Tue, 18 Sep 2001

Americans still ignorant of Arabs, Muslims

MEDAN, North Sumatra (JP): On Sept. 11 in New York City Hollywood and Hell converged. What are we to make of those nihilistic acts which, in the words of The Guardian's Matthew Engel, attacked America's sense of faith?

Perhaps the first lesson should be that life is short and precious. The future is a siren, not a beacon. Despite all the safety and security measures which economically developed countries build into the environments of their citizens, we are not invincible. Instead of trying to fathom the meaning of mortality we consume ourselves trying to escape its inevitability. September 11 was a tragic reminder that we cannot.

If we listen to our U.S. leaders we hear the words -- Revenge! Retaliation! Billions of dollars more for intelligence agencies and security systems that are already incomprehensibly vast, obscenely expensive, and pathetically inept. U.S. leaders now seem to have learned only that we need to spend more to over- fortify America with technological weaponry and pursue elusive militants with a vengeance. Is this how we honor our dead in Christian America?

Mass murder is abhorrent. We do not mean to suggest that the intended victim, the U.S., is to blame for the Sept. 11 crimes, nor to justify the use of terrorism in furtherance of human rights. But to this American it seems long past time for the U.S. to move beyond post-Holocaust guilt and ask, is our policy of arming Israel and supporting her security policies, regardless of competing facts and Middle East interests, a defensible foreign policy?

September 11 was not a random act of anti-Americanism. The acts were directed against America as patron of Israel's violations of her Arab neighbors. America's vulnerability to international terrorism is inseparable from our excessive support for Israel and blindness to Palestinian and other Arab causes. Those who grow up amidst deprivation and daily danger have often resorted to extreme attempts at problem solving-in America, in Ireland, and in the Middle East.

Thanks to U.S. military aid, Israel, with its military superiority, doesn't feel the imperative to negotiate. How long will the U.S. continue to approach the Middle East problem by selling arms to Israel, thus encouraging unending militarism and death in the region? Or by training idle young men in terrorist tactics?

Americans need to demand accountability from our government about its policy of secretly training men from third-world countries like Afghanistan in terrorist tactics. Osama Bin Laden was one of the trophies of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Sept. 11 air attacks were an example of exceptional planning and coordination -- their execution a textbook lesson in action management, their piloting a marvel.

The U.S. government has created a monster; now it has landed in our own backyard. Our foreign policy has become divorced from the once sacred values of human decency, justice and fairness. We are now about trade and strategic alliances: not about principles at all. Will the U.S. government reflect on what our disastrous foreign policy has wrought? Will anyone demand that they do?

It would be a second tragedy if shocked and bereaved Americans blamed Islam or Muslims or ethnic Arabs for the attacks, wrongly inferring that Islamic beliefs or Arabic culture in themselves spawn such conduct.

America's woeful ignorance and distortion of Islam start with the stories learnt at school of European Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries. More than other minority religious groups in America, Islam is still an object of suspicion and derision. Will America's leaders recognize the need for better education about Islam and about the history of the Arab world?

The sponsors of the attack on the U.S. need to be stopped. But if American politicians echo the terrorists' blood-lusting, this tragedy will have been turned to slaughterous folly. Not by terrorists, but by America's own leaders.

The writer is a former American diplomat in Medan, North Sumatra.