Does the conflict between Palestinians and Israel prevent the expansion of democracy (including religious freedom), economic development and social diversity (including minority equality) in the Arab world? Or is that conflict a result of deeply-rooted anti-democratic and socially intolerant beliefs among many in the Arab world?
The Washington Post‘s “Outlook” section on Sunday, April 27 provided a forum for those who acknowledge the stagnation and repression common to Arab states — yet pass the buck by insisting that first, or simultaneously, the United States must pressure Israel to concede to the Palestinians.
On and Off Target
“Arab Doubts, Inside and Out,” by Raghida Dergham of the Saudi-financed, London-based Al Hayat daily, critiques political, social and economic conditions within Arab countries. But Dergham claims that nothing can be achieved apart or before satisfying Palestinian demands.
Dergham admits that “the problem is wide and deep. Arabs have indulged in the culture of complaint yet remained submissive to fate …. Collectively, except for the Islamists, the Arab elite have refrained from offering options for change …. Always there is imported blame, someone else controlling their destiny, while they themselves are at a loss to do anything about it.”
The writer notes that most Arab states ban political institutions and charges that “there is a slum mentality among inhabitants of the Arab world. They are largely disorganized and live in corrupt systems. They crave change but don’t dare to do anything about it; they rely on someone else to do it.”
Taking the Easy Way Out
As if to prove the point, Dergham succumbs to the evasion just described: Arab moderates cannot defeat extremists because “they feel undermined by American policies toward the Palestinians and Israelis and by the loud voices of hawks and extremists in and around the Bush administration …. Arab moderates will not be able to win the battle against Arab extremists unless the Bush administration contains its own extremists.”
Falsely equating advisers to the president with radical Islamic ideologues and terrorists, Dergham relapses. The writer blames anyone but Arab leaders and the “Arab street” for the problems identified earlier: “As much as the region is ready to change, it will always remain bogged down and antagonistic toward the United States as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved and America is viewed as a partner of Israel’s occupation and arrogance.”
In Case You Missed the Point
On the editorial page in the same section, Jamil Khoury, a Middle East Studies instructor at the University of Chicago and artistic director of the Silk Road Theatre Project, faults fellow Arab Americans and friends on the American left for largely opposing the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Khoury notes that the Iraqi leader’s “crimes are well documented, including the destruction of more than 4,000 Kurdish villages.” In addition, organized Iraqi exiles, those who experienced Saddam’s regime first-hand, displayed “nearly universal support for war,” but “the American left and Arab American community [were] both nearly unanimous in their opposition” to the war.
What to do? It’s “high time we began to publicly and aggressively criticize the despotism of Arab regimes. We must demand that our government not only stop supporting those regimes but also adhere to the principles of promoting democracy and human rights. After all, there exist no greater violators of Arab human rights than Arab regimes.”
But gratuitously, Khoury shoe-horns Israel in: “Just as we defend the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans, and demand an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza [Strip], we must be equally vigilant in demanding freedom for Arabs.”
It is as if the detailed, truthful criticisms by Dergham and Khoury are impermissible without a slap at Israel, in Khoury’s case, or casting Israel and its ties with the United States as central to the Arabs’ problems, in Dergham’s case.
In fact: the Arab states’ 55-year-old war against Israel:
*Stems in part from Islamic rejection of equality and sovereignty for the Jewish religion and Jewish people in its historic homeland;
*Is necessary for regimes such as Syria and Iraq under Saddam Hussein as a pretext for a repressive perpetual state of siege at home;
*Exemplifies a hostility to the only successful democracy in the region, one which epitomizes women’s equality and minority rights minority rights which, if applied to Kurds, Copts, Berbers, Maronites and others would threaten monolithic Arab-Islamic claims;
Do They Have It Backwards?
It’s curious that so few editorial page editors and columnists have examined the benefit that the spread of human rights, religious freedom, and democracy throughout the Arab world would bring to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Isn’t it more likely that the spread of freedom and human rights in the Arab world would lead to progress in negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians rather than the other way around?
