Arabs May Disagree With U.S., But Don’t Call Us Anti-America

Before the September 11 attacks, the United States had felt itself free from the threat of attacks on its own soil. In a horrific instant, that security was destroyed.

Suddenly, there was an enemy that could be neither named nor seen, a group of indistinct individuals operating from caves in distant countries. They had strange and unfamiliar names and professed even stranger and more unfamiliar ideologies. The United States had to face the fact that it was not invincible, that it had enemies who could strike at its very heart.

Just as Americans have had to come to grips with what was unparalleled in their lives and their history, so too have we Saudis.

Our initial horror at the death and destruction was compounded by the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were said to be Saudis. Neither the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia nor the Saudi people had ever embarked on so violent a course of action. It was unknown and unimaginable. The streets of our country are, after all, virtually crime-free and it is perfectly safe to walk outside at any time of day or night.

The initial shock produced strange reactions in Saudi Arabia: denial, disbelief, horror and numbness. The attacks brought out into the open a number of problems that had been festering for a long time, as well as attitudes and ideas that had not been previously articulated. Questions began to be asked.

What had happened? What had gone wrong? Why? None of the questions, of course, had easy or ready answers. But they are still being asked and answers are still being sought.

Suddenly Saudi Arabia found itself in the midst of a major crisis. People realized that a great deal of introspection and plain old-fashioned soul-searching had to take place. From being a relatively apolitical society, the country became a nest of discussion and debate. In the process, traditional Saudi attitudes toward the United States, Israel and the West in general were scrutinized.

The United States in particular had always been looked upon as a friend. With all that was said and done during the last year, though, the strength of the friendship was called into question. We Saudis were surprised and deeply pained by the unprecedented attacks of insult, vilification and simple character assassination that appeared in the American media. Saudis may have been involved in the attacks, but that should not automatically imply that the entire country was guilty.

Against this backdrop, the intifada raged into its second year in Israel, with the blood of both Palestinians and Israelis continuing to tragically flow in the West Bank and Gaza.

The long-held perception in Saudi Arabia of uncritical American support for Israel was reinforced during the last year by President Bush’s insistence on removing Yasser Arafat from power, while incredibly labeling Prime Minister Sharon “a man of peace.”

The disappointment and frustration among Saudis was made even greater this spring when Crown Prince Abdullah’s plan for peace in the Middle East was met with cynicism and skepticism in the United States. It was the first time in 50 years that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had ventured so openly into the diplomatic minefield of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and being effectively sidelined was a bitter pill to swallow.

On the so-called Arab street, Bush’s simplistic threat that “You are either with us or against us” seems to be in the process of being carried out. One year after September 11, the man on the street has mixed emotions. Part of him may think it is all due to “a clash of civilizations,” while another part may think it is pure power politics.

What is vital for Americans to know is that we do not hate them, their country or their ideals. That does not mean we agree with all their policies and every stand they take. But anti-American demonstrations do not mean that all Americans are hated though it certainly does mean that there are differences in both opinion and outlook. Resolution of all these problems can only come about through sincerity and rational dialogue.

We all realize that there is no magic wand for solving problems, but there is certainly a strong feeling here and in much of the Middle East that if some progress could be made toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of the present anti-American sentiment would surely die down and vanish. Peace is desired and peace will be sought.

For those who love and support Israel, we say that even unpopular advice must be listened to and, in some cases, acted upon. I would caution Forward readers not to believe cheap media propaganda and credit hysterical reports from various lobbies, each with their own selfish agendas. Criticism of Israel and its policies is not the same as anti-Semitism.

The ghetto mindset among many Jews has to be eliminated. It has no place in a new order which guarantees security for all. There have been times and places in the past where Muslims and Jews lived together in peace. There is no reason why those times and places cannot be recreated in today’s Middle East.

As we approach the anniversary of September 11, some new expressions are appearing in both the Arab and international political lexicons. “Transparency,” “human rights” and “regime change” have become the new buzzwords. We Arabs certainly want change, but it must be evolutionary change.

For too long the Arab world has been subject to changes imposed by those wanting to seize or consolidate power. This includes such people as Saddam Hussein. It also includes outside powers wishing to impose changes for their own ends.

Today, however, the Arab world is different. A majority of the population is under 30, and it is more educated, sophisticated and politically aware than in the past. They want a greater say in their own political and social lives, and this is something that all Arab leaders have to address and come to terms with. In so doing, change will come from within the most healthy and sustainable kind of change. And that kind of change will contribute to peace and security for all who live in the region.

The September 11 attacks literally opened a Pandora’s box. As in the original fable, a host of terrible things escaped. We must not forget, though, that in that fable, one thing alone remained in the box: hope.

Khaled Almaeena is Editor-in-Chief of the Arab News.