One year on: A view from the Middle East
Robert Fisk, United Kingdom
September 11, 2002
September 11 did not change the world. Indeed, for months afterwards, no one was allowed even to question the motives of the mass murderers. To point out that they were all Arabs and Muslims was fair enough. But any attempt to connect these facts to the region they came from—the Middle East—was treated as a form of subversion; because, of course, to look too closely at the Middle East would raise disturbing questions about the region, about our Western policies in those tragic lands, and about America's relationship with Israel. Yet now, at last, President Bush's increasingly manic administration has spotted the connection—and is drawing all the wrong conclusions.
For, as the days and weeks go by, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognise in the words of Americans—and in their newspapers—the Middle East, the region in which I have lived for 26 years. While cocooned within the usual assurances that Islam is one of the world's great religions and that the United States is only against "terrorists", not Muslims, a brutal and cruel fate is being concocted for Arabs, a world in which more than a score of nations are being fingered as "terrorists" or "haters of democracy" or "kernels of evil". Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State, last week decided to include the Lebanese Hizbollah. With a vague, though unspecific, reference to the 291 American servicemen killed in the suicide bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut in 1982, he announced that "they're on the list, their time will come, there's no question about it. They have a blood debt to us . . .".
List? Is that what it is now? A list as unending as Mr Bush's so-called "war on terror"? Does Hizbollah come above al-Qa'ida on the list these days? Or after Iraq? Or maybe after Iran? "They have a blood debt to us" is a remark as frightening as it is infantile; it suggests that what the United States is embarking upon, far from being a titanic battle of good vs evil, is a series of revenge attacks. One wonders what Tony Blair thinks of all this. Does he, too, have a blood debt owed to him? And what—a question that is never asked—do Muslims make of this nonsense?
I have to say that I have yet to meet a Muslim who has expressed anything but horror about September 11. But I have yet to meet a Muslim who said they were surprised. Indeed, after so long in the Middle East, I have to say that I wasn't surprised when, high over the Atlantic, the pilot of my America-bound plane told his astonished passengers that four commercial airliners had been crashed into the United States. Stunned by the awesome nature of the crime, yes. Appalled by the sheer cruelty of the mass killings, of course. But surprised? For weeks I had been waking up each morning in Beirut, wondering when the explosion would come. So had most Arabs I have talked to during the past year. How and when the explosion would take place, they had no idea—but that the detonation would occur was never in question. And in a part of the world so steeped in blood, it was perhaps understandable that both the intellectual and the public response to September 11 was somewhat less emotional than in the rest of the planet.
For example, if you talk to a Palestinian in Lebanon about the September massacre, he will assume you are referring to the slaughter, at the hands of Israel's militia allies, of 1,700 Palestinians in Beirut in September of 1982. Just as Chileans, when hearing the phrase "September 11"—as that fine Jewish writer Ariel Dorfman pointed out—will think of 11 September 1973, when an American-supported coup d'état led to the overthrow of the Allende government and the deaths of thousands of Chileans. Talk to Syrians about a massacre and they will think first of
all—though they will not say the words—of the killing of up to 20,000 Syrians in the Islamist uprising at Hama. Talk about massacres to the Kurds and they will tell you about Halabja; to the Iranians and they will tell you about Khorramshahr; to the Algerians and they will think of Bentalha and a whole series of other village atrocities that have cost the lives of 150,000 Algerians.
The truth is that the Arabs—like Chileans and other people far from the new centre of total world power—are used to mass killing. They know what war is like, and quite a number of Lebanese asked me in the days after September 11—our September 11, that is—if George Bush really did think America was at war. They weren't doubting the nature of the attacks. They were just wondering if the US President knew what a real war was like. In Lebanon, you have to remember, 150,000 men, women and children were killed in 16 years; 17,500 of them—almost six times the total of dead of September 11, and almost all of them civilians—were killed in just the summer of 1982, during Israel's bloody invasion of their little country, an invasion to which the US had given a green light.
And in many cases, of course, the dead—particularly in Lebanon, and ever more frequently in the Israeli-occupied territories—are being killed by American weapons. In the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, for example, almost all the missiles fired into Palestinian houses were made by the Boeing company. Only in the Arab world has a terrible irony been noted: that the very same company that proudly made those weapons—"all for one and one for all" is the logo for Boeing's Hellfire missile—also produced the airliners that were used to attack the United States. Having endured the company's weapons, Arabs turned their airplanes into weapons as well.
