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Robert Fisk article on September 11th
by MalcolmRL Pratt
11 September 2002 09:32 UTC
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One year on: A view from the Middle East

The September 11 attacks were an undoubted outrage. But, says The 
Independent's Middle East correspondent, they were an inevitable result of 
the great gulf between the Arabs and the US

By Robert Fisk

11 September 2002

September 11

One year on: A special report

September 11 did not change the world. Indeed, for months afterwards, no one 
was allowed even to question the motives of the mass murderers. To point out 
that they were all Arabs and Muslims was fair enough. But any attempt to 
connect these facts to the region they came from – the Middle East – was 
treated as a form of subversion; because, of course, to look too closely at 
the Middle East would raise disturbing questions about the region, about our 
Western policies in those tragic lands, and about America's relationship 
with Israel. Yet now, at last, President Bush's increasingly manic 
administration has spotted the connection – and is drawing all the wrong 

For, as the days and weeks go by, it is becoming increasingly difficult to 
recognise in the words of Americans – and in their newspapers – the Middle 
East, the region in which I have lived for 26 years. While cocooned within 
the usual assurances that Islam is one of the world's great religions and 
that the United States is only against "terrorists", not Muslims, a brutal 
and cruel fate is being concocted for Arabs, a world in which more than a 
score of nations are being fingered as "terrorists" or "haters of democracy" 
or "kernels of evil". Richard Armitage, the US Deputy Secretary of State, 
last week decided to include the Lebanese Hizbollah. With a vague, though 
unspecific, reference to the 291 American servicemen killed in the suicide 
bombing of the US Marine base in Beirut in 1982, he announced that "they're 
on the list, their time will come, there's no question about it. They have a 
blood debt to us...".

List? Is that what it is now? A list as unending as Mr Bush's so-called "war 
on terror"? Does Hizbollah come above al-Qa'ida on the list these days? Or 
after Iraq? Or maybe after Iran? "They have a blood debt to us" is a remark 
as frightening as it is infantile; it suggests that what the United States 
is embarking upon, far from being a titanic battle of good vs evil, is a 
series of revenge attacks. One wonders what Tony Blair thinks of all this. 
Does he, too, have a blood debt owed to him? And what – a question that is 
never asked – do Muslims make of this nonsense?

I have to say that I have yet to meet a Muslim who has expressed anything 
but horror about September 11. But I have yet to meet a Muslim who said they 
were surprised. Indeed, after so long in the Middle East, I have to say that 
I wasn't surprised when, high over the Atlantic, the pilot of my 
America-bound plane told his astonished passengers that four commercial 
airliners had been crashed into the United States. Stunned by the awesome 
nature of the crime, yes. Appalled by the sheer cruelty of the mass 
killings, of course. But surprised? For weeks I had been waking up each 
morning in Beirut, wondering when the explosion would come. So had most 
Arabs I have talked to during the past year. How and when the explosion 
would take place, they had no idea – but that the detonation would occur was 
never in question. And in a part of the world so steeped in blood, it was 
perhaps understandable that both the intellectual and the public response to 
September 11 was somewhat less emotional than in the rest of the planet.

For example, if you talk to a Palestinian in Lebanon about the September 
massacre, he will assume you are referring to the slaughter, at the hands of 
Israel's militia allies, of 1,700 Palestinians in Beirut in September of 
1982. Just as Chileans, when hearing the phrase "September 11" – as that 
fine Jewish writer Ariel Dorfman pointed out – will think of 11 September 
1973, when an American-supported coup d'ιtat led to the overthrow of the 
Allende government and the deaths of thousands of Chileans. Talk to Syrians 
about a massacre and they will think first of all – though they will not say 
the words – of the killing of up to 20,000 Syrians in the Islamist uprising 
at Hama. Talk about massacres to the Kurds and they will tell you about 
Halabja; to the Iranians and they will tell you about Khorramshahr; to the 
Algerians and they will think of Bentalha and a whole series of other 
village atrocities that have cost the lives of 150,000 Algerians.

The truth is that the Arabs – like Chileans and other people far from the 
new centre of total world power – are used to mass killing. They know what 
war is like, and quite a number of Lebanese asked me in the days after 
September 11 – our September 11, that is – if George Bush really did think 
America was at war. They weren't doubting the nature of the attacks. They 
were just wondering if the US President knew what a real war was like. In 
Lebanon, you have to remember, 150,000 men, women and children were killed 
in 16 years; 17,500 of them – almost six times the total of dead of 
September 11, and almost all of them civilians – were killed in just the 
summer of 1982, during Israel's bloody invasion of their little country, an 
invasion to which the US had given a green light.

And in many cases, of course, the dead – particularly in Lebanon, and ever 
more frequently in the Israeli-occupied territories – are being killed by 
American weapons. In the Palestinian town of Beit Jala, for example, almost 
all the missiles fired into Palestinian houses were made by the Boeing 
company. Only in the Arab world has a terrible irony been noted: that the 
very same company that proudly made those weapons – "all for one and one for 
all" is the logo for Boeing's Hellfire missile – also produced the airliners 
that were used to attack the United States. Having endured the company's 
weapons, Arabs turned their airplanes into weapons as well.

