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WHY DO PEOPLE HATE AMERICA?
By Ziauddin Sardar Merryl Wyn Davies
disinformationCopyright © 2002 Ziauddin Sardar & Merryl Wyn Davies
All right reserved.
Chapter OneStanding at Ground Zero
The picture of a plane swooping through a clear blue sky, tilting as it makes its approach to the elegant symmetry of a glass tower and then exploding in vibrant flame, has become a defining image of the 21st century. We witnessed that moment, and all the devastation that followed, live on television. The whole world experienced the catastrophe of 9-11 through the power and global reach of TV. Today, what we know of the world around us is mediated by television - now the first port of call for news, information and entertainment everywhere. We live in a world of images, packaged visual stories that come to us, and at us, wherever we turn - on billboards, in newspapers and magazines, on television, in the cinema - and we read into the images more than the pictures tell. This one defining image is horrific and real. It is not lessened just because it is effortlessly associated in our visual memory with the many unreal, fictional images of disaster that we have seen in films and on television. The important question is how much our response to the image of reality - our efforts to come to terms with the meaning of a real event - is shaped and structured by those associations. What are the links between the realand unreal images that shape our relations with the world in which we live?
Our direct personal experience of the world remains circumscribed: the neighbourhood in which we live, the place where we work, the schools that our children attend, the places where we shop, or worship, or go for entertainment, and the way we travel between them. This is the world of our daily round, as it was for all the generations that came before us. What makes our world smaller, more interconnected, is less the kind of lives we lead than the reach of communications technology that brings us vicarious experience - knowledge and ideas about what is beyond our individual experience - and brings it right into our homes. Television and the cultural products that it carries have become as significant a part of our lives as those things that we experience by direct personal contact. Our sense of identity, of belonging to larger communities, our cultural experiences, beliefs and opinions are shaped not only by the direct contacts of our daily lives but also by the larger world that we experience through the media. That the world saw and experienced 9-11 through television is only one small part of the story. How people everywhere have come to terms with that event, responded to it and been affected by it, is also mediated by the cultural community, the cultural conventions and communal resource of the media. Television showed us what happened; it also shows us the ways in which we thought about what happened.
The television series The West Wing represents the best of American liberal values and democratic culture. It won nine Emmies in its first season (more than any other programme, ever) and has been described by Time magazine as 'a national civics lesson'. The continuing story of President Bartlet, a liberal Democrat of impeccable credentials, the show presents a parallel universe of US politics and a virtual mirror of American liberal consciousness. Just like any real administration in the White House, President Bartlet and his staff struggle to cope with personal problems, scandals, lobby groups, ethical dilemmas of power, domestic issues and global politics. On 3 October 2001, barely three weeks after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, NBC aired a special edition of The West Wing. The episode is a dramatised depiction, a creative - in the sense of imaginary - attempt to come to terms with real events. The West Wing does not bring the real 9-11 into its virtual world - that would be an effrontery too far. But it does not need to; we all know what this episode is about. What is important is the way in which the programme deals with the issues.
The episode switches between two storylines. A group of high school students, part of a programme called Presidential Classroom, are caught up in a security alert while visiting the White House. They are directed to the Mess - 'its where we eat lunch' - a location provided with tables and chairs and a white board, where the series' cast of characters provides the lesson for the day. The second storyline is about an Arab American member of the White House staff, named Raqim Ali, who is suspected of terrorist links and bundled into a darkened room for urgent questioning. When Leo McGarry, the Chief of Staff, is informed that a potential terrorist may be on the premises, he looks stunned and mutters: 'Well ... it was only a matter of time, huh?' The menace of terrorism is more than a potential threat - it is an inevitable event merely waiting to happen, intent on reaching into the centre of American life, virtual or real. Counterpoised with the civics lesson, this alternate plot theme will be an evocation of actual response, a disturbing and robust encounter of raw emotion.
