Why the Mideast Exploded, Really
Editor Note: The new conventional wisdom, in the wake of angry protests roiling the Middle East, is that Muslims are either way too sensitive or irrational. How else to explain the fury over an offensive anti-Islam video? But the video was just the spark that ignited a long-smoldering fire, says ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.
By Ray McGovern
“Why Is the Arab world so easily offended?” asks the headline atop an article by Fouad Ajami, which the Washington Post published online last Friday to give perspective to the recent anti-American violence in Muslim capitals.
While the Post described Ajami simply as a “senior fellow” at Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, Wikipedia gives a more instructive perspective on his checkered career and dubious credibility.
An outspoken supporter of the war on Iraq, Ajami was still calling it a “noble effort” well after it went south. He is a friend and colleague of one of the war’s intellectual authors, neocon Paul Wolfowitz, and also advised Condoleezza Rice. It was apparently Wolfowitz or Rice who fed Ajami’s analyses to then-Vice President Dick Cheney, who cited Ajami’s views repeatedly in speeches.
The most telling example of this came in Cheney’s VFW address on August 26, 2002, in which the Vice President laid down the terms of reference for the planned attack on Iraq. Attempting to assuage concerns about the upcoming invasion, Cheney cited Ajami’s analysis: “As for the reaction of the Arab ‘street,’ the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.’”
In his writings, Ajami did warn, in a condescending way, that one could expect some “road rage … of a thwarted Arab world – the congenital condition of a culture yet to take full responsibility for its self-inflicted wounds.” He then added:
“There is no need to pay excessive deference to the political pieties and givens of the region. Indeed, this is one of those settings where a reforming foreign power’s simpler guidelines offer a better way than the region’s age-old prohibitions and defects.”
No One Better?
Ignoring the albatross of tarnished credentials hanging around Ajami’s neck, the Post apparently saw him as just the right academician to put perspective on the violence of last week in Middle East capitals. As for his record of credibility: Well, who takes the trouble to go to Wikipedia for information on pundits?
Nor were the Post’s editors going to take any chances that its newspaper readers might miss the benefit of Ajami’s wisdom. So the Post gave pride of place to the same article in Sunday’s Outlook section, as well. What the Post and other mainstream media want us to believe comes through clearly in the title given to the article’s jump portion, which dominates page 5: “Why a YouTube trailer ignited Muslim rage.”
Setting off the article were large, scary photos: on page one, a photo of men brandishing steel pipes to hack into the windows of the U.S. embassy in Yemen; the page-5 photo showed a masked protester, as he “ran from a burning vehicle near the U.S. embassy in Cairo.”
So – to recapitulate – the Post’s favored editorial narrative of the Mideast turmoil is that hypersensitive, anti-American Muslims are doing irrational stuff like killing U.S. diplomats and torching our installations. This violence was the result of Arabs all too ready to take offense at a video trailer disrespectful of the Prophet.
Nonetheless, it seems to be true that the trailer did have some immediate impact and will have more. According to an eyewitness, the 30 local guards who were supposed to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi simply ran away as the violent crowd approached on Tuesday night.
Wissam Buhmeid, the commander of the Tripoli government-sanctioned Libya’s Shield Brigade, effectively a police force for Benghazi, maintained that it was anger over the video trailer which made the guards abandon their post.
“There were definitely people from the security forces who let the attack happen because they were themselves offended by the film; they would absolutely put their loyalty to the Prophet over the consulate. The deaths are all nothing compared to insulting the Prophet.”
Pretext and Catalyst
Predictably, Islamophobes and Muslim haters with influence over Western media coverage are citing the violence as the kind of “irrational” over-reaction that “exposes” Islam’s intolerance and incompatibility with democratic values and demonstrates that Islam is on a collision course with the West.
It is no surprise that Ajami gives no attention to the many additional factual reasons explaining popular outrage against the U.S. and its representatives – reasons that go far deeper than a video trailer, offensive though it was. Ajami steers clear of the dismal effects of various U.S. policies over the years on people across the Muslim world – in countries like Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Libya, Afghanistan. (The list stretches as far as distant Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state.)
Last week’s violence not only reflects the deep anger at and distrust of the U.S. across the Islamic world, but also provides insight into the challenges posed by the power now enjoyed by the forces of extremism long held in check by the dictators toppled by last year’s wave of revolutions.
Who are the main beneficiaries of misleading narratives like that of Ajami. He himself concedes, “It is never hard to assemble a crowd of young protesters in the teeming cities of the Muslim world. American embassies and consulates are magnets for the disgruntled.”
So, does that mean the notorious video trailer is best regarded as a catalyst for the angry protests rather than the underlying cause? In other words, if the video served as the spark, who or what laid the kindling? Who profits from the narrative that neocons are trying so hard to embed in American minds?
Broad hints can be seen in the Washington Post’s coverage over recent days – including a long piece by its Editorial Board, “Washington’s role amid the Mideast struggle for power,” published the same day Ajami’s article appeared online.
