My motivation for undertaking this project is intricately linked to the reasons that I became interested in studying Arabic and traveling to the Middle East in the first place. The events of September 11, 2001 brought the Middle East to the forefront of my consciousness, as it did for many Americans. In the aftermath of those attacks, I became increasingly disturbed by what I saw as heightened levels of racism and ethnocentricity in my country. Perhaps what aggravated me the most was the national debate that emerged under the heading: “Why do they hate us?” President Bush addressed this question in a speech he gave to the nation on September 20. He said:
“Americans are asking, why do they hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber — a democratically elected government…They hate our freedoms — our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other. These terrorists kill not merely to end lives, but to disrupt and end a way of life.”
In this speech, Bush was specifically referring to Al Qaeda members; however, it quickly became apparent that in mainstream parlance “they” came to be understood as Arabs or Muslims in general. This transfer in the meaning of the word “they” can be seen clearly in an article written by Fareed Zakari and published in the October 15, 2001 edition of Newsweek. The image displayed on the cover of that week’s edition became ingrained in my mind. It was a photograph of a young Arab man with his fist raised defiantly and his face contorted in an angry scream. The lead story was Zakari’s article entitled: “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” In it, Zakari wrote the following:
“Only when you get to the Middle East do you see in lurid colors all the dysfunctions that people conjure up when they think of Islam today. In Iran, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, the occupied territories and the Persian Gulf, the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism is virulent, and a raw anti-Americanism seems to be everywhere. This is the land of suicide bombers, flag-burners and fiery mullahs. As we strike Afghanistan it is worth remembering that not a single Afghan has been tied to a terrorist attack against the United States. Afghanistan is the campground from which an Arab army is battling America.”
This was typical of the messages that were being fed to the American public at that time. The Middle East was portrayed as a region consumed by hatred and peopled by militant enemies of democracy. Anti-American sentiment among Arab and Muslim populations was attributed to their rejection of American values, thanks in part to President Bush’s speech. This led to widespread acceptance of the notion that conflict between the Arab/Muslim Worlds and the West was inevitable. As the Bush administration began to develop its strategies for the war on terrorism, President Bush employed the rhetoric of good vs. evil in order to further convince the American people of the fundamental differences between “us” and “them.” By declaring Muslims inherently evil, these journalists and politicians created the impression among Americans that not only was conflict between us inevitable, but also that dialogue was futile.
I, for one, did not trust these sources. I was certain that there was more to Palestine than “suicide bombers,” more to Syria than “flag-burners” and more to Iran than “fiery mullahs.” I was not convinced that “they,” a term which had come to designate a people rather than a minority of terrorists, hated me. But I wanted to go to the region and learn for myself. I wanted to have human interactions with people from the Middle East and to ask them about their perceptions of the US directly. These interviews provided me with the opportunity to engage in such conversations in a very deliberate way and, in turn, this project represents my attempt to transmit the opinions of seven interviewees to a wider audience. My hope is that this website will serve as an educational tool through which Americans can learn where the actual sources of resentment towards the United States lie, rather than relying on simplistic explanations like “they hate our values.” Additionally, I hope that this site will contribute to wider efforts aimed at undoing the demonization of Arabs and Muslims and restoring the humanity that mainstream media has denied them.
Bush, George W. “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People.” September 20, 2001
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html Accessed on May 24, 2007
Zakaria, Fareed. “The Politics of Rage: Why do they hate us?” Newsweek: October 15, 2001.