News & Politics

Empathy, Not Sympathy

It's time to put the 'War on terror' in historical perspective.
If America is going to "win hearts and minds" in the "war on terror," empathy is indispensable. I said empathy; not sympathy. There's an important difference between the two.

Webster's defines empathy as the "ability to share in another's emotions, thoughts or feelings." Sympathy, on the other hand, means "sameness of feeling." Key word: sameness.

Now, for just a moment, forget everything you think you know about Muslims and take a cursory know-thy-enemy walk through history with me.

Long before 9/11, Muslim civilization was first subordinated to Europe in Asia in the late 1600s. In the early 1900s European colonization swept over Muslims in the Balkans and North Africa, and by the early 20th century the yoke of European colonialism had made its way to sub-Sahara Africa.

But it was World War I that signaled the complete subjugation of Islam to the West.

Gwynne Dyer, one of the most astute observers of the clash between Pax Americana and the "Islamist project," offers this insight: "By 1918, all the wealth and power of the Muslim world were gone and 95 percent of Muslims were living as the subjects of one foreign Christian empire or another."

Lest you think Dyer is a "blame-America-first" kinda guy, he goes on to write: "There is no need for contemporary Westerners to flagellate themselves with guilt over this past. When Muslims held the whip hand, half of the then-Christian world was conquered and lost forever; it's just history, that's all."

But, as Dyer points out, Muslim historical grievances "are a good deal fresher than Christian ones."

Rightly or wrongly, many Arabs mostly blame this history on oil and Israel.

About half the world's oil reserves are in Muslim countries and what do they have to show for it? Poverty and countless interventions from more powerful foreigners.

You can blame Muslim corruption all you want (and there's certainly some truth to that) but it was the United States, not corrupt Muslims who overthrew a democratically elected Iranian regime in 1954 and then split the oil wealth between the "big five" Western oil companies. (Ever heard the Washington joke: "What is all of our oil doing under their sand?")

When it comes to Israel, you can't understand the beef without taking into account the fact that Muslims didn't have anything to do with the Holocaust and thus reject what they perceive as the West's attempt to ameliorate guilt by creating Israel in the heart of the Arab world.

The British promised an independent Arab state in the Fertile Crescent if the Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Turks. Arabs believed the promise, not knowing the Brits and the French struck a secret deal to divide the land between themselves in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.

Meanwhile, the Brits had promised leaders of the Zionist movement in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to create a "Jewish homeland" in Palestine, which ultimately led to the U.N. partitioning of Palestine in 1948.

Now, fast-forward to Saddam's Iraq and the emergence of Osama bin Laden. Osama essentially tells disillusioned Muslims: The Americans want to subjugate us. They have built permanent military outposts on Muslim holy ground. They have launched an unprovoked attack on Iraq under false WMD pretenses. American soldiers are torturing our people, etc. (Remember the Red Cross report that found 90 percent of Iraqi detainees were not terrorists or insurgents, which means it's likely that innocent civilians were tortured.)

As Dyer points out: "The bitterness runs very deep, and the surprising thing is not that there are so many extremists in the Arab world willing to use violence against the West, but that there are so few."
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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