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Rethinking the "War on Terror"

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Detroit, Michigan -- Everyone agrees that the people who planned the attacks on September 11th 2001 ought to be brought to justice. But how should this be done, and who are these people really, asked Hussein Ibish, Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership. Ibish posed his questions at a talk on September 25th at the University of Detroit-Mercy sponsored by the Detroit Area Peace and Justice Network.

According to Ibish, Bush administration officials have gotten a lot of mileage out of fudging the picture of who the "real terrorists" are. Creating an atmosphere of "willful confusion" allowed the administration and its supporters to project the terrorist movement as a larger, more menacing threat. Such a threat could then be used to sustain endless war involving a potential myriad of bad foreign policy decisions such as the war in Iraq.

From Bush supporters, one can usually hear a variety of positions on what the war on terror means, its goals and who the enemy is, Ibish contended. Some describe it as a broad campaign to reform the Middle East and Arab culture. Some have called it World War III. Still others have even openly claimed it as a war on all of Islam.

In Ibish's view, these broad definitions are dangerously confusing explanations with particular ideological and policy agendas behind them.

The simplest and clearest definition, that the terrorists who struck on 9/11 are part of a specific far-right religious movement on the fringes of Islam which most Arab and Muslim peoples and states are anxious to suppress, is often ignored because it doesn't motivate the emotional and irrational responses needed to sustain long-term and deadly military responses.

Much of the right wing's inaccurate, ideologically motivated explanations for 9/11 and the war on terror are underpinned by racist thinking about the so-called Arab and Muslim world, Ibish said.

While there is no need to inject a racial and religious component into an accurate explanation, Ibish argued, "the more elaborate, the more ambitious and ideological explanation of the war on terror become, the more racist and bigoted they are."

The net effect of most explanations of the war on terror is to lump all nationalities and religious affiliations into a single group of enemies. "They" are out to destroy the West. "They" do not like "us" and will strike "us" regardless of what "we" do.

This typical explanation relies on the racist notion that "we" need not know much about the heterogeneity and complexities of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Indeed, policymakers in the Bush administration responded to 9/11, stated Ibish, not by relying on experts in Arab and Muslim politics, cultures, or languages, but on their self-styled omniscience and omnipotence that instinctively produced the notion that all we had to do was "kick a little ass" and that would restore "calm." Indeed, killing a few thousand people there, so this thinking goes, is for their own good and they welcome it.

Bush administration policymakers approached dealing with the "Arab world" with the old racist, imperialist notion that "violence is the only thing Muslim people understand," Ibish pointed out.

This confused and muddied thinking has hindered the war on terror, he added, and has even strengthened and emboldened the group of people who are behind the 9/11 attacks and their allies.

Muddied thinking has misdirected efforts - both intentionally and unintentionally. Ibish asserted that with "an increasingly confusedly defined war and an open-ended enemy you end up with at least the war in Iraq." This error, relying on the racialist notion that "they" are all one and the same, and "they" only understand violence, allowed Bush administration policymakers to miss the target.

Neo-conservatives in the Bush administration manipulated this confused state of thinking to push successfully for an attack on Iraq they had long wanted, Ibish added. Others in the administration less interested in invading Iraq were pushed along because they failed to develop a more complex and accurate view of who was behind the terrorist attacks.

Ibish flatly stated that there was absolutely no connection - operational or ideological - between the Saddam Hussein regime and the perpetrators of 9/11 and the movement they sprang from, no matter how many times Bush administration officials say it or imply it.

Racialist thinking fueled bad foreign policy decisions that have derailed whatever honest effort there may have been for bringing Al Qaeda to justice and its allied movement.

Racism, Terror and Domestic Policy

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--Joel Wendland is editor of Political Affairs.
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