Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American analyst, notes the contradiction of "an Arab world that besieges American embassies for visas and at the same time celebrates America's calamities." But this seeming paradox actually makes sense. The more attractive the United States is to Arabs, the more pro-U.S. feelings threaten Arab nationalists and Islamists. As a result, both Arab nationalists and Islamists have an even greater incentive to distort Washington's policies and the nature of U.S. society in their propaganda. For these opponents of liberalism, the United States becomes the great Satan whose devilishness justifies their behavior and explains their failures. The anti-American card is too useful and popular to be abandoned.
Arab liberals—those who seek democratic reform as well as both civil and human rights—have to handle and perhaps battle against such anti-Americanism. The complexity of their struggle has grown since President George W. Bush declared democratization to be the pillar of his foreign policy in the Middle East. To those suspicious of the United States and its motives, Washington's involvement in democracy promotion has become just one more proof of America's evil, subversive nature. Arab liberals have had to craft strategies to navigate the minefield of Arab political opinion and rhetoric. Their approach to the United States illustrates not only the many obstacles to liberalism but also the intellectually diverse nature of its proponents.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of Shari‘a (Islamic law) and law at Qatar University, represents one end of the spectrum of the Arab liberal approach to the United States. He insists, for example, that Washington's response to 9-11 was a relatively moderate one in the context of legitimate self-defense. Other countries faced with such an assault would have been more aggressive and destructive. He further argues that one of the most harmful Arab and Muslim mistakes is to view Washington as hostile. Muslims practice their faith freely in the United States. What the U.S. government is hostile to is the "destructive" form of radical Islam, he argues, which Muslims should also oppose. Reviewing the history of U.S.-Arab relations, Ansari finds that "the positive aspects vastly outweigh the negative ones." Moreover, he asks, what would be the situation if Washington had listened to Europeans who opposed military action in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq? The Muslims in those places would be worse off if the White House had said that the Arabs were incapable of achieving democracy. He concludes that the Arab peoples need external help to defeat their dictators.
Ansari's views represent the exception rather than the rule. It is rare for any Arab liberal to advocate an explicit change in Arab views of the United States. Seldom does the Arab debate go beyond mirror-imaging arguments to the analysis so typical in the Western approach to the Middle East—a serious, detached attempt to understand the basis and nature of another party's behavior. The same point applies to the cost of Arab hostility to the United States. Ansari notes that radical Arab rhetoric and action have always backfired. Instead of "burning American flags," he argued, Arabs should "win over America." Reform was one effective way to do so because, "The American people do not respect anyone who doesn't respect his own people."
The liberal Kuwaiti politician Ahmad Bishara notes that few speak about U.S. idealism, its noble sacrifice, and its nurturing of human freedom. Although many Arabs have used a U.S. education to develop their own countries, across the Arab world, the media constantly promotes anti-American propaganda. A better view of the United States would be in the Arabs' interest, he concludes, for only by defusing the U.S. bogeyman, could they successfully struggle against despotic regimes and extremist Islamist opposition.
Saudi columnist Anas Zahid, writing in the pan-Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat, ridicules the Arab media and the intelligentsia's constant calls for war or economic boycott against the United States and the West. "How," he asked, "do we fight countries from which we buy weapons and beg for a loaf of bread?" The West supplies the Arab world's medicine, food, aircraft, computers, clothes, diapers, and chocolate. The problem, he concludes, is not an East-West, Muslim-Christian, or Arab-Zionist struggle: "The issue is that we are backward … and do not want to face ourselves. Without facing ourselves we will not move one step forward."
The respected Kuwaiti political philosopher Muhammad al-Rumaihi was one of the few who challenged the myth that Arab history has been one of fighting U.S. imperialism. Pointing out that Bush had just met with six Arab leaders, representing more than half of the Arab population, he noted that while the United States was the Arabs' main partner, Arabs talked of "resisting" and even defeating it. The Sudanese government, for example, requested U.S. help in resolving its civil war one day, but a week later bemoaned the fact that the Arabs do not fight the U.S. military in Iraq.
A rare example of creative thinking about the nature of America itself comes from Abd al-Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Although he cautions against faith in a U.S. government that he sees as seeking to dominate the world, he also tries to understand the roots of U.S. success. Americans are strong, Said suggests, because they view history not as Arabs do—as a way to boast of heroism or victimhood—but rather as a guide to do better. Again, unlike the Arab world, Americans criticize and reassess history to avoid repeating mistakes. While the U.S. government's international behavior may justify rancor, fabrications and distortions do not help Arabs deal with the world's sole superpower. He concludes: "We have concocted an American history tailor-made to the spirit of anti-American hostility that has swept the Arab world."
