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  Article & EssayWhy Do They Hate Americans?

Radical Islamists hate Americans -- we all know this -- but why do they hate us?
By Steven Cohen

"Those evildoers," President Bush continues to tell Americans, "hate us because of our freedom." They attacked America because of our freedom to worship, our freedom to vote, and our freedom to buy Chevys. The Islamic militants attacked America on 9/11 because of the American way of life.

It is true that our freewheeling secular lifestyle drives certain Muslims batty. America has become the symbol of their worst paranoiac fears. Yet, if America were not prominently situated in their land, in the land of Islam, especially in the Arab land of the Middle East, these maniacs would not have unleashed their forces of destruction on New York and Washington. Instead, they would have blown up their own hated governments.

President Bush is incorrect when he claims freedom in America turned us into objects of hate in the Middle East. It is the American presence in the Middle East, mixed with the Muslim sense of failure and desperation, that drove the hate that delivered the deadly blows in America.

In contemporary America, a product of the multinational corporate value system, it sounds strange to blame foreign commerce and government involvement as an engine for fueling evil people. Well, that is exactly what happened.

A Short History of A Long Conflict

In the 20th century, there were several challenges to the supremacy of Western civilization. Although more media hype than cultural and ideological challenge, a few pundits of the ridiculous and the absurd did accept these challenges as legitimate efforts to unseat Western political, economic, and military dominance.

Especially the first and longest running challenge, world communism, which promised to bury the West -- the opposite happened. For a short time, South Americans insisted their energetic lifestyle and Latin culture would overtake Gringo boredom and stiffness. With economic failure and democracy slowdown, Latin American arrogance or self-confidence faded sometime in the 1980s.

Then in the 1990's there was the East Asian conviction that the superior values radiating from Japan, Singapore, and China would reverse the balance of power -- the 21st century would be the Asian century! This was popular longer than the Latin challenge, but not much longer. And of course there was the Islamic challenge, which went into a recess mode sometime around the Latin and Asian promises, but has now returned with a vengeance.

The Middle East has long clashed with the West and has not always been the inferior. Islamic societies at times outperformed (in the arts and sciences and commerce) their lagging western neighbors. In the Middle Ages, Islamic society was more advanced than Christian Europe. With the revolution of modernity, however, the West rose to phenomenal intellectual and technological highs, while the Middle East stagnated, then slipped into poverty and backwardness.

The Arab elite finally responded to their homegrown failure by emulating the West, utilizing the ideological outlines of socialism and secular capitalism. Neither route, however, bore successful fruit. As the 20th century progressed, Islamic society did not: the population ballooned, the economy stagnated, and for most the quality of life sunk. In this quagmire of despair and hopelessness was born both a new rage and a new hope: the rage of radical Muslims and the hope of fundamental Islam. These twin forces have energized the Middle East's hostility toward and battle against the West. Fundamental Islam and radical Muslims have forced this clash of civilizations onto the world's front page.

Although today's Muslim militants are a small minority, they are not an isolated small minority. Their outrage resonates and inflames an increasingly large segment of the society, including the middle class. What began as an insignificant, isolated backlash against American cultural and economic penetration of the Islamic world has mushroomed into millions of Muslims passionately insisting America is the Evil Empire. This long running clash of civilizations has now entered the 21st century, and there is no indication either the radical's war or the larger cultural clash will end anytime soon.

Tradition & Modernity

Muslims, not merely those with bent minds and dreams of holy suicide, are deeply frustrated and disturbed -- frustrated that their societies are stagnant and disturbed that modernity is growing even stronger. The contrast between these two worlds is stark, the imbalance is becoming greater, with integration simply impossible. Worse than a culture in transition from the traditional to the modern is one stuck in tradition yet teased and disrupted by the modern.

That is the Middle East, most of the Middle East. Unable to develop and care for their people yet unable to escape the seduction and frustration of modernity. It is the worse of both worlds.

