As protests rocked U.S. embassies in various Arab and Muslim capitals in recent weeks, a familiar question once again reverberated through American media: why do they hate us?
In the blink of an eye, it seemed we were transported back to the uninformed conversations that characterized post-9/11 America, where Arabs and Muslims were seen as one big monolith of backward, violent and irrational beings predisposed to hate everything Western because of their culture and religion. Newsweek, a publication that ostensibly seeks to be a leader in directing mainstream American discourse, chose to race back in time with the “Muslim Rage” theme featured on its cover.
The “why do they hate us” question has no simple or singular answer, nor is the very premise of the question entirely defensible. Who, after all, do we actually refer to when we speak of they and us? Is this about Islam versus Christianity? East versus West? Liberal Secularism versus Theocracy? Those who ask the question never really bother to define these terms and instead allow the imagined conception of the other to be the target of our anger.
Of course, there is undeniable anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds and as we have seen in recent weeks it has been directed against symbols of the United States. So why is that and where does the anger come from?
A film about the Prophet Muhammad, which was particularly offensive, might have set off this most recent wave of events. But, let’s be clear, people do not mobilize en masse without direction. Individuals and/or groups had to coalesce and organize these protests. So the question then becomes what makes people so receptive to calls for mobilization over a YouTube clip that, while offensive, has little direct impact on their lives?
The answer is that there is a foundation of discontent with the United States that has become engrained in many Arab and Muslim societies so that even the simplest and stupidest of films can become an opportunity around which to vent frustration.
The relationship between the East and West is a long and storied one but it is modern history and not the epic tales of Byzantium or Xerxes that factor most importantly into the feelings of people in the region today. It is the drones that have rained unsuspecting civilian death from the sky. It is the wars of choice that have decimated entire countries, destroying infrastructure and sending them back to the Stone Age. It is the use of another people’s land to wage proxy wars with other great powers in battles for resources and regional hegemony, to prop up governments, and to do this all at the expense of the ordinary people who live there. It is, in short, a variety of things—very painful, horrific things.
But just as all of these events were occurring across the region, a developing news story, which might seem unrelated, actually offered some of the best answers to these difficult questions, albeit inadvertently so.
A video of Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser showed the candidate explaining his views on the question of Palestine. Romney said, to paraphrase, that the U.S. should strive for stability and hope for the best while acknowledging little would actually change—or “kick the ball down the field,” as Romney put it. The status quo, which is essentially the denial of self-determination and basic rights to Palestinians living under the boot of Israeli military occupation, is to be perpetuated endlessly. Romney’s characterization is largely a reflection of what has already been U.S. policy and is the greatest reason why so many in the region are angry.
For decades, U.S. policy in the Middle East has focused on the stability and strategic security of American interests at the expense of freedom and prosperity for people in the region. This meant, among other things, supporting Israel’s ongoing occupation and colonization of Palestine and the Mubarak regime that millions of Egyptians overthrew after three decades in power.
For as long as the United States perpetuates a status quo in the region where stability takes precedence over the freedom and prosperity of the people who live there, we are bound to see repeat episodes of what we saw this week over and over again.