CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS
By ROLAND G. SIMBULAN October 2001
Before ‘Islamic terrorism’ spread like a wildfire in the international press, Arab and Muslim states particularly in the Middle East were already troubled by America’s presence in the region. Since the 1950s, as soon as it became deeply involved in Mideast conflicts in the name of oil and security interests, the United States discovered that while it had a strong ally in Israel, it had also begun to earn more and more enemies. It is by grappling with these realities that the world may come to understand what led to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Editor’s note: The following is from a lecture on “The Geo-Politics of US Policies in the Middle East,” delivered by the author during a symposium of Sociology majors and faculty of the University of the Philippines Sociology Department, at U.P. Diliman on September 27, 2001, courtesy of Bulatlat.com
A major question that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media both in the United States and the Philippines in the aftermath of the New York and Washington DC attacks is why there is today a widespread hatred against the United States especially in the Middle East. What drives religious mullahs as well as educated Arabs from North Africa, the Palestinian refugee camps of West Bank and Gaza, to Saudi Arabia to offer themselves as human suicide bombs or human missiles against US military forces in various parts of the world?
In 1983, an Arab jihad mujahadeen of the Free Islamic Revolutionary Movement drove a truck bomb past barricades and sandbags through a four-story US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon killing 241 American Marines. Three kilometers away, in coordinated precision, another truck bomb driven by a suicide bomber did the same thing to a French military contingent, killing 57 French paratroopers who had recently been sent to Beirut to reinforce the Israeli occupation force.
Last year, a small boat loaded with explosives rammed the US battleship USS Cole that was docked in the port city of Aden, Yemen, killing 17 US naval personnel and almost sinking the USS Cole.
Similar “human missiles” are being sent against Israeli forces in the Middle East. But no less than American psychologists who have studied the psychological profile of Arab “terrorists” have dismissed the idea that such acts are the handiwork of madmen or crazy fanatics, but instead reveal that those suspected to be involved are a dedicated and highly-motivated, rational people.
Roots of conflicts
It is imperative that we identify the roots of the United States’ conflicts in the Middle East so that these can be addressed as part of the solution. Besides, the United States will have to be part of the solution because it is also regarded as the problem behind the upheavals and turmoils in that region.
Since World War II, US priorities in the Middle East have focused on assuring the access of US and Western oil companies to oil in the Middle East, a policy that was made official with the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1958 which had allowed US military intervention in the Persian Gulf, and the Indian Ocean. After 1958, the US Mideast policy was expanded to the defense of Israel where the US now was to bear the brunt of defending Zionism as the British influence began to wane in the region.
With the collapse of its rival superpower the Soviet Union, at the end of the 1980s, the US emerged as the unchallenged superpower in the region.Ê Since then, Washington has aggressively pushed for a stable, growing market economy in the Middle East open to US and western investments.
The downfall of the repressive pro-US Shah of Iran in the late 70s forced US strategy to revolve around the defense of Israel, a state created by Zionist military forces which were backed by British and US armaments and diplomacy. The Palestinians lost their entire homeland in this process, and so did parts of surrounding Arab countries, who were almost overnight, dispossessed of their own lands.
Today, Israel depends on continuing US military and economic aid and unswerving political support. In turn, the US counts on Israel to act as a reliable collaborator in strategic political and economic goals both within and beyond the Middle East. The two countries also cooperate on military research and development and share certain high technology advances including the 200 plus nuclear bombs at Israel’s Dimona plant, which obviously, neither Israel nor the US has acknowledged.
Middle East oil imports, especially from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, though only 10 percent of US needs, remain crucial for the United States. Given its role as guarantor of Middle East oil for Japan and Europe, the US maintains its dominant world position.
Oil and military
The US, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Kingdoms have negotiated an agreement that links oil supplies with strategic military protection. Since the overthrow of the US-backed Shah of Iran in 1979, US strategy to protect oil sources and Israel has relied on dual containment – preventing both Iran and Iraq from emerging as independent regional power centers.
The US unleashed the 1990-1991 Gulf War in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, both to show that it would not tolerate challenges to its power in the region and to reaffirm the sanctity of Western-controlled oil supplies. Despite the existence of the United Nations military coalition against the Iraq, the US unilaterally bombed the population centers of Baghdad in Iraq killing at least 200,000 civilians, according to former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who visited that country after the war.
Likewise, no less than US fact-finding NGO groups and the International Red Cross revealed that the United States armed forces used depleted-uranium missiles against Iraqi tanks and bomb shelters leaving 900 tons of radioactive waste in Iraq, according to Clark. Since that war, US-led moves to punish Iraq through economic sanctions have left Iraq devastated, with half a million people mostly children, dying. Given that the threat to strong American presence in the region has been removed and despite the advice of many of its allies, the US opposes lifting the military and economic embargoes against Iraq.
Meantime, the US continues to extend military support to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies that repress growing domestic opposition to government corruption, Islamic rejection of rapproachment with Israel, and serious human rights violations by these pro-US regimes. The US also provides military and economic support both to pro-Western governments facing similar challenges in Jordan and Egypt, as well as to several Arab states of North Africa.
