protested, marched and organized would become willing agents of the European rulers or their native agents. After what were often sharp lessons of the danger of speaking truth to power, most leaders quickly traded youthful exuberance for adult calculation. This transition was made easy and financially attractive by the Western-installed or Western-tolerated monarchs of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Libya and Morocco.
For both reformers and opportunists the issue of preservation of the cultural values of what had come to seem an archaic society became irrelevant. Soon it was overshadowed by the great new challenge of Communism, the dangers of resurgent Israel and the heady opportunities of the Cold War.
It was the Cold War that brought the United States into the Middle East. Taking over from Britain first in Greece and then generally throughout Africa and Asia, America assumed Britain’s role but played it with far more vigor and money and far less subtlety and skill.
Using the “faÃ§ade rulers” whom the British had cultivated or creating new proxy rulers through subversion, bribery and threat became the strategy of the Dwight Eisenhower-John Foster Dulles-Allen Dulles period. Coups were organized and carried out in Iran, Iraq and Syria and help was given to prevent them in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Morocco. Seeing these events, many of the next generation redirected their anger from Britain and France to America.
The best known action of America was the 1953 overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh, an action proposed by the British to enable them to regain control of Iranian oil. Followed by the cooption of the Shah, the coup may be taken as the starting point for the Muslim reaction against America.
But already four years before in 1949, the CIA had engineered a coup d’Ã©tat in Syria. In testimony in the U.S. Senate, it was shown to have tried to murder various Middle Eastern leaders including Prime Minister Qasim of Iraq and President Nasser of Egypt. A few years later in 1980, it helped to make a military coup in Turkey.
In the following years, America has intervened overtly or threatened invasion almost everywhere in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Additionally, it has imposed “crippling sanctions” that have impoverished and infuriated large numbers of people.
Arab, Pakistani, Kashmiri, Somali, Berber and other Muslim people, often led by secular rulers, have themselves engaged in a remarkable series of ugly violations of civil liberties, blunders and wars during this period. One after another, rulers have adopted the security state model: militarism without compensating civic institutions.
Generally speaking except for the oil-rich states, they have kept their people quiet by giving them little bread but many circuses. As a group the leaders and their cronies are known for their greed, corruption and brutality. Their records of torture and imprisonment are among the worst in the world. To the “man in the street,” there is little to distinguish the local tyrant from the foreign ruler.
In two crucial aspects, the Muslim states still suffer from the aftermath of imperialism: first, most of the governments have not grown from their own social “soil” but from foreign transplants. Consequently, civic institutions have rarely taken root.
Parliaments, law courts and the media remain, as they were under imperialism, tools in the hands of rulers. Military and security forces, the key legacy of foreign rule and the result more recently of subsidy and training, are the most often the only efficient, mobile and powerful organizations. They form autonomous states within nominal states.
A second heritage of the imperial period is disunity. Domestically, the older tradition of brotherhood (ikhwaniyah) and mutual responsibility has been largely replaced by individualism and selfishness. Those who can take, take; few any longer honor the Islamic obligation of tithe (Arabic: zakat). Enrichment by any means is avidly sought: “the Devil take the hindmost.”
As among individuals so among societies, there is little or no sense of unity. While rulers join interstate organizations and loudly proclaim their unity, they often bitterly and covertly work against what they publicly identify as common causes. Rulers connive in the overthrow of their peers and quietly make deals behind their backs.
This also is largely a heritage of imperialism. Each European state pulled its colonial elite into its own educational system. I observed this when, in 1953, the Rockefeller Foundation convened a meeting of the outstanding Arab intellectuals.
So “embedded” were they in the cultures of their former masters that some were comfortable only in French, others in English, one in Italian while none was able to express himself satisfactorily in standard Arabic. What was evident in language spilled over into law, politics, economics and bureaucratic organization.
The lack of unity has, of course, been heightened by subversion, espionage and foreign manipulation. Individuals have learned not to trust one another. And this sense of wariness has been heightened by the almost continuous wars with Israel and by the common belief that rulers and whole governments covertly collude with Israel. (In wars and other forms of conflict the more recent include 1948-1949, 1956, 1967, 1969-1970, 1973, 1982, 1982 1996, 2008, 2012 and 2014.)
Israeli intelligence operatives have been able to profit from this lack of cohesion. For instance, in 1970, I was asked by the chief of the office of the Israeli Prime Minister to negotiate a cease-fire on the Suez Canal with President Nasser of Egypt. To reassure me, the Israeli official casually mentioned that the Israelis knew Nasser’s opinion of me. There and elsewhere, Israeli intelligence had an often astonishing access to intimate information.
Failing the People
The bottom line is that a significant portion of Muslims and particularly of Arab Muslims believes that their governments have failed their peoples; they have not created institutions that are regarded as constructive, representative and honest; they have not created a sense of dignity which was their repeatedly proclaimed quest; they are generally believed to be corrupt, brutal and tyrannical.
Many believe that the governments we see today are only slightly veiled continuations of imperialism, installed either or both to protect such Western interests as oil, to underwrite American policy toward Israel or to bring about the complete subjugation of Islam. Many also would say that the few local rulers who tried to carry out an independent policy were deposed by force.
Nasser, Saddam and Gaddafi dictators as they certainly were were engaged in efforts to create a modern, progressive and self-sufficient society and to uplift their peoples. However unsavory they were politically, they did bring education, better health and security. We didn’t like them. We tried to kill Nasser and did kill Saddam and Gaddafi.
Nationalism and what was called “Arab Socialism” failed. All that was left was religion. To the forces now operating in the name of Islam, I will turn in the next essay.
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.