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No, they really hate us for what we do.


A syndicated column appeared last week in the local paper by a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Victor Hanson, titled, “They hate us for who we are, not what we do.” While I do not take up keyboard to joust with every bit of noisome effluvia I read, I want to deconstruct this one because our President repeats this canard ad nauseum and sans reasoning, and it clearly underlies our “war on terror” strategy. Since Hoover is the figurative and literal ivory tower of the Right, this piece is probably the closest we will get to an exegesis of the logical basis, such as it is, for this belief.


Mr. Hanson starts from an observation that few would dispute – that there are strong antipathies between Islamic fundamentalists and Western society. This issue is well-documented and well-understood – I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s “The Battle for God,” recommended in turn to me by a reader of an earlier piece, which explains both more and less than Mr. Hanson would like. Armstrong talks at length about the history of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and about how each of them has reacted over time to the Enlightenment and the threat it posed to religion. Armstrong shows the antipathy of all fundamentalists to logic and reason. But her enumeration of the policies and actions of the colonial powers in the Muslim world are also highly relevant to an understanding of Islamic hatred – it is not merely antipathy to abstractions, but is grounded in concrete injustices.

Hanson also observes that the sins of the average American cannot justify the events of September 11 – an observation few would gainsay. But Mr. Hanson’s argument quickly goes off the rails from there. Hanson makes five specific arguments:

1. The “Islamofascists” cannot be believed because they “neither allow criticism nor tolerate self-reflection.” Putting aside the name-calling and oversimplification (as far as I know, Osama and his gang have not governed – terrorists, by definition, are outside the nation-state system), and granting that the Taliban were a despicable lot, what does this have to with the price of tea in Kabul? If we dismiss the opinions of all societies because they disclaim our views on introspection, we are in for a very long fight.

And would this be a good place to point out that it has been widely reported that these faults apply to our own solipsistic commander in chief as well?

2. Our “alleged sins against Islam transform monthly.” In other words, if the Muslims cannot make up their minds about which of our sins they are dying for, none of them are worth serious introspection. To restate this absurdity is to refute it. Must we choose between Pearl Harbor and the rape of Nanking to find fault with WWII-era Japan? Should we apply the same test to the 23 separate justifications given by this Administration for invading Iraq? And do we have to remind anyone that the Declaration of Independence lists (by my count) nearly 30 separate grievances against the King of England, none of which come close to the deaths of perhaps as many as 100,000 Iraqis? Mr. Hanson’s logic puts him the company of not only our own current King George, but his logical predecessor and spiritual namesake.

3. “Bin Laden and various mujahadeen distort history.” This claim is likely as true as it is meaningless. All history is distortion; as if to prove the point, in the very next sentence Mr. Hanson refers to American “beneficence” in “saving” Kuwaitis, as if it was beyond all possible interpretation to wonder if the first Bush war might have been about something other than the freedom of the Kuwaiti people. The fact is that the history we tell ourselves about American foreign policy is, in the view of much of the rest of the world, itself horribly distorted – does that invalidate our conclusions about the war on terror?

4. Because “terrorists still imperil liberal Europe, which subsidized Hamas, (and) armed Saddam,” what the US does cannot be at issue. The fact that Muslims hate what the US does not preclude them from hating what Europe has done in the Middle East. Though we have taken a leading role in the Gulf over the last 50 years or so, we are following in well-worn European footsteps there. Britain in particular has a sordid imperial past in the region, which continued right up to the time the sun set on the Empire after WWII. The bombings in Spain were unconscionable and indiscriminate in their destruction, but from a political standpoint were almost surgical in their purpose, timing and effect. It was well known that the war was widely reviled by the Spanish public. The ruling party lost the election that came only three days later, and the new government announced that Spain was pulling out of the coalition immediately after. (The situation in Spain, which was largely under Muslim control for a time, and which has its own ethnic troubles, is more complicated than can be covered here.) And Mr. Hanson should be made to write “terror is a tactic, not an enemy” 100 times on the blackboard – Europe is home to myriad terrorist organization with innumerable agendas, most of which have nothing to do with Al Qaeda.

