Just three months ago I was invited to sit in panel in the annual event of the most influential US- Arab association, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The event took place in a hotel just one metro station after the Pentagon. I was heartened to see a once marginal community being able to gather more than one thousand distinguished Americans of Arab origins and invite so many US senators and politicians, intellectuals, diplomats and journalists. Over three days, we listened to these distinguished guests expressing their concerns over the Islamophobia in the US, the role of the media in accentuating it, and criticizing the US blind support for Israeli occupation, its complicity with and support for Arab tyrants and its continuing sanctions against Iraqi civilians.
The images of these éand many other-organizations and individuals who are courageously combating a huge tide of hatred and misinformation about the Middle East have been constantly flashing in my mind over these three painful days. And you hardly need to guess the reasons. Even in the relatively relaxed European place where I reside, the first question that comes from the reporter on the other side of the phone line has typically been (which is what I expect anyway): how do you feel about the “Palestinians” celebrating the suicide attacks? Then comes the already familiar sequence of questions on Islam, Jihad and democracy.
None of them asks you the usual questions addressed to ‘civilized’ people in such circumstances, whether this tragedy means anything to you as a human being. New York and Washington DC are after all two cities in which I personally lived, taught, lectured, and where I participated in countless conferences and seminars. Over the past week I was thinking of the many, many close friends that I have in both cities. And as we were glued to the TV set, my wife, son and I were reminiscing when only a year ago we were in the WTC and how I jokingly said: how would the security feel if we tell them that we are Iraqis? Well, the joke no more! Just like the millions of Middle Eastern origins living in the West, we are the suspicious people. And I think to myself: have we gone back to square zero once again after all those efforts to pull ourselves and causes a little bit together?
On God and the Media:
If anything, for the first time in perhaps two decades the cold war discourse on the “free world” and “democratic nations” has been refurbished and given a new content. The new content, and here is the important part of it, can only be induced from the equally reinvoked term: ” the civilized nations”. The term does not belong to the cold war jargon. Worse. To the golden age of the colonial era. And now the enmity is not between democratic nations and nations that are forcibly ruled by dictatorships. It is not between political systems. It is between two neatly separated “wholes”, collectivities, cultures, mentalities: one civilized, the other barbaric.
And why not? For a TV viewer whose eyes are gazing on that terrifying scene of planes thrusting inside the viscera of these two elegant two giants, slicing them like pieces of cake and turning them into rubbles, would the word ‘uncivilized’ be too much? It is not the ‘innocent’ description that disturbs many people in the entire world and especially Middle Easterners residing in the west or carrying western nationalities, however. Rather it is the implications of such reckless description.
The CBS, never known for its ‘innocent’ description of Middle East events was the one widely popular US network that recurrently showed the footage of a few Palestinians kids and youths rejoicing in the streets of East Jerusalem. And yes, the images were authentic. Not as authentic as the CBS translation, just a few days before the US Black September day, when an interviewed Hamas leader was justifying the Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli targets. The man was talking in Arabic about freedom, independence, colonialism, and all what you can gather from a ‘modernist’ national liberation leader. The outright and outrageous “translation” came as: those who die for god’s sake are promised seventy virgins in heaven!
But the footage of the joy of these Palestinian kids was authentic, just like Iraqi TV’s celebration of the carnage, and Saddam Hussein’s declaration that America had gotten what it deserved. But no less authentic was the missing part of the story. The US Counselor in Jerusalem asking his staff to pass to the CNN each and every piece of the thousands and thousands of letters and faxes of condolence sent by ordinary Palestinians, dignitaries and political leaders. Also was missing any footage on the several candle vigils by Palestinians, one led by the son of the late Faisal al Hussaini, in front of the US consulate and in many churches and mosques.