Another part of the mistaken Arab assessment about the United States is an underestimation of Washington's power and determination. As Ahmad al-Jarallah, the editor-in-chief of the Kuwaiti dailies Al-Siyassa and the Arab Times, put it, the mainstream idea that the Arabs will defeat or outwait America assumes the United States is a cowardly country that will flee from places where it suffers heavy casualties—as in Vietnam, Beirut in 1983, or Somalia in 1993. But the United States has shown in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq that it does not give up easily. America's enemies are the ones "who ultimately will be consigned to the dustbin of history."
For this bold, liberal fringe, changing perceptions of the United States is a key to success. If America was not such a terrible enemy, then its ideas and criticisms could be given serious consideration.
Blaming America for Arab Dictatorship
Many Arab liberals engage in anti-American rhetoric. Whether these liberals voice anti-Americanism for tactical reasons, to try to disprove the labels assigned to them by Arab nationalists or Islamists, or because of their own latent Arab nationalism, the net impact remains the same: while the liberals strive for democracy and reform, they promote anti-Americanism and inaccurate interpretations of Washington's policies. This presents a serious pitfall for liberals: by trying to fit into the existing discourse, they may reinforce its basic assumptions. Yet, if they break with the dominant concepts, they risk pariah status.
It has been hard for even open-minded Arabs to revise past tendentious assumptions in order to reexamine history. The dominant Arab intellectual system attributes the cause of all Arab problems to external villains. There are exceptions to this rule, but there are relatively few who propose the elements needed for a more coherent version of the United States and its policies. These include a better understanding of U.S. society and political culture; a willingness by Arabs to take responsibility for their own problems and shortcomings; the necessity to puncture the myth of Arab resistance to the United States as a central element in ideology and behavior; a reevaluation of stereotypes about U.S. policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict; contextualization of the accusation that Washington backs Arab dictatorships; and comprehension that the U.S. government can have good intentions toward the Arab world.
A common complaint is that the U.S. government has supported autocratic regimes. This accusation creates a Catch-22 for many liberals. On the one hand, many Arabs criticize the U.S. government for pursuing normal diplomacy with existing Arab regimes, arguing that this conveys either acceptance of or responsibility for the repressive governments in the Arab world. On the other hand, these same Arab commentators label any U.S. diplomatic pressure for change as proof of U.S. hostility toward Arab independence. Jordanian journalist Salameh Nematt, for example, charges that U.S. policy was the real reason for the failure of reform in the Arab world. All Arab states are either dependent on the United States or too busy defending themselves from attack by it. The U.S. accusation that Arab countries lacked democracy was just an excuse "to intervene in the states' domestic affairs."
The claim of U.S. responsibility for Arab dictatorships gives rise to an irony. Egyptian intellectuals denounce U.S. calls for democracy as interference at the same time as they claim their government's repressive policy is underwritten by U.S. aid. Saleh ibn Humaid, president of the Saudi Shura Council, complains that Washington is hypocritical about advocating freedom, democracy, and human rights because it backs autocratic, oppressive regimes. Yet Ibn Humaid is an appointed official of a Saudi regime that is a leading example of American backing for a non-democratic government.
A similar case followed the Saudi government's March 2004 arrest of thirteen liberal dissidents. The U.S. State Department criticized Riyadh's move as repression of reformists. There were no cheers in the Arab media for this U.S. initiative on behalf of free speech in the Arab world, however. Rather, the governments and media reacted with anger, mobilizing public sentiment against Washington's attempts to back reform.
This liberal hypocrisy is retroactive, too. Critics of U.S. policy seldom cite regimes glorified in the Arab discourse that have benefited wrongly from U.S. support. Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime was both the apex of the pan-Arab movement and also a repressive dictatorship. Washington sought to engage Nasser upon his seizure of power in the 1952 Egyptian revolution. Four years later, following Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to back the Anglo-French-Israeli effort to overthrow the Egyptian regime. Was Eisenhower wrong not to endorse the intervention? Nasser became a hero in the aftermath of the Anglo-French-Israeli withdrawal. His success, though, was largely a result of U.S. diplomatic pressure. Likewise, would those who criticize the U.S. government for working with Arab dictatorships in attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict prefer Washington to refrain from negotiating efforts because of the nature of the Arab regimes?
