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Talking With a Friend Who Hates Muslims

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I recently sent the following note to a friend. The note I was replying to is pasted in below it. You might want to skip down and read it first.


Thanks for raising an extremely important topic, one that I think we should all be examining closely and discussing in depth, especially with those who are starting from different positions, and even if we're afraid we may have to - in the end - agree to disagree.

The author you quote suggests that the United States faces a threat that began with the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. That may or may not be so. It does have a certain logic to it. But it's useful, I think, to understand what that hostage crisis was. Understanding it does not require for one instant even contemplating condoning the taking of hostages. When two children argue, it is not uncommon to ask "Jimmy, why did you hit Johnny" and "Johnny, why did you grab Jimmy's toy" and so forth. The point is not to condone the hitting or the grabbing but to try to get Jimmy and Johnny to talk to and understand each other, so that they don't fight anymore. With that in mind, I would offer this brief section of a recent column by R.K. Ramazani, who is a professor at the University of Virginia here in Charlottesville:

"Iran took the initiative to establish diplomatic relations with the United States in 1883 for two reasons. First, by involving the United States in Iran's affairs, Iranian officials sought to create a counterbalance to a century of British and Russian economic exploitation and political domination. Second, by attracting American know-how, they believed they could modernize their backward economy.

"Enlightened Iranians, however, aspired to more than economic modernization. They tried to create a democratic and representative government by constitutional means. As a result, Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 aimed at limiting the tyranny of the monarch and ending British and Russian domination. To these ends, in 1906 they established for the first time in their history a parliament, or Majlis, which continues to the present time.

"Given Iran-U.S. amicable relations, the parliament hired the American, Morgan Shuster, to modernize Iran’s finances. His reform efforts ran up against British and Russian imperial interests The Russians bombarded the parliament building and, in collusion with the British, forced Shuster out of Iran. As a result, Iran’s first democratic and American supported experiment with democracy failed to materialize by 1911.

"Iran’s second attempt to experiment with democratic government was also stopped in its tracks by foreign machination. This time, the American CIA staged a coup in 1953 that destroyed the popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammad Musaddiq.

"The United States returned the shah to the throne, and American economic, political, military and cultural domination ensued over the following quarter century until the Islamic revolution in 1979. Besides ending the shah’s regime, the revolutionary forces aimed at terminating American domination.

"After the shah fled to America, the militant students took over the American embassy and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The students claimed that they acted out of fear that the United States might try again to return the shah to the throne in 1979 as it had done in 1953.

"Just as the American destruction of the Musaddiq government had burned deeply into the Iranian psyche, the Iranian taking of American diplomats hostage humiliated the American public. These two events in combination have cast a long shadow over U.S.-Iran relations to date."

Now, I know that neither you nor the person you quoted has an interest in installing a dictator in Iran or in stealing Iran's oil, or in anything other than peace and cooperation. And I know that most Americans had those same interests in 1979. But it's useful to be aware of what the Iranians were afraid of. They had elected a democratic leader in the 50s who had tried to keep Iran's oil wealth for Iran, and our CIA had overthrown him and placed a US-puppet dictator in power.

Imagine what the Americans feared in 1812. They didn't want a British king placed back in charge. They didn't want to lose their democracy.

Now, Iran today does not have a democracy, but it has more of one than, say, Saudi Arabia, which does play well with U.S. oil companies. And if one thing could rally Iranians around an anti-democratic leader it would be an attack from a foreign power like the United States.

All of the incidents that Chong lists as constituting a single coherent threat to the United States over the past quarter century are equally complex and diverse. His focus, of course, is on the later events in his list, the attacks by al Qaeda.

In point #2 he asks why we were attacked, and offers one answer for the whole list of incidents: "envy of our position, our success, and our freedoms." Now, in terms of freedoms, by almost any measure there are other nations where citizens enjoy more freedom than we do. In particular there are several European nations where people enjoy greater civil liberties, more wealth, better health, longer lifespans, shorter working hours, etc., everything that is typically termed "success." But "position" may be headed in the right direction. In fact, there is little mystery as to why most of the attacks listed occurred, since the attackers have tended to spell it out quite clearly. In fact, al Qaeda has explained why they attacked on September 11th. They could be lying or deceiving themselves, but it's unlikely they would lie when the whole point of terrorism is to pressure those terrorized to change what they are doing. Al Qaeda's big concern was the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia. Now, most Americans don't know this, but we have over 1,000 foreign military bases spread through most of the countries on earth, and most of those countries resent them. Chong says the United States made no provocative action, and yet clearly al Qaeda was provoked. The step that THEY took was mass-murder, for which there can not possibly be any excuse. But to refuse to even ask where it came from is as unhelpful as refusing to ask Jimmy why he hit Johnny.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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