Bin Laden's Gripe Is With American Foreign Policy, Not Freedom

28 September 2001

By Stentor Danielson

There has been an e-mail forward making the rounds recently featuring a parody of Dr. Seussís "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," describing the events of September 11. The poem, called "The Binch," contains a host of jingoistic sentiment, but I was most struck by the lines that sum up our popular analysis of why Osama bin Laden (a.k.a. "the Binch") decided to launch an attack on the United States:

"The Binch hated U.S! The whole U.S. way!
Now donít ask me why, for nobody can say,
It could be his turban was screwed on too tight.
Or the sun from the desert had beaten too bright
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small."

It would be nice to think this oversimplified misanalysis -- bin Laden is just a bad person who hates all the good values the United States stands for -- was limited to this poem. Unfortunately, the analysis coming from the American media and our national leaders often sounds no more sophisticated. Bin Ladenís grudge is not against Americaís freedom, its prosperity or its God. (Incidentally, the Judeo-Christian God that our public figures so easily assume all Americans worship is the same being as the Allah that Muslims, including bin Laden, pray to). What bin Laden hates about the United States is its foreign policy. He sees American involvement in the Middle East as a threat to, or even a deliberate conspiracy against, Islam. The 1998 order for all Muslims to kill all Americans that bin Laden co-authored cited three grievances -- U.S. military presence in the holy land of Saudi Arabia, U.S. policy toward Iraq and U.S. support of Israel.

Some people will read this and assume that, since Iím rejecting the "Grinch-versus-Whoville" morality play version of events, I must be excusing bin Laden or suggesting that the United States deserved the September 11 attacks in some fashion. I am doing neither. Nobody, especially not unsuspecting civilians, ever deserves to die. But looking at the situation as good-versus-evil prepares us only for vengeance. In order to avoid vengeance and formulate a response that reduces the potential for terrorism in the future, we need to understand why we were attacked. A complex historical situation set up the events on September 11.

The story begins with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In a cruel twist of fate, the United States gave its greatest enemy his start, as bin Laden was one of the extremist fighters recruited, trained and supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It was all part of our Cold War over-simplification that stated, "If theyíre not communists, they must be OK." At the time the United States had no qualms about backing Islamic radicals, and the more radical the better.

Despite our public leadersí rhetoric, the United States still doesnít have a problem in principle with allying with oppressive regimes. Our strategy in Afghanistan depends on the support of Pakistan, and we proclaimed Pakistan our great friend when Islamabad saw it had no viable option besides compliance with Washingtonís demands. Yet Pakistan was a sponsor of the Talibanís conquest of Afghanistan and its continuing war on the rival warlords of the Northern Alliance (which we are making overtures toward, based on the assumption that if theyíre not the Taliban, they must be OK).

Saudi Arabiaís rulers exemplify the things we claim to hate about the Taliban better than anyone else outside Afghanistan. Before September 11, Saudi Arabia was one of three nations in the world to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan. But Saudi Arabia is still our closest ally, after Israel, in the Middle East. We depend on their cooperation for our continuing operations in Iraq, and will undoubtedly require their help to a great degree in the coming war. Bin Laden isnít terribly happy with having a large foreign military presence in the land that contains Mecca and Medina, two of Islamís holiest sites.

It was during the Persian Gulf War that the United States began giving its support to another oppressive Middle Eastern dictator -- Saddam Hussein. The sanctions regime imposed at the end of the war did an excellent job of strengthening Husseinís position while inflaming anti-American sentiment by depriving the Iraqi people of the basic necessities of life. American oppression of the Iraqi people does not sit well with bin Laden.

Bin Laden doesnít care much for the Saudi regime, either. Saudi Arabia is far from an exemplar of the virtues of freedom and "civilization" (in the Western ethnocentric sense) that bin Laden supposedly has his beef with, yet he still considers the Saudis to be "un-Islamic." This suggests that it is not freedom that bin Laden hates, but rather American influence in the Middle East, which Saudi cooperation makes possible. Indeed, bin Laden often describes the United States as "tyrannical."

Then, of course, thereís Israel. The United States, despite its attempts to act as a neutral third party during Bill Clintonís quest for a Nobel Peace Prize, is Israelís biggest ally and military supplier. The United States has backed Israel in 35 years of blatant defiance of several United Nations resolutions condemning the morally unambiguous practice of attacking, conquering and occupying foreign territory. For some reason, bin Laden doesnít appreciate it when Palestinians are deprived of water supplies that flow freely to Israeli villages. And he doesnít seem to like it when their homes are bulldozed to make room for new Jewish settlements that are calculated to destroy the possibility of ever creating a territorially unified and, hence, functional Palestinian state. He also wants to end Israeli control of Jerusalemís al-Aqsa Mosque, located on the Temple Mount revered by Jews. And he wants to avenge the deaths caused by Israelís invasion of Lebanon. Then, in a jump of logic that would make President Bush proud, he blames the United States for the crimes its support of Israel makes possible.

The central theme to all of bin Ladenís complaints is that he sees the United States as engaged in a "crusade" against Islam. In his 1996 declaration of war against America, he cited American complacency in responding to (or even taking notice of) violence against Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and elsewhere. American involvement in Iraq, with its damaging effect on the people living there, is another form of assault on Islam. The significance of Israel in this is obvious.

Bin Laden has unquestionably suffered a moral failure of enormous proportions. But to say that he orchestrated the September 11 attacks simply because he is a bad man, and that what he hates about the U.S. must be those things, like freedom and God, that we hold to be the most good, is grossly oversimplifying. Bin Ladenís hatred for the United States is located in the complex history of American foreign policy in the Middle East. This history has led him to believe that the United States is engaged in a crusade against Islam. It is this same logic of "they have hurt me, therefore they must hate the values I stand for" that has led bin Laden to label the United States as simply evil, and has caused too many Americans to return the favor.

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