The Road to Washington

There is no longer a need to delve into the mythology of invading villains, evoked so eloquently in Mohamed Al- Sahhaf’s press conferences. Debate over the need to influence US public opinion or affect the US’s decision-making has virtually come to an end. The US is not run by an authoritarian regime, a one-man show subject to the whims of the individual in power. Its political system is intricate, composed of a number of balanced and interacting forces. It has room for interest groups, public opinion, and the press to have their say. Periodic presidential and congressional elections also affect its course.

Currently, there are feverish attempts by political insiders to inject the US’s domestic life with its unipolar view of international politics. The United States has changed drastically since it began to assume the global role of empire. Washington’s power is gradually eclipsing that of the states and individual freedoms are diminishing — with individuals being closely monitored by the state and with state propaganda becoming more effective. The state apparatus has co-opted African-Americans, but the government’s central power is on the rise.

During the course of the “war on terror”, powerful blows have been dealt to political freedoms and civil rights within the US. These blows are bound to generate conflicts within the empire, on top of the already existing conflicts involving income distribution, social justice, environmental degradation, and the state of permanent war into which the country is being dragged. These conflicts have to be addressed as the US saunters along its global path of imperialism.

In order to create a more balanced and interactive Arab-US rapport, we have to ask ourselves once again: Who are we? And what credibility does the all-encompassing concept of “we” have anymore?

Some may say, “Why do we need to take a position on US domestic affairs?” There is room for a convergence of interests without having to close ranks with opposition movements within the United States. And, there is room for US solidarity with the issues of the Arab world and the Palestinian people, for example, without this being conditional on the Arabs taking any specific stance on US domestic affairs.

But, assuming all the above is true, and that a convergence of interests develops, bringing us closer to US democratic forces that oppose US policy, the question of solidarity is bound to arise. We have to answer such questions: With whom should we seek to cooperate inside the United States? Who is to speak on our behalf? We no longer have any use for “we” as an unspecified term. We have to determine who wants to affect what, in what way, and with what political discourse.

Take for example the schizophrenic manner of those who want to stay on friendly terms with the United States, even implement US policy, while treating Christians as infidels in their domestic policy and through their dominant ideology. This manner of interaction with the United States undermines one’s credibility both inside the United States as well as at home? How can someone acquiesce to US policies while denouncing it as a state of infidels? This is a question rightly asked by ordinary Arabs brought up to doubt the intentions of US and European Christians, including rights activists. It is also fair to expect the average American, whether anti- or pro- Arab, to ask the opposite question.

Furthermore, it has become clear that bilateral relations between the leadership of any Arab country and the United States is not geared towards influencing the United States on behalf of “national issues”, but on stabilising relations between the US and the Arab state in question as well as promoting the interests of that state and the United States.

Hopes that Arab countries would sanction a form of collective action aimed at influencing US public opinion have been dashed. The Arabs have done little more than attempt to formulate a pressure group or lobby, one that would initiate contacts with Congress members through the efforts of self- promoting US academics.

Differences over the Arab agenda surface even with regard to questions as simple as contacting the media, because Arab countries have no definition of their common cause. Occasionally, a sporadic effort is made to cultivate the connections of one enlightened Arab official. More often than not, Arab countries employ corrupt politicians or western journalists to advance their interests. The latter, of course, act in isolation from civil society organisations, peace movements, and human rights groups. This happens because the incentives for working for an Arab country in a western country are likely to be financial and hence unrelated to principles or solidarity with any given cause. The required effort, therefore, becomes a job (which may or may not get done satisfactorily) that is not linked to the motives of the individuals involved. The performance, objectives, end results, and manner of carrying out this job cannot, therefore, offer inspiration, provide context, or create the right mood for a solidarity movement that can affect policy making.

Arab nationals and democratic forces should perhaps let those engaged in the above efforts proceed separately with their own agenda and priorities. Meanwhile, these forces should begin formulating their own priorities, agendas, and modes of action.

I am not talking here of internal affairs in each Arab country, or the questions of democracy and US alliance with undemocratic regimes. Democracy activists are likely to find allies in the US domestic scene — within the political apparatus and the media as well as opposition and human rights groups.

The difficult task will be in finding a link between Arab national issues and US domestic ones. An Arab national cause does not exist in the United States, but there are causes that are linked with it and can lead to it.

Any successful action by US citizens in support of Arab causes should seek to find this link and demonstrate its relevance to US citizenry. Activists should seek and find a common denominator among Arab-Americans, and proceed accordingly to discuss discrimination and US foreign policy.

No Jewish organisation would have been able to survive in the United States and advance the cause of Israel and Zionism without promoting solidarity on certain issues. Likewise, no Arab-American group would survive in the United States unless Arab civil rights in America and Arab affairs become part of its agenda. Focus is needed on the US’s hostile attitude towards Arabs living outside the US and towards their national aspirations. Remarkably, Arabs have more freedom of action outside their countries than at home.

Zionists define themselves as a nation outside America, but never use such terms inside America to avoid the thorny issue of loyalty. In other words: ethnic, religious, and cultural contexts are called upon to justify solidarity with Israel. In Israel itself, there is no hiding the convergence between religion and nationalism, faith and the state, despite the problem this convergence creates for the formulation of democratic public opinion.

Some Arab analysts see Arab nationalism as an obstacle to democratic evolution in Arab countries. However, the Zionist Left sees the Jewish faith as a bond tying people of different cultures together, and a condition for the success of democracy in Israel. There is a dire need to address these kinds of issues at the level of US domestic policy. Israel, invoked so frequently by the US Zionist lobby, is practically a domestic US issue.