And despite all the declarations of outrage made by Arafat and his symbolic blood donation to the victims of the attacks, US analysts went on singling out Fath, the PLO organization led by Mr. Arafat, as one of the potentially targeted terrorist groups. The sad thing is that tens of declarations and articles by Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as well as sympathetic western analysts, that ‘objectively’ the Palestinians and Americans stand in the same boat as victims of terrorism, that simple and convincing message passed through deaf ears. Simple and convincing because the Palestinians have lost their historical homeland in 1948 through organized terror against civilians, and now as they resigned to accept only 22 percent of the area of historical Palestine, they are facing overwhelming violence to force them to compromise on that 22 percent.
The world has just shelved aside the fact the prime minister of the US closest ally in the Middle East, who is promising to conduct his part of the crusade against terrorism, is himself being investigated by a Belgian court for his crimes against humanity, and that an Israeli judicial commission found him guilty and responsible for the massacre of more than one thousand Palestinian civilians. Forget it! Ariel Sharon swiftly jumped into the driving seat of the world crusade against terrorism, offering, as Israel did in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, his expert squads to assist the US ally.
But identifying one’s positions with the “civilized nations” is not only a matter of an elocution contest. The west gracefully forgot and forgave the militant attacks of extremist Jewish militias against many British and civilian targets in Palestine prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. A wanted-poster circulated by the British mandate authorities with the photo of Israel’s ex-premier Isaac Shamir for the deadly bombing of King David Hotel and the assassination of special UN envoy to Palestine Count Bernadot in 1948 lies in the archives of the British Foreign Office. Not in the case of Middle Easterners. Constant confrontations do not allow the records of their desperate attacks to lie in archives yet.
Leaving aside for a while the foreign policy implications of associating Arabs or Muslims with the highly charged, even racist term “terrorist”, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that Israel, unlike its neighbors, has managed to cast an image of a pluralistic, democratic society, at least as far as its Jewish citizens are concerned. And to the extent that this ‘democracy’ does not perfectly match the ones practiced by western nations, we are always reminded of the threats to the existence of this state which is surrounded by a two hundred million hostile Arabs.
The insensitivity of at least some Arab rulers to human life goes beyond any doubt. However, rather than viewing them as oppressors of their own peoples, who have imposed on them systematic violence and oppression, western media has been in the habit of identifying the culture of rulers and that of their victim-citizens. A favorite argument in this regard is: look at the movements opposed to these regimes. Aren’t they mostly fundamentalist and violent? Very few have paused to ask about the West’s responsibility in keeping these regimes in place against the will of their peoples, and how fundamentalism is the direct product of the US cold war strategy. Even fewer have contemplated on how sustained regimes’ violence, the imposition of monolithic systems and falsification of peoples’ will have impoverished the political culture of the victims themselves.
Almost three decades of demonizing Arabs and Muslims led most westerners to see the oppressed people and their cultures through the prism of their regimes: that there is something non-democratic and ‘uncivilized’ that cuts across whole societies, despite the polite words of many- perhaps most- world leaders that Islam cannot be identified with terrorists who are no more than tiny groups, albeit highly lethal and effective as America’ Black September has once again reminded us.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice:
Many may still remember the first time that cartoons of hawkish-nosed, bulging-eyed Arabs with their traditional head gowns and daggers in their belts began to show in the Western press. This was immediately after the 1973 oil price hikes. The stereotyped face was a novice for our generation of westerners. But it was not for those who lived the 1930s, for it looked exactly the same as the image of the Jew in the many right wing and racist European and American media of the time. And who were those hawkish-nosed, super-affluent Arabs intent on suffocating the west? No, not the ‘extremist’ and radical Arabs of the time, because the ‘extremists’ according to the western whims then were mostly left wing youth with limited financial capacities. The paradox is that the ‘ugly’ Arab portrayed in the western media was none other than those puppet kings and princes who were supported by the Americans, British, German and French against the will of their peoples. Ironically, it was the Middle East peoples who saw their rulers as backward, reactionary and fanatic, while the west was polishing their images because they were the friendly, moderate allies who can keep stability in that strategic region and thwart off communism and revolutionary and modernizing tides.
