NEW YORKI am an Arab-American, a Muslim woman and a New Yorker. I was born in the United States to an Arab fatber and a Western mother. I grew up in the United States until the age of 7, then returned to the Arab world, where I spent my adolescence, coming back to America only to go to college. I know about the divide between East and West. I know about the supposed chasm between Islam and the West that can never be bridged.
I live in that chasm and, the last time I checked, I was a pretty well integrated human being. To me, the clash of civilizations theory that is supposed to explain the war on terror holds very little water.
I also know firsthand the taste and smell of a despair that has been festering for years in the Muslim world. I stood outside my home in the Middle East on a day when the local government was forced by the International Monetary Fund to announce the lifting of subsidies on products like flour, butter, and oil. Even today, I recall the fear as I wondered how even my bourgeois family would make ends meet.
I have seen the birth of the despair that so many are now trying to understand. It happened one day when I was 11 or 12.
Not far from my school was a municipal maternity ward whose funding fell far short of its needs when international aid failed to come. A woman emerged from the building clutching a bundle wrapped in newspaper. She sank down against the wall of a market. Unwrapping her bundle, she revealed her newborn child. "The ward has no blankets, " she replied in response to my terrified stare. Then she unbuttoned her blouse and lifted the now screaming child to her breast. That moment has remained with me. I wonder now if that instant could have been the birth of a potential terrorist.
The Middle East is home to great injustices: the continued oppression of the Palestinian people; the starvation of the Iraqi people; the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla. The cunning of Osama bin Laden and other Islamic extremists has been that they did not act like children and ignore the growing desperation. They identified it, and they have used it as the fuel for their political objectives.
When bin Laden's agents attacked the World Trade Center, they hijacked the legitimate despair that is so much a part of the reality of the non-Western world. By retreating into his hideout in Afghanistan pursued by the United States and others who hunt him, bin Laden is hoping that America wiII complete the equation for him and couple his death and destruction with more anguish and suffering. But to do so would be to play his game and to bring into being a reality where civilizations collide and where despair justifies terror.
Bin Laden does not speak for the poor, wretched and dispossessed. If he did, his horizon would be one of equality, justice and freedom for all. Instead he offers a bleak landscape, where the Koran - a sacred and inspiring text - has been reduced to an outdated penal code, where half the population of his world - namely, women - is held in enslavement, and where hate and violence are seen as the only answers to a desire for change.
Bin Laden is concerned with power, not the soul; with the mobilization of people for political purposes rather than with sharing and alleviating their suffering. We must be careful that in acknowledging the forces that have brought us to this brink of all-out war we do not give credence to bin Laden's political aims.
We Americans can no longer turn our backs on the helplessness and desperation that is rampant in so many regions of the world. We must take human anguish out of the hands of bin Laden and his cohorts by righting the wrongs committed against humanity. We must make freedom and justice truly know no boundaries, and not belong to one people more than another.
I do not wish to live in a world determined by bin Laden, where my pen and my camera are taken from me, where a father is scorned for indebting himself to educate his daughters. Let us meet in the uncharted territory between East and West and begin a dialogue to build a world beyond despair.
The writer, an author and film maker, contributed this to the International Herald Tribune.