Why Do People Hate America? by Ziauddin Sardar & Merryl Wyn Davies

Newman Communications March 2003  231 pp. 22.95 hbk & 12.95 pap.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Following 9/11, one of the most resonant and poignant questions asked by our president and citizens alike was, why do they hate us? Why Do People Hate America? intends to answer that question.

The book has the estimable virtue of British authorship, addressed to a reader familiar with America, but not necessarily a citizen of this country.

The book begins with a sophisticated and grimly amusing analysis of the principle source of many middle class Americans' ideas about our government and international relations: The West Wing. The authors note that while the television show emphasizes tolerance and understanding, what it doesn't address is Americans' woeful ignorance about the rest of the world.

This ignorance, however, is not simple lack of information. Instead, Americans suffer from what the authors term “knowledgeable ignorance: knowing people, ideas, civilisations, religions, histories as something they are not, and could not possibly be, and maintaining these ideas even when the means exist to know differently.”

In particular, Americans lack knowledge of Islam and Muslims.  Although well-intentioned, Americans have failed “to examine history and to acknowledge that deeds done to others in the name of virtue have actually done great harm.”

Generally speaking, American apologists of both left and right claim that terrorists attack us because of what we are. This book instead intelligently notes that in fact, terrorists attack us because of what we've done.

Our acts have been primarily in the areas of economic and military intervention. They have led others to conclude that “it is America who hates Muslims; and their own hatred of America emerges from this perception.”

The book offers a damning indictment of the role of the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, showing how these organizations and their neo-liberal policies have widened, rather than lessened the gap between the world's rich and poor, and have functioned mainly to enlarge the economic stranglehold the G7 has on developing countries.

“AImost every concern of the worId, from the risks and safety of [Genetically Modified Organisms] to climate change and biodiversity, from the protection of indigenous knowledge and resources to the reform of undemocratic and authoritarian global institutions like the WTO and IMF to global justice and fair trade, is reduced by the US to a question of 'free trade' – meaning America should be free to do as it desires.”

Internationally, “the US acts like an overgrown teenage bully, constantly expressing indignation at having to accept limits on its behaviour while refusing to understand why this behaviour might have real consequences on the lives of others.”

Militarily, the book outlines a parade of US interventions in the politics of other countries, solely to serve its economic self-interest.

These are familiar arguments from the left, but it's useful to have them collected together in one place.

Midway, the book turns in a seemingly odd yet intellectually productive direction, tracing the causes of and justification for the Christian crusades, and explaining how the construction of the Muslim as the external Other (the Jew being the internal Other) led to a correlative construct of a European identity. The exporting of this identity to America, that falsely and self-interestedly conceived “great wilderness,” gave rise to a more mobile capacity to create the oppositional other: the Native American and then the Black slave.  In the 21st century it’s the Muslim’s turn once again.

Since the authors view information as key, the press comes under scrutiny as well.  “The American media functions primarily to keep its American audience ignorant of the rest of the world; it is interested in producing happy consumers, not informed, free-thinking citizens who question the foreign policy of their government. It performs this function largely through self-censorship and subtle bias.”

The last section of the book examines the myth of the western hero and its effects on international politics.  “The western, the definitive American genre, is not merely a hymn to violence – it is a view of the essential, inescapable and enduring necessity of violence to preserve civilisation. The western advances the myth that evil is intractable and can only be eradicated, that justice eventually comes down to the willingness to spill blood, that liberty resides in the right to make armed response, that the use of violence is the legitimate and only secure way to resolve a conflict. The whole world has experienced the western, and underlying its popularity is a different reaction: fear.”

While I personally agree with many of the authors' claims, their case is not well served by calling for ''information” and then drawing excessively broad conclusions from little or no empirical evidence.  For example, sentences that claim “what troubles most people in Europe” offer no statistical evidence, surveys, or the like to establish that they are in fact speaking for most Europeans. 

The authors do a good job, however, in establishing Americans’ ignorance of the effects of their foreign policy, the double standards American politicians apply to other countries (the rejection of the Kyoto treaty can stand for many other decisions), and the unwillingness of Americans to recognize the destruction of other countries’ economies and biodiversity in the interest of a fast American buck. 

Given our enormous influence, we must use it responsibly.  “As the hyperpower that straddles the world militarily, politically, economically and culturally, America is a real presence in the life of all nations of the world. Its wealth and abundance are derived from its relations with the rest of the world. America cannot, therefore, pick and choose about being engaged or disengaged from the consequences of the global system that sustains its lifestyle.”