Pointing forward, moving backwards

The leaders of the global war on terror keep promising us a future of democracy, peace, justice, respect for human rights and dignity even as they make war, and chaos seems to be erupting everywhere. In their sights is a world free of the prevailing evil — where bad people, and their misguided beliefs, ignorance, fanaticism, hatred, “anti-Semitism” and, worst of all, “terrorism” are no longer allowed to impede our peaceful existence.

Such a world would, no doubt, be a wonderful place. The world has never enjoyed total peace in the past, but the new kind of conflict, in which traditional nation states fight against invisible and shadowy groups, seems to hold a new kind of horror. Ugly and deplorable as they may have been, old-fashioned wars were planned, declared, called-off, ended or maintained by decisions of governments, sometimes representative governments; and they often had understandable causes. They also had rules, which even when not strictly followed, provided hope for innocent civilians to escape harm. Terrorism, on the other hand, is indiscriminate and has no rules. In the past, terrorists would sometimes even give early warning of their attacks, in order to allow civilians to escape harm. But no more. Nowadays, terrorists often aim to kill as many people as possible.

Neither the number of dead nor the amount of destruction of the horrifying attacks on American targets on Sept. 11, 2001 were in any sense even close to losses of previous wars. Why was the shock so severe? Although it was clear right from the first moment that the United States was the target, everyone worldwide felt attacked and threatened, everyone felt it could be him or her or a family member or friend in any of the civilian planes suddenly transformed into missiles. Everyone who felt lucky to have escaped that time was terrified at the possibility that he or she could be next.

The Sept. 11 attacks were not the beginning of the phenomenon of terror, which had been known ages before. Aeroplanes were hijacked before and innocent civilians were threatened in order to secure certain goals, but in most cases, kidnapped victims’ lives were saved whether hijackers’ demands were met or rejected. The extent of cruelty this time seemed unprecedented.

As a direct result, when we travel now, we are constantly reminded of that tragic day with restrictions, searches, intrusive cross-examination, delays, fear, humiliation and harassment. And even with such a heavy price, every time ones takes a trip, one feels lucky to have been able to obtain a visa to visit a certain country for any purpose. While globalisation is creating of our planet a single village, terror is erecting amongst us new and higher walls of separation and isolation.

For all these reasons, the whole world rallied willingly behind the United States when it declared its war on terror. Not only was the right of the US to defend its citizens against any possible future danger and to punish those who planned and carried out the vicious attacks unreservedly recognised, the willingness of the US to lead such a war for the benefit of all of us was supported and appreciated. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world which is safer, more democratic, governed by law, and in which the human rights and dignity are protected?

The sad reality is that in spite of so much consensus and commitment, all the effort to fight terror and to introduce reform and democratisation have totally failed. In fact, they have produced adverse results, with terror spreading wider and faster, with the terrorists gaining more ground and strength, and with attempts to liberate and democratise, in Iraq in particular, leading to more oppression, destruction, violence and harm.

The United States, in leading the war on terror, the campaign for democratisation and reform, and dealing with the chronic problems of this region, has been pursuing a policy of contradiction and confusion. It split the world into the bad — Arabs and Muslims who oppose any aspect of US policy — and the good — all the rest. This arbitrary classification has placed the blame for all the troubles on the Arab and Muslim worlds. No cause of world troubles is traced elsewhere, and no examination of the roots of terror, even if it were solely Muslim terror, were traced either.

The media has saturated the air with the notion that Islam is a synonym of terror. The kinder sufficed themselves to saying that not all Muslims are terrorists, but observed that the majority of all terrorists appear to be Muslims.

The American prescription is reform and democratisation of an enlarged Middle East on the basis of the belief that terror is the product of totalitarianism and dictatorships, not also injustice, bias, racism and condescension. And all this should be achieved in one magic stroke. What could indeed be achieved quickly, such as a an end to Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, leading to a peace settlement, is allowed to metamorphose in a glacial process. All the while, reform, which should be a gradual process, is required instantly. Not only that, but the required democratisation is made all the more difficult by introducing brand new concepts of democracy, human rights and freedom.

The new concept seems to indicate that the required democracy means the people’s right to choose what suits their “reformers”, and their agendas: nothing else. Liberation means liberation from local dictators in favour of foreign occupation. Human rights means the rights the occupiers choose for you and not what you choose for yourself or the rights the individual is entitled to because “all human beings are born with equal and inalienable rights and fundamental freedoms”.

At the “Forum for the Future” — a gathering of the US-sponsored peace process and reform industry — which ended its work in Morocco few days ago, the outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed for the required reform to be implemented instantly. It would have been interesting had someone had the guts to ask him what he would expect if truly democratic elections took place in the countries of the greater Middle East, and how much support would be left for the United States to count on.

“We can’t hold up reform or slow the pace of reform or keep reform from accelerating because of these other issues,” he responded to Arab foreign ministers’ call to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict which, it appears, has slid down the list of priorities along with “other issues”. Reform is the new buzzword, but the only thing in which we cannot ask for any reform is the basic US approach to the region, which puts support for Israel’s destructive and war-producing policies above all other interests.

For anyone in doubt about how counterproductive the whole effort has been, all it takes is a look at the current scene in Iraq and Palestine (never mind Afghanistan) and review the cost of the war in the last two years.

The region desperately needs reform and democratisation. We all need peace and freedom from violence and terror, but we also need justice and full application of international law. We all should cooperate, support and mobilise to achieve such noble goals, but we need objective planning and principled leadership, two factors that depressingly appear nowhere in sight.

Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article was first published in the Jordan Times.