Every appropriate word has already been used to describe Sept. 11, not only by writers, but by an abundance of grieving and angry people who wrote to the editors of every newspaper around the world. For all the letters and articles venting the most profound sentiments, probably none even begin to do justice to the sickening feelings of horror, fear and rage felt by the international community.
Very quickly, the finger of blame was pointed at the notorious Osama bin Laden, who happens to be Arab, and who calls himself Muslim. As if by magic, while New York and Washington still burned and smoke filled the skies, verbal and physical attacks on Arab-Americans and Muslims began to flourish all over the United States. It would be bad enough if this were a repetition of the situation after the Oklahoma City bombing, but unfortunately it doesn’t even come close. Both the scope of this tragedy and the extent of the so far misguided retribution have been unparalleled.
Some of these attackers may be acting out of pure fury, others may be jumping at an opportunity to settle their private racist agendas, but the result is the same: innocent people are being victimized. Attacking Arab-Americans or Muslims just because Osama bin Laden appears to be the terrorist behind Tuesday’s attacks makes about as much sense as castigating the people of the state Timothy McVeigh came from.
Nobody would think of judging the American people by the 2 million felons filling US jails, or by the actions of their most publicized criminals. Likewise, a whole ethnic group or religion cannot be liable for the crimes of some of their compatriots. When a country is criticized for the actions of its government, the people are not held accountable; the issues Arabs have had with America’s policies are all with the establishment, and not with the people.
This is, of course, one of the reasons why the embargo on Iraq is so hard to accept for Arabs. What that country’s leader has done has actually gone unpunished: Saddam Hussein still enjoys all the privileges of his status, while starving his people, and the dying Iraqi children remain the only true victims of both their own government’s actions and of the pathetic embargo against the country. One need not be a psychic to realize what Afghanistan’s people are eventually going to face, adding to the already pitiable conditions they have been enduring all these years. Once again, victims will become even greater victims.
In the United States, Americans of Arab origin and Muslims are now experiencing extreme discrimination. For once, there truly is widespread and open anti-Semitism in America. This time, it is not Jews who can pretend to be its victims, but rather the Arab people (just as much Semites as the Jewish people) who are really suffering from this bigotry.
Unfortunately for Arabs and Muslims, the overwhelming majority of whom have shuddered and cried at the sight of the terrorist attacks on America, factors outside of their control continue to contribute to their already unenviable situation. They are victims of ignorance -ï¿½ not only from the ignorance of racists or of people who want to make them pay for the terrorists’ crimes, but also from the ignorance of a group of Palestinians who celebrated the vicious attacks in a barbaric display of joy.
No reasonable human being can understand such behavior, no matter what the reasons behind it, especially when civilians who had nothing to do with the suffering of the Palestinian people were killed. But this is not the first time we witness such apparent inhumanity. While the attitude of these Palestinians was revolting, it was not more horrendous than that of Jewish settlers dancing in the streets after the death of Palestinians, whether the latter were shot in a mosque as they prayed, or whether they were obliterated by missiles raining down on them from Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets. Needless to say, the settlers’ celebrations are rarely shown (and hardly ever re-shown) on international media, whereas the images of these Palestinians have been displayed so often that they are now forever engraved in everyone’s memory.
Regardless of the terrorist act, Arabs or Muslims seem to be the only people who are assumed guilty until proven innocent. And when perpetrators do indeed turn out to be Arab, somehow it is the Arab people as a whole who end up paying the price. There is a reason for all this: Israel. It is mainly because of Israel’s continuous propaganda that Arabs have been bearing the burden of a minority’s errors, on top of the obvious burden of occupation. Israel has successfully strived to portray itself (and by extension its ally America) as the victim of Arab/Muslim animosity, when all evidence points to the contrary.
The need to lash out at someone and to seek revenge (often mistaken for justice) is completely understandable and supported ï¿½- at least when it comes to America. Arabs have lived with this feeling for several decades, in different circumstances, in a much longer time frame. But unlike America, which has the power (and the right) to respond, the Arab wishes are not likely to materialize, as Israel’s power continues to reign upon the world.