It does not excuse the September 11 killers their hideous crime against humanity to record that in the Middle East, you do often hear the thought expressed that now the US knows what it is to suffer. It's not intended to suggest that the United States deserved such horrors; merely a faint hope that Americans will now understand how much others have suffered in the Middle East over the years. I have to say, of course, that this is not the lesson that Americans are in any mood to learn.
Indeed, one of the most extraordinary—and patently absurd—elements of post-September 11 America is the way in which the Bush administration has steadily transformed a hunt for international criminals into a biblical struggle against the Devil incarnate. The Devil started off with a beard and a propensity to live in Afghan caves. Then it turned out that he wore a military beret and had a hankering for poison gas and weapons of mass destruction. And by last week, when Richard Armitage was claiming that Hizbollah may be the "A-team of terrorists"—al-Qa'ida being demoted to the "B-team"—the Devil had apparently moved residence from Baghdad to Beirut. Add to all this Iran and the non-Muslim Dear Leader who lives in North Korea and really does have nuclear weapons—which is why we will not bomb him—and a very odd picture of the world emerges. In general, however, that world, however distorted, is a Muslim world.
Now, along with this transformation has come a whole set of policies intended to show the superiority of our Western civilisation—centred on the need for the Arab world to enjoy "democracy". It isn't the first time that the US has threatened the Arabs with democracy, but it's a dodgy project for both parties: first, because the Arabs don't have much democracy; second, because quite a lot of Arabs would like a bit of it; and third, because the countries where they would like this precious commodity include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other regimes that the Americans would like to protect rather than destroy with democratic experiments. The Palestinians, President Bush has told us, must have a democracy. The Iraqis must have a democracy. Iran must have a democracy. But not, it seems, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the rest. Naturally, all these ambitious projects have set off a good deal of discussion in the Arab world—perhaps one of the few fruits of September 11 that hasn't yet turned sour.
A recent study in the United States—by Pippa Norris at Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan—demonstrated convincingly that Samuel Huntington's grotesquely overrated "clash of civilisations" is a load of old baloney. Muslims, the study discovered, were as keen on democracy as Westerners—there presumably being no Christians left—and in some cases even more enthusiastic than Americans and others. The differences between the two emerged on social issues; on homosexuality, women's rights, abortion and divorce. Norris and Inglehart concluded that it would be a gross simplification to suggest that Muslims and Westerners hold fundamentally different political values.
Over the past few weeks, Arab intellectuals have been adding their own gloss to this, especially in Egypt. They have been challenging Huntington. Egyptians and Moroccans and even Saudis have been trying to make a cultural defence of Arabism, rejecting the idea of "globalisation"—a word I hate but which turns up in Arabic as awalameh (literally "world inclusivity")—and the notion that to be for globalisation is to be pro-Western and to be against it is to be against development. But development is not democracy, and the question remains: why is there no serious democracy in the Arab world? Although Ayatollah Khomeini created the theological machinery to emasculate Iranian social democracy, Iran's elections, and the repeated victories of President Mohammad Khatami, were undoubtedly fair; Mr Bush's remarks about how he wants to "bring democracy to Iran" are thus off course.
But it is the Arabs who have never developed a modern political state. If they had, might September 11 have been avoided? This was certainly an initial Bush suggestion; the suicide killers, he informed the world, had attacked America because they "hated democracy". The trouble is that the 19 murderers wouldn't have known what democracy was if they had woken up in bed with it. But let's not avoid the question: why only police states and torture chambers in the Arab world?
A historian might go back centuries. When the Crusaders reached the Middle East in the 11th century, it was the Arabs who were the scientists; the Westerners—the "Franj"—were the political and technological numbskulls. And when the Arabs did develop a kind of social order under the remnants of the Abbasids in medieval Spain, in the Andalusia of El Cid, the Arabs—along with their Christian and Jewish brothers and
sisters—experienced something like a cultural renaissance. In the Middle East, however, the Arabs felt they were under pressure from the
West—from Western military prowess and economic power—and went on to the defensive. To question your caliph—or, even worse, to advance in theological philosophy—was a form of subversion, even treachery. When the enemy is at the gates, you don't question authority. Rather like the Americans after September 11—when to seek the motives for the massacres was regarded as something akin to a thought crime—any intellectual enquiry was suppressed. The Western powers did much the same to the Arabs after the 1914-18 war. They chopped up the Ottoman empire, sprinkled dictators and kings across the Middle East, and then—in Egypt and Lebanon, for example locked up anyone exercising their democratic opposition to the regime. If the opposition was not going to gain political power democratically . . . well, it would stage a coup d'état. And this has largely been the fate of the Middle East since: a series of coups—rather than revolutions on the Iranian model—which had to be backed up with armies and secret policemen and torture chambers.
