Sunday, May 15, 2005

"Everything is America's fault"

Blogging from Iraq, Steven Vincent posts this enlightening account of an interview with a Sunni tribal sheikh near the southern city of Basra. It illustrates both why creating a new Iraq will be difficult, and why it is an absolute necessity:

I venture questions about the Iran-Iraq War. I expect him to tell me how Basra was rocketed, shelled and emptied of population as people fled from the Iranian armies which seemed certain to take the city, but the Sheikh wrenches the conversation in a different direction. "By starting the Iran-Iraq War," Y. declares, "Saddam Hussan served the interests of America and Israel, and when they were through with him they discarded him just as they used and discarded the Shah." Oh oh, I think, here we go...

And indeed, a kind of inner floogate opens, and the Sheikh, still speaking in a calm, seemingly rational manner, lets me know the truth about the country I call home. Yes, Saddam was a U.S. agent; yes, the U.S. manipulated him into invading Iran--and Kuwait, too. Moreover, today, the U.S. is providing aid to Iran to infiltrate southern Iraq and meddle in Basran affairs.

Within Iraq itself, the U.S. is exploiting tensions between Sunnis and Shias, further separating them into hostile camps. "It is the old colonial trick, divided and conquer," Y. declares. "Before 2003, Sunni and Shias lived together in peace. We never discussed our differences. During Ashura [the great Shia religious holiday], we all celebrated in harmony." (Although the Sheikh here contradicts his earlier statement about Saddam dividing the sects, I have to give him some credit: he did marry Layla's Shia sister.)

"The U.S. is turning Iraqis into angry, nasty people--America seeks to turn us into slaves," he goes on, adding that the nation's newly-elected government is a "failure," set in place by Washington. "This is why whom you call the 'insurgents' are in truth patriots fighting to free their country." When I observe that these "patriots" kill far more Iraqi civillians than foreign troops, the Sheikh gives me a placid look and responds, "Sometime in war innocent people must die." When I press him further about the indiscriminate carnage in and around Baghdad, he admits that some "freedom fighters" might actually be terrorists who do not have Iraq's best interests in mind, but they are--yes, you guessed it--U.S. agents.


It's getting near the time for late afternoon prayers, and I'm running short of patience anyway. But I can't resist one last question. "You blame America for everything--Saddam, the wars, terrorism, even the aggressive attitudes of the Iraqi people. Don't you think Iraqis must share some responsibility for these problems?"

"No, not at all," the Sheikh says blandly, prayer beads slipping between his thumb and forefinger. "Everything is America's fault, Iraqis have no responsibility in the matters. Before America, Iraqis were a quiet, peaceful people."

People often connect Arab and Muslim anti-Americanism to specific American policies; i.e., "they hate us for what we do". The idea is that Muslims somehow make a mental balance sheet in which they rationally examine US actions and analyze their impact on the Islamic world. The problem with this argument is that many Muslims, especially in the Arab world, view what America does, or is alleged to have done, through a specific religious, ideological, cultural, and psychological filter that bears little resemblance to objective reality. All too many in the Islamic world share the sheikh's belief that indeed "everything is America's fault". Only through continuing the slow but necessary process of fostering change in the Muslim Middle East can we break down what Steven has dubbed the "Muslim Redoubt". The alternative is to consign hundreds of millions of people to live in repressive, dysfunctional societies that have spawned the world's most dangerous terrorist movements, where they are taught to believe that America is the source of all their problems. This is a recipe for more 9/11s.


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