The tragic events that transpired in Paris this past month are inexcusable. The terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th were horrendous and killed thousands of innocent lives. In 1998, the US Embassy in Nairobi and the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam killed scores of locals who had nothing to do with the United States. In Madrid in 2004, terrorists detonated a bomb in the city’s metro system killing 191. Groups collectively called Muslim extremists/Muslim fundamentalists are given credit for these acts. Why do they hate us (the West) so much? Many have posited that it is simply because they hate us for our liberal and modern ways. They hate us because we are free and we flaunt our freedoms.
Maybe. Truthfully, however, it is much more complicated. Like always, we never take the time to try to understand WHY they might hate us. For no other reason than to stop them from doing it again. The journalist Patrick Smith put it best when he said, “What has not followed [after the Paris attacks] is too familiar. No one, once again, asks the simple question, “Why?” This line of inquiry is so obvious, and so obviously of use in devising an effective response—know your enemy and his motivations, as any military strategist will tell you—that our avoidance of it amounts to a pathology at this point.”
1. The West drew the lines and then expected everything to just work.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the West carved up the Middle East into various mandates under the auspices of the newly-formed League of Nations. Although the West promised had been made to the Arabs that they would have their own large state in exchange for fighting the Ottomans, the British and French had other ideas. They created the brand new countries of Jordan and Iraq. They drew borders with little regard to tribal or religious allegiances. We live in a country where the birthplace of our current President was made an issue by some on the right. One would have to forgive the people of the region for not being keen on being ruled by an non-native. The British installed one King in Jordan another in Iraq. Neither had ever been to their respective new domains. Importantly, they left the question of Palestine (as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza were known then) unanswered. They promised the European Jewish community one thing and the Arab Christians and Muslims yet another thing. No matter that all these groups had fought on the side of their new overlords, economic and strategic interests had to be protected.
2. The West has treated the countries of the Middle East like pawns in a chess game.
Unfortunately, it is no exaggeration when historians say the Great Powers used these countries as actual pawns in the Great Game. We can look at Iran and Iraq as examples. When Iranians demanded constitutional reform in the early 1900s, the West backed the Shah and ensured that no meaningful political change took place. The Russians and the British had large business interests in the country and the Shah was happy to protect them. When the Qajar dynasty ceased to be effective, the British helped a little known general, Reza Khan, ascend the Peacock Throne. He, in turn, was ousted by British and Soviet troops when he would not allow Allied troops to use Iran’s neutral territory. In 1953, the US and British overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran because he had nationalized the British owned oil industry. The US was a strong supporter of the Shah, lavishing him with aid and (in the 60s and 70s) military hardware. The US did this with full knowledge of the Shah’s human rights abuses. While the West cannot be blamed for all of the Shah’s sins, our support and blind eyes certainly emboldened him.
In Iraq, we gave Saddam Hussein (no doubt a horrible and violent dictator) an ultimatum: step down or we are coming after you? Think for a moment, what we would do if another country told us the same thing. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi people didn’t take up arms against Hussein. What would we do, even if we disagreed with our leader, if an outsider attacked us? Interestingly, we had told one people group in Iraq, the Kurds, to rise up against Hussein once before. Shortly after the end of the first Persian Gulf War, the first Bush administration encouraged the Kurds to revolt. But then the political mood changed and we abandoned them. Hussein’s still powerful army had no trouble crushing them. Many forget, but Saddam Hussein was once our ally. Donald Rumsfeld famously went to Baghdad in 1982 to show the world the US had his back. We secretly gave him intelligence that would help his military in their war against Iran. We turned a blind eye when he used poison gas against the Iranians and Kurds. Again, we cannot be blamed in full for the actions of a tyrant, but we aren’t completely innocent.
This one is a doozy. This is such a sensitive topic I feel compelled to make it perfectly clear that the state of Israel has a right to exist, the Holocaust did happen, and Israel should not disappear into the sea. That said, for many in the Muslim world, the West’s (and in particular the US’s) one sided policy on Israel, shows them that their views and concerns don’t matter. During the Holocaust, the Germans murdered six million Jews (and six million other ‘undesirables’). The West was finally convinced that the Jews deserved their own country, their own homeland. Palestine, the historic home of the world’s Jews was seen as the logical place. No matter that there were already millions of non-Jews living there. No matter that those living there (both Muslims and Christians) had nothing to do with the genocide of Europe’s Jews. The US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were deciding the fate of these Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, Druze, and Jews in the halls of the United Nations in New York. What would Americans do if, shortly after the Second World War, the United Nations had decided to carve up part of the United States (the home to the largest Jewish population then and now) for a new state?
