They the People

by Azar Nafisi | March 3, 2003

A few days after the September 11 attacks, I received a note from a former student in Tehran. "[Y]ou won't believe it," she wrote, "but the whole country is in mourning. You should have been here for the demonstrations and candlelight vigils for America, it's all true: the tears, the long-stemmed roses, the candles, ... and then of course the hoodlums attacked and started beating us, especially the young kids, and arresting them. ... The funny thing about it is that those bastards felt betrayed by the love we showed `the imperialist Zionist enemy.' ... Ever since that night I keep asking myself, what is it that makes us in this God forsaken place to feel so orphaned and so filled with grief for what happened in a city we have never seen, except in dreams?"

To understand the love of which she speaks, you have to understand the hate coming from exactly the same part of the world--the hate that killed 3,000 on September 11, 2001. The source of this hatred does not lie in the wreckage at the World Trade Center or at the Pentagon but in other ruins: in cities in the Muslim world. It lies in the terror in a sports stadium turned into execution grounds in Kabul, in the villages of Algeria, in the slave trade in Sudan, in the bloody diamond mines of Sierra Leone, and in the homes and streets of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The Islamists' hatred of the United States is based on fear, and that fear is rooted in their fear of the woman in Algeria who, at the risk of having her throat cut, refuses to wear the veil; or the writer who is murdered in Tehran while translating the Declaration of Human Rights; or the Afghan crowds who flooded the streets of their ruined cities as the Taliban fled. The fear is not merely of American might but of the influence of American culture on people in their countries. They are afraid of the innumerable people, such as my former student, who feel closer to strangers living thousands of miles away than to the despots who rule their land in the name of their religion. And so the Islamists hate them and their supposed allies across the oceans.

Thus terrorized, their existence in danger, the Islamists turn to violence. The worst forms have been against progressive men and women--Muslim and non- Muslim--in their own countries who have become critical of the reactionary norms, who today ask for reform and a different way of viewing Islam. The more critical the people in Muslim societies become, the more vicious the Islamists will be. The Islamists see that the only true alternative to their system is democracy, which they identify with the West. That is why they are afraid of the West and why they want to destroy it.


WHETHER IN POWER or in opposition, Islamists target Western culture in the name of whole peoples. But, if this claim were true, if all Muslims desired to be ruled by religious laws, then there would have been no need for states like Afghanistan and Iran to arm themselves against their own citizens: against unveiled women; unruly youths holding hands in public; against novels, films, music. Today, there is not one country in the Muslim world where there does not exist conflict and tension, not just between moderate and fundamentalist versions of Islamic rule but between the proponents of secularism and democracy and the supporters of theocracy and Islamism. In Egypt, democratic-minded individuals such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim are jailed, and human rights organizations are closed down. In Bahrain and Kuwait, there is the ongoing struggle over the right of women to vote. In Iran, former radical Islamist revolutionaries, progressive students, and secular intellectuals are jailed for quoting Western liberal thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper. In countries from Pakistan to Malaysia there are daily debates, and at times bloody battles, over the Muslim soul.

Still, commentators in the West seldom differentiate between the people of the "Muslim world" and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors. And it is that last crime that helps explain why Muslim anti-Americanism has been growing. As in all great tragedies, we must also look to our own hubris.

For two decades, questions of Islam and terror, us and them, who hates us and who likes us have been posed in the wrong context--on the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend--and have led us to the wrong solutions. If the Americans have not treated the more democratic-minded people in the Muslim world as their allies, then who did they choose? This story is fraught with ironies: Today's predicament, after all, is partly the result of America's success in creating a Muslim "green belt" against communism in the Middle East in the 1980s. The United States, caught by a false sense of immediacy and crass pragmatism, helped the Muslim fundamentalists it now confronts in the wastelands of Afghanistan. America's new allies, such as Russia, and old friends, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--which have helped fund the fundamentalists--are directly responsible for the present tragedy.

This alliance with dubious friends has forced Western governments to close their eyes not only to these transient allies' brutality against their own people but also to their acts of terror against Americans and other democracies in the West. Over the past two decades, European governments have reacted to terrorist regimes like those in Iran and Iraq with mild rebukes and critical "dialogues." The United States has also underestimated threats of terrorism against Americans and others. The most obvious examples are Lebanon in 1982, the Khobar Towers in 1996, the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In all these cases, Americans either took hasty, insufficient action or no action at all.

Such weakness has dismayed the democratic-minded people within the Muslim world and created contempt for the United States among its enemies, who felt bold enough to publicly boast of their actions without fear of reprisals. In 1987, Mohsen Rafiq-Doust, then head of Iran's revolutionary guards, articulated this contempt when he publicly boasted that "both the TNT and ideology that blasted four hundred U.S. officers and soldiers to hell in Lebanon were ours." After the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden was quoted in The Washington Post with a similar boast: "'We believe that the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us--God permitting--than the defeat of the Soviet Union was before.'"

The problem, of course, goes deeper than America's shortsighted policies. It is rooted in a cynical attitude toward those whom Harvard's Samuel Huntington calls "the rest," as opposed to those who are privileged to be born in the "West." This attitude is prevalent not just in government but in the media, academic, and policy worlds. Namely, that the United States should not support democratic forces in the Muslim world because people in the region don't really aspire to democracy. This assumption allows Western governments and businesses to justify their relations with the most oppressive regimes. They can live with such allies and their abuses because they know that these allies are basically different from them, that what they share are not common values but common interests. Human rights have no place in such dealings. It is not enough that people in those countries should be robbed, but they should be robbed because they deserve it.