Conversely, anyone who criticizes Washington for cooperating with oppressive regimes should see its overthrow of Saddam Hussein as a good thing. But many of those who say U.S. policies favor reactionary regimes, nevertheless, opposed the war to remove Saddam from power. Such hypocrisy would extend to a number of other situations. Would these liberals have preferred Washington to cut off all aid to Egypt because of the nature of the Mubarak regime? Was it wrong in Arab eyes to help the Palestinian Authority because of Yasir Arafat's dictatorial behavior? Should President George H.W. Bush have refused to defend the Saudis and Kuwaitis from Iraqi invasion in 1990 because both countries were less than democratic? Conversely, would Arab liberals argue that Washington should not have lent assistance to Iraq against the Iranian challenge in the 1980s unless Baghdad first made substantial reforms? Such quandaries could be made about almost every country in the region. Should the U.S. government not have helped the Jordanian monarchy survive subversive efforts by radical states in the 1960s and 1970s? Too often, those criticizing Washington for not having pressured Arab dictatorships in the past are critical of its efforts to do so at present.
Such logical inconsistency is why Arab liberals do not explore in detail the implications of blaming the United States for Arab dictatorships. For liberals, this would be a counterproductive argument. First, it relieves Arabs themselves of responsibility for their difficulties, a crutch liberals seek to break. Second, it reinforces the ruling doctrine's hold over the minds of millions of Arabs who have been taught that their dictators are defending them against the United States.
The context Arab liberals act within shapes their strategy and their response to the United States. Washington's actions seldom win it liberal support yet almost always generate knee-jerk criticism from mainstream Arab nationalists and Islamists. The assumption that Washington intends harm virtually guarantees that the Arab intellectuals' response to U.S. policy is based not on an examination of facts but on the anti-American card's usefulness to stir anger. Such reinforcement of anti-American rhetoric strengthens existing regimes as champions in the battle against the perceived U.S. threat and makes Arab liberals vulnerable to charges that they have betrayed Arabism. Because many Arab liberals' analyses of the Arab world's problems parallel those made by U.S. policymakers, these reformers are subject to charges that they are the tools of U.S. imperialism and, by extension, Zionism.
A good example of this ideologically-driven anti-Americanism was the reaction to U.S. ambassador to Egypt David Welch's op-ed in the Egyptian establishment daily Al-Ahram on the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. Welch's article was a masterpiece of cultural sensitivity, flattering Egyptians and thanking them for their kindness to the United States, but asking for one small favor in the politest way: that the (state-controlled) media stop claiming the United States or Israel was behind the attack.
The response was an outpouring of anti-American hatred. A petition by dozens of Egyptian writers condemned the ambassador as treating them like "slaves" by demanding they agree with everything the United States says, "even if it is lies." Obviously, "America thinks that it has conquered the globe." That Washington promotes democracy spurs additional opposition. America, the petition claimed, is trying to force Arabs to submit to its interests and control. But the heroic Arabs will never grovel. There is a humorous aspect to this, of course, with Arab intellectuals rejecting freedom in the name of freedom, flaunting the independence of those responsive to their dictators.
At the same time as they reject U.S. policy and advice, Arab elites—including many liberal-leaning or co-opted voices—claim they are already engaged in reform and enjoying the benefits of democracy. The establishment often reacts as did Egyptian foreign minister Ahmad Maher, who said Egypt was already a model democratic state, and "We do not need anyone to teach us." The daily Al-Jumhuriya suggested that Mubarak's rule should be a model for other countries. Since democracy is the people's rule, any external pressure for change is by definition antidemocratic, a manifestation of the imperialist concept of a "white man's burden" to liberate other peoples "from ignorance and backwardness." This, the state-directed newspaper explained, is the true cause of the Arab world's problems.
As for the Wafd, the political party that claims to represent liberalism in Egypt, Ahmad Alwan, a member of its supreme council, explained that it would never agree with a tyrant like Bush who used force to achieve his greedy ambitions. Salameh Ahmad Salameh, an Al-Ahram columnist, warned that modernization was a U.S. trick to install its own puppets. Any real democracy would have to fight "American hegemony." An editorial in the Kuwaiti Al-Watan said the U.S. government hypocritically wanted to promote democracy in some countries while destroying it in those which opposed U.S. interests. For example, it argued, Washington wished to subvert Saudi Arabia because that country opposed a U.S. takeover of the Persian Gulf's oil resources. Rajeh al-Khouri, a columnist for Asharq al-Awsat, wrote that U.S. proposals to support democracy in the Arab world were the ideas of "Zionist circles" that wanted to pretend Arabs hated America because they lacked democracy, needed to modernize, and suffered from poverty. The real reason for such antagonism, he said, was that U.S. policies were terrible.