The new Jewish state would have 500,000 Jews and 450,000 Arabs. One also has to realize that, to many, it seemed like the West was carving up its own little outpost in the Middle East. Many of the new Jewish immigrants were secular and European in demeanor and outlook. Over the past sixty years, the West has consistently turned a blind eye to Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel won the 1967 war. So, in theory, you take over land and integrate said land into your country. Israel has refused to make the West Bank and Gaza part of Israel because it would mean a loss of its Jewish essence. So instead we have a sort of occupation limbo with no end in sight.
4. Outright Colonialism
For the most part, the West has only indirectly controlled the countries of the Middle East. In some cases, however, they were the outright owners. Algeria is a perfect example. Starting in the early 1800s, the French actively colonized what became Algeria. The French took the best lands for themselves and kept the Arab populace at bay. Interestingly, Algerian Jews received full French citizenship rights. The local Arab population was heavily taxed and given no political power (sound familiar?). It’s classic colonization really. A violently bloody civil war took place before Algeria gained its independence. It had been a French colony for 132 years. The memory of this civil war, and the preceding years as a colony, is still remembered vividly by most Algerians. The same can be said for the Moroccans and Tunisians (under French rule), the Libyans (under Italian rule) and the Egyptians (under British rule).
5. We continue to support horrible regimes.
Everything, except for the support of Israel, is in the past. One might (MIGHT) be forgiven for asking: why don’t they just get over it? That is all well and good, except that we still back totalitarian countries. Who gets billions in American foreign aid? Egypt (depending on the source, Egypt is either the first or third largest recipient of aid). This is the same country that Amal Clooney (yes THAT Clooney) traveled to defend journalists for merely doing their job. Ironically, one of the few areas that enjoys bipartisan support is a continued relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is the same country that does not tolerate public worship by followers of religions other than Islam (including Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis) and forbids women from obtaining a passport, marrying, or traveling, without the approval of a male guardian. They have also helped, with tacit American approval, the Emir of Bahrain, suppress protests that called for democratic reform. We originally supported Muammar Qaddafi, until we didn’t. We originally supported Hosni Mubarak, until we didn’t. Qatar, one of the West’s biggest allies in the Persian Gulf, continues to suppress freedom of expression and rarely allows for public dissent. The West’s support may come from the fact that, to quote the Guardian, “Qatar owns lucrative chunks of Britain such as the Shard, a big portion of Sainsbury’s and a slice of the London Stock Exchange.” They have also announced that they will invest $35 billion in the coming years in the US.
6. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
This is self-explanatory.
7. We only get involved when it suits us
The civil war in Syria has been going on for years. Millions had already been displaced. Horrendous human rights abuses occur daily. The West would condemn the situation, but do nothing about it. Until the attacks in Paris, that air strikes against ISIS were not done in earnest. The news is filled with the atrocities committed by ISIS and Syrian government troops against the local population. Again, none of this is new. The Muslim populations of these areas might be forgiven for thinking we only care because the terror finally reached our doorstep. Nor is Syria the lone example. The Taliban (and before them our allies: the Northern Alliance) publicly executed dissidents, religious minorities, and women for a full decade before 9/11. Women were denied an education and forced under the burqa long before 9/11. Again, we didn’t seem to care until after we experienced the wrath of those being harbored in Afghanistan.
It is important to note that in every case, people on the ground helped the West in its endeavors. Many elites in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, etc. conspired (and conspire) with the West. It is dangerous, however, to simply say they hate us because we are free or because we represent liberal secularism. I am sure that is partly the reason. But we have also helped keep this region of the world stagnant culturally and economically. We have consistently thought of the people as simply pawns in a great scheme. First by Europeans trying either to gain warm water ports (Imperial Russia) or as buffers to protect India (Imperial Britain), then as proxies in the Cold War (Egypt’s Nasser was first supported by us, then by the Soviets, then by us, then again by the Soviets).
My name and appearance makes it impossible to hide my Middle Eastern roots. There is no question that I am beyond grateful to have been born and raised in this country. I can speak my my mind with no fear for my personal safety. We can elect who we want without fearing the British, Russians, or Chinese will invade us to make sure their preferred candidate is put in the White House. No one else decided what our boundary lines would be. We don’t take directives from other countries on how we should govern ourselves. The people of the Middle East, partly because of us, have rarely had these luxuries.
Nothing excuses the thousands of innocent lives lost in New York, Madrid, Paris, London, Washington, Mumbai, or Bali. But, unfortunately, we aren’t as innocent as we would like to think.
Featured image via CNN