(Part of UPI's Special Report reviewing 2002 and previewing 2003)
WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Americans have undergone much soul-searching since the ghastly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to try to comprehend why such blind hatred was directed at them.
"Why did they do it?" was the recurring question in the days and weeks that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon.
While it is nearly impossible to understand, let alone explain what motivates fanatics to turn passenger aircraft into lethal exploding missiles, killing themselves and thousands of innocent people in the process, a single phrase kept popping up. Whenever the question was put forward to Arabs of all walks of life, and of all social standings -- Muslims and Christians alike -- the answer was always the same: because of America's double standards.
The United States often is accused by people across the Middle East -- both its leaders and the regular folk -- of not following a cohesive or consistent foreign policy where they are concerned, and instead, changing its heart and mind to suit its immediate interests. These interests usually translate into one major concern: unhindered access to inexpensive oil to heat homes and power the nation's gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles and other automobiles that crowd America's highways and byways.
In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the main topic of concern for most Middle Easterners and many of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims was not so much the possibility Iraq might harbor weapons of mass destruction, nor the need for an immediate regime change in Baghdad. The far more urgent issue, from their perspective, was to address the Palestine question -- a leitmotif that has fueled Arab and Muslim extremism for more than five decades. Settle the Palestine issue and you remove the core of Arab contention. Solve the Palestinian question and you take away recruiting slogans from tyrants such as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.
"Palestine is THE main issue in the Middle East," said Dr. Shihab Jamjoon, a member of the board of the Saudi Institute of Business Administration, who was part of a delegation of Saudis sent to the United States to try to mend fences between those two countries. "Get that out of the way, first," he advised.
"Indeed, regardless of how much in resources and political will we can muster to eradicate terrorism, we will fail unless we put out the many fires in the places that feed it," said Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East Project director at the World Policy Institute in New York and a professor of international relations at New York University.
Former President Bill Clinton clearly understood that need, and tried to reach a last-minute resolution during the waning hours of his administration, when he convened Palestinian and Israeli leaders to a marathon peace summit at Camp David. Clinton had hoped to extract from Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak a similar agreement as another former Democrat president, Jimmy Carter, had managed to obtain from Egypt and Israel in 1979, and that led to a lasting peace accord between those two countries. But Arafat was no Anwar Sadat and Barak no Menahem Begin, and the summit failed. Furthermore, Clinton ran out of time, literally. He had tried too little, too late.
Some observers will point out the Swiss cheese-like Palestinian areas offered to Arafat by Barak as the basis of a future Palestinian state was an unrealistic blueprint for peace. It had nothing more than the makings of a Bantustan, according to well-informed high-ranking Palestinian officials, who said Arafat could simply not accept those terms.
"He would have been killed by his own people, had he accepted those conditions," one Palestinian official said.
Clinton's successor, President George W. Bush, wasted no time voicing his lack of interest in the Levant and its conflicts when he moved into the presidential mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in January 2000. Unlike Clinton, Bush stated time and again the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was of no major concern to his administration. Bush's policy was meant to be one that would isolate America from the rest of the world. That was before the Sept. 11 attacks, however, and before bin Laden and al Qaida became household names.
Prior to Sept. 11, there was no U.S. drive to promote democracy in the Middle East.
"Practical American support for liberal ideas in the Arab world has been virtually nil," Reuel Marc Gerecht wrote in the Nov. 26 issue of the New York Times. Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Now, the Middle East abruptly has became the focus of the Bush administration. Countries such as Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan, that the president had previously ignored or maybe had been ignorant of, suddenly came into focus. Remember when just prior to the 2000 elections Bush was unable to identify Pakistan's leader in a televised debate? What a difference a year makes. Now Iraq, the Palestine question and Saudi involvement in harvesting Islamic fundamentalists became very relevant. Suddenly, the emphasis on the Middle East had shifted and became all-important to the administration.
This sudden shift of attention was not lost on the Arabs. Whether true or not, Arabs for the most part believe the United States espouses double standards when dealing with the Middle East. How else could you explain, many Middle Easterners observed, that while Israel's heavy-handed military intervention in the West Bank town of Jenin was in full swing, Bush labeled Arafat "irrelevant" as he sat under siege in his Ramallah headquarters, then went on to call Israel's prime minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace?"
"Here is a prime example of how the Arabs perceive Bush's double standards," said an Arab diplomat in Washington. "Bush delivers a keynote speech to the annual AIPAC (American-Israel Public Relations Council) meeting in Washington, but then excuses himself from the ADC (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) dinner, which instead ends up with David Satterfield, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs."
"We tried to get the president, but he said his schedule did not permit it," complained a top ADC executive.
"When President George W. Bush mentions occupation, human rights and dozens of United Nation resolutions that continue to be ignored, the average Palestinian says, 'Bush is describing the Israelis,'" Jamjoon said.
