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Why Are They So Angry at Us?  |   Love & Hate—Where Britain Meets America  |   Your Opinion

PART I of Roots of Resentment: America, Great Britain and the Arab World from American RadioWorks
On the Internet at http://www.americanradioworks.org/features/resentment/index.html


December 2001
Why Are They So Angry At Us?
by Sandy Tolan

Why are they so angry at us? It's a question asked with increasing intensity in the weeks since September 11.

In the Arab word, in whose ancient fertility of Mesopotamia and Jericho lies the cradle of civilization, the perceptions of the West and the United States, in particular, are layered in centuries of history. Today there are the images of ongoing Middle East conflicts on Arab satellite news, and beneath that are decades of conflict.

The recent history is complicated: looking back, before the war on Afghanistan, before the Gulf War, there was the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and there were the Arab Israeli wars in 1973 and 1967.

In 1948, Israel was founded, and with that United Nations partition vote, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes. It was Israel's war of independence, and what the Arabs call the Naqba or catastrophe.

And those are only the layers of the last 53 years.

We sent reporter Sandy Tolan to talk to ordinary people in two Arab countries closely allied with the United States — Egypt and Jordan — and investigate the sources of Arab anger toward the West — an anger that has its roots in contemporary history and in centuries past.

The Crusades

Beneath the decades of battles on the modern Middle East lies a far bloodier past, which began more than eight centuries ago. In 1098, European armies, wearing crosses of cloth on their backs, rode down from the north. The crusaders marched for God and for territory. Crossing Syria en route to Jerusalem, they laid siege, killing thousands. The next year, they arrived in Jerusalem, with a vengeance that lives on the collective Arab memory. "One rode in blood up to one's knees," wrote a Christian witness. "And up to the horses reins." The Muslim scribes told a similar story.

The population of the Holy City was put to the sword, and the crusaders spent a week massacring Muslims.

They killed more than seventy thousand people at al Aqsa Mosque.

Egypt, at Saladin's Citadel

The city of Cairo is built on seventy centuries of history; and the past bleeds out of stone. At the Citadel of Saladin, the beloved Muslim sultan who took back Jerusalem from the rampaging christens in 1187, raising up Islam and the Arabs. Saladin was known for his just treatment of Christians and Jews in the city of three faiths. His death left a vacuum, a centuries-long yearning for a new hero.

At the Citadel, we spoke with Youssef Chanine, one of Egypt' cultural giants. Chahine is a member of Egypt's Christian minority, and the director of dozens of films, including "Saladin."

"The legend will not go away easily. It triggers a feeling of pride, a feeling of strength," says Chahine. "When they go back and say, Saladin, they are trying to find somebody that is as honorable, who is as charitable, as tolerant, and as great as Saladin to cover the feeling that I feel measly, I feel I am nothing."

Chahine speaks of the historical weight of accumulated defeat, from the crusades forward: the occupation of the Europeans beginning two centuries ago; the creation of Israel by a UN partition vote in 1947, and the subsequent dispossession of the Palestinians; Arab Israeli wars in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982...the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991... U.S.-led sanctions and the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children. He speaks of blood spilling endlessly in the occupied territories. In short, countless humiliations heaped upon a people proud of their history; their contributions to art, science, literature, music.

At Home in Cairo

You can feel this powerful mix of pride and defeat all over Cairo, across religion and class; outside the Hussein Mosque and down the narrow cobbled walkways of the ancient bazaar, where the shopkeepers preside over mounds of spices and rows of silver, cheap cassettes and tiny glass decanters.

You can feel it out on the boulevards, where appliance shop TVs blare tales of Aladdin, recycled via Disney; past the McDonalds, the pubs and cabarets.

Down a potholed alley in a poor section of town, we visited a family. Inside the modest home to three generations, we were warmly welcomed.

After being greeted in Arabic, "ahlein, welcome!," we are treated to Arab hospitality: chocolate cake and cola for the visitors. In the tiny living room, tacked on to the peeling walls, are posters evoking Eden: an elegant fountain in front of a mansion; wild animals, tamed in play. The family's shoes are tucked neatly under a chair. The women are covered; so is the nine-year-old girl. The men speak.

"We're proud; we have dignity. But your attitude in the United States makes us look like we're third class citizens. Go back to your history books. You'll see that Islamic civilization preceded you. We helped create your Western civilization," says one of the men.