In one extreme, some commentators use parallel arguments to equate reform with treason against the Arabs and Islam. The Saudi writer Khalid as-Sulayman, for example, writes that the real U.S. goal was not for Arabs to become good at computers or physics but to destroy "the moral bonds of our social behavior." Arabs would then become just like Americans:
A society in which the marriage of minors is a crime, but sexual relations with minors is permitted! A society in which drinking alcohol is like drinking water, and inhaling marijuana is like inhaling air. … A society stripped of its identity, its values, and its virtues—an ugly society with no connection to its roots, which is only a pale mirror image of the West.
Sulayman is not alone. The kind of democracy the Americans really want, claims the Jordanian writer Khalid Mahadin, is a puppet regime to rubber stamp whatever the U.S. government wants. Parliaments and media would serve U.S. interests to "glorify Washington's arrogance, applaud its wars on Arabism and Islam," and keep silent about U.S. involvement in the Zionist annihilation of the Palestinians and the American destruction of the Iraqi people. He continues: the U.S. government also seeks to destroy the Arab school system and "to abolish religious education, Islamic modesty … jihad, and charity." A more polite but similar response came from Mustafa al-Feki, chairman of the Egyptian People's Assembly foreign affairs committee. He argued that the U.S. democratization campaign misunderstood Arab society and education and was imbued with the ridiculous idea that the region needed new values and ideas.
In short, U.S. sponsorship of democracy has not won it favor in the Arab world. This does not mean, however, that it has weakened the pro-reform camp. The Bush administration's policy has sparked new debate over these issues. Conversely, mainstream forces would still have tarred Arab reformers with the same accusations even had Washington not placed priority upon democratization.
Do Arab Liberals Exploit Anti-Americanism?
Arab liberals understand the hostile milieu in which they must operate and adopt various strategies to counter it. Some complain about problems they perceive U.S. policy has created for them and seek to minimize any claim that they are puppets of U.S. imperialism. Jordanian columnist Fahd al-Fanik, for example, warned that the U.S. democratization effort "is likely to damage the popularity of these reforms and silence those advocating them out of fear that they will be seen as America's propagandists." Other liberals seek to twist the conspiratorial atmosphere to their advantage. Some argue indigenous Arab reform to be the best way to avoid U.S. intervention. Daoud Shirian, a Saudi columnist for Al-Hayat, for example, suggests that if the Arab media became more independent of its governments, the U.S. government would have no excuse to interfere in the Arab world. Michel Kilo, a Syrian journalist and reform activist, argues that only reform can rescue Syria from U.S. domination.
The Egyptian Osama al-Ghazali Harb, editor-in-chief of Al-Siyassa al-Dawliya, has employed a parallel approach. In an article entitled, "With Our Own Hands, Not Those of America," he explains that Arabs do not want foreign interference but know that reform is needed "not because … foreigners demand it, but because of our real needs." Enemies of reform use foreigners' support for it as an excuse. Liberals, wrote Harb, must confront and defeat such lies. He suggests that the new U.S. pro-democracy policy shows it is actually heeding Arab demands. Historically, Washington's support for traditionalists against reformers opposed the "long-term interests of the Middle East's people" and was intended to "further U.S. interests in fighting communism, protecting the oil supply, and defending Israel's security." At the time, he explained, U.S. policymakers defended the primacy of stability over democracy by arguing that they sought "deference to the traditions and local traits" of Arab societies.
While such arguments may have an effect on a larger Arab audience, their veracity is debatable. The West did support traditional Arab regimes—the Moroccan, Jordanian, and Saudi monarchies, for example—but it also worked with traditional liberals as well—like the parliamentary regimes in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Indeed, many who are now liberals themselves argued at the time that any pressure for change undermined the traditions and local traits of their societies.
Those whom Harb described as "reformers" that Washington supposedly refused to back are in reality radical Arab nationalists and Islamists as undemocratic as the regimes they seek to replace. They did, in fact, overthrow the rulers in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, among other countries. The masses and intellectuals cheered as they dismantled formal democratic systems and silenced liberals. Harb's arguments, though well-intentioned, do damage to the liberal cause. They reinforce the existing system that defers real debate by blaming the United States for everything wrong in the Arab world. Thus, he concludes by saying that while the U.S. government has followed "selfish, unprincipled, and shortsighted policies," it is good if it now speaks about modernizing Arab societies, developing democracy, and resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict because these are all things Arabs "have been seeking to achieve for a long time."
Jordanian writer Jamal al-Tahat adopts a similar approach. He tries to turn the tables on Arab nationalists by arguing that since regimes often brag about "achievements resulting from cultivating relations with America," then reforms improving relations might likewise benefit Arabs. If the U.S. approach damaged the Arabs, it is only because they did not themselves already carry out reform.
