Anti-western sentiment in Arab countries makes the US’s balancing act more difficult

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Rabi' al-Thani 05, 1423 2002-06-16

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 8, Rabi' al-Thani, 1423)

The ongoing Palestinian intifada not only marks a watershed in the struggle of the Palestinians to reclaim their usurped lands, but is also a defining moment in the restoration of resistance to Arab political discourse and praxis. But beneath the massive expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians throughout Arab countries lies a deep and growing resentment of America and its policies. A strong feeling of anti-Americanism seems to have taken root in the Arab world since the start of the intifada (September 2000). Arabs, regardless of their political orientation, have come to regard the US as effectively evil incarnate, the source of most of the political ills and misfortunes that have befallen them in the last few decades.

This wave of animus against America is far from the indiscriminate, virulent hatred that could be rooted in some sort of class envy of rich America with its racist prejudices, in which the American people would figure as objects of intense detestation. Americans who visit, work or live in Arab countries are often received with the typical Arab hospitality and generosity shown to strangers and guests. Nor does Arab anti-Americanism fit into the grandiose, self-fulfilling prophecies of a “clash of civilizations” that have been gaining ground in the West since the Cold War ended. While aware of differences between the largely Judeo-Christian West and the predominantly Muslim East, Arabs have not lost sight of the many things held in common by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Rather, the current wave of anti-Americanism has political and geostrategic causes. It is an articulate, yet impassioned, response to a long history of interference in the affairs of the Arab world, cloaked mainly in the double standards of most US administrations.

Arabs have many reasons to loathe not the American people but the US government, which has taken an active part in prolonging the agonies of the Arabs, at the hands of both native oppressors and foreign occupiers, costing uncounted victims in the process. Arabs of every shade of political opinion are bewildered by America’s shrill, condescending and self-righteous calls on the rest of the world to join the US-led fight against “terrorism” at a time when Washington is supporting Israel’s state terrorism that rages unchecked in Palestine, and the police states ruling in much of the Arab world.

The intifada has made worse the smouldering Arab resentment of America caused by its wholehearted and uncritical support for Israel. Israel’s repression of the intifada, using weapons made and supplied by the US, has shown the Arabs how US tax-dollars are used to prolong occupation and to suffocate the Palestinians’ yearning for liberation. The Arabs are angered particularly by the unwavering diplomatic, military and financial support of Israel by the US throughout Israel’s half-century occupation of Palestine. Appalled by the unlimited American support for the recent Israeli invasion of the West Bank, which enabled Israel to frustrate the UN Security Council’s fact-finding mission to Jenin refugee-camp, and by such bizarre pro-Israel public statements as George W Bush’s description of Ariel Sharon as “a man of peace,” Arab public opinion has shifted from perceiving the US as being biased toward Israel to considering it Israel’s partner. The unconditional support for Israel’s repression of the intifada has caused even pro-Western Arabs who at one time supported the US-sponsored Middle East “peace process” to withdraw that support. Egyptian noble laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s change of heart on “peace” with Israel is one example of this trend.

America is also seen as consistently lending succour to the corrupt, autocratic and even anachronistic regimes ruling in much of the Arab world, thus propping up the edifice of repression and sleaze that has stunted economic development, undermined political freedom, and perpetuated injustice. Arabs have come to realise that, despite the US’s propaganda about “making the world safe for democracy,” it has been the main support of undemocratic forces in the Arab world. It is the US government’s and oil-companies’ political, logistical, military, and economic support that tips the balance between the people and the autocratic regimes in favour of the latter, in most Arab countries.

Unflagging American support for authoritarian Arab regimes is the taproot of much of what is flawed in the Arab world today. By helping to keep the Arab order in thrall to dictatorships, the US maintains a political scene in which checks and balances are virtually nonexistent, public debate is muzzled, elections are rigged and civil society is rendered impotent. The Arabs have come to realise that bolstering docile client-regimes figures prominently in America’s foreign-policy strategy, in order to preserve an Arab political establishment that restricts its challenges to Israel to hollow rhetoric, and facilitates the westward flow of oil and gas.