But US economic aid in the Middle East region — a key instrument of US influence — goes primarily to Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. The first three also account for most US military assistance, while Israel and Egypt received 43 percent of the total 1999 US foreign aid budget.
With massive arms sales going to Washington’s closest allies, the Middle East region receives the largest proportion of all US arms sales in the world.Ê Throughout the 1980s, Washington sold arms to both sides of the Iran-Iraq War.Ê From 1992-1999, the Middle East accounted for 64 percent of total US armsÊ sales worldwide.
The US also maintains six military bases in the region with more than 37,000 US troops stationed there. In 1999, at least 33 US warships were patrolling the Persian Gulf at any given day. Many Arab Muslims consider the US as having desecrated the birthplace of Mohammed in Saudi Arabia because of its large US military presence in the capital of Islam.
All these events have made the Middle East a very hostile place for US economic and military interests even before the New York and Washington DC attacks, as internal tensions in the already over-armed region heats up. The unacknowledged 200 plus nuclear bombs in Israel’s Dimona plant constitute a grave threat to regional instability. The Israeli nuclear arsenal which the US technically, militarily and politically supported, has provided Arab governments with the justification for their massive diversion of revenues to fund conventional arms build-ups. The United States’ willingness to ignore the Israeli threat in the Middle East strengthens the prevalent Arab view that the US practices a dangerous double standard.
Strong US Military Presence Fires Islamic Nationalism
By limiting its political efforts in this strategically important and volatile region to a narrowly defined quest for stability of US interests (i.e. support for Israel and Western companies’ access to Mideast oil), the US has largely evaded crucial issues of fundamental justice. By ignoring issues important to the Arabs and Muslims, such as the illegal occupation of Israel by force, and the need to prevent human rights and national rights abuses committed by its allies, the US sows the seeds of continued instability thereby reducing its own influence in the region.
As a result, the US has lost credibility among many Arab Muslims — among religious fundamentalists and educated Arabs alike — especially because despite US-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel has opted for a program of settlement expansion, closing the Palestinian territories and ending all Palestinian rights in Arab East Jerusalem. An influential Arab commentator has summed up US double standards in the Middle East: “We will punish the crimes of our enemies, and reward the crimes of our friends.”
While criticizing the human rights violations of its enemies in the Middle East, many pro-US governments have routinely ignored democratic norms, including elections, free speech and freedom of religion. Corruption and rich-poor disparities are on the rise. Israeli military personnel who have been supplied with US military technology, occasionally imprison Palestinians, often torture them, and hold them without trial.
In Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, monarchies maintain absolute control, and women are especially victimized. While the US conveniently excoriates abuses in Syria, Iran, Libya and Iraq, it has refused do the same to similar abuses perpetuated by its allies in the region.
Many Arabs feel threatened by the US strategy of defending Israel and containing Iran and Iraq, through military responses to every challenge to US dominance such as the periodic air strikes against Iraq. The US has also antagonized Arab Muslims owing to retaliatory and indiscriminate air strikes against Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. The US efforts to open a region-wide market economy has not included efforts to mitigate some of the exploding gaps between the have and have-nots countries and peoples in the region.
The United States has not responded to human rights abuses committed by its allies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel with exactly the same resolute condemnation it heaps on opponents such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and recently, against the Taliban of Afghanistan. By not taking a strong stand against human rights abuses committed by its allies, the United States has lost perceived support among the local Arab populations, including the educated and intellectuals, even creating a violent opposition to a US military and economic presence in the region.
This may be the reason why Osama bin Laden who is now being branded as the world’s most wanted “terrorist” by the US-led forces of globalization and westernization, is seen as the modern-day, post-modern Saladin by Arab Muslims today. Sultan Saladin was the legendary Muslim leader in the Middle East who led the holy Jihad that defeated the combined European Christian armies which invaded Jerusalem and the Middle East during the 12th century.
The US has engaged in inconsistent policies designed to undermine Iraq and to isolate Iran. The drastic economic/oil sanctions against Iraq have only punished the Iraqi people more than the Saddam Hussein regime.
The United States has over-armed the Middle East with its “made in the US” weapons.Ê It has encouraged its allies, the poor countries like Egypt and Jordan, to expend their scarce resources on expensive US weapons, where military assistance has diverted US aid from developmental uses. The US has in fact allowed wealth, repressive states — such as Saudi Arabia — to have unlimited access to advanced weapons systems. It has consistently increased its military aid to Israel, though Israel is now a major arms developer and exporter itself.
The United States’ special relationship with Israel in the Middle East has been questioned by most Arabs who now believe that United States foreign policy in the Middle East is controlled by the Jewish industrialists and capitalists. Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian homeland is perhaps one of the deepest sores in US policies in the Middle East, which unites all Arabs against the US despite differences among Arab Muslim states. The US in fact, is seen as underwriting Israel’s robust economy. The fledgling Israel of yesteryears has become a powerful Israel — in economy and defense.