When the attacks first took place, Israelis were very vocal, claiming that until now they had been the ones suffering from terrorism (among other ills), and that finally Americans knew how Israelis felt. Then, suddenly, not a peep from them: saving their breath, they went into intensified action. While no one was looking, Israel calmly proceeded to murder a few Palestinians, and to enter several Palestinian towns -ï¿½ for a brief visit in their tanks. Nothing new of course. But when the world appeared to lend an ear and watch the Middle East again, Israel stopped the raids, withdrew from the towns and farcically demanded a truce. What the world community saw was the truce request, not the attacks before it.
Ironically, at the same time, Arabs also tried to argue ï¿½- at least among themselves -ï¿½ that it was they who had been suffering from this kind of terrorism, and that finally Americans knew what Palestinians have been going through for the last few decades. Most Arabs feel that this happened because of America’s self-claimed omnipotence on the world scene, because of its unfairness and its unwavering support of Israel while the latter continues to abuse Palestinians. Somehow, while truly upset about the incredible human cost factor, many Arabs ask “What about Iraq and Palestine?” ï¿½ reasoning that it was good that America finally got a taste of suffering. Furthermore, many Arabs seem to make a big distinction between the attacks on the World Trade Center and that on the Pentagon. To put it mildly, they simply don’t feel as sorry for the latter’s victims, as any American government site is considered an accessory to the crimes of Israel.
Besides the fact that this is not a contest for the title of top victim, or one of “bad” terrorism versus “worse” terrorism, I think both Arabs and Israelis are wrong. For all its moaning, Israel has never experienced what New York and Washington went through last Tuesday. As the French ambassador to Tel Aviv tried to explain, only to be accused of anti-Semitism (and to be called a new Petain amidst calls for his expulsion from Israel), New York was not exactly occupying another state when it was attacked. Whether one condones or condemns attacks in Israel, we all know exactly why they happen.
And for all their suffering, Palestinians have also not gone through this kind of terrorism. The attacks on Palestinians are systematic and have a clear purpose, not even hidden from the oppressor: whether we know it because of the “from the Nile to the Euphrates” discourse, or because of Israel’s threat to completely “re-occupy” all of the West Bank and Gaza if Palestinians even dare to declare independence, the Jewish state’s objectives in Palestine have been common knowledge to the world ever since Theodor Herzl publicized them at the turn of the 20th century. To have “a land without a people for a people without a land,” you must first get rid of the original people.
More importantly, in spite of the horror they have just gone through, the American people still don’t appear to have a clue about the situation in the Middle East, in occupied Palestine. As beastly as they were, the attacks simply cannot make Americans understand the grievances of the Palestinians, and even less make them sympathetic to the Arab cause. If anything, these attacks help to fortify Israel’s claims, and they unfortunately add to the vilification of one of the three great monotheist religions. Ultimately, Islam will indeed be the greatest victim.
Yes, it is true that many Muslims feel growing resentment at America’s attitude toward their suffering. That, however, does not make these Muslims enemies of “civilization.” If the foundations of the civilized world rest on human rights and democracy, then maybe it is time everyone had their fair share of them.
I imagine that the United States would score a lot of points in the world if, on its way to Afghanistan, it stopped over in the former Yugoslavia and picked up terrorists like Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic, among others. Then perhaps everyone could believe that terrorism will be fought without exception.
For all their theatricals and falsely sympathetic statements, neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities have so far shown any real understanding of what terrorism is and what justice is. While most people (including most Arabs) were sickened by the celebrations of a few Palestinians, Yasser Arafat’s pathetic display of support when he donated blood for the injured in America was also nauseating. A noble action under any other circumstance, this was simply “sucking up:” unfortunately, Arafat never bothered to roll up his sleeves to save his own people. As for Israel, its spokesmen are of course masters of hypocrisy: after everyone professed horror at the attacks, the Israeli defense minister arrogantly claimed that with world attention now fixated on the United States, nobody would have the time to observe the Occupied Territories. Of course, this gave Israel an even freer hand than usual ï¿½- as if it needed it.
Israel will press full steam ahead with its ongoing media brainwash, trying to milk the tragedy of Sept. 11, and vilify Arabs and Muslims. Unfortunately, it is getting a lot of help from so-called Muslims, who continue to be the worst offenders in the misrepresentation of Islam. Letting Israel and extremists get away with those crimes would be a slap in the face of justice, and the ultimate act of blasphemy.
* Rime Allaf wrote this commentary in Damascus for The Daily Star