Why Do They Want to Do Us Harm? [Part Two]

Helen Thomas asked the question. The White House stonewalled. Here are the answers.

In These Times Contributors

A Palestinian flag flutters in the rubble of a destroyed house following Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.(Photo by:Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images )

First Do No Harm

The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Tobin

Why do they’ want to do us harm? The answer has been clear for many years. The United States, through its uncritical support of Israel, has done immense harm to the Arab world.

Americans should put themselves in the shoes of Muslims across the Islamic world. They must impotently watch as invasions, occupations and other assaults wrack their indigenous lands.

Since 1948, the United States has prevented every significant effort to hold Israel accountable for violations of international law and UN resolutions. 

As you read this, Palestinians are being killed, imprisoned, brutalized and expelled every day. Jerusalem, intended to be a corpus separatum open to all people under international control where all faiths, all people could freely worship, live, and mingle, is now being claimed by Israel as its eternal capital, pushing the Muslim and Christian populations out. 

Since 1994, my wife and I have made more than 20 trips to the area. We work with Christian, Muslim and Jewish Israelis who are seeking ways to end the occupation by nonviolent means. The Palestinians and other Arab leaders have said, since 1988, that the Palestinians can accept life within the 1967 borders. However, the Israeli government – through the use of settlements, roads, checkpoints, house demolitions and assassinations – has made it clear that its goal is to take it all. We have observed during the past five years a serious deterioration of any chance for peace. 

What the Arab world sees in the United States is the most egregious form of hypocrisy and arrogance. While pretending to wear the mantle of an honest broker, we have for years sought to manipulate the Palestinians on behalf of the Israeli government. While sponsoring peace talks, we continue to supply the Israeli military with billions and billions of dollars in arms while simultaneously accusing the Palestinians of causing violence and not being a partner for peace.”

We have met with two groups of Hamas members who clearly state that they will negotiate if the playing field is level. They will recognize Israel if Israel will define its borders and recognize a viable Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. The Arab states have made the same proposal. Yet the United States ignores such gestures and supports Israel as it continues to starve the people of Gaza, and violently attack peaceful demonstrations by Palestinian villagers seeking to prevent the theft of their farm land. 

Simply put: They wish to do us harm because we have done them harm – and continue to do so. 

Slow Secularism

Andrew J. Bacevich

Secular modernity imposes many demands, but among the most important is this: God’s rule must end. To the extent that it survives at all, religion must confine itself to the private sphere. This is a prerequisite for entering fully into the modern world: the world of individual freedom and material abundance, of personal choice and personal fulfillment. (That’s the come-on, at least.)

So to reconcile religion with modernity is to exclude God from politics. There’s no way around it. The West, after considerable struggle and violence, by and large embraced this proposition by the middle of the 17th century. 

Even in the present-day United States, easily the most religious” nation in the developed world, religious symbols and rhetorical flourishes may persist in the public sphere, especially on the campaign trail. Yet no one seriously thinks that Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner consults sacred scripture or prays for divine guidance before casting votes in Congress – the opinions of pollsters and lobbyists count for more than whatever God might have to say on the issue at hand.

Even with a very considerable number of fundamentalists” among our fellow citizens, the separation of church and state is well-established.

That’s not the case in the Islamic world. There, God remains central to politics. Traditional Islam demands that this be the case. Consigning God to the private sphere is literally unimaginable.

Yet modernity requires that God get out of the way. And modernity has unleashed a full-fledged assault on the Islamic world, employing every means available to subvert and seduce – the same means it employs to train our own kids to obey the imperatives of the marketplace and become docile consumers.

That assault exposes Muslims to what they don’t have: mostly expendable stuff,” but also democracy, the rule of law, legitimate governments, and economies able to innovate, adapt and provide jobs.

My own reading is this: a great many Muslims resent having modernity shoved down their throat by outsiders, who are themselves not necessarily paragons of virtue and who seem oblivious to the shortcomings of their own way of life. A few Muslims express that resentment through violence directed against the West and above all at the premiere representative of the West (and modernity), the United States. 

Since 9/11, the West, led by the United States, has responded to that violence by redoubling its efforts to shove modernity down Muslim throats. Hence, the global war on terror, centered (to date) on campaigns intended to coerce Iraq and Afghanistan into accepting the prerequisites of modernity. 

We proclaim ourselves liberators – Operation Enduring Freedom! – and by our own lights we are. Some among the beneficiaries of our kindness see it differently, however. They see us as infidels bearing corruption and unbelief. Not surprisingly, the result is to inflame even greater antagonism and further resistance. 

The Pentagon has lately renamed the global war on terror. The military now calls it the Long War – an appropriate name because the present conflict promises to go on for a long, long time.

For good or for ill, the demands of modernity will be met. Ultimately, Islam will bow to its requirements, as did Christendom. God in His wisdom seems willing to permit this.

Yet the West’s reconciliation with modernity happened on its own terms and according to its own timetable. By denying Islam the opportunity to evolve on its own terms and according to its own timetable – the (bogus) imperatives of globalization say we can’t do so – we in the West make it inevitable that some Muslims will continue to feel justified in trying to do us harm. 