The civics lesson begins with a slightly oblique question to the one on everyone's mind. One of the students asks Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff: 'So ... what's the deal with everyone trying to kill you?' In the parallel universe of The West Wing, a previous storyline had Lyman critically injured when gunmen opened fire on the Presidential party during a visit to Virginia. Presidents are always in the line of fire, and The West Wing acknowledged the fact with a two-part story that opened its second season: 'In the Shadow of the Gunman', first aired on 4 October 2000. In that instance, the intended target was not the President but his daughter Zoë. The reason for the assassination: Zoë is dating Charlie Young, an aide to President Bartlet, who happens to be black. The gunmen are members of a neo-Nazi group called West Virginia White Pride. It seems rather strange to refer to a previous episode within the fictional timeline when what we are about to receive is a special offering designed to stand explicitly outside that timeline. In the conventions of series television, such references set a context: in this case, the context of terror. It makes three connections. First, obviously, it makes the point that terror can have an American incarnation, that hatred is not an exclusive preserve of only one kind of group or society. On another level, it appears to be implying that racial hatred is the most pernicious and enduring of hatreds, an idea that we shall find at the heart of the special episode. Secondly, it provides an opportunity, through a long digression on the part of Lyman, to acknowledge the human impact of violence. In a world in which people feel as strongly, if not more so, about fictional characters than real ones, it is a means of incorporating emotion, however trite that may seem in the circumstances. Thirdly, possibly, we are getting a slight nod to the prescience of the series or the underlining of a simple fact: terror always has its own most obvious usual suspects. In the earlier episode, as the White House Situation Room is scrambling to deal with the shooting, the status report begins by noting that the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden are not immediately known, and there is concern about a front-line build-up of Iraqi Revolutionary Guards.
Once these references have been made, the special episode moves swiftly to the obvious question: 'So why is everyone trying to kill us?' As convenor of this civics class, Lyman argues that not everyone is bent on violence towards Americans, but most definitely all Americans are targets. The question, he insists, must be refined and made specific. So he writes his test question on the white board: 'Islamic extremist is to Islamic as - is to Christianity'; and provides his own answer: 'KKK.' 'That's what we're talking about - the [Klu Klux] Klan gone medieval and global. It could not have less to do with Islamic men and women of faith, of whom there are millions and millions' - including those in the American armed services, police and fire departments, he adds. The analogy, once made, is never explored, making it hard to see how it helps anyone to understand better the source and nature of the threat.
So the refined, specific question becomes: 'Why are Islamic extremists trying to kill us?' The question has one prime function, to explore what differentiates Us from Them, because the differences, everyone accepts, explain the motive force that unleashes terror. What defines America is what terrorists are against, which is the straightforward proposition on which all marshalling of information and discussion turns. For the students in the show, the difference between Us and Them is simply 'freedom and democracy'.
A great deal of the right-wing analysis of 9-11 was also pitched at this level. For example, in The New York Observer, columnist Richard Brookhiser suggested that the terrorists hate the fact that America is 'mighty and good'. 'The United States is perceived', Brookhiser wrote:
correctly as the incarnation of a dominant world system - an empire of capitalism and democracy. New York City is also perceived as the hub of one of those subsystems, the roaring dynamo of wealth. Anyone in the world who looks at his lot and is unhappy, looks at us - country and city - and sees an alternative. If he has an aspiring flame of mind, he may try to come here or imitate us. If he has an aggrieved flame of mind, he will hold us responsible. If he has the resources of a hostile nation, or its functional equivalent, he will try to kill us ... The world's losers hate us because we are powerful, rich and good (or at least better than they are). When those who acted on that hatred have been repaid, seven times seven, we will rebuild the World Trade Towers, with one more story, just to rub it in.