Of course when Bush mentions those words, he quite naturally is referring to Iraq, the Palestinians or yet, other Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which has suffered a terrible public relations blow since the Sept. 11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
More recently, a new controversy has surfaced over the alleged financing of two of the Sept. 11 terrorists by Princess Haifa al Faisal, wife of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. The Saudis deny the princess or their government had prior knowledge of the would-be hijackers' activities. It is indeed doubtful the princess knew who was on the receiving end of her charitable work. Still, the FBI is investigating.
If the United States needs to become more responsive to the Arab and the Islamic world's sensitivities, then, so too does the Arab world need to address and correct a number of burning issues if left unattended will only nurture and eventually come back to haunt them, as did the issue of the Saudi nationals who partook in the Sept. 11 attacks. This was far from a sudden development. The ingredients had been brewing for years.
For years, the Wahhabi monarchy in Riyadh believed by funding the Islamists and by building madrassas, or Islamic schools, in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other Asian countries, and by erecting mosques across Europe and the United States, they would keep the extremists at bay. In a way, they thought they were paying protection money. And for a while, that largely worked. In the end, however, as was apparent from the extent of bin Laden's network, their ostrich policy of hiding their heads in the sand came back to bite them.
The Saudis -- and much of the Muslim world -- largely refuse to admit they face a real problem, preferring to lay the blame elsewhere: Israel, America or even the Miss World pageant, as was the case last November in Nigeria when dozens of Christians were killed after rioting erupted following a newspaper editorial that said the Prophet Mohammad probably would have taken as wife one of the beauty queens. As Salman Rushdie adequately pointed out in a Nov. 27 New York Times commentary, "As their ancient, deeply civilized culture of love, art and philosophical reflection is hijacked by paranoiacs, racist, liars, male supremacy, tyrants, fanatics and violence junkies, why are they (the moderate Muslims) not screaming?"
Indeed, why not?
Even Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the point to Bush during their meeting in the Russian city of St. Petersburg last November that "we should not forget about those who finance terrorism." Putin reminded his host that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. "We should not forget about that," he said.
Putin can rest assured, to be sure, many of those who wield power on the banks of the Potomac are not about to forget that, nor allow others to forget it either. Congress, for one, keeps pushing the issue, demanding a deeper investigation by the FBI into Saudi involvement into the funding provided by Riyadh to Islamist organizations. The Washington Post reported on Nov. 26 a National Security Council task force is recommending an action plan to the president designed to force Saudi Arabia to crack down on terrorist financiers within 90 days or face unilateral U.S. action.
This renewed attention on Saudi Arabia comes at a particular bad time for the desert kingdom, whose leaders have engaged in a public relations campaign to try to modify its negative image -- an image that emerged stronger than ever in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and is straining U.S-Saudi relations to the breaking point.
At a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Islamic Institute in Washington, a number of Saudi Arabian scholars and public relation specialists met with a small group of journalists to discuss the kingdom's ebbing image in the United States. One recurring theme that kept popping back was that "something needs to be done" to enhance U.S.-Saudi relations. Most people will agree "something" certainly needs to be done. What that something is remains largely to be seen, as each side is throwing the ball into the other's court and hiding behind "cultural differences."
America must realize democracy needs to come not only to Iraq, because this happens to be a convenient time in the administration's war on terror, but to other nations of the Levant such as Syria, Egypt, Palestine and, yes, Saudi Arabia, too.
Saudi Arabia, (much as Iraq and other countries of the Arab world) is in dire need of drastic and immediate political and social reform. The fact that most of the hijackers were from Saudi should speak volumes, and should offer an incentive for the country to start some serious soul-searching of its own.
Saudi Arabia still prohibits the practice of any religions on its territory except Islam. Holy books other than the Koran are banned, and all outward signs of other faiths, such as crosses or stars of David, are subject to harassment from the Mutawa, the religious police. Women's rights are practically non-existent, as is any form of democracy, from elections to free speech.
Before the Saudis can start to convince Americans things have started to change, they very much need to start convincing their own citizens changes truly are underway. This will require far more than sending second-tiered public relation specialists to chat with the American media. It will require some fundamental social and political changes, and addressing their own double standards.
Until that happens, the country could well be on the way to harvesting more bin Ladens. If the Saudis and other moderate Muslims fail to take it upon themselves to curb the rise of fundamentalism, the United States and its Western allies will be left with no alternative but to take unilateral action. That could well lead to what both sides want to avoid at all costs -- a clash of cultures, or as Samuel P. Huntington calls it, "the fault lines between civilizations -- the clash of civilizations that will dominate global politics -- and that will be the battle lines of the future."
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with UPI in Washington who spent 15 years as a correspondent in the Middle East. Comments may be sent to email@example.com)