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A Middle East Party

Daniel Pipes, Director, Middle East Forum (Philadelphia)
Sept. 14, 2001

In Stockholm, people stood outside the gates of the United States embassy with long burning candles to express their sorrow. In Berlin, they placed flowers at the embassy. Austria's parliament flew a black flag. "We are all Americans!" editorializes the not-usually pro-American newspaper Le Monde. A Kenyan newspaper recalled Osama bin Laden's bombing in that country three years ago and stated that "Few nations will understand America's grief as deeply as the Kenyan nation." "I feel that my heart is breaking when I see it on television," said a Chinese.

And so it was around the world, as news was received of the catastrophic events in the eastern United States. Peoples and governments in most places responded with the grief and humanity one would hope for at such a moment.

There was, however, one major and conspicuous exception to this solemnity, and that was in the Middle East, where the day's events prompted a giant party.

"We're ecstatic," said a Lebanese. "Bull's-eye," commented Egyptian taxi drivers as they watched a rerun of the World Trade Center collapse. "It's payback time," said a Cairene. Other Egyptians expressed a wish for US President George W. Bush to have been buried in the buildings or exulted that this was their happiest moment since the war of 1973.

And so it went around the region. In Lebanon and the West Bank, Palestinians shot guns into the air, a common way of showing delight. In Jordan, Palestinians handed out sweets in another expression of joy.

Even outside the Middle East, a good many Muslims said the US got what it deserved. Nigerian papers reported that the Islamic Youth Organization in Zamfara province organized an event to celebrate the attacks. "Whatever destruction America is facing, as a Muslim I am happy," came a typical quote from Afghanistan. A Pakistani leader said that Washington is paying for its policies against Palestinian, Iraqi, Bosnian, and other Muslims, then warned that the "worst is still to come."

To be sure, most governments were on best behavior, decrying this and bemoaning that. But even in this, there were cracks. In Syria, the restrained message of condolence came from an anonymous "official information source" rather than (as is normally the case) from President Bashar Assad. In Iran, the milder of the newspaper analyses portrayed the airplane crashes in America as "Paying the price for its blind support of the Zionist regime." The worse of them actually accused Israel of organizing the attacks, in a supposed effort to deflect world opinion from its own conflict with the Palestinians.

And then there is Iraq where the state-controlled media cheered on the violence, commenting with satisfaction that the "the American cowboys are reaping the fruit of their crimes against humanity." It also announced, with unabashed delight, that the "myth of America was destroyed along with the World Trade Center."

Why this unvarnished rage against the West, and against the US in particular? Because two extremist ideologies maintain a grip on much of the Middle East and even beyond.

Palestinian nationalism is often portrayed as having the relatively benign goal of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It actually has the far more virulent one of destroying Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian state that stretches "from the river to the sea." The sheer strength of Israel had long tamped down the hold of this ideology over Palestinians and other Arabic speakers.

It arose with new vigor thanks to the Oslo process, which made Israel appear weakened and demoralized. As a result, even the mild American approbation of Israeli policies toward Palestinian violence over the past year has engendered a rare fury against the US government, the American people, and all their works. Delight in American deaths is the natural result.

Islamism is the body of ideas that takes the religion of Islam and makes it the basis of a radical utopian ideology along the lines of fascism and Marxism-Leninism. It has ambitions to replace capitalism and liberalism as the reigning world system. Islamism accounts for the anti-American hatred coming out of places remote from the Arab-Israeli conflict, like Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Adherents of this outlook are not, as one might expect, self-consciously aggressive but see themselves surrounded and besieged by the West. Around the world, Islamists feel, they are stymied by an arrogant and imperialist West. In the words of an Egyptian, the Americans "have us by the throat."

Islamists discern a long list of countries - Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia are prominent examples - where they believe local Muslim rulers are doing the West's dirty business in suppressing their movement. They also have another list - Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Sudan rank high here - where they see the West actively suppressing the best Islamist efforts to establish a just society.

Whenever Muslims move towards the emergence of an Islamic State, one Islamist explains, the "treacherous hands of the secular West are always there in the Muslim world to bring about the defeat of the Islamic forces." The solution lies in fundamentally changing the nature of the US, so that it becomes sympathetic to such Islamist efforts.

It bears noting that while Palestinian nationalists and Islamists share a hatred of all things American, their goals are different: the former merely aspire to a change in the country's foreign policy, whereas the latter seek to change the very nature of the country. In the meantime, however, both can take indecent pleasure from American suffering.

That Palestinian nationalists and Islamists have so crudely revealed their enmity to the US gives clear proof of their attitudes and intentions. This has an obvious political significance for Westerners: it means that we know who some of our most devoted enemies are. Western governments had, for years, fooled themselves into thinking that they could appease these extremist movements or maybe simply ignore them. At least now, after so many thousands of lost lives, we know what a bitter falsehood that is.