We are writing to express our profound disappointment with your statement printed in the International Herald Tribune (9/13/01) as well as the longer version distributed over the internet. We believe your statement responding to the recent terrorist attacks in the United States reflects dangerous stereotypes about the Middle East and serious misconceptions about the role of the United States there. At a time of crisis such as this, when the United States government is preparing to launch a war somewhere in the Middle East, ignore international law, and further militarize the world in the name of fighting terrorism, your statement is most regrettable. Your depiction of Arabs and Muslims as hateful and violent feeds into the negative stereotypes that are now allowing an alarming number of Americans to support their government’s rush to war, regardless of the civilian casualties that will result.
Your statement begins by urging “Palestinians and Muslims in general” to eschew terrorism regardless of the legitimacy of their grievances. We must first point out that it has not yet been shown that any Palestinians were involved in these recent attacks in the United States. The mention of Palestinians in this context is thus very misleading. We must also point out that not all Palestinians are Muslims; some are Catholics and Protestants, some do not pay much attention to religion. Your phrasing incorrectly implies that Palestinians are just one subset of a larger Muslim population.
The crux of your statement is a criticism of the people of the “Arab-Muslim region” for nurturing “blind hatred and a culture of violence” and providing “a haven” for “terrorist groups.” We assume by “Arab-Muslim” you mean the Middle East where, in fact, not everyone is Arab, an ethnic category, or a Muslim. (One would just as inaccurately describe the archipelago to which East Timor belongs as the “Malay-Muslim region.”) You appear to be under the impression that the Middle East has a monopoly on terrorism and that there must be something specific to that region to explain its proclivity towards terrorism. While such a vulgar stereotype is, sadly enough, commonly found among citizens of the United States and the European states, we would hope that someone who has been victimized by such Western stereotypes (for instance, the East Timorese as a primitive people best ruled over by the supposedly more advanced Indonesians) would be more discerning.
If we consider the non-state actors that have committed killings of civilians, we find that they have been of every ethnicity, nationality, race, and religion. Consider Timothy McVeigh (and the white chauvinist movement), the IRA, Sendero Luminoso, or the Stern Gang in which former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir participated in the 1940s. What must be emphasized in this current climate of anti-Arab hatred in the West is that the vast majority of people of the Mideast are no different from anyone else in the world; they would like to live in peace.
It is unfair of you to compare East Timor’s struggle for independence with the various struggles in the Mideast. While we laud East Timor’s struggle for its careful avoidance of terrorist acts and hold it up as a positive paradigm, we also acknowledge that the history and context of the struggles in the Mideast are very different. The Palestinian struggle has been through many phases since the initial large-scale displacement of 1948 and there have been many factions within it. That certain people, at certain times, resort to terrorist methods reveals nothing about the general culture of the Palestinians, much less the people of the Mideast. The Intifada of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a very good example of unarmed resistancemuch of it non-violent. One cannot understand the historically contingent nature of violence in the Mideast with your perspective of cultural essentialism.
The very network that the U.S. is holding responsible for the recent attacks, the network of Osama bin Laden, is one that emerged during the decade of the 1980s when the U.S. was giving weapons and billions of dollars to the Afghani mujehaddin. Bin Laden was at that time considered by the U.S. to be a ‘freedom fighter.’ Part of the explanation of the violence in the Mideast today, which has dramatically spilled into the U.S., lies not in the Mideast itself but in Washington D.C.
One cannot understand the violence in the Mideast outside the context of the military interventions of the United States government. The government has made the region the most heavily militarized region of the world. Billions of dollars are annually sent to Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. The U.S. has been bombing civilian populations in Iraq more or less constantly since the initial attack in 1991 and maintaining a senseless embargo that, with the ban on water treatment supplies and medicines, is responsible for deaths estimated in the hundreds of thousands. This ‘wholesale’ form of U.S. terrorism is far deadlier and far more dangerous than any other form. The phenomena that we have witnessed in Indonesia, of the United States military supporting death squads, is actually a world-wide pattern.