To view the entire article, go to:
Washington Post, April 27, 2003
Arab Doubts, Inside and Out
By Raghida Dergham
Americans are right to be baffled by what seems like a contradictory reaction on the part of the Arab world to the end of the Iraq war pleased that Saddam Hussein is gone but sullen that it was the United States that removed him.
Arabs are sick and tired of the status quo, of living under regimes that have resisted reform, and of the rot these societies have fallen into. Even before the American military action, many Arab youths saw an invasion of Iraq as a means of shaking the status quo. The great majority of Arabs do not mourn the fall of a regime that was tyrannical and despotic. And yet, they remained distrustful of the Bush administration’s motives for the war on Iraq and its plans for their region.
It would be easy to dismiss this conflicted view, or to see it as an ungrateful reaction to the American “liberation” of Iraq. Yes, Iraq has been liberated from a despicable regime. But Iraq remains, technically, at least, under U.S. occupation. This is a legitimate ground for such a reaction. Americans would do well to understand that this mind-set can mean opportunity for the United States or disaster.
There is a space now, as a consequence of the war, that the Americans should cultivate: a means to build more complementary connections to the Arab world. President Bush must carefully avoid the kinds of missteps that would squander this chance to build qualitatively different, solid relationships not with Arab rulers but with the next generation of ordinary people in the region, relationships that would serve American national objectives. This is the new burden of the Bush administration in the region: trying to nurture trust with a people eager for change but suspicious of American motives.
If the opportunity is lost, if the impression among Arabs in the coming weeks and months is that America pocketed Iraq for American companies and for Israel’s sake, then the U.S. military victory in Iraq could well become a nightmare.
The problem is wide and deep. Arabs have indulged in the culture of complaint yet remained submissive to fate. It is as if they suffer an acute case of depression. They lack self-respect and self-confidence. They feel almost irrelevant. Individually, they are creative, intelligent, innovative and daring. But collectively, except for the Islamists, the Arab elite have refrained from offering options for change, whether internally, regionally or toward the United States. Always there is imported blame, someone else controlling their destiny, while they themselves are at a loss to do anything about it. Political institutions are banned in most Arab countries and the only quasi-political institutions are the mosques. In such a vacuum, religion has become the only institution, other than the powerful military and intelligence organizations, to hold sway in much of the region.
There is a slum mentality among inhabitants of the Arab world. They are largely disorganized and live in corrupt systems. They crave change but don’t dare to do anything about it; they rely on someone else to do it.
The Iraqi Shiite pilgrimage last week to Karbala is a powerful example of the kind of ambivalence many Arabs feel about the United States. But it is also a poignant reminder of how religion can take over as a primary driver in that region.
The pilgrimage had been banned for the past 25 years and became possible only because the United States has rid Iraq of Hussein. Nevertheless, on the first day, some of the pilgrims angrily called for the occupiers to leave. Baffling as it may be to Americans, the predominant message is: You, too, are to blame for supporting Saddam in his war with Iran and the consequent oppression of the Shiites; you remain the godfather of Israel; your motives are to “get” Iraq; and we want an Islamic republic.
But this is merely a partial picture. The war’s effect goes further.
America’s strength only highlighted Arab weakness. Having to be “liberated” and “freed” by someone else is shaming; that America is the “liberator” the same nation seen as the “imposer” of Israel’s superiority over Arabs just exacerbates the sense of shame.
Still, there are signs that the Arab region may be about to awaken from a deep sleep during which it has shunned reality. This awakening could simply be a yawn before returning to business as usual and the vicious circle of equivocation, corruption, weakness, complaint and frustration. But if this awakening is real, it provides a true chance for both Arabs and Americans to defeat extremism and forge a fundamentally new relationship. Otherwise, there is a risk of a reckless confrontation, fueled in both camps by extremism, arrogance and vengeance.
