A lot of people on campus and around the country have been asking, “Why do they hate us?” in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11. Sometimes “they” means terrorists specifically. But more often than not, I’ve found that both the question and the answers given by media, politicians, and “experts” usually center on Muslims, or more frequently, Arabs.Â Many who know that I spent last year living in the Middle East have asked me the same question. I have never really figured out the right way to answer them – I’m certainly not an authority on the subject. But one thing I did learn from living in the center of Arab culture, Cairo, Egypt, is that this is certainly not the right question to be asking.
There’s a famous saying that goes: “Know thyself.” I think we need to examine ourselves and our view of the world, but not by trying to understand why Arabs and Muslims “hate” us. We should try to understand why the terrorists of the world (Arab and beyond) hate the things that we stand for. Nevertheless, the people in the Arab world that I count among my closest friends, the taxi drivers I spoke to there, and even the writers of those volatile anti-American stories in the Middle Eastern newspapers don’t hate us. I was surprised to note that they never hated having me among them.
Certainly, they take serious issue with what they see as American foreign policy, American economic dominance and American support of Israel. But, like all people, they know that the actions of a government do not necessarily represent the personality, the sentiment or even the will of the people that government represents.
Even those people whom I spoke with who do not like what they see as American materialism or Americans’ views on Islam, do not see this as any sort of justification for such all-encompassing hate as we attribute to them. Is it any less ethnocentric to attribute one of the worst attributes of character-hate to a people than to simply view their culture as inherently violent? The greatest shock of living abroad came when I realized how prevalent this prejudice was in my views, really of my entire country’s views, of Arabs and Muslims.
One of my best friends, an Arab, was arrested by the FBI in front of his apartment building on West Side Manhattan last week because some of his neighbors had said they saw him leaving the apartment with two other “Arabs” during the attacks. He was interrogated for six hours and they had completely ruined his apartment looking for some connection between him and the terrorists, which they never found. Of course, building security cameras showed that he had never left the building, as he was on the phone with his father and saw the second plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. Friends, colleagues – people he had been in a meeting with the night before – were in that building.
Another one of my best friends, an American, but of Arab descent, went to church to mourn the events of New York the day after the attacks. Only rather than spiritual healing, she found that one of the men in her congregation had been shot and killed as he was working in an Arab grocery store. Despite the continuing tragedy visited on these, my friends, and many other Arabs, Muslims, and those that just look like they “might be,” they still love this country. There is no hate in their hearts for America and Americans. Many of them are Americans; as American as I am. The same largely holds true for the people I met in the Middle East: they don’t hate us, and right now they are grieving for us.
My friend who lives in New York said that he believes that Americans will bounce back with a new love for their freedom, their country and the world they share with everyone else. I hope we do, but our outlook on the world must change significantly before that can happen.