"When Osama bin Laden swore by God that there would be no peace in America until there was peace in Palestine, he brought home an issue that's part of our Muslim consciousness. And America is to be blamed for this problem. That's why there's sympathy for bin Laden. "

This working class Muslim family grew up with the knowledge that the holy city of Jerusalem lies outside of their control: it's part of the state of Israel. But Jerusalem is the home of al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam — the place liberated by Saladin from the Crusaders centuries ago. Bin Laden, denounces a new wave of Crusaders, compares himself to Saladin, and taps something deep. But so do the battles from the West Bank every night on television.

"These images build up inside. Forget about Christian — as a human being, seeing another suffering and oppressed in his own home and robbed of his rights...And America is silent. But if something happens in a Western country, the world is shaken upside down. So what do you expect from us? We're definitely full of rage. "

The anger is directed at American policy, especially U.S. support for Israel. Does this mean Mohamed, and Walid, and Mohamed, and Magda, and Aya, frowning thoughtfully, sipping at their cokes, passing the baby from knee to knee — does this mean they hate America itself? Not exactly.

"America is a great country. It's the land of opportunity. I wish I could go there. It's everybody's dream."

Mohamed says he loves American movies — Stallone and Schwarzenegger are his favorites; though it does seem strange that one person can fight a whole army and defeat them.

The five-year-old daughter in the family says that she likes Hollywood too — and thinks it's funny when the boys kiss the girls. She thinks it's a shame we have so many car crashes; and feels sad when she sees other children getting killed so many nights on the news.

One of the men of the family explains, "We still look up to America. But if the situation continues, unfortunately, I hate to say it — but all Muslims could turn into Osama bin Laden."

A Cairo Literary Salon

You needn't visit the poor, the working class, or even the devout to tap a deep well of Arab anger toward the West, and the United States especially. It is everywhere you look.

We visited a literary salon and cafe, on a back alley near downtown Cairo. It was midnight and around the tables there are glass water pipes with long cloth hoses; the smoke hovers.

Here the two friends, Saed, a columnist for a Cairo daily, and Madame Hayat, a French tutor, gather, as they do every Tuesday. Tonight, the subject is U.S. intervention.

"It's the bee against the elephant," Saed says. "Again. The U.S. is flexing power against sad, miserable people."

Madame Hayat stares up with clear blue eyes, "It's like this more and more, now that there's only one superpower. Now we are really just handicapped. The U.S. treats us like bugs. Like we're insects. We've reached the point of boiling."

Hayat spent years as an actress in Cairo's lively political cabarets. They'd perform in the parks and cafes, until Egyptian intelligence under Presidents Sadat and then Mubarrak censored them or threw them in jail.

"During the 70s and early 80s there was a spirit of change in the air" Hayat says, "now, only a deepening sense of grievance."

Never did she dream that the means of change would shift to radical Islam. Never did she imagine the day she'd be told by the Americans to choose between Bush and bin Laden.

"I don't have to choose between two demons. I'm against both," Hayat explains. "Look, I really hate bin Laden, but nowadays I dream a lot of having two bombs. If I had the chance, I would use these two bombs to destroy the Pentagon and the White House. I would not think of bin Laden. Even though I'm against terrorism, they've created that feeling in me."

Egyptian Intellectuals

"There's a disappointment on behalf of America," explains Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, the respected Egyptian political analyst. "It sees itself otherwise than what it's seen by others. America sees itself as having defects, but fundamentally a successful society and enterprise. It doesn't understand why the others don't see it this way. The fact is that America is powerful, rich, can be self-satisfied in those terms. It does not understand that other societies with very serious problems don't look at America the way America looks at itself."

As deep as this frustration at the West is, it also serves, in some ways, as a deflection from anger at events closer to home. In Egypt, criticism of the state is tightly controlled; political demonstrations are small, infrequent, and restricted to universities; the president's accomplishments are the subject of fawning news coverage, while he runs for reelection unopposed; police or soldiers seem to be on virtually every corner.

"Here are dictatorial regimes. They thwart the growth of any rational opposition." Abdel Wahab Al Misiri, the Islamic thinker and author continues, "Take the situation here. They demolished the labor party, closed down the newspaper, which was the only significant opposition. Now the rational opposition, which could interact with the government through the legitimate political channels, could not develop, mature, it was not given the chance, so that you have is the phenomena like that. Terrorists. Naive people who have visions become leaders. So it is the Arab elites, supported by the American administration that created this."