Arabs have an opportunity to take hold of their destiny and to demand that their governments better understand the necessity of reform. It’s also an opportunity for Arab moderates to engage actively and defeat extremists. But for that to happen, moderates must be empowered. They feel undermined by American policies toward the Palestinians and Israelis and by the loud voices of hawks and extremists in and around the Bush administration who have come to be seen as the voice of American foreign policy. Arab moderates will not be able to win the battle against Arab extremists unless the Bush administration contains its own extremists.
What is necessary at this point is for the administration to make the kinds of policy changes that will provide moderates with the arguments they need to diffuse extremist rhetoric about the United States. This would help erase the impression that the United States is frightened by real democracy for Arabs. The repeated failure of Arabs to do something about their affairs and shape their own future, along with continued frustration and desperation, will make them a ticking bomb not only for themselves but for Washington.
How should the United States go about trying to create these healthier, more trusting relationships? The challenge is huge and, not surprisingly, it has as much to do with reality as with perception.
The Bush administration does not appear convinced that Arab public opinion truly matters. It acts as if the “Arab street” is containable, toothless and marginal in the larger scheme. This needs to change.
The administration also seems to believe that the president’s use of the term “Palestine” is a huge development for which Arabs are not sufficiently grateful, whereas most Arabs view the Bush pronouncement as lip service. Herein lies a major disconnect. As much as the region is ready to change, it will always remain bogged down and antagonistic toward the United States as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict remains unresolved and America is viewed as a partner of Israel’s occupation and arrogance.
Now, after the war, matters are worse. America is seen as a “twin” to Israel an occupier of Arab land, an upholder of a “preemptive” doctrine.
Many Arabs view the Iraq war as the first step in a U.S. preemption strategy, to be followed by Syria and Iran. The notion that Iraq should be occupied until it becomes “stable” is interpreted as a cover for pocketing the country and its resources. Should such perceptions persist, the United States will slip into a quagmire and the military victory in Iraq would fade away.
Iraq should be allowed to move as quickly as possible toward internationally supervised elections rather than the Pentagon imposing a leadership prefabricated in Washington. The United States must not enhance the impression that it wants American companies to become the neocolonialists of Iraq. With this in mind, it should withdraw from Iraq quickly.
If Arab perception is that the United States is now an occupier of Iraq, then there will be no confidence in American motives in the region. There is an understanding that Israel will remain a special strategic ally of the United States; the concern among Arabs is that that relationship has expanded at the expense of Arab rights. The Bush administration should keep these things in mind as it works to strengthen ties in the region.
The American bases that are now widely assumed to be in the works for Iraq will not become a problem if the occupation ends. Many Arab countries host such bases, after all. The real divide is over issues: There is the anger about U.S. policies toward Israel. There is also anger over relations between the United States and most Arab regimes, which are only concerned with their own survival. Such relations fly in the face of America’s professed keenness for democracy in the Arab world. Finally, there is anger that comes from perceptions of American arrogance and condescension toward anything Arab.
If such perceptions prevail, the resurgence of strong religious groups in Iraq would be only a prelude to the worst for the whole region and for the United States.
Raghida Dergham is senior diplomatic correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, a pan-Arab daily newspaper.
Washington Post, April 27, 2003
Time for Arabs to Take The Lead on Freedom
By Jamil Khoury
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For some, perhaps including many Arab Americans the rightness or wrongness of the war in Iraq is a simple question. For me it has not been. Rather, it has created within me a painful conflict of conscience.
I’ve found myself torn between my strong antiwar impulses and a keen awareness of the horrendous suffering inflicted by the regime of Saddam Hussein. This inner conflict has put me at odds with many people I know, both on the American left and among Arab Americans. At the same time, it has raised my hopes for a new frontier in Middle East activism.
