middle east

No, Mr. Harper. They don’t hate us for our freedoms.

There are two main explanations for why some Islamist extremists want to terrorize the western world, each with implications for public policy.

The first was spelled out after 9/11 by U.S. president George W. Bush: “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

More recently, Stephen Harper has made the same point. Canadians “are targeted by these terrorists for no other reason than that we are Canadians. They want to harm us because they hate our society and the values it represents.”

Presumably, then, we have no choice but to try to wipe them out before they wipe us out. As Mr. Harper put it recently, throwing around pronouns rather loosely, when they “fire at us, we’re going to fire back and we’re going to kill them.”

But both terrorists themselves and those who study them present a dramatically different explanation. Osama bin Laden himself, for example, said the 9/11 attack reflected his deep anger at America’s Middle East policies. He was appalled by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died from lack of food and medicine due to American sanctions and resented the deployment of American forces throughout the Gulf states, particularly in his own homeland, Saudi Arabia. He repeated such sentiments many times.

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We have seen the development of a form of government I call the extreme centre, which currently rules over large tracts of Europe and includes left, centre left, centre right and centre parties. A whole swathe of the electorate, young people in particular, feels that voting makes no difference at all, given the political parties we have. The extreme centre wages wars, either on its own account or on behalf of the United States; it backs austerity measures; it defends surveillance as absolutely necessary to defeat terrorism, without ever asking why this terrorism is happening – to question this is almost to be a terrorist oneself. Why do the terrorists do it? Are they unhinged? Is it something that emerges from deep inside their religion? These questions are counterproductive and useless. If you ask whether American imperial policy or British or French foreign policy is in any way responsible, you’re attacked. But of course the intelligence agencies and security services know perfectly well that the reason for people going crazy – and it is a form of craziness – is that they are driven not by religion but by what they see. Hussain Osman, one of the men who failed to bomb the London Underground on 21 July 2005, was arrested in Rome a week later. ‘More than praying we discussed work, politics, the war in Iraq,’ he told the Italian interrogators. ‘We always had new films of the war in Iraq … those in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed by US and UK soldiers.’ Eliza Manningham-Buller, who resigned as head of MI5 in 2007, said: ‘Our involvement in Iraq has radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people.’

Before the 2003 war Iraq, under the authoritarian dictatorship of Saddam and his predecessor, had the highest level of education in the Middle East. When you point this out you’re accused of being a Saddam apologist, but Baghdad University in the 1980s had more female professors than Princeton did in 2009; there were crèches to make it easier for women to teach at schools and universities. In Baghdad and Mosul – currently occupied by Islamic State – there were libraries dating back centuries. The Mosul library was functioning in the eighth century, and had manuscripts from ancient Greece in its vaults. The Baghdad library, as we know, was looted after the occupation, and what’s going on now in the libraries of Mosul is no surprise, with thousands of books and manuscripts destroyed.

Everything that has happened in Iraq is a consequence of that disastrous war, which assumed genocidal proportions. The numbers who died are disputed, because the Coalition of the Willing doesn’t count up the civilian casualties in the country it’s occupying. Why should it bother? But others have estimated that up to a million Iraqis were killed, mainly civilians. The puppet government installed by the Occupation confirmed these figures obliquely in 2006 by officially admitting that there were five million orphans in Iraq. The occupation of Iraq is one of the most destructive acts in modern history. Even though Hiroshima and Japanese state was maintained; although the Germans and Italians were defeated in the Second World War, most of their military structures, intelligence structures, police structures and judicial structures were kept in place, because there was another enemy already in the offing – communism. But Iraq was treated as no other country has been treated before. The reason people don’t quite see this is that once the occupation began all the correspondents came back home. You can count the exceptions on the fingers of one hand: Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, one or two others. Iraq’s social infrastructure still isn’t working, years after the occupation ended; it’s been wrecked. The country has been demodernised. The West has destroyed Iraq’s education services and medical services; it handed over power to a group of clerical Shia parties which immediately embarked on bloodbaths of revenge. Several hundred university professors were killed. If this isn’t disorder, what is?