I studied Islam and the Middle East for a class I took recently. I want to pass along the basic understanding I gained as to why relations to the U.S. and other western powers are such as they are in that part of the world. It is, of course, rooted in history. One of Islam’s primary values is that of justice. Though they don’t totally agree with them, Islam has often been tolerant of Christians and Jews, since Islam is based on them. Muslims have thought that God wanted them to rule, and to bring peace and justice. For a long time Jews lived better under Muslim rule than that of Christian Byzantine empire for example. At one point Islamic culture was the greatest in the world.
However the world changed with the renaissance and industrial revolution in Europe. In a rather short amount of time, a handful of European countries essentially took control of most of the world. Many areas were directly controlled, including most all Islamic areas, under the colonial system. This was partially justified by social Darwinism, the idea that because the Europeans were ahead, it meant that they were better than others, and had a right to rule and to force others to become more like themselves. Muslims didn’t like that they were under foreign control, but they recognized they had fallen behind in development and technology. The first idea was to “modernize” and catch up with western powers. Economic, social and political reforms were instituted, but for various reasons they were generally all dismal failures.
While these western style reforms were failing, some Muslims promoted the idea that the reason they were behind and under the control of other non-Muslims was that they were not following God as wholly as they should be. They advocated a new fundamentalism that went beyond even traditional Islam. They rejected, even violently, most anything modern as being western (who they resented) and against God. Most of the fundamentalist Islam groups have roots in the Moslim Brotherhood, which was the first important one of these.
Britain was the country which exercised the most control over Islamic lands, including the Indian subcontinent and the middle east. They were finally forced to relinquish control after World War II, as they simply no longer had the resources to keep control. (They had tricked Middle Eastern countries into helping them in the first World War by promising them freedom, a promise which they did not keep.) Before they left however they partitioned the lands into separate countries, drawing boundary lines which might or might not make sense. Unclarity about one of these borders is the source of great tension between Pakistan and India. This is also why Iraq has several separate ethnic groups which have a hard time working together, and why the Kurds are divided between several different countries.
But perhaps the biggest insult to Muslims was the creation of a separate Jewish state on their turf. As mentioned, Muslims didn’t have a problem with Jews being there, they were used to it. They just felt that they themselves were the ones who should be ruling, as they would be the most just and humane rulers. (This seems like it might have be true, as the Israelis now treat the Palestinians very poorly.) So the creation of a non-Muslim controlled state was considered a tremendous insult, one which they wouldn’t stand for. So virtually the moment it came into being, the entire middle east attacked. Now to add insult to injury, not only did they not win, but they were beaten very quickly and decisively. The U.S. of course is the biggest supporter of Israel.
When the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan, militants gathered to help this Muslim country fight for freedom from non-Muslim rulers. Muslims weren’t any fonder of eastern communist countries than they were of the west, because of their atheism. Osama bin Laden was one of the leaders of the resistance. Interestingly, the U.S. was a major supporter of the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After more than a decade the Soviet Union was finally forced out of Afghanistan, and not much later, the whole Communist bloc broke down. Osama bin Laden and the freedom fighters believed that they had been instrumental in not only forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but in bringing about their collapse altogether.
Saddam Hussein took the Iraqi army and moved to attack Kuwait. Hussein wasn’t liked in the middle east, and was obviously aggressive, as he had also fought an over decade long bloody war with neighboring Iran. According to one source, the Iraqi army had “gotten lost” in the desert on their way to Kuwait, and had actually entered Saudi Arabia. Whether true or not, the Saudis were concerned about their own security. Osama bin Laden offered to help out, to fight Saddam and protect the middle east, and especially the holy sites of Islam, which are located in Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis declined bin Laden’s offer and instead turned to the United States for help. This is a primary event which angered bin Laden.
The U.S. came in and led a coalition which forced Saddam to leave Kuwait. However it wasn’t considered possible to remove Saddam at the time for political reasons. What seems to have really angered bin Laden is that, even though the Gulf War had ended, we (the U.S.) never left Saudi Arabia.