That was the Sept. 11 question, and it got two answers: "they hate us for our freedoms" and "they hate us for our policies." (Discounting the common Euro-elitist answer of, "Because everyone hates fat stupid Americans, of course.") People tended to accept one, scorn the other, and act accordingly. Is it possible that both are right?
Many in the Muslim world were furiously resentful of America before the terrorist attacks -- the dancing in the streets of Cairo as the people fell to their death from the towers certainly hints at that. And opinion polls bear it out. They have grown moreso since Sept. 11. Anger at and hatred of America is what unites the Islamist fanatics and the average Sunni Muslim Arabs who form their active and passive supporters.
And so the two answers converge: Islamist preachers rail against our freedoms and values, which they regard as decadent and irreligious, while our foreign policies and our dominant position in the world irritate many millions of people who otherwise accept and even embrace our "freedoms" (while denying that we actually embody those values).
Yet it is not a clear case of one answer from the Islamists, another from the people. In the section of the 9/11 Commission report titled "Bin Ladin’s Worldview," the authors outline the way Islamists tap in to some natural human instincts -- such as the yearning for order, the desire to be personally important, the dream of a lost golden age, the sense of the importance of one's own group.
Despite his claims to universal leadership, Bin Ladin offers an extreme view of Islamic history designed to appeal mainly to Arabs and Sunnis. He draws on fundamentalists who blame the eventual destruction of the Caliphate on leaders who abandoned the pure path of religious devotion. He repeatedly calls on his followers to embrace martyrdom since 'the walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets.' For those yearning for a lost sense of order in an older, more tranquil world, he offers his 'Caliphate' as an imagined alternative to today’s uncertainty. For others, he offers simplistic conspiracies to explain their world.
Like the German Nazis, the Islamists exploit and pervert genuine situations (the Islamic civilization's current poverty and defeat, and its exaggerated remembrance of its past glory) and leaven them with the poison of a people's willingness to blame its problems on outsiders.
And the Middle Eastern resentment is not simply about specific policies of the U.S. government; down at its roots it also is about the fact that there is a West, flourishing and powerful, while the Islamic religion and civilization remain weak, divided and impoverished.
And here is where Islam itself presents a special problem. Because the religion, like most others but in a more intense degree, is embedded with a sense of its own specialness. It lacks a back-down position in conflict with the outside world. Such a result can be created or imposed on it, but it is artificial to anyone who takes the religion literally and seriously, as a great many of its adherents do.
Furthermore, despite the universality of Islam (which is genuine and scriptural) it always has retained a strong Arab-centered quality. It is a universal religion, but it is the core of the civilization of the Arabs. It can be adopted readily to nationalist purposes in the Middle East the way it cannot in, say, Indonesia or Chechnya. Hence the easy shift of 1950s secular Arab Nationalism into 1990s Islamism.
The presumption that Islam ought to be the dominant religion, and that Arab-led caliphate ought to hold power in the world, creates an intricate carpet-weave of religious fervor and racist nationalism. "Others" are wrong or inferior. Christianity, Judaism, and secularism are held in contempt, either benign or malicious. And the pre-eminence of Islam is continually asserted.
This has the advantage over the pure Arab Nationalism, because it hitches the same movement to God's natural order for the world, and frees it from the ultimately Western and non-Islamic rhetoric of Marxism and anti-colonialism.
So we're told by some that it is our policies that enflame the Arab world, and this has nothing to do with their religion. It merely forces them into the arms of Islamists whom they otherwise would object. But what policies? The answer there usually boils down to two: We encourage or allow repressive dictatorships in the Arab world, and we support the "Zionist entity," a thing so criminal and perverse in their eyes that they cannot even bear to name it.
The fixation with "corrupt rulers" is an immediate response to the anger of Arabs and Muslims who want a better life for themselves and their children. It is a legitimate grievance, and ought to be a source of shame to the United States, though many of the most brutish secular regimes -- Syria, Libya, Saddam's Iraq -- came to power without our intention and often persisted in spite of our opposition.
