Do they really hate freedom? The myth of the insane terrorist
April 15, 2005
all the misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies about terrorism
put forth by the Bush Administration, none is as pernicious as the one
repeated by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer last Friday during his talk at
Bowdoin College on "Iraq and the War on Terrorism." Echoing a claim
Bush has frequently made since the attacks on September 11, 2001,
Bremer asserted, with all the authority his 14 months as special envoy
to Iraq confers, that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda attacked the U.S.
because they "hate freedom."
However reprehensible the attacks on
September 11 were, responding effectively to the threat they represent
requires the courage to confront the situation truthfully. Seeking to
comprehend Islamist Jihadists by facilely asserting that they simply
hate freedom is about as sensible as, well, invading a non-Islamist
state such as Iraq in the hopes of destroying Islamist terrorism. It
does not serve the truth, nor the security of the American people, but
only the short-sighted and misguided political aims of those in power.
Even before the attacks on September
11, bin Laden repeatedly sought to state his motives. In 1996, he
explained that the attacks of that year on U.S. embassies in Africa
were meant "to kick the Americans out of Saudi Arabia," which he
claimed had become "an American colony." Later the same year he cited
the U.S. embargo of Iraq and Israeli killings of Palestinians as
further justification for terrorist attacks. In 1998, bin Laden again
set forth his reasons for taking up arms against the U.S., this time
citing U.S. intervention in Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam's two
In the aftermath of September 11 bin
Laden has explained himself on numerous occasions, though U.S. media
seldom relate the substance of his missives. In a videotaped speech
released last October, bin Laden accused Bush, Sr. of perpetrating "the
greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known" in the
First Gulf War, and Bush, Jr. of using the Second Gulf War "to remove
an old agent and replace him with a new puppet to assist in the
pilfering of Iraq's oil and other outrages."
While few may agree with bin Laden's
analysis of the U.S. role in the Middle East, it cannot be said that he
has no clear argument. Rather, he has consistently pointed to three
factors in justifying his actions: the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi
soil, U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and Israel's policy toward its Arab
Bin Laden has even directly
addressed Bremer's claim that he hates freedom. To the contrary, bin
Laden believes he is acting on behalf of freedom. Were we actually to
listen to bin Laden, we would hear him employing the same rhetoric of
liberty as does Bush. "We fight because we are free men who don't sleep
under oppression," bin Laden has said. "We want to restore freedom to
our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation." Last December, bin
Laden said that Bush was wrong to claim that al-Qaeda hated freedom.
"If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike, for example,
If you don't believe bin Laden's own
words, consider those of the Defense Science Board, a federal advisory
committee that issued a report on "the war on terror" last November:
Muslims do not hate our freedom, but
rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their
objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and
against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing,
support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies....Thus, when
American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic
societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.
The critical point is that there is
no single, objective ideal of "freedom" over which one party may claim
a monopoly. Rather, as historian Eric Foner argues in The Story of
American Freedom, freedom is a contestable notion, open to a wide range
of interpretations. Islamist Jihadists are, at the least, every bit as
committed to their vision of freedom as we are to ours.
So why do they hate us? They hate us
because they believe, not without cause, that the U.S. has long acted
against the freedoms of everyday people in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
What do they want? They want to pursue their vision of freedom by
liberating Saudi Arabia and the Arab and Muslim worlds from U.S.
No one should give bin Laden what he
wants, because the order that would result would be at least as unjust
as the one that currently reigns throughout much of the Middle East and
Islamic world. It would also foreclose the possibility of constructive
cooperation with the developed world.
Yet as misguided as we believe
al-Qaeda's notions of freedom to be, we would do well to remember that
those on the "Arab street" who support the Jihadists believe our
rhetoric of freedom to be just as specious as we believe bin Laden's to
be. The only purpose served by the "they hate freedom" claim is to tar
those who attacked us with the brush of irrationality. As Bremer
stated, it is impossible to give or concede anything to those who hate
our guts on principle. How can one negotiate with evil madmen?
Extermination can be the only option.
In perpetuating the falsehood that
bin Laden and the terrorists have no specific grievances, Bremer did
this community a disservice. Bin Laden may be wrong and cruel, but he
is not crazy. For reasons it is imperative for us to figure out, he
makes a tremendous amount of sense to many people in the Middle East
and the Muslim world. Bremer's approach cannot further the cause of
understanding the disaffection that leads to terrorism, because it is
simply not the case that we face insane and irrational foes with
inscrutable motives. But by granting some small measure of legitimacy
to the grievances of the dispossessed rank-and-file to whom al-Qaeda
appeals, we may open a doorway into a safer future for all.
Instead, the myth of Islamist
irrationality has caused us to pursue an unwise and dangerous course.
It may be that U.S. forces can simply exterminate those who oppose us
in the Islamic world, but given the course of events in Afghanistan and
Iraq it doesn't seem likely. And such a policy doesn't sound very much
like the "freedom" we hope to champion throughout the world. If it is
true that we cannot completely eradicate "terror"—that instead we must
somehow learn to live with those who presently hate us—then treating
them as madmen may not be such a good way to start.
Patrick Rael is Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin.
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