In December 1998, I met a waiter in the quiet Egyptian port of Suez. As I sipped tea in his cafe, he pulled up a chair to chat, as Egyptians often do to welcome strangers. Not long into our amiable repartee, he looked me in the eye.
"Now I want to ask you a blunt question," he said. "Why do you Americans hate us?" I raised my eyebrows, so he explained what he meant and, in doing so, provided some insights into why others hate us.
Numerous United Nations resolutions clearly define Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem as illegal. Yet Israel receives 40 percent of all US foreign aid, more than $3.5 billion annually in recent years, roughly $500 per Israeli citizen. (The average Egyptian will earn $656 this year.)
Israel uses all of this aid to build new settlements on Palestinian land and to buy US-made warplanes and helicopter gunships. "Why do Americans support Israel when Israel represses Arabs?" the waiter asked.
He went on: Evidence clearly shows that the US-led economic sanctions on Iraq punish Iraqi civilians while hardly touching Saddam Hussein's regime. A UNICEF study in 1999 backed him up, saying that 500,000 children under five would be alive today if sanctions did not exist. Surely Iraqi children are not enemies of international peace and security, the waiter expostulated, even if their ruler is a brutal dictator.
The United States presses for continued sanctions because Hussein is flouting United Nations resolutions, but stands by Israel when it has flouted UN Resolution 242 (which urges Israel to withdraw from land occupied in the 1967 War) for over 30 years. Arabs and Muslims suffer from these and other US policies.
The only logic this young Egyptian could see was that America was pursuing a worldwide war against Islam, in which the victims were overwhelmingly Muslim. America is a democracy, he concluded, so Americans must hate Muslims to endorse this war.
I groaned inwardly. Here, I thought, was a person as woefully misinformed about America as most Americans are about the Middle East. Painstakingly, in my rusty Arabic, I explained that although the United States is a democracy, we Americans do not choose our government's allies, nor do we select its adversaries. We do not vote on the annual foreign aid budget. There are no referenda on the ballot asking whether the United States should send abundant aid to Israel, or whether the United States should press the UN Security Council into maintaining sanctions against Iraq, or whether the Fifth Fleet should prowl the Persian Gulf to protect our oil supply.
Americans do have the ability to vote out of office politicians who embrace various foreign policies, but Americans rarely have accurate information about the effect of those policies, in the Middle East or elsewhere. If they knew, I argued, they would speak up in opposition, because Americans have a fundamental sense of fairness. I concurred that it was imperative to debunk Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims as wild-eyed, Koran-waving fanatics. These are pernicious ideas that stand in the way of fair judgment.
Our conversation lasted for hours. When we reached a pause, the waiter invited me to dinner at his house. There I met his brother, a devout Muslim.
He too asked me why America hates Arabs and Muslims. I spent two more hours talking with him. When I left, he told me warmly how happy he was "to connect with an American on a human level." He and I shook hands like old friends, as we agreed that both Americans and Arab Muslims should strive to puncture the myth that "we" are somehow essentially different from "them."
A civilized human society cannot afford to think in those tribal terms. That type of thinking leads to despair, and thence to wholly unjustifiable disasters such as Americans have just experienced. Most Americans who have lived or traveled in the Arab world can relate similar experiences: Arabs are entirely capable of differentiating between a people and the actions of its government, or the values of a people and the political agenda of a narrow minority of them. What confuses, and, yes, angers them is that we do not seem to return the favor.
Scant days after I returned from Suez to Cairo, President Clinton ordered US fighter-bombers to attack Iraq, ostensibly because Hussein had expelled UN weapons inspectors from his country. The "surgical strikes" of Operation Desert Fox, like previous and subsequent campaigns, maimed and killed defenseless Iraqi civilians. Meanwhile, virtually every news outlet in Egypt ran pictures of grinning US seamen painting "Happy Ramadan" on the missiles destined for Baghdad. Those pictures mocked the suffering of Muslims, just as they mocked my attempts at playing cultural ambassador.
To the Arab and Muslim world, Americans project an image of utter indifference to the Iraqi civilian casualties of sanctions and bombing -- people who were also "moms and dads, friends and neighbors," as President Bush said of the Americans we mourn today. During Desert Fox, there was no outrage at the callous black humor of the missile-painters, or the purposeful insult to Islam's holy month. Despite the obvious failure of bombing to achieve our stated objective (ridding Iraq of Hussein), and the harm done to innocents in the process, no mass anti-war movement spilled into our streets to force a change in US policy. Hardly anyone has suggested since that US officials should be held accountable for willful acts of terror, though terror is surely what Iraqis must feel when bombs rain from the sky.
Only days after Desert Fox, the Iraq story faded from the front pages entirely, and the nation returned to its obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. What could that waiter in Suez have been thinking of my careful distinctions then?
He does not have "links" to Osama bin Laden. He is not a prospective suicide bomber, nor would he defend their indefensible actions. Today I have no doubt that he feels intense sympathy for "us."
After watching unjust US policies continue for years without apology, after hearing of incidents of racist anti-Arab backlash following the execrable crimes of Sept. 11, perhaps he also senses great tragedy in that the hijackers spoke to Americans in a language the US government speaks all too well abroad.