The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 2nd

Strife Has Plagued U.S.-Islamic Ties

Even in times of peace, news from Islamic countries often shows groups of Muslims, discontent with America, burning flags, marching and chanting anti-American slogans. Now, as members of the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group al-Qaida stand accused of plotting and carrying out the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history, historians are re-examining the fragile relationship between the United States and the Muslim world.

Many historians have pegged the start of direct conflict between the United States and the Islamic world on a 444-day standoff that began in November 1979 when Iranian students who supported Iranian Islamic revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 66 workers hostage.

A string of other conflicts have followed, both related and unrelated to the situation in Iran, culminating in the two most recent attacks against U.S. installations -- the bombing of the USS Cole last October and the Sept. 11 attacks -- both believed to have been masterminded by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Culture Clash

Pundits familiar with American-Islamic tensions claim that conflict between the Middle East and the West has been brewing since before the United States was even founded.

"I think (the conflict) is a thousand years old and dates back to the Crusades," said John Dodd, president of the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, a free enterprise and foreign policy educational center at Wingate University. "I think the clash started there.

"Fundamentally, it's a clash about cultures," he said. "We believe in freedom, and these strict Islamic fundamentalist terrorists do not."

But he added, "I do not think the vast majority of Christians, Muslims or Jews subscribe to these radical interpretations of faith."

Roger Owen, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Harvard University, said U.S. culture, not religious differences, played a primary role in the development of tensions.

Owen said the United States initially was welcomed by Middle Eastern countries because it opposed European colonization. But he said that welcome was worn out when U.S. cultural products began to creep into the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world. He said, "(Muslims) don't like Hollywood, they don't like drugs, they don't like the things dumped on them from the West."

Power Politics

While some feel the tensions are related to culture, others claim they are more politically based.

"I don't think the Crusades then led to the crusades now," said Bruce Lawrence, a Duke University professor of religious studies and author of a book on Islamic fundamentalist violence. "The underlying causes (of tension) have to do with economic and political changes.

"I think the history of the last 50 years tells me ... that the Muslim world is part of the global economy. ... Most of what is called the Muslim world has not fared well in the global economy."

Lawrence said the failure of Middle Eastern countries in the global economy results from the fact that most of them have a system of dependent capitalism -- they have had to rely on foreign governments for most of their national incomes, which come primarily from oil exports to Western nations like the United States.

Still others feel the tension is a direct result of past U.S. foreign policy.

"(The Muslims) don't like the way we behave," said Sarah Shields, a UNC history professor who teaches a course on the history of Islam. "It's not a culture clash. This is about particular power relationships and particular policies."

Shields said the U.S. government's past support of leaders with poor human rights records, including the shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein, has created confusion and resentment toward Americans.

"Right now the Saudi government is doing horrible things, and the American government is supporting them," she said.

Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said two causes of Islamic anger toward the United States are well known: American support of Israel and sanctions on Iraq. "Those two things have caused a lot of tension in the Muslim world," Hooper said. "But it doesn't give you the right to fly a plane into a building."

Historically, U.S. military and financial backing of Israel has irritated the leadership of many Muslim nations.

But Hooper said while opinions between the United States and Muslim countries differ, the notion of a cultural clash between the two is unfounded. "It's a bit of a myth because you are better able to be a Muslim in this country than you are in many parts of the world," he said. "In many so-called Muslim countries, there are restrictions on what you can do. If you live and travel in the Muslim world, you'll find most people love Americans."

Peace, Love and Capitalism

Theories about how to resolve tensions between the Middle East and the United States are as varied as the theories of what causes the tension.

Shields said both sides should re-examine some of their policies. "Perhaps if we change some of our policies and they change some of their policies, we won't necessarily have to be in conflict."

Shields said American foreign policy should always be supportive of human rights and not support leaders -- like the shah in Iran -- who do not necessarily have strong human rights records. "If we're fighting for freedom, we need to make sure our foreign policy reflects that."

Hooper agreed changes are needed on both fronts to improve the relationship between the United States and Islamic countries. He said the United States should reverse some of its policies toward the Middle East, including its support of Israel and its trade sanctions on Iraq.

Muslims, he said, should not make unfounded judgments. "There's a lot of rhetoric that flies around in the (Muslim) world that's anti-American," he said. "And we need to cut that out."

But Dodd offered a different opinion, saying the United States should maintain its current foreign policy, especially its support of Israel. "I think the policies we've done are the best thing," he said.

Similarly, Lawrence said the cure for tension between the two factions might be more U.S. intervention in the Middle East. "I don't think we're doing enough," he said. "Since the Iranian revolution, (Islam) has been made out to be a religion of fanaticism and violence. I think most Muslims want peace and capitalism throughout the world."

To that end, Lawrence said the United States should help Muslim states gain independent economic systems, which would require democratic governments. "Most of the governments now don't support the capitalist system," Lawrence said. "We should be supporting more moderate capitalist Muslims in order to avoid having future Osama bin Ladens."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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