This relationship of the U.S. and the Arab elites, Misiri argues, is a legacy of European colonialism, which began when Britain and France arrived in the 19th century and begin carving up the Arab world. It's a time al Misiri knows something about. For years, before becoming disillusioned with Western values and embracing Islam, he taught 19th century poetry at Rutgers.

"The world bequeathed to us since the mid 19th century has been a Darwinian world, says Misiri. "The only constant, the only absolute value is power to resolve conflicts. This is the mechanism for survival, this is the mechanism that propels history, this is how you define morality; this is how you define meaning. You have power to do what you want, all right. And people have been learning that from the West."

And now that power, he says, is transferred in part to Arab governments, who stand in between the desires of their people and the mandates of the superpower.

"Like all Arab elites, they are frightened. The street is simmering already because of the daily humiliation. One important factor in the picture is Arab news," he says. "The new satellite networks, especially al Jazeera."

"Now we all sit in our homes and simmer. Even upper glass girls, bourgeoisie, everyone is angry. Not only the Islamists. And the elites know that they have to move to protect themselves."

And so the criticism spurts out like steam from a calibrated valve — turned open for Israel; shut off for Egypt; adjusted somewhere in between for the powerful benefactor and lone superpower.

Unsanctioned Words

One afternoon, in the Khan al Khalili market in old Cairo, this all comes sharply into focus. We are accompanied by a "minder" from the Egyptian press center. If we want to interview regular people, the government tells us, we need an escort. He writes down what we ask, what the people on the street say in response. He takes names. It quickly becomes clear we'll need to give him the slip. But before we do, a young woman approaches us. She's very Western looking, with moussed hair and designer jeans. She's spotted the microphone, and is nearly bursting with what's inside her. Ignoring the government man, she blurts it out.

"Maybe this will wake up America. It's about time you feel our pain."

The man from the press center says to her, "No, no, we don't want to say that. That's not what we want to put out right now."

She ignores him.

"They need to hear this. We've had terrorism for years. How come the world didn't act until America was hit?"

The government man scribbles these unsanctioned words in his pad. Before he can get her name, the woman and her friends move away, swiftly, down the old stone path of the market.

Visiting the war memorial in Heliopolis, Egypt

The state prefers official truths; official history. Amidst the sense of defeat rooted in the past, there's a powerful desire to gaze back upon historical pride. Upon rare victory. Be it Saladin in 1187, or the momentary victory over Israel, 786 years later: in October, 1973.

Hundreds of Egyptian children come each school day to the October war panorama in the town of Heliopolis. Flanking the building, Egyptian tanks, missile launchers and troop carriers; inside, a diorama of model planes and encampments in the Sinai. A booming voice claims that in 1973, Egypt shattered the myth of Israeli air superiority — not mentioning how Israel destroyed the entire Egyptian air force only six years earlier.

Despite official efforts in the Arab world to recall the glory of victory, in the end, this is not what stays with the people.

They remember defeats like the one experienced when the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank fell to Israeli hands.

Amman, Jordan

"In 1967, until the 5th of June, we thought that the Arabs, especially with the leadership of Nasser, could convince, by hook or by crook, the world to let the Palestinian people determine their future."

Three old friends gather in an office in Amman, Jordan. Mu'nis Razzaz, a novelist, recalls the Arab world's most resounding defeat — at the hands of Israel, and aided by American weapons and support.

"They defeated the Arab world in a humiliating way," says Mu'nis. "Nasser was defeated, Jordan lost half its kingdom, Syria was defeated, all the Arabs were defeated."

This marked the unofficial end of pan-Arabism, the quest for one Arab nation championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser — a man many considered a latter-day Saladin.

Thirty-four years later and Mu'nis and these two friends, Hani Hourani and Mazan Saqqat, kept working toward it — aligning themselves out of convenience with the socialist bloc, because they supported the Arabs. Jailed and exiled, the men, over time, were worn down, while they watched Nasser's authoritarian model of Arab unity, independent of the West, be replaced by dictatorships aligned with the United States.

"They built up a huge bureaucracy and became more and more totalitarian. And now this is the situation we are in. We have Abdel Nasser model without Nasserism," explains Hani. "Without the progressive face of that. We have the model of Sadat or Mubarrak — only they are taking the power — or we have Saddam Hussein or Hfaz al Assad or Khadafi, these people who are raising big slogans and achieving few things and ignoring the people. This is the problem in the Arab world."

Mu'nis continues, "Secularism and pan-Arabism were assassinated by the United States and the West in general by the war of '67, then the war of '73, and the war of 1991 against Iraq. Because of these wars — the result of these was the end of secularism in the area and the support of Muslim movements."