5. Al Qaeda is under-inclusive because it does not target an oil-hungry and “cutthroat nuclear China.”

Mr. Hanson, a classics professor, seems to have forgotten the 1998 riots in Indonesia, in which Muslims raped and killed members of their ethnic Chinese minority. More to the point, though China is undoubtedly “oil hungry,” it has never occupied a Gulf state or overthrown a government there. And if Gulf state citizens hate oil-hungry nations, I submit that their anger is less about who pays and more about who benefits.

In closing, Mr. Hanson claims that the U.S. has a “rational strategy against Islamic Fascism: Kill the terrorists, remove illegitimate regimes that aid the extremists…” To unpack this dense concatenation of falsehoods is to expose its absurdity: (1) while the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was brutal, totalitarian and reprehensible, a fair reading of Lawrence Britt’s 14 characteristics of Fascism makes the term a loose fit at best; (2) while we have had a dismal record in capturing, prosecuting, and killing actual terrorists, according to a report from the Pentagon, we seem to be doing a magnificent job of imprisoning and killing innocent civilians, thereby creating far more people who hate us, whatever the claimed reason; and (3) was Saddam’s regime less legitimate than the puppet we placed in Iran, or the ones we are now installing in Iraq? And do we have to point out, yet again, that Saddam had nothing to do with Al Qaeda? Unless the theory employed is that “two wrongs make a right,” it is hard to see how this string of nonsense is either rational or a strategy.

In unraveling the specific arguments Hanson makes, I have of course left for last the most obvious and damning flaw. The dishonesty of the whole endeavor becomes clear when we parse the phrase “they hate us for who we are.” The assumption seems to be that “who we are” is somehow dissociated from what we do, and that abstractions like “freedom” are so odious that people turn kamikaze to lash out at them. But that assertion is unacceptable for a number of reasons. First, it is simply too self-serving: it gives us a pass on all possible excesses, because, what the hell, they’re going to hate us anyway. There has long been a particularly ugly strain of American patriotism that says that we are above the law because we are uniquely above reproach; this circular reasoning can, and should, infuriate the rest of the world.

Most important of all, “who we are” is what we do – we are not merely the myths we believe about ourselves. To Iranians, who we are is colored by the way we installed and helped to maintain a puppet dictator on the throne of their country, and ignored legitimate challenges to his myriad excesses – and then armed Saddam Hussein to the hilt in an effort to defeat them again. To ordinary Saudis, who we are has a lot to do with our support of the rapacious House of Saud and our blind eye toward the suffering of its subjects. And to ordinary Iraqis, we are the occupiers who leveled Fallujah, backed criminals like Chalabi and CIA stooges like Alawi, and tortured ordinary Iraqis for sport.

This point was reinforced months ago by no less an authority than our own Department of Defense, which published a report that squarely rebuts Hanson’s argument. Among the report’s conclusions:

• Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.

• Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that “freedom is the future of the Middle East” is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World — but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.

• Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self-determination.

• Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy
among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack — to broad public support.

I do not mean to suggest that men like Osama bin Laden are rational actors. Religious fundamentalists – all of them – are irrational. Reason is antithetical to absolute belief. On some level, I agree that they do hate at least some of what we believe in. But they didn’t attack Canada, or Germany, or France. Until terrorists crash an Air Canada jet into the CN Tower in Toronto, I think we ought to be willing to take a hard look at how the United States behaves in the world in general and the Gulf in particular.

There is of course a sense in which what we believe is an important aspect of who we are. But if what we believe is that Saddam was in cahoots with Al Qaeda; if we believe both that we went to war in Iraq because it had WMDs and that it does not matter that they in fact didn’t; if we believe that our actions are irrelevant to how the world feels about us and that America can do no wrong, then who we are is stark, raving bonkers.

John Steinberg bloviates regularly at




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