What the two have in common is that the word “Israel” appears in neither piece. One wonders how and why the Post‘s editors could craft a long editorial on the “Mideast struggle for power” — and give editorial prominence to Ajami’s article — without mentioning Israel.
Presumably because the Post’s readers aren’t supposed to associate the fury on the Arab “street” with anger felt by the vast majority Arabs over what they see as U.S. favoritism toward Israel and neglect for the plight of the Palestinians. The Israeli elephant, with the antipathy and resentment its policies engender, simply cannot be allowed into the discussion.
In the circumstances of last week, Israel may be less a centerpiece than the ugly Islamophobia that has found a home in America. But these factors tend to build on and reinforce each other. And the indignities suffered at the hand of Israel certainly has resonance is the larger context of Muslims who feel their religion and culture are under attack in a variety of ways.
“Why Do They Hate Us?”
On Saturday, during a live interview on Al-jazeera, I tried to inject some balance into the discussion. I noted that one key reason for the antipathy toward the U.S. among Muslims is the close identification of the U.S. with Israel and the widespread realization that support from Washington enables Israel’s policies of oppression and warmongering against the Palestinians and its regional neighbors.
As to “why they hate us,” I had time to recall three very telling things I had mentioned in an earlier article  on this sensitive topic.
1 — From the 9/11 Commission Report of July 2004, page 147, regarding the motivation of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: “By his own account, KSM’s animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.”
2 — The mainstream-media-neglected report from the Pentagon-appointed Defense Science Board, a report that took direct issue with the notion that they hate us for our freedom. Amazingly, in their Sept. 23, 2004, report to Rumsfeld, the DSB directly contradicted what Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush had been saying about “why they hate us.” Here’s part of what the DSB said:
“Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States. Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”
The New York Times ignored the Defense Science Board’s startling explanation (as it has other references to the elephant plopped on the sofa). On Nov. 24, 2004, the erstwhile “newspaper of record” did publish a story on the board’s report — but performed some highly interesting surgery.
Thom Shanker of the Times quoted the paragraph beginning with “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” (see above), but he or his editors deliberately cut out the following sentence about what Muslims do object to, i.e., U.S. “one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights” and support for tyrannical regimes.
The Times then included the sentence immediately after the omitted one. In other words, it was not simply a matter of shortening the paragraph. Rather, the offending middle sentence was surgically removed.
Equally important — and equally missing — there is never any sensible examination of the motives that might be driving what Cheney called this “same assortment of killers and would-be mass murderers [who] are still there.” We are left with Ajami’s image of hypersensitive or irrational Muslims unwilling to confront their own cultural failings.
3 – On May 21, 2009, just four months after he left office, Dick Cheney gave a speech at the neocon America Enterprise Institute and blurted out some uncharacteristic honesty. He explained why terrorists hate “all the things that make us a force for good in the world — for liberty, for human rights, for the rational, peaceful resolution of differences.”
However, no longer enjoying the services of a functionary to vet his rhetoric, Cheney slipped up (and so did the reporters covering the event). Expanding on the complaints of the terrorists, Cheney said:
“They have never lacked for grievances against the United States. Our belief in freedom of speech and religion … our belief in equal rights for women … our support for Israel (emphasis added) — these are the true sources of resentment.”
“Our support for Israel” – a true source of resentment. Cheney got that part right.
One Brief Shining Moment
My mind wandered back to June 2004, when former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer published his insightful book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. The book won him interviews with the likes of NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, and – to his credit – Scheuer rose to the occasion with candor rarely heard in mainstream media before or since.
On June 23, 2004, he told Mitchell:
“It’s very hard in this country to debate policy regarding Israel … bin Laden’s ‘genius’ lies in his ability to exploit those U.S. policies most offensive to Muslims – our support for Israel, our presence on the Arabian peninsula, in Afghanistan and Iraq, our support for governments that Muslims believe oppress Muslims.”
Scheuer went on to say that bin Laden regarded the war on Iraq as proof of America’s hostility toward Muslims, and of the reality that America “is willing to do almost anything to defend Israel. The war is certainly viewed as an action meant to assist the Israeli state. It is … a godsend for those Muslims who believe as bin Laden does.”
In an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” he added that failure to change American policies to better match realities in the Middle East could mean decades of war. Only if the American people learn the truth could more effective strategies be fashioned and implemented, he added.
By and large, the truth-telling did not happen, so there has been but negligible pressure from the American people. The situation today differs little from then.
Indeed, in the same time frame of Scheuer’s book, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld grappled publicly with a troubling “unknown” that followed along the same lines, i.e., “whether the extremists … are turning out newly trained terrorists faster than the United States can capture or kill them. It is quite clear to me that we do not have a coherent approach to this.”
Since then, eight years have come and gone – with still no coherent approach and with continued media camouflaging of the bedrock reasons as to “why they hate us.”
Among the chief beneficiaries of this woodenheaded approach? One can look at the military-industrial-congressional-media-security complex, especially the war profiteers and their favored politicians who stoke fear of the “evildoers.” All the better to scare you with.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served for 30 years as an Army intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).