Nader Fergany, a Cairo University political science professor, staunch Arab nationalist, and lead writer of the Arab Human Development Report, sought another way to separate reform from U.S. policy. The report, viewed in the West as a liberal document, co-opts the Arab mainstream—reinforcing traditional antidemocratic ideas—by putting much of the blame for lagging development on U.S. policy and on Israel. Fergany asserts that the report shows Arabs are capable of criticizing their own societies, and, alluding to the coalition ouster of Saddam Hussein, do not need others to "impose reform on Arab countries from outside—even by force." He calls upon the U.S. government to leave reform to the Arabs. He adopts the usual approach chiding the U.S. government for violation of human rights and for its support for repressive Arab regimes and Israel.
Jordanian liberal journalist Rami Khouri also illustrates this paradox. While he advocates reform, he has parroted hard-liner rhetoric attributing U.S. democratization strategy to the machinations of anti-Arab forces: a coalition of Republican conservatives, pro-Israel hawks, Christian fundamentalists, global supremacists, and free marketers who have taken over the White House. He has equated Bush and bin Laden.
Other liberals have also copied their adversaries' approach toward the United States. Just as Arab nationalists and Islamists used the United States as a scapegoat for their failures to succeed, these liberals also blame U.S. policy for their own movement's weakness and inability to transform the Arab world. They blame the United States for preservation of the Arab world's status quo.
Some prominent liberals are unabashedly and not just tactically anti-American. In 2002, Tujan Faisal became the first woman elected to the Jordanian parliament. She stood boldly for her principles. She served four months in prison after accusing the government of corruption. "To promote real democracy in the Arab world," she wrote, "the United States needs to begin encouraging its regional allies to tolerate internal opposition from all sides and give it a legitimate outlet in free and fair democratic elections." But, she also praised Saddam Hussein. "Compared with him, the other leaders of the Arab world are small pygmies," she wrote. After Saddam's fall, Iraqi documents revealed she was on Saddam's payroll.
Can America Encourage Democracy in the Arab World?
Can America encourage democracy in the Arab world? The Arab liberal assessment varies. Some enthusiastically say, yes; others suggest that the United States should restrict itself to policies more to the Arabs' liking. The former group hopes that U.S. pressure will change Arab regimes' behavior or overturn them altogether. The latter group either subscribes to anti-American nationalism or fears regimes will use U.S. involvement to discredit liberals.
Even those who hope for U.S. help may doubt it will be forthcoming. Egyptian analyst Ahmad Abdallah claims the regimes know that Washington needs their help to fight terrorism and thus do not take seriously the idea that Washington will pressure them on behalf of democratization. Even if the U.S. government tries hard, Abdallah suggests, it is likely to fail. Would Washington promote democracy at the risk of putting radical Islamists into power? Through intimidation and manipulation, he believes current regimes would defeat the democrats.
While publicly many Arab liberals condemn U.S. involvement in Iraq, in private, they say they would like the U.S. government to be a deus ex machina, a force solving their problems by somehow forcing Arab governments to change even if this requires strong pressure or—in some cases—military action. They suggest U.S. aid to Arab regimes be linked to their human rights record and progress toward democratization.
Some Arab liberals such as Kuwaiti Ahmad Bishara, given their belief that U.S. help was indispensable, applauded Bush's reelection in 2004. Those in the region who wanted Bush defeated, he explained, were Islamists and or apologists for dictatorial regimes such as Iran and Syria. But reformers, he continued, supported the U.S. war on terror, wanted Washington involved in democracy promotion, and saw violence in Iraq as the birth pangs of a new order rather than a sign of impending doom. Thanks to Bush's policies, women's rights had advanced in the Persian Gulf monarchies and Afghanistan, human rights groups spoke out openly, calls for educational reform were spreading, and there was an active debate in which people demanded more liberty.
If progress was slow, Bishara insisted, it was because of the task's difficulty, made harder by the "timid and opportunistic stance" of European states like France and Germany. If they had the opportunity, liberals would have voted for Bush as a way of winning a better future for themselves and their families. And while not all Arab liberals thought this way, many of the most energetic and consistent ones did.
Certainly, suspicion and hostility toward the United States undermines these efforts for democratic reform in the Arab world. But a remark made in an Al-Ahram article by Gamil Mattar, director of the Arab Center for Development and Future Research, is also telling. In response to the U.S. policy, he explained, Arab governments claimed to support change, even while stalling it in the hope that the challenge would disappear. He concludes: "If I were one of the architects of Washington's reform offensive, I would feel quite smug at the effect I produced."
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (Gloria) Center, Interdisciplinary University, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. This article is adapted from his book, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley, 2005).
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