Is it wrong to hate Americans?

Why the world hates America

We were told it was going to be a long, ugly fight. That’s how it turned out. America's war on terrorism has entered the second round. It is shaped by the excitement about the conditions, status and rights of the prisoners in Guantánamo and the frustration at the inability of the US to arrest Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Should the US attack other countries suspected of harboring terrorists, it will most likely have to do it alone, with no support from the coalition that supported their campaign in Afghanistan. The reason: America is facing an enemy who is probably harder to beat than militant Islam. It's called anti-Americanism, and it's about to take the world by storm.

And the good news? Well, these post-Taliban times are bad times for fanatical Islamists. Whether dead or alive - Osama and Omar look old: unholy warriors who forced other people to be martyred and fled to the mountains themselves. And if persistent rumors are to be believed, the overthrow of the terrorist axis in Afghanistan prevented an Islamist coup against President Musharraf, planned by Taliban-like elements in the armed forces and intelligence officials such as the sinister General Hamid Gul. Musharraf himself, certainly not an angel, has been forced to arrest the leaders of the Kashmiri terrorist groups he has been encouraging to date. (It was only two and a quarter years ago that he sent these groups against India and thus triggered the last Kashmir crisis.)

The world is learning the lessons of America’s action in Afghanistan. Jihad doesn't seem quite as cool as it did last autumn. States suspected of supporting terrorism suddenly make an effort to behave properly and even imprison one or the other villain. Iran has accepted the new government in Afghanistan as legitimate. Even Great Britain, which has shown an above-average tolerance towards Islamic fundamentalism, is slowly beginning to understand the difference between the aversion to "Islamophobia" and the calm indulgence of people who are among the most vicious people on earth.

In Afghanistan, America did what needed to be done. And with success. And the bad news? Outside of Afghanistan, this success made no friends for the Americans. On the contrary: it is precisely because of this success that the rest of the world hates America even more than before. Western critics of the action in Afghanistan are angry precisely because their criticism was repeatedly and publicly wrong: No, the US armed forces were not humiliated like the Russians once were; yes, the air strikes were effective; no, the Northern Alliance did not carry out any massacres in Kabul; yes, the Taliban crumbled like the hated tyrants they were themselves in their southern strongholds; no, it wasn't so difficult to drive the warriors from their cave fortresses; yes, the various factions managed to put together a new government that worked surprisingly well.

Those elements in the Arab and Muslim world who blame America for their own impotence now feel more powerless than ever. As always, radical anti-Americanism feeds on widespread anger over the fate of the Palestinians. Nothing could subvert the fanatics' propaganda more effectively than an acceptable solution in the Middle East.

But even if such a solution were found tomorrow, anti-Americanism would not die down. It is too useful as a curtain of smoke behind which the Muslim nations can hide their own mistakes - corruption and incompetence, oppression of their own citizens, economic, scientific and cultural stagnation. The hatred of America has become an identity-creating emblem. You burn flags, you hit your chest, you feel good. The anti-American rhetoric is largely lying, hates what it most desires: "We hate America because it created something of its own accord that we cannot create."

What America is accused of - bigotry, stereotypical thinking, ignorance - is exactly what its accusers face when they look in the mirror.

Today there seem to be as many accusers outside the Muslim world as there are inside. Anyone who has visited Great Britain or Europe in the last five months will be surprised, even shocked, to have registered the strength of anti-American sentiments in broad sections of the population and the media. Western anti-Americanism is even bitchier than Islamic, and strangely enough, it's also more personalized. In Muslim countries people have something against America's power, its "arrogance", its success. In the non-American West, they mostly reject the American people. Night after night in London I had to listen to attacks directed against the sheer peculiarity of the American citizen. The terrorist attacks on America are brushed aside: "For Americans, only American dead are important." No, American patriotism, American obesity, emotionality and selfishness - these are the important issues.

In this climate of hostility, it would be understandable if America did not respond to constructive criticism or, worse, behave like the mighty superpower that it is; when it made lonely decisions and acted regardless of the worries of an already unfriendly world. The treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo Bay is an example.

Colin Powell's desire to give these people prisoner-of-war rights under the Geneva Convention was a statesman's response to international pressure. That he obviously failed to convince President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is a worrying sign. The Bush administration has come a long way since its early days of agreement-tearing. Now is not the time to get out of the business of consensus-building.

Great power and great wealth are probably never very popular. More than ever, however, it is important that the United States use its power and wealth responsibly. Now is not the time to leave the rest of the world behind and do it all alone. That would mean risking everything that has been won to date.

© Salman Rushdie 2002

The author and essayist Salman Rushdie has lived in New York since September 3, 2001. Most recently his novel "Wut" appeared.

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