Middle Easterner Muslims seem to be baffled by the situation in Kosovo. Should they, as proud Muslims, sympathize with the predominantly Muslim Albanians? Or should they, as stalwart opponents of the United States and NATO, and in some cases long-time friends of Belgrade, sympathize with the Serbs? Indecision and contradiction lead to a curious mish-mash of reactions and an overall inability to respond in way that might materially affect the outcome of the crisis.
The one Middle Eastern country with a predominantly Muslim population offering heartfelt support for the NATO operation is Turkey, where concern has less to do with Islamic brotherhood than with five centuries of Ottoman imperial rule in Kosovo and the fact that some 60,000 Kosovars speak Turkish as their mother-tongue and the many family ties between the Kosovars and the citizens of Turkey. "I saw my relatives on television, walking through mud and in pain. I tracked them down and brought them home," says Fahri Turkkan, head of the Kosovo Albanian Solidarity Group in Turkey. This sort of reaction has led to an outpouring of popular support for the NATO operations and to a nearly fever-pitch concern for the well-being of the refugees -15,000 of whom have found their way to Turkey, a larger number than to any other member state of NATO. Indeed, so many Turkish families have opened their homes to refugees that government-sponsored refugee camps have had hardly any takers.
In the rest of the region, Muslim opinion is much more negative. Emotions are muted among NATO's rather few supporters. Yes, the Saudi authorities endorsed the bombing operations ("We must encourage the Americans and their allies in NATO to stay the course") and even called for ground troops "to finish the job," but they did so quietly, for this position goes against the feelings of most Saudis. More weakly yet, the government of Jordan condemned the Serb actions without endorsing NATO's air campaign.
To the extent that Muslim Arabs back NATO's actions, they do so to argue for parallels between the plight of Kosovars and Palestinians. Serb and Israeli actions are allegedly "no different": an article with the provocative title "Netansevic"points to ethnic cleansing, deportation of citizens, and destruction of civilian records and property deeds. Advocates of this line sometimes take the next step: "the justifications given by NATO leaders for attacking the Serbs also apply to Israel" and the United States should "handle the Palestinian problem... with the same approach, determination, and willpower" as in the Balkans. One Egyptian newspaper columnist actually writes about his dream "of a day when NATO forces carry out punishing operations against Israel."
Arab critics of NATO are far more numerous and much more voluble. Many of them simply and emphatically reject the notion that the Americans and their friends are using force on behalf of Muslims. Hizbullah issued a statement declaring that the fighting in the Balkans "does not aim at protecting Albanian Muslims [but is] designed to preserve American interests, and the strongest proof of this is the ongoing killing of Albanians in Kosovo by the Serbs." In other words, Hizbullah completely ignored NATO's proclaimed intention of helping the Kosovars and instead dwelt exclusively on the unfortunate consequences of its actions.
Many others adopted this line and drew conclusions furthering their usual viewpoint. A Syrian newspaper rejected "the story line that the aim of this Third World War, mounted unilaterally by the Atlantic Alliance, is to afford protection for the Muslims of Kosovo," arguing instead that it has the more far-reaching goal of putting "a definitive end to the nuclear and military capabilities of Russia after it has been subjugated economically." This alarmist statement points to the renewed Syrian need to pander to Russia.
In addition to "strongly condemning this tyrannical aggression," the Iraqi analysis dismissed purported U.S. and European concern with the Albanians of Kosovo, calling this nothing more than "disguises concealing other objectives," which it claims are to weaken Yugoslavia and "encircle Russia." It went on to predict that if "the United States targeted Belgrade this time, so the Cruise missiles will echo in Moscow itself and in other capitals" and ended with a rousing call to arms: "O states of the East, be united!"
The Iranians were likewise little impressed by NATO's attempts to safeguard the Kosovars and return them to their homes; they reversed this goal and interpreted the aerial bombing campaign as a way to tamp down the Islamic threat to Europe. "The NATO airstrikes," explained Iran's supreme leader, "contrary to Western propaganda, have not only failed to bring tranquility to Muslims but have worsened their situation... The process will continue until Muslims are driven out [of Europe], Islam is wiped out and the Islamic community is destroyed."
This motley collection of official responses points to two main conclusions. First, the Middle East often lives politically in a world of its own making, one that often leads to strange and even false conclusions. Second, on the question of Kosovo, anti-Americanism trumps Muslim solidarity.