American Anointed

This article was originally published in November 2001 in The American Prospect, in response to September 11th.  The insights into our current situation are still timely.  As Prof. Khalidi says in the article:  “And yet, there exists a deep connection between current events and historical ones that on the surface may seem academic. “

In the best of times, it is not easy to explain the complexities of the Middle East and how the United States has related to it over the past century. Most Americans are oblivious to their country’s massive impact on the world and on the Middle East in particular. It is even harder after the trauma of September 11 to explain that for decades the United States itself helped to foster some of the radical-extremist Islamic tendencies that gave rise to the horrific attacks on U.S. cities.

American media self-censorship has ensured a traditional blackout on certain types of news about the Middle East (for instance, reportage, common in the Israeli or European press, on Israeli human rights violations in the occupied territories). Nevertheless, it is a fact that many of the leaders of the groups that most likely carried out these attacks were once welcome allies of the United States. This is true whether they once belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood or one of its offshoots, adhered to extreme versions of Saudi Wahhabi doctrine, or joined the Afghan mujahideen during the war against the Soviet occupation. They, or their intellectual forebears and spiritual guides, were for decades ardent foot soldiers of the United States against enemies that included Arab nationalism, Nasserism, local communist parties, radical regimes, secular Palestinian nationalism, and the Soviets in Afghanistan.

To the discomfort of American policy makers as well as critics of American policy, these radical extremists espouse—whether genuinely or out of opportunism—causes that are popular throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, as well as unpopular radical-Islamic nostrums for the ills of Middle Eastern societies.

The popular causes include Palestinian self-determination, an end to the sanctions imposed on Iraq since the Gulf War, the removal of American bases from Saudi Arabia, and opposition to autocratic, corrupt regimes that dominate most countries of the region. This is problematic for policy makers who claim that the United States acts in the name of freedom, for if the freely expressed views of people in these countries were known, most would very likely be opposed to U.S. policy on all of these issues.

It is equally disconcerting for longtime critics of these American policies to hear Osama bin Laden invoking these arguments. The last thing they want, after years of being ostracized for criticizing Washington’s actions, is to be identified, even indirectly, with the people who killed thousands of innocent Americans. Their task, already supremely difficult in a country unfamiliar with the Middle East and consistently favorable to Israeli perspectives on the region, has suddenly become even harder.

And yet, there exists a deep connection between current events and historical ones that, on the surface, may seem academic. It lies in long-standing Western policies in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East that favored domestically easy, politically convenient conclusions about what was just and in keeping with the principles of self-determination and international law. Long before there was an American position on the Palestine question—a policy driven primarily by political concerns in the United States—there was a British position, similarly driven by concerns external to Palestine. And facing both countries was a Palestinian leadership that seemed to grasp only dimly, if at all, the strategic challenge before it, the actual balance of forces confronting it, and the nature of the relationship between the great power of the day and its Zionist allies.

While Britain and the international community solemnly committed themselves to self-determination for the Jewish people in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no such commitment to the Palestinian people, in spite of the Palestinians’ unified insistence on their national rights and on Britain’s obligation to keep its World War I promises of independence to the Arabs. Only after a bloody, three-year Palestinian revolt and with war looming in 1939 did the British grudgingly grant this principle, although World War II and the Holocaust intervened to render their promise meaningless.

Similarly, the United States, the first country to recognize the independence of Israel, has yet to support the independence of Arab Palestine. Ironically, with another kind of world war about to engulf us, President George W. Bush finally announced that this had “always” been an American objective; in fact, the idea was only recently broached for the first time, by his immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton.

If the hypocrisy in the United States upholding Israel’s independence while denying that of Palestine is lost on most Americans, it is generally seen as manifest, inexplicable, and reprehensible in the rest of the world. Until it needed international support, however, a unilateralist United States could afford to ignore the nagging of Europe, Russia, China, and Arabs and Muslims on this and other issues. Today, suddenly, it appears to be paying attention.