You write “few [Arab] leaders have shown the necessary courage to engage Israel in dialogue.” This is clearly false. The conflict today is not between Israel and the countries that surround it. It is between Israel and the Palestinians. For its part, the Palestinian leadership has engaged Israel in dialogue. The problem has been that Israel has refused to implement its side of the Oslo Accords, which were crafted on Israeli terms and offered the Palestinians little. Israel has continued to build settlements, at an ever-accelerating rate, in the occupied territories. Israel has torn up the Accords, and all the subsequent agreements, continued its drive to settle the West Bank, and keep the Palestinians under a military occupation as onerous as Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. The United States has, all along, bankrolled Israel and never objected to this clear, long-standing determination to assimilate the occupied territories and expropriate the Palestinians.
We find it disturbing that a close observer of international relations like yourself could believe that the “United States has done more to bring peace and dignity to the Palestinians than has any other nation.” The very opposite is true. Apart from Israel itself, no nation is more responsible than the U.S. for the expropriation of the Palestinians since 1948. Without the nearly limitless supply of U.S. money and arms, Israel would not have been able to dismiss Palestinian demands for self-determination. No nation has provided more steadfast diplomatic, economic, and military support than the U.S. No nation has been more tolerant of the settlements in the occupied territories.
We also take issue with your interpretation of the significance of the Camp David Accords of 1977. They did not represent “the building blocks…for a Palestinian state.” Again, the truth is exactly the opposite, as any reading of the accords would reveal. After all, the Palestinians were not even a party to the accords.
As persons who have campaigned against the United States policy of unconditionally arming and funding the Indonesian government, when it was denying the right of the East Timorese people to self-determination, so too have we been opposed to the United States policy of unconditionally supporting Israel, when it is denying the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Given your knowledge of how the United States consistently disregarded East Timor’s right of self-determination for 24 years in favor of close ties with Indonesia, we are surprised that you do not see the parallel.
We are saddened by the fact that your negative stereotyping of the people of the Mideast and your upside-down perspective on America’s involvement there contributes to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim chauvinist sentiments presently raging in the U.S. Given that the U.S. policy-makers are pounding the drums of war, openly calling for blood vengeance, preparing for a massive bombardment of some part of the world, most likely the already shattered Afghanistan, and urging Americans to accept large numbers of civilian deaths (“collateral damage” is the U.S. government’s euphemism) that this military action will produce, the kind of statement needed from a Nobel Peace Prize winner is one that emphasizes the need for the U.S. to respect international law, avoid war, and halt its militaristic and unilateral foreign policy. We hope that your future statements more accurately reflect your commitment to peace and justice.
Matthew Jardine, Oakland,
John Roosa, Berkeley, CA
Will Seaman, Portland, OR
Ben Terrall, San Francisco, CA
Mizue Aizeki, Oakland, CA
Amy Goodman, New York City, NY
Roger Bowers, Pasadena, CA
Tom Foley, Madison, WI
Garrick Ruiz, Los Angeles, CA
Kristin Sundell, New York City, NY
Joann Lo, Los Angeles, CA
Ravinder Bhatia, Pasadena, CA
Cynthia Peters, Boston, MA
Diane Farsetta, Madison, WI
Max White, Portland, OR
Peter Mao, Pasadena, CA
Brad Simpson, New York City, NY
Sara Smith, Berkeley, CA
The letter that this commentary
Sep 13 IHT: The Tragedy That Has Engulfed America Letter added Sep 22
"In East Timor’s long history of struggle, never once did it use violence against Indonesian civilians. We East Timorese did not even allow derogatory racial statements about the Indonesian people in our literature or rallies. Not one single Indonesian civilian was ever harmed in our 24-year struggle. We knew this was never a war against the civilians. ... My heart goes out to the American people. Stay the course. Our small nation of East Timor is with you." José Ramos-Horta, East Timor’s foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate
BD: The Current World Crisis - A collection of statements on the recent terrorist attacks in the US and the subsequent 'war on terrorism'