Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, many people have pondered the motivations and ideology of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network. In Boca Raton, Florida, two university professors specializing in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies recently held a forum to discuss the subject. The two men presented differing points of view that raised eyebrows among many who attended.
For weeks, America's news media have devoted significant time and resources to analyzing Osama bin-Laden. But few seem to be growing weary of the subject, at least not at Florida Atlantic University. A forum aimed to address the question from a Middle Eastern perspective drew an overflow crowd ranging from students to senior citizens.
One of the speakers, economics professor Hassan Shaygannik, witnessed the rise of fundamentalist Islam in his native Iran in the 1970's. He cautions against dismissing radical Muslims as irrational people and turning a deaf ear to their message. "Are they crazy," he asked? "Are they lunatics? Are they brain-washed zealots, or is there a cause, a point of view that we have to listen [to]?"
Professor Shaygannik says the roots of terrorism lie in a longstanding struggle between Western capitalism and the poor masses of developing countries struggling to preserve their religion and culture.
"Military domination, political domination - we also see Western cultural hegemony bulldozing other cultures," he said. "This is the nature of capitalism - to be penetrating and creating new markets. Islamic communities are reacting to this pressure. Taleban and terrorism become a bloody means of communication. But when legitimate windows [means] to fight global hegemony are closed, then they will go for illegitimate means. But even illegitimate means have a message, reflecting grievances."
Professor Shaygannik sees the actions of Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaida network as reactive, rather than preemptive, in nature.
That view contrasts sharply with that of a colleague, Walid Phares, who teaches Middle Eastern studies at Florida Atlantic University. A native of Lebanon, Professor Phares says he sees little evidence that terrorism constitutes a rejection of Western dominance and capitalism.
"If it is only about economic frustration," he said, "then the forces that would be claiming social-economic equality would be reformist, progressive representatives of workers and lower classes in a struggle against capitalists. And the chief enemy would be, first of all, the local regimes - the House of Saud [the Saudi royal family], [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, and others. We should have seen much more [local agitation] before attacking America.
Professor Phares says anti-American sentiments in the Islamic world are widespread and troubling. But he argues that Osama bin-Laden and the Taleban rulers of Afghanistan are manipulating those passions for another objective: spreading their form of radical Islam as far and wide as possible. He continued, "If you are a Saudi or a Jordanian or an Egyptian who has been oppressed by your own regime, you have the full right to look at America's foreign policy and say, 'By supporting those regimes you are hurting me.' But who shows up in the middle of the equation? An ideological movement that wants to establish an equivalent empire (as powerful as the United States) by claiming, 'My movement will be the one that frees you.'"
Not all views expressed at the forum were well-received. In particular, Hassan Shaygannik's theories of Western domination left many perplexed, including political science undergraduate Chris Miller who said, "I could not believe it because, basically, what he is saying is that the United States is somehow responsible for what happened at the World Trade Center. And I just do not see that."
Indeed, public opinion surveys in the United States show an overwhelming majority of Americans believe there is no justification for terrorism, regardless of any political grievances that may exist.
The Bush Administration stresses the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington will not alter longstanding U.S. policies, such as America's support for Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt. To do so, it is argued, would reward terrorism and invite more of the same.