The theme of envy and jealousy figured strongly in much of the right-wing media. In the Chicago Tribune, Thomas Friedman, who coined the term 'They hate us' early in 2001, months before 9-11, laid the blame on 'pure envy'. 'Even in the club of industrialized democracies', he suggested, 'there is resentment at America's stature as the world's richest nation, its sole superpower, its predominant culture'. The crux of the matter, declared Robert Kaplan, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, on National Public Radio (NPR), is 'a kind of existential hatred of a very dynamic, pulsing civilization, the West, challenging the middle classes of this part of the world and, therefore, a competitor to traditional Islam in a way that no other ideology has been'. Muslims are also anti-Communist, but, suggested Kaplan, they 'never really hated communism because it was such an abject, obvious failure'. It's the success of American democracy and capitalism that is the real source of hatred.
The West Wing is above this kind of simplistic analysis. The show aimed, as it usually does, to be both urbane and worldly-wise, to champion such positive American values as open-mindedness, tolerance and the programme's favourite essential ethic, plurality. Lyman tells the students: 'It's probably a good idea to acknowledge that they do have specific complaints.' The 'complaints' that he itemises are: 'the people America supports'; 'US troops in Saudi Arabia'; 'sanctions against Iraq'; and 'support for Egypt'. And we are told that he hears these complaints every day. Since we can assume that the Deputy Chief of Staff is not in daily contact with terrorists or Islamic extremists, these cannot be the only people voicing these 'complaints'. In which case, it might be a suitable place to begin an instructive exploration of these issues, even if 'complaint' seems a distinctly neutral term for such contentious policy issues. It might, for example, be significant to consider the fact that such 'complaint' comes from many different sources - Americans, Europeans, people and governments across the Third World - as well as from Muslims. When such 'complaints' are made so often, from so many sources, might they not contribute to the creation of terrorism, or the conditions in which terrorism festers and recruits? But The West Wing finds such a question to be quite unnecessary. Lyman simply tells the class: 'I think they are wrong.' Therefore it need not detain our civics class from getting on with matters of real interest.
What explains terrorists, what defines their difference, is solely concerned with the nature and history of their beliefs - this is the essence of the lesson we are to be given. So what is Islamic extremism? 'It is strict adherence to a particular interpretation of seventh-century Islamic law, as practised by the Prophet Muhammad.' And Lyman adds for emphasis: 'When I say "strict adherence", I'm not kidding around.' With a single bound, at the very beginning of the civics lesson, we have been plunged into the sort of misinformation that is seriously detrimental to reasoned judgement. Islam was first preached by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, in which case, by this definition, terrorism is original to Islam. If strict adherence to Islam 'as practised by the Prophet Muhammad' is what makes an extremist - and we have already been told that extremism has nothing to do with millions of Muslim men and women of faith - then what exactly is the connection between these many millions and their faith, or indeed the Prophet Muhammad? Presumably these millions are less than strict in their adherence. The practice of Prophet Muhammad is second only to the Qur'an itself and is essential for all Muslims, who refer to it as a guide and example of how to live; it provides the moral values and ethics of Islam, as well as such vital details as how to pray and what form prayer should take. Furthermore, all Islamic schools of law, which actually developed after the seventh century, as well as all shades of opinion and interpretation among all Muslims, are grounded in, refer to, and are justified by reasoning based on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. So we are being offered a distinction that can only generate confusion and the inability to distinguish an Islamic extremist from any other Muslim.
Indeed, the liberal analysis of The West Wing, although couched in much more cautious and understanding language, turns out to be not far removed from the right-wing perspective on Islam and Muslims. The language of the right wing is hostile and uncompromising, as demonstrated by, for example, Karina Rollins, senior editor of The American Enterprise. 'It is a grave and dangerous mistake', she wrote, 'to leap from the fact that individual Muslims are innocent to the notion that the nations and societies in which they live are benign'.
Excerpted from WHY DO PEOPLE HATE AMERICA? by Ziauddin Sardar Merryl Wyn Davies Copyright © 2002 by Ziauddin Sardar & Merryl Wyn Davies
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.