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Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means

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tragedy by HK

On the day of September 11, 2001, I was in the library at the University of Virginia, reading a book, completely unaware of the events of the world outside. I only learned about what had happened hours later when I decided to break and have something to eat. I was at first puzzled to find dozens of students congregating in front of a widescreen TV in the cafeteria, attend ­ing to what I at first thought was a science-fiction movie. As I tried to figure out what was happening, a middle-aged woman--whom I assume was a faculty member or a staff, but I never dared to ask--approached me and asked me from which country I was. I answered that I was Iranian. She told me what had happened hours earlier, and said that "what happened this morning was terrible, but it is sad that we will now attack Afghanistan. Many innocent people will die there as well." She impressed me deeply with her compassion. At the very moment when America was announcing that it had been attacked, and many Americans were calling for Al Qaeda to be brought to justice, she was concerned about civilian Afghani lives. That day made many heroes and heroines, and to me she was one of them. I never found out who she was.

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A decade has passed and we are still dealing with the aftermath of that tragedy. In the meantime, we have seen two bloody wars and much devas ­tation. Innocent people were killed on that day and many more have been killed since then. The world has become ever more dangerous, with more and more countries involved in wars and conflicts. Sadly, many countries do have long lists of grievances against one another. If we always go the way of vengeance, there will be no peace on Earth.

Aside from geostrategic power struggles at the highest levels, what makes these grievances so hard to overcome at the level of the populace is the lack of an ability to see the world from the opposite side of the cul ­tural divide. We persistently fall into the trap of downplaying our own na ­tions' shortcomings and mistakes while overplaying those of our perceived enemies.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004 a long-forgotten book by the anthropologist Raphael Patai (1910--96) was reprinted, which some observers then believed had been used by US interrogators as a tor ­ture manual for extracting information out of Iraqi detainees. The book is entitled, The Arab Mind. In the new reprint's foreword long-time army colo ­nel Norvell B. De Atkine makes the (difficult to qualify) assertion, "While [the Palestinians'] conflict with Israel has been a bloody one over the years, it cannot approach the level of death and destruction incurred in Palestin ­ian wars against the Lebanese, Syrians, and Jordanians. Despite this great violence, the Palestinian--Israeli conflict retains its place as the primary gal ­vanizing issue for the "Arab street.'"

With these words De Atkine emphasized a double standard which plagues Arab societies. But is the double standard an exclusively Arab problem? Do not Americans react differently when, say, they hear that a foreigner has been killing Americans than when a member of their own society is exposed as a serial killer? Generations of racial profiling seem to suggest an affirmative answer to this question. The Palestinian--Israeli conflict is a more sensitive issue for most Arabs because this conflict more than any other conflicts--including many bloody wars among the Arabs themselves--has divided the world into two poles, where Arabs are put on one side and the West on the other.

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De Atkine refers to the "Arabs' tendency to blame others for the prob ­lems evident in their political systems, quality of life, and economic power." As an immigrant to the West myself, I have amply witnessed how foreign residents are blamed for all the social and economic problems during times of recession and rising unemployment. 

Today, Americans blame China for the US trade deficit, as if China created the American consumer culture. It is we who demand Chinese products because we'd rather pay $10 for a Chinese toaster than $100 for one made in America. According to estimate by the CIA World Factbook, the Chinese GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP) per capita in 2009 was just about $6,600, compared to $46,000 in the United States. The average Chinese has just about 15% of the spending money of the average American citizen, meaning that for every dollar, Chi ­nese workers must work up to seven times longer. 

Still, we have no moral qualms if the Chinese work harder and earn less so that we can indulge in their cheap toasters and yoyos, but we consider it unfair if they buy less from us than we buy from them. We need a scapegoat to blame for our own economic mismanagement, and what better scapegoat than the Chinese?

While the US military was bogged down in two scorching wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight, the Bush Administration mounted verbal attacks and threats of invading Iran. This proved a monumental blunder as Iranians began sending arms and money to militants inside Iraq in an attempt to weaken the US military wherever they could reach it. The Bush Administration needed to find a scapegoat to blame for its grave mis ­management of the "war on terror," and who better than the already de ­monized leadership in Tehran?
Ahmadinejad by Iran's President

I decided to write Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means ( and Barnes&Noble ) to bring out a different perspective. I want ­ed to expose the complexities of cultures and their roles in shaping politics and human societies.
hkarimi by Hamid Karimianpour
I wanted to show that while there are many ways in which various cultures are different, there are more ways in which they are alike. The question is whether we have the courage and willpower to view events from different perspectives, and so far the answer has been in the negative.

De Atkine writes in the same foreword, "In his section on the "sinister West,' Patai gets to the heart of the burning hatred that seems to drive bru ­tal acts of terrorism against Americans. Despite its lack of a colonial past in the Middle East, America, as the most powerful representative of the "West,' has inherited primary enemy status, in place of the French and British." The good news in Patai's and De Atkine's insight is that there is an opportunity for the US to normalize its relations with the developing countries just as Britain and France did. This insight reflects the flexibility of Arabs to put past history behind them and move forward, even though the Middle East ­erners appear generally more bound than the West by their past. It dem ­onstrates the calamities the US is creating for itself by attempting to take ownership of conflicts around the world. In 1953, the US replaced Britain as the mastermind of a plot that ousted the Iranian government. In 1965, the US replaced France as the main player on the Western side in the Vietnam War. A few years ago, the US took ownership of the Saudi king's fear of Iran's nuclear capability. Today, the US is trying to replace South Korea in the South-North Korean conflict. Washington's desire to take owner ­ship of conflicts across the globe generates anti-American sentiments in the conflict zones, and De Atkine's attribution of this phenomenon to Third World double standards is either cynical propaganda or, at best, it reflects his personal inability to view events outside his own cultural perspectives.

After the 9/11 tragedy, we were encouraged to detest "the terrorists" without questioning why anyone would commit such heinous acts.
BushBlair by Bush and Blair
Bush and Blair were portrayed as men of faith and God had secretly told Bush to go to war. A witch hunt was put in motion by these men and anyone even attempting to study the causes behind terrorism was branded a ter ­rorist sympathizer or a potential terrorist himself. Washington had fought its proxy war against the Soviet Union on Afghani soil, and now it seemed that Washington's own pawns had turned against the US itself. We were told that jealousy towards the West's colossal economic success and a re ­pugnance for our liberal morals underlay the supposed Arab "hatred"; that Arabs only understood the language of humiliation; that terrorism was a disease, but one whose causes we did not need to diagnose. A CNN jour ­nalist admitted two years after the Iraq War that she was so intimidated by the Bush war propaganda in 2003 that she did not dare to question the legitimacy of the war.

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Ten years have gone by but the pain remains strong. Given the many grievances on all sides of every conflict, we can either fight one another to the brink of extinction or we can strive to understand and respect one an ­other, and make room in the world to live together in peace. I hope this book makes a convincing argument that the second position is a viable one.


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Hamid Karimianpour is the author of Nation Building or Democracy by Other Means, Algora Publishing, 2011.

Karimianpour studied economics and philosophy at the University of Oslo in Norway. He moved to England, where he obtained an MBA degree (more...)

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