Although Hussein’s crimes are well documented, including the destruction of more than 4,000 Kurdish villages, the near eradication of the ancient civilization of the Marsh Arabs and the gassing of civilians, what exemplified for me the full horrors of the regime were the personal narratives. Since the mid-1980s I have been speaking to Iraqis, both in the Middle East and in the United States, who have shared graphic and heart-wrenching stories of torture, disappeared loved ones and murdered family members. These stories were often too painful to bear, let alone ignore, and it became clear to me that justice in Iraq could not be achieved through appeasing or containing a criminal dictatorship, but only through ensuring its demise.
Unable to trivialize or deny the courageous voices of Hussein’s victims, or to be unmoved by the nearly universal support for war among organized Iraqi exiles, I landed in the precarious position of supporting military action to topple Hussein’s regime while remaining highly skeptical of this war’s architects and their geopolitical objectives. I adopted a lesser-of-two-evils equation, in which the nightmare of war paled beside the nightmare of the Iraqi status quo.
This has been most trying for me on the home front “home” being at least in part the American left and the Arab American community, both nearly unanimous in their opposition to the war. Early on, I attended antiwar rallies and marches and found myself feeling alienated. I was dismayed by the failure of rally organizers to articulate an alternative (and realistic) vision for ending Hussein’s dictatorship and promoting freedom for Iraqis. I was also struck by the noticeable absence of Iraqis and Iraqi Americans at such rallies and was greatly affected when local Iraqis expressed hurt and dismay about the protests.
An argument can be made that as American citizens our role is to try to influence the actions of our government, not involve ourselves in the “domestic” affairs of another country. It is an argument that offers little hope to Iraqis and falls on its face when judged against efforts by the American left to advocate freedom in other parts of the world. Much to my dismay, I found many in the antiwar movement to be uninterested in discussing the behavior of the Iraqi regime. Moreover, the fact that many on the left seemed more intent on seeing Bush fail than Hussein fall revealed a skewed sense of priorities.
I am not questioning the sincerity and integrity of those involved, nor do I believe they are naive. It was difficult for me to break ranks with people whose opinions I respect and draw inspiration from. But for me, the prospect of ending Hussein’s regime trumped all else.
While the left fell short of expectations, though, it was Arab American activists from whom I felt most estranged. I was appalled to see high-profile Arab Americans essentially dismissing the pleas of Iraqi exiles, some going so far as to suggest that the exile leadership lacked legitimacy. Instead of deferring to those most affected by the Iraqi regime those with family members living in Iraq the activists effectively removed Hussein’s horrors from the equation and framed the discussion in terms of the United States vs. the Arab world. Yet the question remained: Who better than Iraqis to differentiate between liberation and foreign aggression and to define the best interests of their homeland?
As an Arab American, I am deeply proud of Arab Americans’ accomplishments and our contributions to the rich fabric of American life. Arab American leaders and spokespeople are by and large sophisticated, principled and committed. Yet I am compelled to demand more from them and more from myself. It is high time we began to publicly and aggressively criticize the despotism of Arab regimes. We must demand that our government not only stop supporting those regimes but also adhere to the principles of promoting democracy and human rights. After all, there exist no greater violators of Arab human rights than Arab regimes.
It is time for Arab Americans to place a higher premium on freedom in the Arab world than on romantic notions of Arab nationalism or fidelity to the failed statist ideologies of yesterday. Just as we defend the civil rights of Arab and Muslim Americans, and demand an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, we must be equally vigilant in demanding freedom for Arabs. To be fair, I don’t know any responsible Arab American who thinks well of the Arab regimes. Yet all too often our criticism is either muted or treated as a distraction from some “larger” issue, when indeed it is the larger issue.
It bothers me that American progressives and Arab Americans woefully cede discussion of democracy in the Arab world to neoconservatives with discernibly dubious motives. Shouldn’t we be the ones taking the lead on these issues? Shouldn’t we be the ones brainstorming ways to support a free Iraq, instead of gloating and peddling worst-case scenarios? This is an exciting and important time for Arabs. Iraq today stands a chance of becoming a model of civil society for the entire region.
The writer is an instructor in Middle East studies at the University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies and the artistic director of Silk Road Theatre Project.