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Occupation – the Muslim perspective

Guest Blogger

It seems almost an impossible ambition: the United States invades and fights wars on Muslim lands and yet wants to convince Muslims that it respects their rights and interests. How are American actions and words interpreted across the Islamic world? Journalist Philip Smucker traveled through the Middle East, Asia and Africa in search of answers. He spoke with students, intellectuals, insurgents, politicians and U.S. diplomats and military officers for his book “My Brother, My Enemy: America and the Battle of Ideas Across the Islamic World,” published this month by Prometheus Books. Here, he assesses the Muslim perspective of the word occupation.

By Philip Smucker

Occupy: from Latin occupare, from ob- toward + -cupare (akin to capere to seize.)

While travelling in the Islamic realm for my book, there was one word root that kept popping up in conversations: occupy, occupation, occupiers and occupied.

Young Muslims I spoke to in my travels through the Holy Land, Africa, South Asia and the Isles of Indonesia used the word “occupation” constantly. Its two main uses applied to Israel’s “occupation” of the land that would become the state of Palestine and to America’s “occupation” of Afghanistan. On the surface, these “occupations” look very different to most Americans.

British writer and former diplomat Rory Stewart explained to me in Afghanistan that Americans can’t easily grasp what occupation means to the occupied. “The United States has been slow to realize this because – of course – the United States is itself a revolutionary country,” he said. “It believes in freedom. It sees itself as an opponent of colonialism. It is very, very difficult for the United States to understand that many people around the world now perceive it as an imperial, colonial power trying to occupy them. Because that is not the intention of the United States.”

In South Asia, President Barack Obama and America’s top field commander Gen. David Petraeus are pushing ahead with a new strategy to support an Afghan government, to help end an insurgency and to leave. So, their stated plan contains the implicit promise not to occupy.

But since we’ve been trying to do this now with little success for nearly a decade, South Asians and a lot of their Muslim brethren are skeptical of U.S. intentions. Many now falsely perceive that America’s goal is really to simply “occupy” Islamic lands.

The one “occupation” that raises the most eyebrows and animus towards the United States, however, is still Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Since 1967 there has been talk about ending this occupation. Yet few Muslims I spoke to in my travels believe anymore that a peace deal is likely or even possible.

On the other hand, many young Muslims I spoke to – from Cairo to Jakarta – are now clearly siding with the views expressed by Hamas’ radical leader, Khaled Meshal, whom I also interviewed for my book. He explained in Damascus that “without resisting the occupiers, the occupation, the occupier himself will never be convinced that he has to leave.”

America’s conundrum – and for that matter its war – is as much about perceptions as facts. Too often the idea of Israel’s “occupation” in the Holy Land is conflated in the minds of Muslims with the idea of American military “occupation” in South Asia and beyond. Al Qaeda knows this and they’ve crafted their own stealthy recruitment campaigns to incorporate these views. Their simple and direct message: “America and Israel want you under their boot.”

Leaders at the Pentagon and within President Obama’s national security apparatus already recognize so much. Petraeus, himself, testified before the U.S. Senate in March after his Central Command submitted a detailed 56-page “Posture Statement,” that said, “The (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” The statement further added, “Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

It is hard to argue with perceptions. That is why I argue in my book that America should be pushing hard to end our own occupations and those of our allies. This can be accomplished with a successful counterinsurgency campaign in South Asia, but also by persuading Israel – with the use of real leverage – that ending its own occupation is in the long-term interest of both Israel and the United States.

A U.S. foreign policy that does not endeavor to accomplish these ends, I suggest, is a betrayal of America’s own national interest.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  July 7, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: u.s. middle east policy; occupation of muslim lands;  
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