Over the past three years, I have followed the mainstream public discourse on the abhorrent attacks of 9-11 with the eerie feeling that I was watching a new version of Hamlet where the King of Denmark – the father of Prince Hamlet – dies a natural death. The Prince’s enigmatic, even murderous, behavior stems from some strange sickness of his mind. He just hates his noble uncle, Claudius, who succeeds to the throne of Denmark upon his father’s death.
Once the perpetrator of a crime has been identified, it is natural for the family of the victim to ask: why? After 9-11, Americans too were asking this and similar questions. “Why did the 19 Arabs attack us?” “What was their motive?” “Why did they take their own lives to inflict death upon us?” “What did they want from us?” “What had we done to make them so angry, so suicidal?” The questions could easily take a dangerous turn. They had to be preempted.
Losing no time, on the evening of September 11, President Bush sought to restrict the questioning. “Today,” he opened his speech, “our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.” But that was not enough. A few days later, in his speech to the joint session of the Congress, the President fixed the question for Americans. Americans are asking, he told us, “Why do they hate us?”
This canonical question became the steel frame which has bounded the official, establishment discourse on the etiology of September 11. In this clever formulation, “they” came to include all Arabs, indeed all Muslims, and “us” indicated not the US administrations, or their policies towards the Middle East, but Americans, white, Christian and Jewish.
The answer to this question – now narrowed – also had to be fixed, determined forever. President Bush’s speech-writers provided the answer. It was categorical. “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” One word, one concept, one condition, one indictment summarized, captured and explained the temperament, the values, the nature and the perverse proclivities of nearly a billion and a half Muslims, with more than fourteen hundred years of history behind them.
On the lofty banner of American hubris, unfurled after the attacks of 9-11, are inscribed in black letters the words, “The Muslims hate our freedoms.” This is now the accepted, formulaic substitute for all discourse, all questioning and probing into the history of America’s relations with the peoples of the Islamicate world over the past 57 years. Three words now have the power to terminate all discourse on 9-11 in mainstream America. ‘They hate us.’
The 9-11 Commission website informs us that it was “chartered to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. (emphases added).” Yet, the 500-page report of the Commission contains not a single mention of any possible connection between 9-11 and US policies towards the Middle East. Presumably, American policies, even when they wreak havoc, are like acts of God. There can be no blowback.
There is a deep irony in all this too. The US administration, led by its neoconservative ideologues, has convinced a majority of Americans that the Muslims attacked their country because they hate freedoms. What then is the remedy the US proposes to combat the “terrorism” that emanates from the Islamicate world? It proposes to invade and occupy their countries so that US marines can inject the serum of freedom into their moribund bodies. It appears that the Muslims do not hate freedoms per se; they only hate our freedoms because they don’t have it. We must conquer them in order to bring this gift to them.
The speed and ease with which President Bush’s lies sink into the psyche of so many Americans is truly astounding. To his flock, he is like a Moses bringing divinely inscribed tablets from Mount Sinai. His words, however inarticulate, however disjointed in their logic, however divergent from facts, are the word of God. It appears that 9-11 has turned President Bush into the leader of an American cult.
Is there a cure for this delusion? I will propose a therapy that involves a modest exercise of the imagination. Modest, I emphasize. Not the layered imagination of mystics, not a poet’s flight of fancy, or the hallucination of madmen. Just a little pedantic imagination, well within the reach of most ordinary humans willing to exit momentarily from the present into an imagined and imaginary world.
Let America now imagine this. Imagine waking up tomorrow in an upside-down world, one in which the history of America’s relations with the Arabs is inverted. Iraq is now the global hegemon, the world’s richest democracy, a beacon of freedom; Iraq and the Arab democracies dominate the world and what was once the USA. Imagine that the Arabs have used their power to replace a United States of America with forty-four nominally independent states – with states for native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, Italian Americans, German Americans, Anglo-Americans, Jews, Mormons, Sikhs, the Amish, etc – with most of these states run by despotic Iraqi surrogates.
Iraq, after colonizing New England and ethnically cleansing its native inhabitants, has converted it into an exclusive, racist, colonial-settler state for Arabs brought in from Sudan who were dying from a severe drought, the worst in a thousand years. This state, Arabistan, is by far the most powerful of the states on the American continent. It is Iraq’s strategic asset in the Americas, periodically mounting incursions against the neighboring states from where the New Englander refugees wage occasional guerilla attacks on Arabistan.
Starting in March 2003, the Iraqi marines, supported by two divisions from Palestine, had invaded and occupied Texas. The Iraqi administration argued that this was a preemptive invasion to prevent the fanatical Texans from developing biological weapons. However, some Arab publications on the Left have argued that the Texan oilfields were Iraq’s real target. It is well known that production from the Arab oil fields has been declining since 1997.
What would the Americans, now split, divided, corralled into forty-our racial, ethnic and sectarian states do if they found themselves in such a world? Would they resent the surrogate despotisms that ruled over them with Iraqi arms and money? Would some of their young men, faced with overwhelming Iraqi power, resort to suicidal attacks within Iraq itself? Would they too hate the Iraqis and Arabs and attack them because they are free, prosperous and democratic?
What would the New Englanders do, now scattered in refugee encampments in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio? Would they dream of returning to their country? Would they demand the right to return to their homes in New England? Would they demand compensation for the homes they had lost? Would they hate the Sudanese settlers who now lived in their homes, their towns and cities?
What would all the other Americans do if the New Englanders began to wage a campaign of terror against Iraqi interests in the former USA? What would they do if Arabistan – the Iraqi surrogate – then retaliated by bombing New York, Detroit, Washington and Albany? What would they do if the Iraqi media accused them ad nauseum of hating Iraq’s free, open, democratic society?
If only Americans could imagine all this – imagine all this for even a few seconds – how would this change the way they think about what their country, the United States, together with its democratic ally, Israel, have been doing to the Arabs? Can Americans imagine this? What would it do if they could imagine this – even for a few seconds? Would they recognize in their imagined pain, in their imagined humiliation, in the imagined wars and destruction imposed upon them, the real wars, occupations, massacres, ethnic cleansings, tortures, bombings, sanctions and assassinations endured by Palestinians and Iraqis for more than eight decades?
M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His political essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at email@example.com. Visit his website at http://msalam.net.
Other Articles by M. Shahid Alam
Making Sense of