|12 September 2001>Commentary>Symbols of oppression
Symbols of oppression
Faisal Bodi . The Guardian UK . 12 September
As Americans wake from the nightmare of yesterday's onslaught against their key commercial and political buildings, two questions, are likely to be on their lips: who and why?
The who is the easy part. Only a well-financed, well-oiled and militarily sophisticated body could pull off such an audacious assault against a world superpower. All fingers point in one direction, to the mountains of Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden, multimillionaire and the leader of the international Muslim army, called al-Qaeda, has his lair.
The harder and more crucial question is why. Why does the US continue to be a target for Islamist attacks? The US marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the World Trade Centre in 1993, the al-Khobar bombings in 1996, the USS Cole bombing last year, what is it about the US that makes it a magnet for Muslim militants?
President Bush and secretary of state Colin Powell gave their own take yesterday. They blamed extremists bent on damaging democracy and western civilisation. Disturbingly, their views will likely wash with an audience whose grasp of international affairs is so dumbed down as to prevent them separating loaded representation from reality.
But much as the attacks on civilian structures might suggest otherwise, democracy is not the intended target here, and neither is freedom. Inside America, the Trade Centre, the Pentagon, Camp David, and Capitol Hill are all seen as symbols of global US power and prestige, of the triumph of democracy. Outside, in the Muslim world, they are popularly regarded as symbols of terror and oppression.
Since 1991, American-led sanctions against Iraq and the effects of depleted uranium have killed 1m children. Who knows if the attackers intended all flights inside the US to come to a halt, but for a day at least they succeeded in turning the tables on the no-fly zone in force over Iraq. Since the Palestinian uprising started last September, American Apache helicopters, F-16s and M-16 rifles have been responsible for killing 700 Palestinians and injuring 25,000 more. Since CNN isn't there, by design rather than accident, to capture every smashed skull and charred corpse, westerners remain ignorant of US terrorism.
These are only the more visible examples of US abuses in Muslim lands. As it waves the flag of democracy in one hand, Washington pours billions of dollars into upholding totalitarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, among others, to make sure its people are prevented from exercising their collective will. The US Fifth Fleet sails menacingly around the Gulf in a warning to dissidents that it will use force to protect its client rulers and an uninterrupted supply of oil. And the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia cocks a snook at Muslim sensibilities about their holy places.
But it is the unqualified US support for Israel that most enrages Muslims. Camp David was no random choice. The site of the first peace agreement between a Muslim state and Israel in 1978, is still seen by many as a capitulation and a sell-out of the Palestinians. Official US aid to Israel this year amounts to a non-repayable $6bn. This week Israel announced it was to exercise an option to buy 50 more F-16s in order to keep up its military superiority over all its Arab neighbours. That it is almost exclusively the US in the firing line and not other western countries suggests that for the militants, silence in the continued oppression of the Palestinians is excusable, direct complicity is not.
It is unlikely this will happen, but if the dark cloud of Muslim terrorism has a silver lining one prays it is an internal review of US foreign policy, especially with regards to Israel. Yesterday's attacks are the chickens of America's callous abuse of others' human rights coming home to roost. Though it is a minority view in Islam that countenances retaliatory attacks on civilians, it is one that US policy is encouraging. Terrorism begets terrorism. This is not to excuse the perpetrators but to offer a way out of the spiral of tit for tat terror.
But if previous bombings have not shocked the US into self-reflection it is unlikely that even this, the biggest attack on its shores since Pearl Harbour, will do so. The likelihood is that Washington will order its spin doctors to steer the public gaze well away from itself and towards intensified military efforts to snuff out Bin Laden. That would be the most terrifying outcome of all. One living Bin Laden is better than a martyr who spawns a hundred more.
Faisal Bodi is a writer on Muslim affairs.