Arabs feel that Israel no longer needs or merits automatic support from the US which has supported diplomatically, militarily and economically the provocative and aggressive actions of Israel even if they are violative of international norms. For Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East, Washington’s continued protection of and uncritical support for Israel has only made its Mideast policy inequitable, biased and has only legitimized US-backed Israeli impunity in the region.
Securing the flow of oil to the West through Western oil companies is a cornerstone of US Middle East policy. The US strategy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq, is designed to ensure that neither Iraq nor Iran is capable of threatening neighboring Gulf countries which allow the US and Western corporations access to oil resources. It is noteworthy to state that US President George Bush’s 25-member cabinet today has 11 members belonging to US oil and gas interests, including Bush himself (Spectrum, Harken Oil & Gas), Vice President Cheney (Halliburton, the world’s largest oil-services company), and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice(Chevron), among others.
Companies like Exxon, Mobil, British Petroleum, Texaco, Chevron, AMOCO, Shell Oil, Occidental, Atlantic Richfield and Teneco dominate oil production in the Middle East. Gulf oil was and remains important because of its impact on the global economy.Ê While the US depends on only about 10% of its domestic needs from Mideast Oil, US competitors in Europe and Japan depend much more on Gulf oil: 30% of total European oil imports and 80% of Japan’s oil imports.Ê This is why the US exerts significant influence on these countries through control of Gulf oil through its armed fleets.
The Gulf War underscored the US commitment to the security of the Gulf states like Kuwait. The US maintains military and naval installations in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain not to defend democracy or democratic states, but to defend US and Western oil interests!
But the presence of these US military forces is resented by Arab Muslims and is seen as central in preventing the inspiration given by Libya, Iran and Iraq in nationalizing oil interests in the Middle East, and to secure the flow of oil to the West and prevent any threat by Arab nationalists to oil in the international waterways.
The public is usually focused on Iran, Iraq and Libya as the enemies of the Western-led globalization in the Middle East. The US has repeatedly branded these emergent challenges to US hegemony as “terrorist states” in the recent past. But Islamic organizations with their core cadres produced by Islamic madrassahs have sprouted everywhere among them the Hezbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, and Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda – all of which have also taken center stage in the Arab Muslim reaction to US economic and military domination of the Middle East. These forces are inspired by a combination of Muslim fundamentalism and Arab nationalism.
The United States’ policy towards critics and opposition in the Middle East, however, makes no distinction between terrorism and Islamism as a legitimate political movement aimed at challenging Western, colonial and sometimes cultural influences in non-Western and traditional societies. Operationally, the US views the Islamic movement as a military/security threat, and has devised strategies to deal with it militarily by gathering intelligence, by depleting its financial resources, by intimidating popular movements and by covert counter-terrorism operations.
Current US policy fails to distinguish either between Islam as a religion and Islamic political activism (violent or otherwise), or between Islamic political activities (violent or otherwise) aimed at rectifying internal situations within countries and those aimed at the US and its interests. The US identifies all political activities that use Islamic symbols as “terrorism” aimed at undermining US policies and strategy in the Middle East. And, to gain global sympathy, the US has equated such attacks as attacks against “peace- and democracy-loving” nations.
Attack against Islam
Although the US often fervently asserts that it only opposes “terrorism” and has no quarrel with Islam, it is clear that vast Muslim populations in the Middle East and elsewhere (like Indonesia’s 200 million population) see no visible non-military US response to any assertion of Islamic identity, or to Arab nationalism, and thus, do not buy the US defense that this is not actually an attack against Islam as a civilization and religion.
Their perception is further confirmed by the US list of terrorist sponsors, which is dominated by Muslim states, Libya, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It appears to Muslims BASED ON THEIR PERCEPTION that the US equates Islam with terrorism.
Current US policy in the Middle East failed to consider a long-term view of Islamism or a long-range view of US interests in the region. Islam has always gone through historical cycles of ebbs and flows, rise and decline since the four major Crusades launched by European Christian states.
In the past, when Muslim identity, culture, religion and way of life was disrupted by outside forces, such as European/Ottoman colonialism, or Western Christian missionary activity, and now, US-led globalization, movements like Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda arose claiming the mantle of defending Islam from its enemies.
The US should understand that the current rise of militant political Islam is in part a response to a perceived threat against Islamic values by Western popular culture and by US military, economic and political domination of the region, and that solely military responses are unlikely to suppress this widespread Islamic perception.
Yet after the attacks on the US, American policymakers continue to think in terms of state-based, archaic cold war frameworks, i.e., that Islamic terrorism has replaced “the communist menace” or the “evil empire” against which all US policy should be aimed.
But as we know, transnational economic, political and technological changes have changed the landscape of conflicts. And the US should not react to perceived Islamic violence to strictly military/security responses. Rather, the US should now consider the underlying causes of the phenomenon with its complex economic, political, religious and social roots where US policies in the Middle East have to change.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on 6/15/2004