Walk a Mile

By Salim Muwakkil

Thomas’ question is one that is seldom asked of our national officials.


Our national mythology requires that we ignore the brutal (often corporate-driven) realities of our global policies in favor of vacuous platitudes about American dedication to democracy, ad nauseam. As for the terrorists’ motives, the traditional answer is either they hate our way of life,” or they’ve been brainwashed into an irrational and murderous Islamic intolerance.

Seldom are their actions examined for plausible motives. According to a Dec. 29, 2009, Associated Press report, Abdulmuttalab (the Christmas Day underwear bomber) had Yemeni friends who said he was open about his sympathies toward the Palestinians and his anger over Israel’s actions in Gaza.” The Israeli assault on Gaza began on Christmas 2008, and Abdulmuttalab chose Christmas 2009 for his failed assault.

The Israeli attack on Gaza is also reported to be a factor in the suicide bombing by Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian who exploded himself in Afghanistan in January, taking seven CIA agents with him. 

The three-week-long Israeli assault on Gaza killed about 1,400 Palestinians. Many global agencies, including the International Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused Israel of wanton brutality during the Gaza offensive. 

The UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, in its 575-page report shepherded by South African judge Richard Goldstone, determined that Israel may have committed war crimes during the Gaza campaign. The report also accused Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups of possible war crimes, but their transgressions were dwarfed by the enormity of Israeli’s offenses.

Goldstone, who is Jewish, is an eminent international jurist and former chief prosecutor at the UN war-crime tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Despite those credentials, the United States, so far, has mostly rejected the Goldstone report; the House voted to condemn it last November, and President Barack Obama has dismissed it as one-sided and flawed.” 

This response has distressed many. Failure to demand justice for attacks on civilians in Gaza and southern Israel will reveal hypocrisy in U.S. policy,” said Sara Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free.”

Americans should put themselves in the shoes of Muslims across the Islamic world. They must impotently watch as invasions, regime changes, occupations, resource-exploitation, bombings and other assaults wrack their indigenous lands. They must watch as their leaders, many of whom are unaccountable autocrats propped up by the United States, offer scant resistance to these various incursions. 

How can young Pakistanis and Afghanis ignore the growing civilian toll from drone-launched missiles? How should Palestinians feel about Israel’s unrelenting occupation of their lands with the United States’ unequivocal support? Why should the United States be immune from the consequences of its bullet-ridden foreign policies?

As Helen Thomas revealed, we rarely consider these questions. Others are asking them though, and their answers are increasingly troubling. 

The Other Victims 

By James Spencer

Why terrorism?” Why do they want to do us harm?”

There are two questions here – the cerebral why terrorism?” and the more emotional why us?”

There is no universally accepted definition for terrorism.” (This is mostly due to the Israeli-Arab dispute: the two sides have diametrically opposing views on what constitutes a freedom fighter” versus a terrorist.”) But one thing is agreed – that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize. Fundamentally, terrorism seeks to achieve political ends by asymmetric (violent) means. The choice to use terrorism usually springs from a position of weakness either in relation to the power of the state (al Qaeda), or the validity of their cause among the population (Timothy McVeigh.) 

If large segments of a population hold a deep-seated grievance, the movement is likely to form as a multifaceted insurgency. If the balance of power between the state and the organization is less pronounced, then guerrilla warfare may result. (Many terrorist campaigns start with a guerrilla phase, before devolving to terrorism as the endurance of the state wears down the militants.)

Why us?” is a matter of (politically driven) perception: many more Muslims have been killed by Islamist terrorists than have been Christians, Jews or Hindus, etc. Many of these have been collateral damage” in attacks on Westerners, but most have been killed for being the wrong sect (something that has wracked Europe for hundreds of years). For most terrorists, religion is a political identity rather than a motivating factor. This is evidenced by the majority of terrorists who aim to stay alive to enjoy – they hope – the earthly fruits of their labors. Similarly, some of the most effective Middle East terrorists were Christian or Druze, operating for nationalist organizations. 

For most people, the motivating factor is very basic (lack of opportunity, revenge, despair), either on an individual or a collective basis. Here, the hatred is less for the freedoms that we in the West enjoy but more for the same ones they are denied. Many believe this repression to be at Western connivance (for cheap oil, etc.) or with our overt assistance. Our failure to intervene in some situations, and our active involvement in others (frequently seen as anti-Muslim causes), is often seen as proof. The clearest example of this is the case of the holy land,” where two peoples are fighting over one land and its vital water.

Western support for Israel’s activities, which go against loudly trumpeted Western democratic values, is now a key motivator for violence against us. Yet it was not always so – the United States ran many schools in the Middle East, and was respected both for bringing modern education and for their disinterested presence (in contrast to the British and French, then ruling much of the Middle East). What has changed is the coming of Israeli settler-colonialism” (now under U.S. aegis), and 24/7, graphic visibility of what occurs there.

As President Barack Obama recognized in his Cairo speech, the use of Western soft power” (conducting our foreign policy in accordance with our democratic values) is likely to reduce greatly the incidence of terrorism towards us.

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.