"In this analysis, political Islam — including extremists like bin Laden — emerged from a suppression of secular opposition movements. A suppression by Arab governments, supported by the United States. Unable to express themselves openly, many flowed to the mosque, making it venue of opposition politics.

Wanting Neither the West Nor the Extremists

Others, wanting neither choice provided by the West or the extremists, feel lost.

The playwright Sawsan Darwaza looks up from her swivel chair. She's agreed to meet in the late evening. Tomorrow she leaves for Carthage to put on another production, though lately she's not sure why she bothers.

Darwaza is a Jordanian playwright and producer who writes about Arab identity.

"It has to be an accumulation of wars, misunderstandings, instability. It's from a long time ago and of course it affects the heart and mind," says Darwaza. "It's another ghetto. It's a huge prejudice, always on the defensive, can't create freely."

"And for myself I feel this is a waste," she continues, "all this struggle, all this effort, all these books, translations, plays, songs, all that we have done has come to a frozen picture."

But for some, the blame for broken dreams is not so singular.

First Names Only

"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for. "

At another interview, around a table in Amman, we used first names only — Hania, Mohamed, Hala, Looma, Walid.

Since September 11 there's a new penal code: it's now a crime to print anything in the newspapers that could be judged to damage the government's reputation.

"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for, " said Walid. "Funny, but many people who are persecuted here wind up going to the West for protection, or to live a decent life. So we do have to look at ourselves, too. Does this anger get us anywhere? No. In the end, there must be a balance between the oriental culture and the efficiency of the West."

"We have to respect each other," Walid says. "We, the West, the West, us."

But for the group gathered here, these are words from a faraway world; the reality in Jordan is that tourism is dead, unemployment is high; the economic benefits of peace with Israel are virtually non-existent. So, just like in Egypt, the anger in Jordan builds. And the target is Israel and the U.S.

"I've heard over the last month, oh, why do they hate us?" says one of the men. "Oh, because they're envious of our way of life. They're envious of our freedom. They're threatened by our democracy. How can anybody believe this rubbish? People don't like the U.S. because of what the U.S. is doing in the rest of the world. American F-15s, American Apaches, American cluster bombs, and American bullets that are killing children all over."

"A very short time ago, people in the Middle East were willing to give it a shot, to put some effort to try to get the West to understand them," explains one of the women. "Simply no one cares anymore about what the West thinks or that it's important to understand our point of view. The attitude is becoming more and more to hell with the West, we don't care what they think anymore."

"We start feeling the cycle of hatred. We managed for a while to get out of it, not all Israelis or Westerners are bad. But then you see this — what did we get for our good will, trying to give peace a chance? It's like they'll always hate us, they don't even think of us as human beings. So, screw them. And we're gonna — we're gonna hate them. "

Conclusion

Traveling in the Arab world, you encounter this deepening sense of pessimism — among Muslims and Christians, rich and poor. The deaths in Palestine and Iraq pile up on television. National economies lie in the dumps. The suppression of speech and political opposition stifles hopes for democratic participation. The emotions of the street are rage and despair.

"We must deal with the world society that breeds terrorism and terrorists," says Mohamed Sid Ahmed, the Arab political analyst. "Extreme conflict against the system is terrorism. It's people who are so desperate that they believe they are dead anyhow. Hitting at the others alive is a way to protest against the fact that they are dead. This is a very dangerous equation. When despair reaches this point, it's a world destroying itself."

A scattering of European tourists, at the stone tunnel of the crusader castle in southern Jordan. Here in Karak, there's a statue of Saladin in the center of town. The castle was captured by Saladin, just before his reconquest of Jerusalem.

An old man in robe and keffiya stands near the edge of the castle. From here you can look out to Palestine and toward the Mediterranean beyond. "If only," he says. "If only we could have another Saladin — a man of mercy and humanity."

The old man continues, "He was not a terrorist. He did not want bloodshed. The war the Saladin launched was a just war. It was a war against those who occupied the land."

Be careful, another man had warned me. Don't ask the old man too many questions. He's grown more and more angry. Lately he's gone into the Islamist camp, thinking dangerous things.

"We feel pain and sadness for those five or six thousand innocents killed In the attacks. But you know, we lost many, many innocent people. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of them. And no one felt our pain. And maybe what happened in the United States, this will teach the people of the United States on how people feel from a long, long time ago."