There seem to be two dominant viewpoints on why muslim radicals in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world choose America and to a lesser degree other western countries, as the target for their harshest rhetoric and their most ambitious terrorist attacks. Both are highly politically charged and have some validity, but as answers to the question they attempt to address, both are basically wrong.
One position which is often dismissed as simplistic is the argument which President Bush expressed in a much quoted speech made to Congress right after the attack on the World Trade Center where he said:
"They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
Although dismissed as simplistic, this argument has more validity than is immediately apparent on the surface, because were it not for all of these qualities of Western Civilization we would be much less likely to be doing the more concrete things which tend to aggravate muslim nationalists and fundamentalists. They certainly do hate all the things Bush mentions. The question is whether that hatred based on cultural values is enough by itself to motivate terrorism.
The opposing viewpoint which is popular with the anti-war left is expressed by former CIA Analyst Michael Scheuer in his book Imperial Hubris where he says:
"The fundamental flaw in our thinking about Bin Laden is that "Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than what we do." Muslims are bothered by our modernity, democracy, and sexuality, but they are rarely spurred to action unless American forces encroach on their lands. It’s American Foreign Policy that enrages Osama and al-Qaeda, not American culture and society."
This is a very appealing application of the idea of ‘blowback’ as it is often used, to suggest that anything bad which happens to the US is the result of our policies and our mistreatment of other people and nations. Yet although this argument may have some validity, it’s just as simplistic as the more pro-American viewpoint expressed by President Bush.
Realistically, both statements contain part of the truth. Neither of them is a lie or a misrepresentation, they just don’t provide the answer to the question of muslim hostility. The religiously motivated muslim radicals hate our lifestyle and the nationalistic ones hate our foreign policy. And Islamic radicalism is certainly as much a movement of nationalism as it is of religion. What neither of these arguments takes into consideration is a third and ultimately much more important reason for anti-American and anti-Western sentiment among Muslims which ultimately trumps and incorporates both of these beliefs — that encouraging hatred of the US and the West advances the interests and increases the power of the leaders who promote that hatred.
As a religious and nationalistic movement, Muslim extremism has a great deal in common with other similar movements through history. And the one thing which extreme nationalists always like to have in order to unify their forces is an outside enemy. Because of our ‘freedoms’ and our past actions and our prominent position in the world, we make the perfect enemy, the perfect boogeyman with which they can motivate their followers and towards which they can direct their hostility.
The religious fundamentalists are just like any moralistic conservatives. They couldn’t ask for better object lessons of the drunkenness, depravity and debauchery which their followers would fall into without the guidance of a fundamentalist interpretation of the Q’ran than what the western media offers them for entertainment. They can point to the Spears sisters, our 60% divorce rate and David Hasselhoff eating pizza off the floor and motivate their followers to despise us and feel good about their own religion and values.
All the nationalists need is Israel. Whatever else the west or the US have done to them is just icing on the cake. So long as Israel exists in close proximity to Muslim society as a little microcosm of western liberalism, they are constantly reminded that we want to impose our values on them in the same way that we imposed Israel on their territory. It’s endlessly valuable as a way to drive resentment and anger in a population where a great many people feel disenfranchised and kept down. Never mind that it’s actually their own autocratic leaders who keep them in an oppressed state with no help at all from the west. It’s still easy for those leaders to direct that resentment towards Israel and the nations who support it.
Because what we see in the muslim world is both nationalist and religious in nature, offering up one blanket explanation for why they ‘hate us’ is terribly simplistic. It’s not even true that most muslims hate us. A relatively small minority actively hate the US and other western nations and all they stand for. Yet there are probably even more muslims who admire the west, value its contributions to world society and are interested in doing business with us. The problem is that it is the angry part of that population which is motivated to take action and do violence and with so many muslims in the world, even a small minority is an awful lot of people who can do a great deal of damage.
It is neither western decadence nor western incursion into the middle east which motivates al Qaeda and other extremists. It is a desire for power which drives them, and they can advance their power most effectively by targeting the west and especially the US and making us the scapegoats for their efforts to terrorize their own people into going along with them. This is standard operating procedure in any movement which wants to build fanatical loyalty by promoting irrational fear of an outside enemy. The Nazis used the Jews, Communists used the Capitalists and Fascists used the Communists. Any sufficiently scary internal or external threat will do.
They don’t hate us because they have reason to hate us. They hate us because they have been convinced they must hate us. There’s no bigger boogeyman than the United States, and if they can convince their followers that we are out to eradicate their religion and conquer their lands – even if neither of those is even remotely true – then fear will breed loyalty to the leaders who offer to fight the big, bad and very convenient enemy. Fanatical loyalty means power and power is all they care about, not Islam or the people of the Middle East or the fate of the Muslim nations they throw into chaos by their actions. Like all demagogues and dictators it is power they seek above all else and power they will seize by any means available.