It does not excuse the September 11 killers their hideous crime against 
humanity to record that in the Middle East, you do often hear the thought 
expressed that now the US knows what it is to suffer. It's not intended to 
suggest that the United States deserved such horrors; merely a faint hope 
that Americans will now understand how much others have suffered in the 
Middle East over the years. I have to say, of course, that this is not the 
lesson that Americans are in any mood to learn.

Indeed, one of the most extraordinary – and patently absurd – elements of 
post-September 11 America is the way in which the Bush administration has 
steadily transformed a hunt for international criminals into a biblical 
struggle against the Devil incarnate. The Devil started off with a beard and 
a propensity to live in Afghan caves. Then it turned out that he wore a 
military beret and had a hankering for poison gas and weapons of mass 
destruction. And by last week, when Richard Armitage was claiming that 
Hizbollah may be the "A-team of terrorists" – al-Qa'ida being demoted to the 
"B-team" – the Devil had apparently moved residence from Baghdad to Beirut. 
Add to all this Iran and the non-Muslim Dear Leader who lives in North Korea 
and really does have nuclear weapons – which is why we will not bomb him – 
and a very odd picture of the world emerges. In general, however, that 
world, however distorted, is a Muslim world.

Now, along with this transformation has come a whole set of policies 
intended to show the superiority of our Western civilisation – centred on 
the need for the Arab world to enjoy "democracy". It isn't the first time 
that the US has threatened the Arabs with democracy, but it's a dodgy 
project for both parties: first, because the Arabs don't have much 
democracy; second, because quite a lot of Arabs would like a bit of it; and 
third, because the countries where they would like this precious commodity 
include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other regimes that the Americans would like 
to protect rather than destroy with democratic experiments. The 
Palestinians, President Bush has told us, must have a democracy. The Iraqis 
must have a democracy. Iran must have a democracy. But not, it seems, Saudi 
Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and the rest. Naturally, all these ambitious 
projects have set off a good deal of discussion in the Arab world – perhaps 
one of the few fruits of September 11 that hasn't yet turned sour.

A recent study in the United States – by Pippa Norris at Harvard and Ronald 
Inglehart of the University of Michigan – demonstrated convincingly that 
Samuel Huntington's grotesquely overrated "clash of civilisations" is a load 
of old baloney. Muslims, the study discovered, were as keen on democracy as 
Westerners – there presumably being no Christians left – and in some cases 
even more enthusiastic than Americans and others. The differences between 
the two emerged on social issues; on homosexuality, women's rights, abortion 
and divorce. Norris and Inglehart concluded that it would be a gross 
simplification to suggest that Muslims and Westerners hold fundamentally 
different political values.

Over the past few weeks, Arab intellectuals have been adding their own gloss 
to this, especially in Egypt. They have been challenging Huntington. 
Egyptians and Moroccans and even Saudis have been trying to make a cultural 
defence of Arabism, rejecting the idea of "globalisation" – a word I hate 
but which turns up in Arabic as awalameh (literally "world inclusivity") – 
and the notion that to be for globalisation is to be pro-Western and to be 
against it is to be against development. But development is not democracy, 
and the question remains: why is there no serious democracy in the Arab 
world? Although Ayatollah Khomeini created the theological machinery to 
emasculate Iranian social democracy, Iran's elections, and the repeated 
victories of President Mohammad Khatami, were undoubtedly fair; Mr Bush's 
remarks about how he wants to "bring democracy to Iran" are thus off course.

But it is the Arabs who have never developed a modern political state. If 
they had, might September 11 have been avoided? This was certainly an 
initial Bush suggestion; the suicide killers, he informed the world, had 
attacked America because they "hated democracy". The trouble is that the 19 
murderers wouldn't have known what democracy was if they had woken up in bed 
with it. But let's not avoid the question: why only police states and 
torture chambers in the Arab world?

A historian might go back centuries. When the Crusaders reached the Middle 
East in the 11th century, it was the Arabs who were the scientists; the 
Westerners – the "Franj" – were the political and technological numbskulls. 
And when the Arabs did develop a kind of social order under the remnants of 
the Abbasids in medieval Spain, in the Andalusia of El Cid, the Arabs – 
along with their Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters – experienced 
something like a cultural renaissance. In the Middle East, however, the 
Arabs felt they were under pressure from the West – from Western military 
prowess and economic power – and went on to the defensive. To question your 
caliph – or, even worse, to advance in theological philosophy – was a form 
of subversion, even treachery. When the enemy is at the gates, you don't 
question authority. Rather like the Americans after September 11 – when to 
seek the motives for the massacres was regarded as something akin to a 
thought crime – any intellectual enquiry was suppressed. The Western powers 
did much the same to the Arabs after the 1914-18 war. They chopped up the 
Ottoman empire, sprinkled dictators and kings across the Middle East, and 
then – in Egypt and Lebanon, for example – locked up anyone exercising their 
democratic opposition to the regime. If the opposition was not going to gain 
political power democratically... well, it would stage a coup d'ιtat. And 
this has largely been the fate of the Middle East since: a series of coups – 
rather than revolutions on the Iranian model – which had to be backed up 
with armies and secret policemen and torture chambers.