The cruel effects of the US-led sanctions against Iraq have increased this resentment. In the last decade Arab public opinion has grown more and more sympathetic to the plight of the Iraqi people. Arabs marvel at the absurdity of the specious logic underpinning a sanctions regime that inflicts pain on ordinary Iraqis to punish their dictator for his political blunders and adventurism. The sanctions are ostensibly intended to put pressure on the Iraqi regime to abandon its drive to develop weapons of mass-destruction and, so the contorted logic of the sanctions regime goes, to squeeze the Iraqi people into rebellion. To these ends they are deliberately designed to hurt, and hurt badly.

Looked at against the backdrop of virulent American-style globalization spreading like a cancer all over the world, Arab resentment against America exemplifies a wider suspicion of globalization. There is growing concern in the Arab world, where culture is shaped by a religiously-inspired value system that emphasizes strict morality and strong familial and communal bonds, about the spread of Hollywood-style pop culture, promoted by a complex of media and entertainment industry giants, with a ‘value system’ rooted in “fundamentalist” secularism, rabidly egotistical individualism and lax morality and ethics.

The economic miseries of millions of people living in poor Arab countries ruled by pro-American regimes, such as Jordan, Morocco and Egypt, are largely attributed to economic liberalization, ‘structural adjustment’ and free-trade policies promoted by the US. Rather than bringing about the prosperity they promise, such policies in practice benefit a thieving clique of cronies and sycophants, and leave the majority mired in ever-deepening poverty.

The most visible manifestations of this anti-American public consensus are the massive street demonstrations being held throughout the Arab world in support of the al-Aqsa Intifada. At first the protesters used to chant slogans expressing their anger at Israel and the US. But before long their impotent governments became the targets of criticism as well, with slogans calling for the deployment of Arab armies in the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield, or for opening borders so that volunteers could launch cross-border operations against Israeli targets. One slogan that is often heard in Egypt encapsulates the inflamed public mood: “O Mubarak! O Coward! You are the agent of the Americans!” (Ya Mubarak! Ya jaban! Ya ‘Amil al-Amrikan!) Arab governments feel keenly the danger of such public expressions of anger and have been resorting to their usual measures to suppress them. During the past few months there have been major confrontations between police forces and protesters in Amman, Cairo, Alexandria and Manama, in which a number of demonstrators have died, while hundreds of others have been hurt. These incidents have inflamed the existing mood of distrust and hostility between governments and the public in several Arab countries.

Another expression of the increasing anti-Americanism is a swiftly spreading boycott of American products. This boycott, which has developed in a somewhat haphazard fashion, using word of mouth, advertisements in newspapers and magazines, announcements on satellite television-stations, as well as the hi-tech realm of cyberspace and instant messaging, has taken various forms, such as circulating lists of American businesses and products to be boycotted, switching from American to French cigarettes, picketing American restaurant franchises and so on. Once full of ostentatious, young and affluent Arabs, McDonald’s franchises, the quintessential symbol of American-style globalization, now stand largely empty all over the Arab world.

The surge in anti-Americanism has prompted the US government to launch a media campaign designed to win what US undersecretary of state Charlotte Beers has described as “the battle for the 11-year-old mind.” To this end the Arabic service of the Voice of America has recently inaugurated a new broadcasting network, Radio Sawa (Arabic for “Radio Together”). Last autumn US Congress allocated $35 million for the new cutting-edge radio-station, which broadcasts around the clock using powerful FM and AM transmitters, providing its audience with a grotesque mixture of Arabic and American pop music, interspersed with news, interviews and commentaries. Early in May the Congress House International Relations Committee authorised a bill allocating $135 million to launch an American Arabic-language satellite-television network.

But as long as Washington clings to its hostile foreign policy approach to the Arab world, any media blitz on its part targeting an Arab audience will inevitably fail to persuade. The Arabs feel that, especially in the past decade, a triumphant post-cold war America has largely scorned them, and that in the calculations of US policy-makers their lives figure as subhuman at best. Arabs know from daily experience that the misguided concept of ‘national interest’ articulated by American foreign-policy cognoscenti and decision-makers runs roughshod over their aspirations to human dignity, in order to secure the flow of cheap oil to American industries and gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs). It will take more than public relations efforts to win over Arab public opinion, if it can now be done at all. After all, America’s actions speak louder than any advertising campaign: and the blood of the Palestinian victims of Israel is thicker than oil.

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