To a patriarchal society—and to one in which there had been no theological development comparable to the European Renaissance—was added our own Western determination to support undemocratic regimes. If we had democracy in the Middle East, the people who live there might not do what we want. So we supported the kings and princes and generals who did our bidding, unless they suddenly nationalised the Suez Canal, set off bombs in Berlin discos or invaded Kuwait, in which case we bombed them. Not by chance has Osama bin Laden raked over these historical coals. He wants the downfall of the Saudi regime—how he must have loved the Rand corporation's lecturer who called Saudi Arabia the "kernel of evil"—and he wants the downfall of the pro-Western Arab dictators.
Amid the twisted rhetoric now coming out of Washington—a linguistic barrage sounding more and more like the authentic voice of bin Laden—it is becoming ever more difficult to believe that Mr Bush is planning any kind of democracy in Iraq. Nor in "Palestine". After all, Yasser Arafat was not rejected because of his failure to create a democracy; he was rejected because he didn't do the job of a dictator well enough. He failed to create law and order in the small portions of land awarded to him in return for his putative good offices.
But something much bigger is going on today. Almost every Arab nation is being lined up by the United States, eagerly encouraged by Israel. Palestine must have "regime change"; Iraq must have "regime change";
Iran—most recently accused, without any proof, of shipping al-Qa'ida gold to Sudan—must have democracy; Saudi Arabia is a "kernel of evil"; Syria is now to be sanctioned for "supporting terrorism"; Lebanon is accused of harbouring al-Qa'ida members—a patent untruth, but one that is already finding its way into The New York Times; and Jordan may have to serve as a launch pad for an Iraqi invasion (which, possibly, would mean goodbye to our plucky little king). The United States ends extra financial support for Egypt because it locks up an American Egyptian for stating the truth—that Egyptian elections are a fraud. What, Arabs are asking themselves, are the Americans up to? Are they planning to reshape the map of the Middle East? Is this to be another exercise in colonial planning, akin to the one the British and French wrought after the First World War? Are we planning to topple all the Arab regimes?
In other words, are we now trying to turn Huntington's third-rate book into a success story? Are we actually now in the process of starting a clash of civilisations? Never before have Muslims and Westerners been so polarised, their conflicts so sharpened—and Arab hopes so fraudulently raised. We are no more planning to give those Arabs "democracy" than we planned to honour our promise of independence at the end of the 1914-18 war. What we want to do is to bring them back under our firm control, to ensure their loyalty. If the House of Saud is collapsing of its own volition, the Americans seem to be saying, then let it collapse. If Jordan's King Abdullah won't play ball on the Iraqi invasion plans, what's he worth anyway? In the Arab press, there is a slow but growing suspicion that "regime change" might turn out to be Middle East change.
But let's remember two things; that the killers of September 11were Arabs. And they were Muslims. And the Arab world has held no debate about this. There have been plenty of stories to the contrary: that the 19 murderers were working for the Americans or the Israelis; that hundreds of American Jews were warned not to go to work on the day of the attack; even that the planes were remotely controlled and had no pilots at all. This childish and sometimes pernicious rubbish is widely believed in parts of the Middle East. Anything to duck the blame, to avoid the truth.
And it's a strange thing that is happening now. The Americans want the world to know that the killers were Arabs. But they don't want to discuss the tragedy of the region they came from. The Arabs, on the other hand, do want to discuss their tragedy—but wish to deny the Arab identity of the killers. The Americans have created a totally false image of the Arab world, peopling it with beasts and tyrants. The Arabs have adopted an almost equally absurd view of the US, believing its promises of "democracy" but failing to grasp the degree of anger many Americans still feel over the attacks.
Yet still there are double standards at work here. George Bush can rightly condemn the killing of Israeli university students as making him "mad", but blithely brush off the slaughter of Palestinian children by a bomb dropped from a US-made Israeli plane as "heavy handed". Yet it's not just the pitiful remarks of President Bush, but the double standards of whole peoples. Here's what I mean. Today, 11 September, our newspapers and our television screens are filled with the baleful images of those two towers and their biblical descent. We will remember and honour the thousands who died. But in just five days' time, Palestinians will remember their September massacre of 1982. Will a single candle be lit for them in the West? Will there be a single memorial service? Will a single American newspaper dare to recall this atrocity? Will a single British newspaper commemorate the 20th anniversary of these mass killings of 1,700 innocents? Do I even need to give the answer?
Robert Fisk is The Independent newspaper’s Middle East correspondent.
From The Independent, September 11, 2002.