The Arab World After Sept. 11

The Arab World After Sept. 11

A week or so after the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the attack on the Pentagon, I had this conversation with a friend who shall remain unnamed.

“They could not have been Arabs,” he said.

“Of course they were. Read the list of names. Look at the pictures.”

“No Arab is capable of planning an operation like this.”

My friend is an Arab himself. He was, a long time ago as a young man, an activist in the Al Da’wa Party, an Iraqi Islamist organization that waged an underground war in the 1980s against the Ba‘thist regime of Saddam Hussein after all secular, nationalist, military, and liberal forms of opposition had collapsed. The oppressiveness of his own government drove him to Islamic politics at a time when Iraq had launched a war against the Islamic Republic of Iran, a war that was being supported, from the middle 1980s onward, by the United States. For him, in those days, these two things were connected—the intolerable brutality of the Hussein regime and American support for it. Hounded out of Iraq, he has spent fifteen years as a refugee hopping from one country to the next. Had he been born in Saudi Arabia or fallen into a fringe radical Islamic circle in Egypt sometime in the 1990s, he could very well have ended up as one of the hijackers.

I make this statement not by way of judging my friend. For a whole variety of reasons, he does not identify with the perpetrators of September 11. Nor would I call his actions against the Iraqi regime in the 1980s terrorism—he will not be too specific about what he did in those days, but I surmise he was part of an Islamist plot to assassinate Hussein, and was one of the lucky few who succeeded in hightailing it to Iran after the plot was uncovered. Today he is a happily married man, and if he could hear me saying that he might have, in some earlier incarnation, been one of the September 11 terrorists, he would get very upset.

And yet his anger these days, like that of the September 11 hijackers, is directed at the United States. My friend justifies his anger by his belief—shared with the overwhelming majority of Iraqis today—that the United States deliberately left the Iraqi tyrant in place after the Gulf War, and then imposed a regime of sanctions that made the people of Iraq pay the price of Hussein’s actions in 1990. He and I often have arguments about U.S. foreign policy over Iraq. Like most Iraqis, he gets angry when I say that this is not the case: the United States wants nothing more than that Hussein be replaced through some sort of palace coup; it is simply unwilling to pay the price and shoulder the responsibility of doing the job itself. And it fears or does not have any confidence in structural change in Iraq, that is, in the possibility of an entirely different system of power sharing in the country. He counters by saying that to replace Hussein, after dispatching half a million soldiers halfway across the wor...