By Bernard Lewis, September 10, 2002
The writer is professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton
University. His most recent book is “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and
Middle Eastern Response”.
The immediate, general reaction as the facts of what happened on Sept. 11
became known was one of utter astonishment. Most people in the United
States and more generally in the Western world find it impossible to understand
the motives and purposes that drove the perpetrators of these crimes, those
who sent them and those who applauded them with song and dance in the
We understand people who are willing to die — even to face certain death — for
a cause in which they believe. The kamikaze pilots of Japan are an obvious
example. But that was in wartime, and directed against military objectives.
Many of our own people, in wartime, willingly sacrifice their lives for
their country. Even in peacetime, on that same Sept. 11, firefighters and rescue
teams risked, and many gave, their lives. But that was to save other people, not
to kill them. That we understand. Why would anyone be willing to sacrifice his
own life to accomplish the random slaughter of other people selected merely by
the place where they happen to be, irrespective of age, sex, nationality and
An earlier example of the same indiscriminate slaughter was the attack by
suicide truck-bombers on two American embassies in East Africa in August
1998, where, to make a point and to kill 12 American diplomats, the terrorists
were willing to sacrifice 19 suicide “martyrs” and slaughter more than 200
Africans, many of them Muslims, who merely happened to be in the
neighborhood at the wrong moment.
This callous indifference to the suffering of others, even of their own
people, is a common feature not of Islam as a religion but of these terrorist
movements and of the regimes that use them.
The motive, clearly, is hatred, and from then until now the question is being
asked, with growing urgency and bewilderment: “Why do they hate us so?”
Some go further and ask the very American question: “What have we
done to offend them?”
At one level the answer is obvious. It is difficult if not impossible to be strong
and successful and to be loved by those who are neither the one nor the other.
The same kind of envious rancor can sometimes be seen in Europe, where
attitudes to the United States are often distorted by the feeling of having been
overtaken, surpassed and in a sense superseded by the upstart society in the
This feeling, with far deeper roots and greater intensity, affects attitudes in the
Muslim world toward the Western world or, as they would put it, the infidel
countries and societies that now dominate the world.
Most Muslims, unlike most Americans, have an intense historical awareness
and see current events in a much deeper and broader perspective than we
normally do. And what they see is, for them, profoundly tragic. For many
centuries Islam was the greatest civilization on Earth–the richest, the most
powerful, the most creative in every significant field of human endeavor. Its
armies, its teachers and its traders were advancing on every front in Asia, in
Africa, in Europe, bringing, as they saw it, civilization and religion to the infidel
barbarians who lived beyond the Muslim frontier.
And then everything changed, and Muslims, instead of invading and dominating
Christendom, were invaded and dominated by Christian powers. The resulting
frustration and anger at what seemed to them a reversal of both natural and
divine law have been growing for centuries, and have reached a climax in our
These feelings find expression in many places where Muslims and
non-Muslims meet and clash — in Bosnia and Kosovo, Chechnya, Israel and
Palestine, Sudan, Kashmir, and the Philippines, among others.
The prime target of the resulting anger is, inevitably, the United States,
now the unchallenged, if not unquestioned, leader of what we like to call the
free world and what others variously define as the West, Christendom and the
world of the unbelievers.
For a long time politicians in Arab and some other Third World countries were
able to achieve at least some of their purposes by playing the rival outside
powers against one another — France against Britain, the Axis against the
Allies, the Soviet Union against the United States. The actors changed, but the
scenario remained much the same.
And then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, came a truly radical
change. Now, for the first time, there is only one superpower, dominant,
however unwillingly, in the world: the United States.
Some Arab leaders try frantically to find a substitute for the Soviet Union as
patron and protector of anti-American causes and have evoked a limited and for
the most part ineffectual response in some quarters in Europe. Others, notably
Osama bin Laden, took a different view.
As they saw it — and their view does not lack plausibility — it was they
who, by the holy war they waged in Afghanistan, brought about the defeat and
collapse of the Soviet Union. In their perspective, they had dealt with one of the
infidel superpowers — the more determined, the more ruthless, the more
dangerous of the two.
Dealing with the soft and pampered United States would, so it seemed,
be a much easier task.
The reasons for hatred are known and historically attested; the hatred has been
growing steadily for many years and has been intensified by the conduct of
some of the rulers whom we call friends and allies and whom their own people
see and resent as American puppets. A more important question, less
frequently asked, is the reason for the contempt with which they regard us.
The basic reason for this contempt is what they perceive as the rampant
immorality and degeneracy of the American way — contemptible but also
dangerous, because of its corrupting influence on Muslim societies.
What did the Ayatollah Khomeini mean when he repeatedly called
America the “Great Satan”? The answer is clear. Satan is not an invader, an
imperialist, an exploiter. He is a tempter, a seducer, who, in the words of the
Koran, “whispers in the hearts of men.”
An example of this perception and the resulting attitude may be seen in a
recent Arabic newspaper article in defense of polygamy. The writer argues as
follows: In Christianity and more generally in the Western world, polygamy is
outlawed. But this is contrary to human nature and needs. For 10 days a month
during menstruation and for longer periods during pregnancy, a woman is not
In the monogamous West, the deficiency is made up by promiscuity,
prostitution and adultery; in Islam, by polygamy. Surely this, the writer argues,
providing respectability for the woman and legitimacy for her children, is the
better of the two. This makes good sense, if one accepts the writer’s view of
the relations between men and women.
Another aspect of this contempt is expressed again and again in the statements
of bin Laden and others like him. The refrain is always the same. Because of
their depraved and self-indulgent way of life, Americans have become soft and
cannot take casualties.
And then they repeat the same litany — Vietnam, the Marines in Beirut, Somalia.
Hit them and they will run. More recent attacks confirmed this judgment in their
eyes — the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in February 1993,
with six killed and more than a thousand injured; the attack on the American
liaison mission in Riyadh in November 1995, with seven Americans killed; the
attack on the military living quarters in Khobar in Saudi Arabia in June 1996,
with 19 American soldiers killed and many more wounded; the embassies in
East Africa in 1998; the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000,
with 17 sailors killed — all those brought only angry but empty words and, at
most, a few misdirected missiles.
The conclusion bin Laden and others drew was that the United States had
become feeble and frightened and incapable of responding. The crimes of Sept.
11 were the result of this perception and were intended to be the opening salvo
of a large-scale campaign to force Americans and their allies out of Arabia and
the rest of the Muslim world, to overthrow the corrupt tyrants America
supports, and to prepare the ground for the final world struggle.
The immediate and effective response against their bases in Afghanistan must
have come as a serious shock to the terrorist organizations and compelled some
revision of their earlier assessment of American weakness and demoralization.
We must make sure that they are not misled, by the unfamiliar processes of a
democratic society, to return to that earlier misjudgment.