To a patriarchal society – and to one in which there had been no theological 
development comparable to the European Renaissance – was added our own 
Western determination to support undemocratic regimes. If we had democracy 
in the Middle East, the people who live there might not do what we want. So 
we supported the kings and princes and generals who did our bidding, unless 
they suddenly nationalised the Suez Canal, set off bombs in Berlin discos or 
invaded Kuwait, in which case we bombed them. Not by chance has Osama bin 
Laden raked over these historical coals. He wants the downfall of the Saudi 
regime – how he must have loved the Rand corporation's lecturer who called 
Saudi Arabia the "kernel of evil" – and he wants the downfall of the 
pro-Western Arab dictators.

Amid the twisted rhetoric now coming out of Washington – a linguistic 
barrage sounding more and more like the authentic voice of bin Laden – it is 
becoming ever more difficult to believe that Mr Bush is planning any kind of 
democracy in Iraq. Nor in "Palestine". After all, Yasser Arafat was not 
rejected because of his failure to create a democracy; he was rejected 
because he didn't do the job of a dictator well enough. He failed to create 
law and order in the small portions of land awarded to him in return for his 
putative good offices.

But something much bigger is going on today. Almost every Arab nation is 
being lined up by the United States, eagerly encouraged by Israel. Palestine 
must have "regime change"; Iraq must have "regime change"; Iran – most 
recently accused, without any proof, of shipping al-Qa'ida gold to Sudan – 
must have democracy; Saudi Arabia is a "kernel of evil"; Syria is now to be 
sanctioned for "supporting terrorism"; Lebanon is accused of harbouring 
al-Qa'ida members – a patent untruth, but one that is already finding its 
way into The New York Times; and Jordan may have to serve as a launch pad 
for an Iraqi invasion (which, possibly, would mean goodbye to our plucky 
little king). The United States ends extra financial support for Egypt 
because it locks up an American Egyptian for stating the truth – that 
Egyptian elections are a fraud. What, Arabs are asking themselves, are the 
Americans up to? Are they planning to reshape the map of the Middle East? Is 
this to be another exercise in colonial planning, akin to the one the 
British and French wrought after the First World War? Are we planning to 
topple all the Arab regimes?

In other words, are we now trying to turn Huntington's third-rate book into 
a success story? Are we actually now in the process of starting a clash of 
civilisations? Never before have Muslims and Westerners been so polarised, 
their conflicts so sharpened – and Arab hopes so fraudulently raised. We are 
no more planning to give those Arabs "democracy" than we planned to honour 
our promise of independence at the end of the 1914-18 war. What we want to 
do is to bring them back under our firm control, to ensure their loyalty. If 
the House of Saud is collapsing of its own volition, the Americans seem to 
be saying, then let it collapse. If Jordan's King Abdullah won't play ball 
on the Iraqi invasion plans, what's he worth anyway? In the Arab press, 
there is a slow but growing suspicion that "regime change" might turn out to 
be Middle East change.

But let's remember two things; that the killers of September 11were Arabs. 
And they were Muslims. And the Arab world has held no debate about this. 
There have been plenty of stories to the contrary: that the 19 murderers 
were working for the Americans or the Israelis; that hundreds of American 
Jews were warned not to go to work on the day of the attack; even that the 
planes were remotely controlled and had no pilots at all. This childish and 
sometimes pernicious rubbish is widely believed in parts of the Middle East. 
Anything to duck the blame, to avoid the truth.

And it's a strange thing that is happening now. The Americans want the world 
to know that the killers were Arabs. But they don't want to discuss the 
tragedy of the region they came from. The Arabs, on the other hand, do want 
to discuss their tragedy – but wish to deny the Arab identity of the 
killers. The Americans have created a totally false image of the Arab world, 
peopling it with beasts and tyrants. The Arabs have adopted an almost 
equally absurd view of the US, believing its promises of "democracy" but 
failing to grasp the degree of anger many Americans still feel over the 

Yet still there are double standards at work here. George Bush can rightly 
condemn the killing of Israeli university students as making him "mad", but 
blithely brush off the slaughter of Palestinian children by a bomb dropped 
from a US-made Israeli plane as "heavy handed". Yet it's not just the 
pitiful remarks of President Bush, but the double standards of whole 
peoples. Here's what I mean. Today, 11 September, our newspapers and our 
television screens are filled with the baleful images of those two towers 
and their biblical descent. We will remember and honour the thousands who 
died. But in just five days' time, Palestinians will remember their 
September massacre of 1982. Will a single candle be lit for them in the 
West? Will there be a single memorial service? Will a single American 
newspaper dare to recall this atrocity? Will a single British newspaper 
commemorate the 20th anniversary of these mass killings of 1,700 innocents? 
Do I even need to give the answer?

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