The image of the ugly Arab has so evolved (and perfected) since. Now it is no longer the opulent oil-rich Arab. The image has engulfed all Muslims who have become the potential embodiments of terrorism and evil. A bomb thrown by a Muslim is a bomb thrown by all Muslims, while Westerners draw clear borders in other cases: Catholics are not all Irish bombers, nor are all Basques members of ETA, or Italians supporters of the Mafia, or Jews supporters of the racist Mulodite party, and the list extends to Sikhs, Serbs, Colombians, etcé
And what is neater than showing that the evil lies outside our borders and souls. Throughout history the rallying message of leaders has been: we are the pure, the evil lies with foreigners. Imagine that this last heinous act was conducted by an American group. Imagine telling Americans that Timothy McVeigh was not only an individual, but a political mentality and trend. Imagine saying that the execution of McVeigh still left other American McVeighs wanting revenge- and there certainly are.
And because times have changed, no one wants to recall prehistory, which is no more than twenty to fifty years old. No one wants to recall that these same Umar Abdul Rahman, jailed now for his planning of the 1993 bomb attack on the World trade Center, and Usama Bin Laden, as well as many other Abdul Rahmans and Ben Ladens were until yesterday America’s freedom fighters against communism, not only in Afghanistan, but throughout the Arab world. No one wants to recall how these were treated as VIPs in the United States, how full pages of Saudi papers were consecrated to calls on all Muslims to join the Bin Ladens in exchange for salaries and compensations for the families of the ‘martyrs’. And it is precisely thanks to this crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan that Bin Laden and many others have managed to construct their ‘internationalist’ networks. Money was flowing in the hands of ‘freedom fighters’, and the most sophisticated guerrilla weapons éincluding sting anti-aircraft US missiles- commissioned for their use.
In a part of the world that was portrayed by the US and western media as predominantly secular and tilting towards communism in the 1950s and 1960s, the US and British intelligence, with the active support of the Saudi ruling dynasty carefully nurtured, financed, trained and propagated Islamism that was to join hands with all believers in the fight against “atheism”. We have to forget all that today, because we are told that Islam is inherently anti-Western. When the Iranian anti-Shah revolution triumphed we had to accept the myth on the fanatic and inherently anti-American Shi’a clergy. Sure! Who wanted to remind the Americans that an Iranian Ayatollah Kashani was on the payroll of the CIA to mobilize the mobs in Teheran against the democratically elected nationalist (and anti-communist) Dr. Mossadegh in 1953?
Who wants to recall all that embarrassing ‘trash’ today? And why not pretend that these regimes reflect the aspirations, ideals and traditions of their own “uncivilized nations”? And here we are today: despite the western leaders’ polite comments on distinguishing Arabs or Muslims from terrorists, one sixth, yes one sixth of the world population is demonized and neatly delineated from “civilized nations”. And our dictators have learned the game well. If you want your crimes to pass unpunished, or even unreported, project an anti-fundamentalist image of your barbarism.
Saddam Hussein was the darling of the French and Americans (as well as the Soviets) in the 1980s because he was portrayed a ‘secular’ and ‘modernizing’ leader combating the medieval mullahs of Iran. His crimes against the Iranian people, his unilateral abrogation of an international treaty with Iran followed by invading it, his gassing of a Kurdish town in his own country, his mass murder of some 150000 civilian Kurds? Well perhaps he used ‘excessive force’ éto borrow from the contemporary diplomatic jargon- but he had to use whatever means available to him to ‘defend’ his country! A 1988 memorandum by the American undersecretary of state ‘advised’ the media not to publicize the ‘alleged violations’ of the Iraqi regime because of the importance of that country ‘for our national interests’.
Four years later, the Algerian military junta was projected as a secular regime facing the Islamic demon. This was its guaranteed visa to the hearts of the French establishment and media. But the gold medal in this race goes without challenge to Israel: the oasis of democracy facing a whole nation of uncivilized fanatics. Even Arafat, who had put all his stakes in a timid and complacent peace with Israel, is now denounced as a non-partner in the peace process. And now, even the essential right of fighting foreign occupation will be labeled as terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. See those Arabs? Even their doves have proven to be bloodthirsty.