Afghanistan is a good example. The United States has had three recent openings to help move that traumatized country toward pluralism. The first was when, after the September 11 attacks, the United States had to choose as its main political ally either the Northern Alliance--greatly hated and feared by the majority of Afghans for its atrocities against them in the 1990s--or the more democratic forces gathered around the former king. Given the Northern Alliance's military power, the United States could not completely rule it out, so the wisest move would have been to support an alliance of the two; instead, the United States chose the Northern Alliance alone. The second opportunity came during the loya jirga in June 2002, when 80 percent of the delegates supported the democratic forces. Again, the United States capitulated to the extremists. Although Hamid Karzai was elected, key Cabinet seats, including Defense and Judiciary, have gone to the extremist forces. Many brutal warlords have taken advantage of the situation and are responsible for numerous murders, assassinations, and fatwas against women and progressive forces. The third opportunity to effect democratic change is taking place now, during the debate over the creation of a new constitution. Because of the presence of so many extremists in the government, the possibility of a democratic constitution is severely compromised.

Similarly, the United States in the '80s encouraged and supported Iraq in its war against Iran, not considering that, no matter how terrible the Iranian regime, Iran was still a more open and flexible society than the one created by Saddam Hussein. It was obvious that a semi-victory for Saddam would not make him more open to the West. But the United States still fanned the flames of old animosities between the Arabs and Iranians, ultimately leading the United States itself to fight two wars against Saddam.

But elite America's refusal to believe in the possibility of genuine democracy in the Muslim world is only part of a larger, flawed Western vision. Equally bad is the fact that the Islamists, more or less in the same manner as the communists before them, have become popular among America's intellectual leaders, most emphatically in the field of Middle Eastern studies. Unlike realpolitik American policymakers and businessmen, who merely ignore fundamentalists' cruelty, these leftists often proclaim solidarity with the Islamists' anti-American impulse. In the strange world of Middle Eastern studies, any attempt to condemn gender apartheid is branded an imposition of Western values, the voices of prominent clerics who oppose the politicization of religion are ignored, and the secular dissidents are dismissed as Westernized and therefore inauthentic. A return to roots has become fashionable, but those roots have been redefined not as poetry and philosophy but as stoning and flogging women. A Saudi princess advises us to mind our own business, this is how Arab women like it; an Iranian despot tells us about Western decadence; and an American professor at Duke University, Miriam Cooke, comments that "when men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their women." Dominant theories on colonization exploit the guilt of the victors and resentment of the victims to form a new and more dangerous form of neocolonialism, denying the victims freedom in the name of Asian values, Islamic democracy, and cultural relativism. According to these experts, people living in countries with a majority Muslim population have no choice but to live under some form of the Islamic law. At best, these laws could be modified under what they claim to be an Islamic democracy. One could of course ask them, "If you wish to implement the Sharia law in moderate form, how do you more moderately stone a woman to death?"

The truth is not as the academics say. Islam today is used as a political tool and an ideology by Islamists against their own peoples, and as such has little to do with real Islamic traditions and culture. What we call Islamic fundamentalism, for lack of a better word, is a modern phenomenon, in the same way that fascism and communism, both products of the West, are modern. It takes its language, goals, and aspirations as much from the crassest forms of Marxism as it does from religion. Its leaders are as influenced by Lenin, Sartre, Stalin, and Fanon as they are by the Prophet. Today, fundamentalism's main targets are women, culture, and minorities, whose suppression it justifies in the name of Islam, thereby proving that both totalitarianism and democracy know no cultural or national boundaries.


I SHOULD HAVE told my former student in Iran not to be surprised at the solidarity demonstrated by the Iranian people for the Americans. They understand who their true allies are. Democratic values and principles, for which so many millions of lives have been lost, did not always exist, and there is no guarantee they will always remain. Like hothouse flowers, they are fragile and need the right kind of light and nourishment to survive. Every time you deny this right to another, you deny it to yourself. The existence of the average American citizen, like the average citizen of Tehran or Kabul, depends on a vague concept she cannot fully define called democracy. But how can you exchange the gifts of culture and principles with others when you do not believe they deserve or understand them? To win this war, the Americans need the courage of their convictions, the belief that the Declaration of Human Rights is not a Western conspiracy to impose its values upon others. They also need to recognize that today, as in the Soviet bloc before, the people living under totalitarian rule are democracy's most important potential allies. Not only should they and their representatives be supported, but their human rights must be at the center of negotiations with their governments.

No one knows whether democratic objectives will be realized. The "ordeal of freedom," to borrow from Saul Bellow, is very difficult to face. But the fact that these aspirations have been desired and imagined--not only now but for more than a century and a half--by the peoples living in the different Muslim societies, means they have a chance to be actualized. No one can take a people's dreams of a better life away from them without paying a high price. Democracies in the West have to support the aspirations of those fighting for democracy in the Muslim world, and, if Americans have become too cynical to do so out of idealism and compassion, then they should do it for the urgently pragmatic reason that their own survival, it is now unmistakably clear, is also at stake.

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