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A Cultural Inability To Face The Truth
by George Jonas - March 2, 2002
A recent Gallup Poll conducted for USA Today brings us good news and bad news. To start with the bad news, it seems that 61% of the inhabitants of such Islamic countries as Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey believe that Arabs weren"t responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11.
One popular theory in the Muslim world has Israel"s intelligence service, the Mossad, hijacking the airliners and crashing them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The story that 4,000 Jews stayed away from Manhattan"s twin towers on the morning of 9/11 has been circulating in the region for months.

In addition to the question about the responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, the poll queried nearly 10,000 respondents in nine Islamic countries on various related topics, such as their opinion on U.S. President George W. Bush (58% unfavourable) or whether the U.S. military action in Afghanistan was morally justified (77% said it was unjustified). Though revealing, these questions and answers illuminated little that wasn"t already known about popular sentiment in the Muslim world.

The question about the responsibility for 9/11 (which three countries, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, didn"t permit the Gallup researchers to ask) was in a different class. The identity of the 9/11 hijackers wasn"t a matter of opinion. Here the poll didn"t deal with judgment or interpretation, but with facts.

If a question about, say, the composition of the moon elicited a 61% response of "blue cheese," one might doubt the rationality of the culture that produced the answer. This raises a point of irony. Centuries ago, when the Western world was mired in the Dark Ages, it was in no small measure the rationality of Islam that influenced the Renaissance in Europe. In 1300 (the year 700 in the Muslim calendar) the West could have taken -- and did take -- lessons in rationality, tolerance, and enlightenment from Islam. Seven centuries later, alas, it"s the rationality of Islamic culture that"s seriously in doubt.

What"s the good news? Look at it this way. The 61% who refuse to accept that the perpetrators of Sept. 11 were Arabs at least exhibit certain moral standards. They consider crashing civilian airliners into office buildings wrong.

It"s heartening that 61% of Muslims have the moral capacity to be troubled by the mass murder of office workers and airline passengers, which is why they refuse to believe that fellow Muslims had anything to do with it. Their inability to face the truth shows that they find the truth unpalatable. This is a hopeful sign. It indicates that a majority of Muslims exists on a higher moral plane than Osama bin Laden and his suicide bombers of al-Qaeda, or the "martyrs" of Hamas and Hezbollah, who view indiscriminate murder with pride.

Unfortunately, the relief is momentary. The problem appears to go deeper than bin Laden"s acolytes. The number of Muslims who can"t accept that Arabs were responsible for 9/11 roughly coincides with the number (about 66%) who believe the atrocities at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were morally unjustifiable. A smaller number, however, believes the opposite, i.e., that the attack was justified. This means that most of the Muslim world is split into two groups. There"s a larger one that has moral reservations about 9/11 but doesn"t believe Arabs were responsible for it, and a smaller one that has no moral reservations about mass murder.

It"s hard to say what should trouble us more. Is it the majority"s inability to face self-evident facts, or is it that a sizable minority (as high as 36%, for example, in Kuwait) thinks the attacks were justified? The latter figures, if representative of the Muslim world as a whole, project between 300 and 400 million human beings on this planet who think that their sense of grievance, whatever it stems from, justifies indiscriminate slaughter. It makes one rather concerned about Islamic countries that seek to build a "Muslim bomb" or similar weapons of mass destruction.

One additional point. Tuesday"s Gallup poll puts into stark perspective a recent and much-discussed proposal by Saudi Arabia. This plan, as described in The New York Times last week, would have all Arab states in the region recognize Israel in exchange for Israel withdrawing from the Palestinian territories back to the borders that existed before the Six Day War in 1967. It"s a plan Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reportedly called a "fascinating, interesting opportunity."

I think the proposal bears repeating slowly. Israel, it"s suggested, should give up territory, buffer zones, and Jerusalem"s Temple Mount in exchange for a declaration of "recognition" by Middle East countries -- that is, the very countries whose inhabitants either think that Sept. 11 was the work of the Israelis (about 60%), or that crashing hijacked airliners into Lower Manhattan was justified (about 30%).

If Oslo was supposed to be about "land for peace," what should one call the Saudi deal? "Land for empty promises by irrational people"? Mr. Peres may consider such a proposal a fascinating opportunity. I"d be more inclined to consider it suicidal.

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