Critics and Carnage:
So, the reporter asks: if there are so many misgivings towards US policy, Arabs must be jubilant for the attack on US civilians. Such a repugnant judgement threatens to terrorize any criticism of US policy. Silencing critics under the threat of identifying them with bloodthirsty murderers is the surest way to fascism. A more accurate description of the mood among Muslims is ‘mixed feelings’. The tiny minority which perpetrated the mass murder and its supporters are certainly jubilant. They would feel that they brought the giant superpower to a standstill. They showed that America is not as invincible as it likes the world to believe. Their murderous acts threaten to put the world economy into recession, something that even WWII could not inflict. And they will even justify the horrific price that innocent civilians had to pay in order to achieve their goal as a necessary one. But isn’t it significant that even the media of Saddam Hussein chose the expression ‘mixed feelings’? If Saddam knew that the Iraqis, Arabs, or Muslims were jubilant, or willing to share his undoubted happiness for the carnage, he wouldn’t have hesitated to ride the wave. Rather, many ordinary Iraqis, caught off camera by the CNN, were tellingly saying that as victims they knew how it feels to be one.
The horrendous drama has been rightly described as an act of war against the US. But let’s not imagine that these murderers perceive of themselves as equals to the US in terms of power. Rather, they like to paint a Rubin Hood picture of their acts: they are the representatives of a large mass of frightened people all over the world. They are frightened by the fact that the mighty America, the only superpower left in the world is insensitive to their suffering and is perpetuating and aggravating their suffering. And this is where the mixed feelings come from. The murderers have their own calculations, aspirations for power, and networks. But simple and ordinary people feel isolated, marginalized and need to send signals of despair to the world demanding recognition of their basic human rights. And to assume that any critique of US policy is tantamount to celebrating the murder of thousands of innocent civilians is the easiest way to dehumanize not only Arabs and Muslims, but many, many others.
Tall Nations, Short Nations:
And it is here that the Sept. 11 trauma can be a turning point in US (and world) history. Many analysts have rightly pointed out that this tragedy will force America out of its isolationism. While this is the likely outcome, my argument is that this alone is not enough. Indeed it may be a recipe towards more catastrophe for the US and the world. And Vietnam-type ‘internationalism’ is a case in point.
The serious flaw with the US approach to international relations does not lie in its isolationism, but in its ultra-nationalistic and unilateral ‘internationalism’. No other great power in world history has shown so much disregard for the interests and symbolic standing of even its closes allies as the US. No other great power has been so blatant in stating that it is going to join hands with others only if and when its national interests are at stake than the US. The US only entered WWI three years after it began. The US joined the allies in WWII two years after its outbreak, and only when an American naval base was attacked. The Nazi monster and Japanese militarism had already slaughtered millions in Asia, the USSR and Europe, and yet it was the 2400 US military killed in that attack that prompted America’s intervention.
And even today, and despite the overwhelming sympathy and support for the US in this latest tragedy, isn’t it curious that the US did not even ask the UN Security Council to convene in order to authorize the use of force éwhich it would most probably do- against the perpetrators of the heinous attack? And despite all the American discourse on globalization, nothing but ultranationalism smells out of ex-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright labeling of the United States as ” the indispensable nation”. But why are other nations ‘dispensable’? Albright’s answer is a literary piece on arrogance: “we stand tall and hence see further than other nations.” And it is all the more frightening to think that the quasi-unanimous sympathy with the US today could intensify such a chauvinistic attitude, rather than a profound reassessment of the basic principles of US foreign policy.
No wonder that at no point since 1968 has anti-Americanism been so high as it has been running (until Tuesday’s attacks) in the entire world. Two years ago, Samuel Huntington, certainly not a critic of the US or a progressive, wrote: “While the United States regularly denounces various countries as “rogue states”, in the eyes of many countries it is becoming a rogue superpower.”
