Poverty of dignity fuels rage of Muslims

March 10, 2002|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - The latest death toll in the Indian violence between Hindus and Muslims is 544 people, many of them Muslims.

Why is it that when Hindus kill hundreds of Muslims it elicits an emotionally muted headline in the Arab media, but when Israel kills a dozen Muslims, in a war in which Muslims are also killing Jews, it inflames the entire Muslim world?

I raise this point not to make some idiot press critique or engage in cheap Arab-bashing. This is a serious issue.

In recent weeks, whenever Arab Muslims told me of their pain at seeing Palestinians brutalized by Israelis on their TV screens every night, I asked back: Why are you so pained about Israelis brutalizing Palestinians, but don't say a word about the brutality with which Saddam Hussein has snuffed out two generations of Iraqis using murder, fear and poison gas?

I got no good answers.

Because the real answer is rooted in something very deep. It has to do with the contrast between Islam's self-perception as the most perfect and complete expression of the three great monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - and the conditions of poverty, repression and underdevelopment in which most Muslims live today.

As a U.S. diplomat in the Middle East said to me, Israel - not Iraq, not India - is "a constant reminder to Muslims of their own powerlessness."

How could a tiny Jewish state amass so much military and economic power if the Islamic way of life - not Christianity or Judaism - is God's most ideal religious path?

I have long believed that it is this poverty of dignity, not a poverty of money, that is behind a lot of Muslim rage today and the reason this rage is sharpest among educated, but frustrated, Muslim youth. It is they who perpetrated Sept. 11 and who slit the throat of Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl - after reportedly forcing him to declare on film, "I am a Jew and my mother is a Jew."

This is not to say that U.S. policy is blameless. We do bad things sometimes. But why is it that only Muslims react to our bad policies with suicidal terrorism, not Mexicans or Chinese? Is it because Arab-Muslim conspiracy theories state that Jews could not be so strong on their own - therefore the only reason Israel could be strong, and Muslims weak, is that the United States created and supports Israel?

The Muslim world needs to take an honest look at this rage. Look what it has done to Palestinian society - where the flower of Palestinian youth now celebrate suicide against Jews as a source of dignity. That is so bad.

Yes, there is an Israeli occupation, and that occupation has been hugely distorting of Palestinian life.

But the fact is this: If Palestinians had said, "We are going to oppose the Israeli occupation with nonviolent resistance, as if we had no other options, and we are going to build a Palestinian society, schools and economy, as if we had no occupation" - they would have had a quality state a long time ago. Instead they have let the occupation define their whole movement and become Yasser Arafat's excuse for not building jobs and democracy.

Only Muslims can heal their own rage. But the West, and particularly the Jewish world, should help, because this rage poses an existential threat to Israel.

Three broad trends are now converging: (1) The worst killing ever between Israelis and Palestinians; (2) a baby boom in the Arab-Muslim world, where about half the population is under 20; (3) an explosion of Arab satellite TV and Internet, which are taking the horrific images from the intifada and beaming them directly to the new Arab-Muslim generation. If 100 million Arab Muslims are brought up with these images, Israel won't survive.

Some of this hatred will remain no matter what Israel does. But to think that Israel's exiting the occupied territories - and abandoning its insane settlement land grab there - wouldn't reduce this problem is absurd.

Israel cannot do it alone. But it has to do all it can to get this show off the air. It would take away an important card from the worst Muslim anti-Semites, and it would help strengthen those Muslims, and there are many of them, who know that the suicidal rage of their fanatics is dragging down their whole civilization.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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