Why do they hate the West?

Why do they hate the West?

Since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC on Sept. 11, 2001, I have seen countless discussions in the West on a peculiar question: “Why do they hate us?” The “they” here refers to the “extremists,” a term that was popularized in the same era, of the Muslim world, and the “us” referred to both the U.S. and “the West” in general.

I have also noticed that there are basically two different answers given to this question. The first one, which is often considered more “right-wing,” argues that “they” hate the West for its virtues. The West is free, secular, democratic, rational and open. “They,” on the other hand, want an unfree,
fundamentalist, theocratic, irrational and closed world. The West, therefore, has nothing to change or correct. It just has to defend itself, and its “allies” such as Israel, with confidence, power and rigor.

The second answer, which is considered more “left-wing,” argues that “they” hate the West, at least partially, for its sins. Western powers have a long history of colonialism in Muslim-majority parts of the world, such as the Middle East, which has inevitably triggered anti-colonial reactions. “The war on terror” makes things worse, for it leads to much “collateral damage,” which only strengthens the Muslim feeling, “we are under attack.”

More recently, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen pointed out to these “two schools” as well, in a notable piece titled, “Islam and the West at War.” He wrote:

“Who or what is to blame? There are two schools. For the first, it is the West that is to blame through its support for Israel [seen as the latest iteration of Western imperialism in the Levant]; its wars [Iraq]; its brutality [Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib]; its killing of civilians [drones]; its oil-driven hypocrisy [a jihadi-funding Saudi ally]. For the second, it is rather the abject failure of the Arab world, its blocked societies where dictators face off against political Islam, its repression, its feeble institutions, its sectarianism precluding the practice of participatory citizenship, its wild conspiracy theories, its inability to provide jobs or hope for its youth, that gives the Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant – ISIL] its appeal.”

After this summary, Cohen gave his own verdict: “I find the second view more persuasive.”

Of course everybody has the right to choose any of the “two schools” above, which can be both substantiated with plenty of evidence, especially when cherry-picked. But let me propose a third school, which is a simply combination of the “two schools” explained above: “They” hate the West partly because of the West’s own sins, and partly because of their own fanaticism.

The problem that we have at hand is really complex and multi-faceted. On the one hand, we have extremists such as ISIL, al-Qaeda and others, that really have a very rigid, dogmatic, us-versus-them creed. But on the other hand, we have decades-, if not centuries-, old Western policies of domination and subjugation — or disastrous “liberation,” such as the occupation of Iraq in 2003. That is why while the extremists do have an ideology of despising all non-Muslims — even fellow, yet “heretical” Muslims — they specifically target the “Crusaders and Zionists,” and not, say, the Shintoists and Shamans.

Therefore, the efforts for reform in the Muslim world have to go hand-in-hand in corrections in Western foreign policy. And Western intellectuals should stop thinking in a simple either/or logic, and give a chance for more of a nuanced understating of “the problem.”