Perhaps this painful black September will help opening the eyes of many Americans -and hopefully policymakers and advisers- to the fact that it is a sheer self-deception to pretend that resentment towards the US is only shared by some Muslim fanatics. This resentment is running high even among the citizens of America’s closest allies.
When a French farmer who attacks a McDonald’s restaurant becomes a national hero, this should send a disturbing message to Americans. When the Mayor of Berlin, the city which has survived the Soviet siege thanks to Western and American airlifts, adamantly rejects plans for the location of the US embassy in a very strategic center in the city -and he is supported in this by his constituency- then there is something wrong in US policy. When the US threatens the world organization, the UN with boycott and freezing its financial obligation every time the world decides to adopt resolutions not to the like of the US, then there is something terribly wrong with the US policy. When the US, the self-styled champion of human rights, is denied a seat in the Human Rights Committee of the UN for the first time since its establishment, then it would be a mockery to accuse a marginal country like Sudan of ‘plotting’ to deprive the only superpower from sitting on the committee. When the US insists that its support to Yugoslavia is contingent upon delivering its war criminals to the international court in The Hague, but blocks the establishment of a permanent war crimes tribunal because it cannot tolerate bringing cases against its nationals, then there is something wrong. When it finances collection of evidence to indict Saddam Hussein’s junta in genocide and war crimes, but stands against any such effort made by others to indict Pinochet and Ariel Sharon, then the credibility of its claims are at stake.
And no less self-deceptive is the often-cited ‘jealousy’ of others of American prosperity. For the “anti-US” stances cited above, as well as the major anti-globalization movements, come from equally prosperous nations. One day after the attack, two senators were ‘explaining’ the presumable ‘Palestinian joy’ following the attacks in the same way: “some hate American prosperity”. In this particular case, one would have expected a word about Palestinians watching the American F16 and Apaches wreaking havoc on them as the reason for their mixed feelings. None!
The Sept. 11 attacks, however, provide an exceptionally novel and interesting case that should open many eyes, even in the Arab and Islamic world. For in the midst of the talk on ‘jealousy’ and ‘hatred of American Prosperity’, no one cared to notice that for the first time, most of the suspected perpetrators belonged to those Arab countries whose per capita incomes are comparable to that of the US. Saudis have been always despised by many Arabs for their opulent and idle lifestyles. Carrying a US or Emirates passport was the key to special privileges in Western airports, embassies, facilities and institutions. The suspected people were shown enjoying opulent lives (presumably even before joining their cells) in Florida, driving and renting the latest and most expensive cars. Even we Arabs who knew of the few dissident Saudis, used to take the majority as acquiescent, even supportive, of their ultra-welfare states and pro-American rulers. But, just as the Americans underestimated the anti-Shah sentiments in pre-revolutionary Iran, perhaps they needed this second shock to open their eyes to see what is in the offing.
Three years ago, President Bill Clinton made a courageous apology to the African continent on three issues committed by the US. In my opinion, the most important of these was not related to slavery or racial discrimination, but to America’s strategy of forging relations with African rulers in accordance to their stances during the cold war, without giving any attention to these rulers’ relations with their own peoples. This was a courageous recognition of how egoistic policies can, and did, corrupt human rights discourse. This also explains why many people in the Arab world have developed so much cynicism towards international human rights organizations suspecting that human rights violations are only raised when some leaders lose favor with the US.
One day after America’s Black September, ex-Defense Secretary Cohen was commenting on the attacks on civilians and the need to forge an international unity around the cause of fighting terrorism. He said that the world must realize that when an American is wounded, others elsewhere will be bleeding too. This is correct to the extent that internationalism also implies that when an Iraqi or Palestinian innocent is wounded, Americans must feel the pain too. Complicity, not to speak about collaboration, may postpone a potential victim’s fall in the grip of terror, as complicity towards Nazi atrocities proved. But terror will have a terrible way of backlash even on those who thought that their silence would spare them the sacrifice.