The more extreme elements detest McDonald's for capturing the gastronomical enthusiasm of their children. They loath MTV for driving their teenagers toward the impure thoughts of sex and individualism and away from the thoughts of the Koran and Allah. They resent the Christian missionaries from Kansas for converting wavering believers into admires of Jesus Christ. They curse the U.S. military troops stationed in their countries for illuminating their impotency. They attack giant multinational corporations headquarted in the towers of New York for selling material dreams that impoverished Muslims cannot afford and that only end up manufacturing frustration.

And yet, American fast food and television programs and corporate products have become a reality of the Middle East even as it struggles to reject this reality.

It is not merely American culture and the U.S. economy that challenges the stagnation of Islamic society, however. The far reach of Europe and Japan has also upset the societal constipation. The combination and accumulation of West and East have send Muslim militants into a spiral of rage and millions of their fervent supporters into a loving embrace of violence. Movements for radical change, however, normally single out the largest and most powerful as target for attack. As the symbol of global modernization, America is naturally their target of obsession.

The power of American materialism and freedom to penetrate their towns and homes -- arrogantly broadcasting the message that the West is the best and here is the evidence! -- has unhinged many in the Middle East, not just the radicals. A growing number of people find it unsettling that the cultural and economic power of American can enter their recently secluded world, expose its backwardness if not bankruptcy, and hold up a tasty, seductive alternative to traditional Islam.

It is this America in the Middle East that has rallied the faithful and expanded their ranks -- the America of success and affluence, the America of modern commerce and popular culture. It is this America in the land of Islam that has upset a fragile social order, encouraged Muslims to feel they were under foreign assault if not occupation, and stimulated fear and hatred of America.

This is not what the Chamber Of Commerce promised.

Ambivalence Of The Not Equal

Many Muslims do admire, even envy Americans and want nothing more than to live the American lifestyle. The appeal of American pop culture is nearly global; the dream of affluence is almost universal. And tradition, especially in rigid and narrow societies, can be an anchor upon the neck of culture and can suffocate the individual.

In the Middle East, however, differences are not really encouraged -- they are discouraged, certainly in the public sphere. The conformity of the news media, the interests of an insecure political elite, and the timidity of local progressives all ensure that the surging forces of anti-Americanism dominate the public dialogue. That people are attracted to America is never allowed to reach the gates of public discourse. The institutions demand opposition to America, and Muslims respond with vigor. In the arena of politics, plurality is forbidden. When it comes to the United States, it is especially forbidden.

America, then, is both the shining city on the hill and the despised emblem of the evil infidels -- but not equally. In private life, America can be the excitement and promise that breaks the steady diet of dullness and hopelessness. In public, America is instantly metamorphosed into the black aggressor in full assault against pious Muslims. Both conceptions of America are internalized and rationalized, both are real and seldom meet in the mind.

One of the great wonders of the Middle East is how cognitive dissonance is never resolved.

At the most fundamental level, what drives the radical Islamists is shame. A collective sense of shame sparked by deep disgust and raving jealousy: disgust with the modern failure of Islamic society, an envy of the achievements and prosperity of a flourishing West. Like all radical movements, social/political failure and self-hate is the source for the fire. Unable to construct a modern Islamic society and then unable to reproduce a Western imitation, the current generation of disesteemed radicals have retreated into the past and now plan to banish everything not part of their reactionary desperation.

This is the second pillar of why Muslims hate Americans. What is called Americanization strokes the embers of shame within Muslims, crafts an alienation in opposition to modernization, and fuels an aggression for a return to a nonexistent past. It all starts with the pain of failure and the shame of recognition that the world of Islam is not the success of the West.

Of course there is no single Islamic world, any more than there is a unified Christian world or a single Western world. Muslims, however, especially Arabs, are strongly united in their opposition to America. This opposition is grounded in the contrast of America's empowered presence in the Middle East against the backdrop of Islam's embarrassing failure.

President Bush should realize that U.S. cultural and economic prominence in a failed society of deeply disappointed and angry citizens contains the potential for disastrous consequences. The issue is not rights, not the right of U.S. corporations nor the right of stationing U.S. troops, but what is best in a world profoundly changed by technology and information. When the existential is deplorable and the psychology is unhealthy, it's best not to push the flag of success.

Steven Cohen is a free-lance writer living in New York City.


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Copyright 2002 Intervention Magazine

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