Understanding why ‘they' hate us

By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times

WASHINGTON — There are barbarians out there who hate America, President Bush has warned, and Americans are struggling to understand why.

The president himself had an answer: "They hate what they see right here in this chamber," he told the joint session of Congress Thursday. "Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

He was speaking of terrorists, of course. But are they the only ones Americans need to understand as they gird themselves for a war against fear?

What of the masses of Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, where denunciations of the West, Israel and the United States became a staple of politics long ago?

Certainly Muslim leaders throughout the world were quick to label the attacks contrary to the Koran and Islamic teachings. Only Iraq withheld sympathy.

Many are deeply ambivalent

But that global display of unity obscures an unsettling reality: The most devastating terrorist act in history coincides with a deep sense of ambivalence about the United States throughout the Muslim world (and not only there).

Admiration and envy commingle with resentment and outright hatred. Political extremists masterfully play on these emotions, leaving some weak and undemocratic governments like Egypt's feeling powerless to control them.

The absence of democracy in these lands — and there is very little democracy in the Arabic-speaking and Muslim lands from Algeria all the way to Pakistan — creates an atmosphere in which demagogy is easy, reason and tolerance difficult.

And the perception that America bolsters authoritarian governments even while it heralds democracy as an ideal fuels a sense of betrayal throughout the Muslim world.

America as cultural infection

An important feature of this complicated landscape is a broad chasm between the way Americans see themselves and the way they are seen. In fact, a good deal of the struggle is over something that has long troubled traditional societies: the invasion of their cultures by powerful outside influences, forces like social mobility and cosmopolitan thinking that can undermine the authority of clans and religious elders, kings and dictators.

Americans sometimes call the new influences freedom. Older societies have other names.

Take Iran. In the 1960s the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad identified what he called a cultural "illness" that had stricken the country's cities and towns.

He coined a new word to describe it: gharbzadegi — "West-stricken-ness," or "Westoxication." He mourned the villager who "in search of work flees from the village to the town so he can drink Pepsi-Cola and eat a 5-rial sandwich and see a Brigitte Bardot film."

No matter that Al-e Ahmad drank alcohol and seldom prayed. The only authentic strain in Iranian culture for him was religion. His message had profound resonance.

Two decades later, the elimination of "Westoxication" was a central goal of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now Osama bin Laden is accusing Saudi Arabia of becoming Westoxicated by allowing U.S. military forces on its soil.

Saudi Arabia's conflicts

Saudi Arabia is America's closest ally in the Persian Gulf, and its cooperation will be crucial for any coalition. But its king rules by accident of birth, with members of the royal family whom he appoints. Islam is the only religion that may be practiced.

While America's military presence is viewed by the royal family as crucial for the kingdom's security, it is resented in some religious and political circles and a feeling is growing that its purpose is to help keep the royal family in power.

As for Saudi women, unlike their Iranian sisters who are allowed to drive, vote, practice law and hold political office, those rights are denied.

Yet the Saudis seem resistant to self-examination. On Thursday, U.S. officials met with four members of the appointed consultative body that substitutes for a parliament. They were asked whether they felt that bin Laden's message, which includes labeling the Saudi leaders as corrupt and calls for ridding the kingdom of U.S. troops, was resonating. No, they replied; the real motivations for the Sept. 11 attack were Israel and the sanctions against Iraq.

"It was clear they were trying to deflect the issue," said one U.S. official. "It was a classic case of looking for the outside problem."

Yearnings for freedom do pose a problem for terrorists who fight in the name of a pure, just rule of God on earth. If they want proof of the impossibility of their task, they only have to look to Iran.

With its anti-Western slogans, Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution swept aside a repressive king who had linked his country to the United States. But when it replaced him with a cleric whose version of Islam proved intolerant, the people turned out to yearn for — guess what? — more freedom and a better life.

Today, Iran's Islamic Republic endures only because it has adapted, because it has tolerated and even encouraged experimentation that seeks to reconcile the forces of Islam and some degree of democracy.

A view of us distorted by TV

A yearning for democracy does not automatically translate into love for America, however.

"They don't hate us because we have a Congress," said Jon Alterman, an analyst at the United States Institute of Peace who has written extensively on the flow of information in the Arab world.

"They hate us because we seem so indifferent to their problems and their suffering. Whenever there is a survey of Palestinians, they always rate Israeli democracy higher than American democracy. The reason is that they see American democracy as beholden to interest groups, whereas Israeli democracy reflects what the Israeli people want," Alterman said.

Yet the tug of American culture, and the shared dream of a prosperous, enjoyable life on earth, is a point on which many in these lands strongly identify with America.

Iranians, living under a regime that has long demonized the United States as "the Great Satan" and presented it as a scapegoat for all of Iran's troubles, also call America "the Fortune Land." One of the main reasons Iran will not allow an American consular officer to process visas in Tehran is worry that the crowds would be overwhelming — and embarrassing.

Today, American CDs, videos and computer programs are pirated and sold on the streets of Tehran for a fraction of their price in the United States. In the holy city of Qom, a shop sells knockoffs of Wranglers bluejeans just down the street from the main mosque, one of Iran's holiest sites. At the Tehran airport, pirated copies of Danielle Steel novels are available.

A part of this fascination with America's most secular achievements may be traceable to the way information about the United States arrives — with the distortions of the lens of American television, beamed in through illegal satellite dishes. Even without satellite dishes, viewers in Bushehr on the Persian Gulf can watch CNN.

That means that for many Iranians, America is a country full of the scantily clad, available women of "Baywatch" and MTV.

First-time visitors to the United States are often shocked by the more spiritual and socially conservative side of America.

Addressing incomprehension

So perhaps a key to deflecting the hatred aimed at the United States is information. "There are three reasons for hatred: fear, anger and incomprehension," said Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist whose new book, "Riot" (Arcade Books), deals with a fictional Hindu-Muslim riot, and who is a special assistant to Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general.

"Fear involves both a sense of what others might do to you and the past wrongs, whether real or imagined, that have been done. Anger is seemingly a more rational reaction to perceptions of injustice and wrongdoing. Incomprehension is the failure to understand the other, which makes it easy to demonize. September 11 underscores the need to eradicate that incomprehension."

But that may be hard for many Americans to admit, particularly in the midst of a war. Nearly four decades ago, another novelist, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., captured the problem when he put these words into the mouth of a fictitious U.S. ambassador who had been fired for pessimism: "The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren't loved wherever they go, whatever they do."