The Real Roots of Terror

The Real Roots of Terror

The autocratic regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt distract their citizens from repression at home by directing their anger toward the U.S.

Debate over the causes of the terrorist attacks on America has been inhibited by the fear that to inquire into them is somehow to extenuate evil. So let's substitute "sources" for the morally fraught "causes." Do that, and this becomes clear: All but three of the terrorists, like Bin Laden himself, were from Saudi Arabia; Mohamed Atta, their ringleader, was from Egypt, as is the number two man in al Qaeda, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Something about these countries helped to produce the terrorists. The terrorists are dead; bin Laden will soon join them. But that something endures. The domestic political arrangements of Egypt and Saudi Arabia should be regarded as among our real enemies in the war on terror.

The regimes in these countries, we know, are repressive, but so are governments throughout the Third World. What is special about the repression in Egypt and Saudi Arabia is that both governments escape its consequences by redirecting popular anger toward the United States. Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times, has written several columns documenting how this works. Through government-sponsored media in Cairo and Saudi support of fundamentalist schools, or madrassas, at home and abroad, these regimes have made anti-Americanism the equivalent of their missing domestic politics. "The terrorists who perpetrated the September 11th attacks were products of a system that allows individuals no room for legitimate political activity and little alternative to the mosques and madrassas that fill their minds with hate," writes Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Egypt, under threat from Islamic terrorism, has been governed under a state of emergency virtually since 1967. A glance at the Human Rights Watch report on Egypt for last year reveals a political tourniquet: suspects arrested and held without being charged, dissidents tried by military courts, parties outlawed, opposition candidates from Islamic parties jailed on security charges just before elections and thus kept from winning office, torture used to extract confessions, political prisoners dying while in custody. The U.S. gives Egypt $1.2 billion in military aid every year, and doubtless Egypt uses a considerable amount of that to keep the tourniquet tight. Egypt exports the terrorists the repression produces, but not before its state-dominated media has taught them to blame the misery and backwardness of Arab nations on the U.S. The terrorists then attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We are not a wicked nation but, as long as we subsidize this fated cycle, we are a stupid one.

The alternative is to make our aid, which also includes $700 million in development assistance, conditional on reform. Our government should tell Egypt: You want our money? We want more for it, after September 11, than simply peace with Israel. Loosen the tourniquet. Call off the media attacks on America. And do this to preserve yourselves, you Egyptian governing elites. Consider Algeria: a secular regime that denied its Islamic opposition political space—even cancelled an election because the Islamists would have won—and paid for it in a civil war of unimaginable savagery. And note: the Islamic terrorists in Algeria targeted the Westernized elites for assassination early on.

But the chances of the U.S. saying anything like this to Egypt look to be low. It would require President Bush to think through the difference between the causes of September 11, the evil hearts of "the Evil One" and his henchmen, and the sources of the attack. For the same reason it is unlikely that we will put pressure on Saudi Arabia, even though it sponsors madrassas across the Muslim world— most of the Taliban leadership learned their attitudes on women and infidels at madrassas in Pakistan—and otherwise spreads its home-grown radical Islamic faith. "For decades," the Middle East scholar Kanan Makiya wrote recently, "the Saudi royal family could count on support from the United States even as it allowed Wahhabism to project its hate-filled vision of Islam around the world. Such support, so contrary to American principles of freedom and toleration, is widely interpreted in the region as indifference to the suffering of ordinary Arabs in the Middle East..." Since we protect the Saudi oil fields we have leverage to tell the princes to curb these institutions, and to cease exporting the anti-Western fundamentalist strain of Islam that numbered the Taliban among its converts. But President Bush, as reported by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, thinks this is out of bounds. We have no more right to ask them to change their religious practices, according to Bush, than we do to ask the Methodists to change their practices because Timothy McVeigh was a Methodist. The analogy is depressing: the Methodist Church is not teaching hatred of America.

Instead of taking the war on terror to Iraq, we need to take it to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, terror's source. We need to reach beyond these autocratic regimes to their peoples. Stability and protection of the oil fields, the two pillars of U.S. policy in the region, are rightly seen on the Arab street as selfish aims, and our claims to stand for human rights and democracy are seen as hypocritical—human rights, but not for Arabs; democracy, but not for Arabs. The region won't be stable, the oil fields won't be secure, and America won't be free of the fear of terrorism unless we identify with the aspirations of the Arab people to live under legitimate governments. The risk of reform is the one Algeria faced a decade ago: that radical Islamist parties will gain popular favor, win elections, and establish a theocratic state. But if that risk exists today, imagine how much higher it will be tomorrow.