Past and present are linked as well in the ways that Western powers contributed to the genesis of political Islam in the interwar period and again in recent decades. Thus, in Palestine, the British, from the outset, fostered the creation of Islamic institutions headed by the mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni, even while denying legitimacy to Palestinian national bodies and preventing the establishment of representative political institutions. The British gave these newly invented Islamic institutions broad patronage power and full control of extensive revenues. For nearly two decades, until the 1936 revolt, this policy served to distract much of the Palestinian elite from a unified focus on anticolonial national objectives.

A clear parallel to this British policy can be seen in that of the United States: To counterbalance radical anti-American forces (and with support from its allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Anwar Sadat’s Egypt), America fostered the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic formations even as they stifled democracy in the Arab world. For two decades after the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel similarly used the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization, encouraging Brotherhood thugs to intimidate PLO supporters and even busing them across Israel from Gaza to the West Bank for that purpose. Thereafter, the Muslim Brotherhood sent young Palestinians off to Afghanistan to resist the Soviet invasion in 1979, rather than the Israeli occupation, arguing that this was the path of “true” jihad. Needless to say, Israel welcomed this development.

As happens in politics, these alliances shifted. In the end, the mufti became a fierce opponent of the British, while the Muslim Brotherhood and related Islamist offshoots spawned profoundly anti-Western and anti-Israeli groups like bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, Hamas, and others in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere.

Political Islam frequently served as a potent vehicle for resistance to colonialism and external control. In Palestine the death of the charismatic preacher Shaykh Izz al-Din al-Qassam in 1935 at the hands of the British inspired the revolt of 1936 to 1939, while more recently the Islamic Jihad Movement, disgusted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s passivity toward the Israeli occupation, attacked Israeli troops, sparking the intifada that broke out in December 1987.

In yet another ironic twist in the obscure early part of this strange story, the man described by the young Osama bin Laden as his “guide” in the early 1980s was the charismatic Palestinian radical Abdullah Azzam, who played a key role in the flow of young men from Gaza and the West Bank to the battlefields of Afghanistan. Azzam was one of the leading advocates of developing a new kind of political tool: a radical form of Islam with roots in the approach of the Muslim Brotherhood and militant Wahhabi ideas. This approach was first employed against the Red Army in Afghanistan—in a campaign blessed, armed, trained, and financed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Directorate for Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Saudi intelligence under Prince Turki al-Faisal. Bin Laden was central in arranging the clandestine financing of this campaign.

Today we know the middle of this story, even if none of us can yet foresee the end: The CIA is now busy hunting its erstwhile Afghan and Arab allies; the ISI is currently switching sides and turning on the Taliban regime it installed in Kabul six years ago; and just before September 11, Prince Turki was abruptly removed from his post after many years of service. But the beginning of the story is still being obscured by an official and media discourse that excoriates Saudi Arabia for its support of the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, while passing in silence over the United States’ erstwhile encouragement of bin Laden and others like him, and its complaisance toward the installation by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Islam, of course, was a political vehicle of immense power (and had built one of the greatest civilizations the world has known) centuries before Western Europe climbed out of the Dark Ages, and Wahhabism was a potent political force before the U.S. Constitution was adopted. But it is ridiculous to claim that the forms that extreme Islamic radicalism took in recent years were shaped only by the Islamic heritage and the narrow vision of Islam propagated in the eighteenth century and afterward by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab or other homegrown purveyors of a radical new interpretation of Islam. The truth is that these forms were also profoundly shaped by the policies of the United States and its closest allies in the Middle East and South Asia in the last decades of the Cold War.

And if there is disillusionment, anger, even hatred for the United States in many countries in these regions, it is not necessary to look at Islamic doctrine, at the alleged propensity of Muslims for violence, or at the supposed centrality of the concept of jihad to Islam for the causes. One need look no further than the corrupt and autocratic regimes propped up by the United States, and its disregard for the opinions of Middle Eastern peoples regarding Palestine, sanctions on Iraq, and other issues.

Originally published in The American Prospect, Volume 12, Issue 20.  November 19, 2001.  Visit their excellent site at  Reprinted in The American Muslim with the permission of the author.