The Palestinian cause is indisputably the most salient Arab rallying point, given its political centrality, its place in the Arab consciousness in general, and overwhelming Arab anger at Washington’s pro-Israel policies. It is possible to explain to the American public, in simple terms, the intrinsic relationship between the Palestinian issue as a colonialist phenomenon and the obstacles to progress and development in the Arab world. It is important to underscore the prevailing sense of injustice, which impedes any fruitful dialogue between Arabs and the US, not only at the level of the state, and its representatives, but also at the level of civil society, which must be reformed as a prerequisite for building productive dialogue.

As a struggle against colonialism, the Palestinian cause has sympathisers in the US whom we can address on the basis of the fight against oppression. There are endless avenues for creating links of communication with US civil society, through women’s movements, minority and civil rights movements and the peace movement — which Palestinian activists in the US have ignored. What is important is that influencing US policy does not begin with the White House and Congress, but with winning over allies, especially those that have their finger on the pulse of the American electorate, which, in turn, influences Congress through the electoral process and its members’ voting constituencies. How frequently have Arab governments attempted to go directly to a congressional member or a government official in the hope of winning the ear of the president, who seems to have a far greater impact on his Arab allies than they do on him.

In their current position, Arab leaders cannot interact with US civil society on any issue apart from the opposition to war and US foreign policy, neither of which require credibility on democracy and human rights. Arab democratic forces, on the other hand, can establish close relations in US civil society against anti-democratic American policies, especially towards the nations the US regards as its allies.

In this regard, it is preferable to pass the banner in this struggle to truly democratic forces in the US, as opposed to those arch conservatives who wield “democracy” to twist the arms of their allies and besiege their adversaries in the Arab world. We should also remember that when the “ultra-right” feels obliged to do more than just blackmail their non-democratic allies and actually put forth a positive model for democracy, such a model is founded on sectarian, regional and tribal affiliations. The formula is touted in the name of defending minorities but reflects a thinly disguised hatred for Arab nationalism. Or those conservatives brandish Turkey’s “Islamic democracy” as the equivalent to Christian democracy — a comparison that is pure illusion given the militaristic nature of the Turkish regime. Indeed, Turkey is more nationalistic than any known Arab nationalist regime, and more hostile to its non-Turkish minorities than North African countries and Iraq ever were.

Rescuing the banner of democracy from the hands of the American “ultra-right” is vital, because this will ensure that the struggle for democracy fits the Arab agenda, rather than the imperialist agenda with its perennial quest for surrogate leaderships, keen to perpetuate themselves through acquiescing in America’s control over their country’s resources and policies.

It does not take a great genius to realise that the task of influencing the US media is formidable, given the deeply entrenched prevalence of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices. Furthermore, the permeation of Zionist concepts, indeed whole paradigms, have dominated understanding of this region — although we have a tendency to exaggerate the impact of this on the media and US policy.

The task of combating anti-Arab prejudice and the spread of inaccurate Israeli interpretations of the Arab-Israeli conflict falls upon us all. Racism makes no exceptions. However, not all of us are equipped for the task. For example, even if one is the object of anti-Arab racism, one can hardly make a credible fighter against racism if one practices another form of racism in a different context.

Some believe that the question of improving the Arab image in the western media is purely a matter of propaganda that requires, above all, money — to establish, for example, an English-language television network. In fact, however, dealing with the western media, and the US media in particular, is an extremely complex business for which there is no magical solution. Money cannot compensate for poor performance and it is no substitute for credibility. Also, it is absurd to imagine that by creating an Arab English-language TV network we will automatically be able to leapfrog over all the established media in the western market so as to address that public directly.

On the other hand, what we do need is to develop credible and viable ways to influence the existing media in the west. One way is to lend all possible support to Arab-Americans wishing to study journalism and join the American press establishment. Another is to generate accurate and reliable primary sources in foreign languages and ensure that these are at the disposal of the foreign press, which would then have no excuse for relying solely on Israeli sources. Towards this end we must also develop our own ability to analyse events, scientifically and on the basis of accurate and properly corroborated information. There are a thousand instances in which the Arab position on an event could have won the sympathy of western popular opinion but in which our tendency to exaggerate and our inattention to detail worked against us.

Certainly such a project could rely on official Arab funding. However, it must be run by independent democratic forces which are not tied to the control of a particular Arab government or even the Arab League; who understand the language of western media and who are capable of interacting with western public opinion in general.

The dynamics of US politics brings to the fore the urgent need to work with the official or traditional churches in order to counter the influence of Zionist-oriented Christian fundamentalism. Most useful in this regard would be Arab-Christian clergymen. I stress clergymen because the lay Arab-Christian should not present himself in a religious capacity simply to satisfy the “West”. Just as one should not conceal his Christian affiliation because he was born in a predominantly Arab- Islamic environment, one should also refrain from assuming a sectarian mantle to cater to the Americans, for that undermines the Arab social fabric. Still, there are an abundance of Arab- Christian clergymen capable of engaging in important dialogue with western religious institutions. Many of these are influential members of Arab communities abroad. Many of these, too, embrace Arab nationalist values, while simultaneously possessing the necessary theological credentials to present eastern orthodoxies as a fundamental component of our social fabric, and to refute the theological claims used by the alliance of Christian fundamentalists and Israel.

This avenue for promoting our influence abroad must be pursued systematically and unreservedly. The Maronite, Catholic, Assyrian, Coptic, Orthodox and Chaldean churches are rich in history and culture and form an important part of the history and culture of the Arab world. Their role should not be absent in the dialogue with the West and in the struggle against Zionism, as it is being waged in the US in particular.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.