The mess we're in (continued)

Sunday, May 23, 2004

By Robert Polack Jr.

Harvard scholar Jessica Stern provides little comfort to people still clinging to the illusion that invading Iraq has somehow made us safer. The research for her new book, "Terror in the Name of God," is based, in part, on face-to-face interviews with numerous Islamic militants. This, together with her extensive knowledge of the subject, has led her to conclude that the Iraq invasion has strengthened and consolidated existing groups while driving significant numbers of new recruits to the terrorist camps. These findings have also been confirmed by other experts.

A remarkable aspect of Stern's research is the highly psychological approach that she used in interviewing her subjects. She went into the interview process wondering what motivates terrorists and she asked questions accordingly. Her findings are complex, however, one emotion is cited as essential to Middle Easterners who become terrorists: humiliation.

Many terrorists feel humiliated by years of colonial rule and by the subsequent years of U.S. meddling in the region. They are aware that we created and supported one of the worst human rights violators in history, the Shah of Iran, just as we supported Saddam Hussein during his most violent and repressive years. They feel humiliated by this history, just as many feel humiliated, in spades, by the years of brutal sanctions and also by our current occupation. One can only speculate about the impact of the recent pictures of prison abuse on this critical sense of humiliation.

Stern's study implies two deeper points. First, Islamic fundamentalism is not the root cause of terrorism against the United States. Most, non-terrorists become terrorists not because of militant Islam, but rather because the extremist groups who espouse such ideologies provide an outlet for emotions like humiliation and vengeance. In such cases, the root cause is a festering resentment toward our presence in the region, not Islam, which is merely the cultural form of the reaction.

The common view that terrorists are primarily "caused" by something inherent in mainstream Islam is a superficial, erroneous, and even dangerous interpretation of the situation in the Middle East. Much more accurate is the view that militant ideologies -- extreme varieties of Islam -- give form, justification and direction, for feelings originating in response to our historical and contemporary presence in the region.

Stern's study of individuals who join Islamic terrorist groups tends to confirm this view.

Secondly, Stern's research suggests an approach that is critical if we are serious about stopping terrorism. Unlike many people in the United States, she is interested in what the terrorists think and what motivates them. On the surface, this seems like an obvious and logical approach to the problem. If we want to be safe from terrorists, why not start by seriously considering what they think and what makes them do the things they do?

It is easy to see why this approach is seldom used, however, as it inevitably leads us into examining our history, actions and presence in the Middle East. For those who may not know about it, our history in the region is a most challenging subject and chock full of extremely unsavory facts that are difficult to defend on moral grounds. Most Americans are naturally averse to taking an honest, unbiased look at this sort of thing.

Absent such historical context, they are also disinclined to consider how average Middle Easterners view us and our presence in the region. But we continue down this path of self-induced ignorance -- an ignorance that appears to others as arrogance -- at our peril, since these are, after all, the people who become terrorists.

This brings me to the core question that must be asked again and again during these troubled times: Why are we in Iraq?

Although the Iraq war is now regularly linked to the "war on terror" by the Bush administration and Fox News, it is difficult to take this connection seriously once one understands that the occupation is undoubtedly producing more terrorists. I will not belabor the point that the stated justifications for the invasion have been proven hollow. I will only briefly digress to comment that the invasion has alienated important allies whose support and cooperation are critical if we actually intend to address terrorism and achieve national security.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Bush administration invaded Iraq in order to project U.S. power in the region with the ultimate aim of controlling oil resources during upcoming decades. I'm also satisfied that they insisted on this reckless action because they had convinced themselves that invading Iraq was the best thing for the country in the long run. All of this is hardly speculation. It is easily confirmed through a cursory examination of the writings of the central figures of the administration and others of their group, the Project for the New American Century, during the 12 years prior to the invasion.

The invasion was a truly bold move, executed at a critical moment in history. It was made possible by the nationalistic fervor, absence of critical thought, and media complicity characteristic of the post 9-11 period. But more than just audacity, opportunism and the undermining of our democracy, the decision to invade Iraq also involved a gross misjudgment of the likely reaction of the Iraqis and others in the region. In other words, there was a major misunderstanding of the psychology of those whose territory we were about to invade and occupy.

We're now likely to lose the stability of petroleum production in the Middle East -- the exact opposite of the administration's covert intention. We're also imperiling the lives of thousands of Americans while diverting billions of taxpayer dollars into an occupation that is daily creating enemies rather than reducing them.

Perhaps Jessica Stern is right. Maybe it is time to start paying attention to what people in the Middle East are thinking.

Robert Polack Jr., a native of Cape Girardeau, is an assistant professor of social work at Southeast Missouri State University.

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