But this political objection is not divorced from Islam. The "corrupt rulers" theme is central in Islamist rhetoric and the Bin Laden version of history. "The extreme Islamist version of history blames the decline from Islam’s golden age on the rulers and people who turned away from the true path of their religion, thereby leaving Islam vulnerable to encroaching foreign powers eager to steal their land, wealth, and even their souls." [9-11 Commission]
It is true that many moderate Arab Muslims wish to live in peace and equality with other peoples and faiths. But it also is true that a great many others have imbued the promise made to them by their own God, in his own words, that they were destined to be the apex of creation, and that the world was meant to submit to the message they were given and told to spread.
So what of the other objection? Why do the Arabs hate Israel? It is a sliver of a country, that does no direct harm to 99 percent of the world's Muslims, but those in Mindanao talk of its destruction as fervently as those who live in the shadow of the separation fence in the West Bank.
It is an artificial creation of the 20th century. Well, so is Iraq, so is Jordan. It is built on land that once was owned and ruled by another people. Well, take that up with the Sudeten Germans or the Liberian natives or the Sioux or the Celto-Britons. Many Muslims prosper inside Israel; synagogues are car-bombed in Istanbul and no Jew is tolerated to even set foot, except a diplomat, briefly, in Saudi Arabia.
I think Israel is so hated because it, more than anything, symbolizes Islamic/Arab impotence. They did not want this nation to happen, but they could not stop it. They have tried repeatedly to crush it out of existence, but it has only grown stronger, and their arms were humiliated by it. And it is a nation built by the very people their scripture gives them the right and authority to rule and render subservient.
One of the central truths of the Qu'ran is that Islam is the final revelation, the completion of God's plan. If there is one consequence of that, it is that the older, imperfect religions in this tradition, such as Judaism, ought not to call the shots for the ultimate one.
Both sides in the American Civil War passionately believed God was on their side. The South, perhaps moreso than the North, held this conviction. Religious revivals swept the Confederate camps in 1863 and 1864, and the people of the South believed that their piety and the Scriptural basis of their social order would bring them divine assistance.
Yet when their cause failed and their armies were defeated, their religion taught them to accept this as a chastisement. They saw the many failings in their leaders and themselves, and they turned inward for repentance and reform. This was based in their religion; Christianity encourages such humility.
In Japan, after 1945, the same cultural and religious forces that had driven the nation into war served it in the transition to peace and acceptance of defeat. The emperor, the descendant of a goddess, was a key player. "Purity" during the war had meant purging Japan and Asia of Western decadent influences and hegemony. After defeat, it served the cause of purifying Japan of militarism and corrupt feudalism. During the war, the Shinto concept of "proper place" had encouraged a racist vision of Japanese superiority in the world; but it allowed the nation, after defeat, to embrace the "place" of being a good loser.
Even the caricatures of the Americans as demons and beast-monsters of Japanese folklore allowed a transition to accepting American military protection; the archetypal folklore demon (like the faeries of Europe) always had two aspects, destructive, but also potentially instructive and tutelary.
But where in Islam is this quality? Where is its ability to stop fighting, to accept that there will be no world caliphate? We are offered the hadith about "lesser jihad" and "greater jihad," but that does not negate the call to religious war.
As if we needed reminders after Sept. 11, the Islamist movement is not an internal matter for Muslim nations only. An isolationist America or Europe can say it is no business of ours if Middle Eastern or North African countries embrace female circumcision, beheading, denial of basic rights to religious minorities (though I have a hard time calling such isolationists "liberals"). But there is an international relations component to this religious movement.
In a world where the most deadly weapons slowly ooze out of their containers, a region festering with petulance and paranoia has to be dealt with, now, not later. It's not a good time to tell ourselves convenient lies about what motivates those who would kill us.