Resentment has fostered a violent clash of cultures

Long before the terrorist assault on the icons of U.S. military and economic might, the hostilities against America and its foreign policies were simmering in the Middle East.

The escalating tensions have a long and complex history. They involve centuries of clashes over ideology, shifting political alliances, economic disparities and conflicting religious viewpoints.

It is dangerous, and inaccurate, to define this as a clash between Western values and Islam; nor is it possible to fully explain the immense complexities that feed todayís crisis. But these are some of the primary issues that frame the debate:

Siding with Israel: Israel was established as a haven for persecuted Jews on their biblical land. Israeli statehood in 1947 made hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, most of them Muslim, homeless. Since its founding, the United States has been Israelís biggest backer, fending off its enemies by blocking critical resolutions in the United Nations and sending economic and military aid. The U.S.-built F-16 jets and helicopters used against Palestinians are a visible reminder to their supporters of why they oppose American policy.

On holy ground: When U.S. troops were stationed during the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, terrorist Osama bin Laden and others saw it as an insult to have an "infidel" army based in the home of Islamís holiest shrines, Mecca and Medina. He was driven out of the country for publicly criticizing the Saudi royal family over the issue.

Sanctions on Iraq: President Saddam Hussein has blamed the U.S. support of U.N. sanctions imposed after the Gulf War for hardships facing his country, particularly its children. The United States says sanctions are needed to stop Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction and claims Saddam has withheld critical medical supplies from his own people to try to gain sympathy and support from other Arab nations.

Out of the West: The global economy driven by the capitalist West has created new desires and social pressures. There is an uneasiness over liberal ideas spread through television, movies and popular music — an emphasis on individual choice that weakens traditional male authority, the mixing of men and women at school and at work, and liberal sexual attitudes. Individualism is the essence of America. In the communal emphasis of Islam, such individualism borders on amoral and unethical behavior.

The colonial legacy: As with much of the developing world, many countries with fundamentalist movements were creations of the European colonizers, who divided their lands according to their own desires, not those of the inhabitants. Even before that, the rapid rise of the West and the colonization of one Islamic country after another had been considered a sign of something gravely wrong in Islamic history, according to Karen Armstrong, a religious scholar who wrote "Islam: A Short History" and "The Battle for God."

"All you want is our oil": The West is often accused of looking the other way at repression and economic disparity in many countries for fear of jeopardizing its heavy dependence on the regionís oil. In few of the worldís 50 or so Muslim countries have governments offered their citizens either prosperity or democracy. Western-backed governments such as Saudi Arabia have cracked down on dissidents with arrests and executions.

God and government: Also fomenting tensions is a sense that in the United States and Europe secularism is promoted, especially in civil and legal systems, and Godís will ignored. While the West, especially America, has methodically separated church and state, there often is no such separation in the Muslim world. "The West sees separation of church and state as the separation of religion and politics," said Charles Amjad-Ali, a Pakistani-born professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "In Islam, those are impossible to be brought into division."

The Crusades: Islam, born six centuries after Christianity, remembers when medieval Europe launched the Crusades to seize control of the Holy Land from Muslims. Christians in 1099 conquered Jerusalem, "turning the thriving Islamic holy city into a stinking charnel house," historian Armstrong wrote. Christianity, Judaism and Islam had coexisted there under Islamic rule for nearly 500 years.

Western bias: The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, not only sparked the emergence of fundamentalist governments in the Middle East, but also contaminated all Muslims in the view of Americans, says Amjad-Ali, a Pakistani-born professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. After Khomeini called the United States "The Great Satan," Americans henceforth considered Islam in general as a threat, in this view. The perception of this bias, in turn, has radicalized Islamic fundamentalists. Fundamentalists — including Christian, Buddhist or Muslim — are also usually radical in their interpretation of religion, notes Armstrong, the religious scholar, and typically overstress certain elements of their religion to counter whatever it is they oppose. They "feel that they are fighting for survival, and because their backs are to the wall, they can believe that they have to fight their way out of the impasse. In this frame of mind . . . some resort to terrorism."

Adapted from St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire reports.

Other stories from The Seattle Times archives:
The roots of hatred: Some regard American culture as menace
Inside the Taliban: U.S. helped cultivate the repressive regime sheltering bin Laden
Understanding why 'they' hate us
Tackling the tough questions


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