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August 19, 2005

Inside the Arab Mind
Posted by David Adesnik

Burning_flag_1 Those of us with overpriced, overhyped academic credentials like to think of policy analyis as a firmly rational discipline in which logic and evidence serve as the basis for sound judgments.  However, IMHO, there is so much uncertainty in world politics that even the best-informed analysis must depend on an extraordinary degree of speculation.

My case in point is the standard American discussion about Arab popular opinion, to which some analysts condescendingly refer as "the Arab street".  In his inaugural post as a guest blogger here on DA, Michael Kraig called into question

The status quo policy conception that the anger in the Middle East is due to internal, domestic repression/ oppression/injustice under autocratic governments, and that the anger toward Israel, the West, the US, and the globalizing world order is a byproduct of this, or an escape valve for this.

According to Michael, this argument is

Wrong -- or at least, half-wrong.  There is of course an "escape valve" factor at work here...But would this anger and hate disappear if the Middle East were democratized at the domestic level?  The answer is, simply, no.  Because the feelings about lack of justice, or lack of democracy, at the INTERNATIONAL level are just as acute and just as real for many citizens and officials alike throughout the Middle East, and only the US supporting the rule of law at the international level will appease this anger and truly bring about a sea-change in relations and perceptions.

To Michael's great credit, his observations are based on extensive discussions he had during two months of business travel throughout the Middle East.  The opinions his counterparts expressed are ones that should be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, as any student of public opinion knows, it is extraordinarily hard to gauge the instensity of an interview subject's preferences even when one is fairly certain about what those preferences are.  In other words, I don't doubt for a second that the overwhelming majority of Arabs sincerely resent Israeli behavior toward the Palestinians or perhaps even the existence of Israel itself, not to mention being critical of the United States for defending Israeli interests. 

But what I really want to know is how intense these feelings are.  For example, one great challenge for the United States is to confront the surprising degree of sympathy for Al Qaeda and its methods in the Arab world.  To what degree will this sympathy diminish in those Arab nations such as Lebanon where the transition to democracy has begun? 

As Michael acknowledges, some of the anger directed at the United States and Israel is the byproduct of domestic repression and should therefore diminish as a result of domestic liberalization. Thus, I am inclined to say that the difference between Michael's position and my own is one of degree and not of kind.  The question then is how one should go about determining to what degree Arab anger is the product of actual greivances rather than an indirect response to domestic oppression.

In 2003, Foreign Affairs published an excellent essay on this subject by Michael Scott Doran, a professor of Near Eastern Studies.  Doran's analysis focuses on Arab attitudes toward the Palestinian question, rather than Arab resentment of the United States.  Doran argues that most expressions of concern about the Palestinians in the Arab world are rhetorical gambits designed to entrap one's domestic opponents rather than an expression of an actual desire to do something for the Palestinians.

One fascinating illustration of Doran's point is his description of a protest in the impoverished region of Al Jawf in northeastern Saudi Arabia.  Doran writes that:

Al Jawf has earned the distinction of being the only place in the Saudi kingdom repeatedly and consistently to defy laws criminalizing popular demonstrations. Matters reached a head last April 5 [of 2002 -ed.] in the town of Sakaka, where about 4,000 angry young men congregated in town squares, burned Israeli and American flags, and called on Arab states to take action on behalf of the Palestinians. To restore order Saudi authorities had to dispatch three transport planes carrying 500 riot police, and for weeks afterward these forces continued to patrol the area.

As extensive reporting in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi has made clear, the demonstrations "were organized in solidarity with the Palestinians and in protest over the neglect which the [Al Jawf] region is suffering at the hands of the government."  Al Jawf is one of the most backward places in Saudi Arabia. Many towns in the region, including Sakaka, lack electricity and the basic amenities of modern life. Located far from ports and oil revenues, lacking access to the corridors of power, the residents of Al Jawf feel deprived.

In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for dissidents is usually imprisonment or worse.  Yet by framing their protest as an action on behalf of the Palestinians, the residents of Al Jawf made it impossible for the monarchy to punish them as traitors.  After all, at least officially, the House of Saud shares the protesters sympathy for the Palestinians.

As Doran points out, even Osama bin Laden's concern for the Palestinians arose as a byproduct of his hatred for the House of Saud and other pro-American dictatorships.  Only after 9/11 did bin Laden start to describe as Israeli behavior as a leading justification for his terrorism.  Personally, I think it is safe to infer that bin Laden had no love lost for Israel before 9/11.  Yet his behavior speaks volumes about the intensity of his preferences; he may have been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause but devoted himself to the struggle against his own government and its American patron.

Another important point that Doran makes is that even if one were to assume that Arab anger is primarily a response to Israeli transgressions rather than domestic oppression, it may simply not be possible for either the United States or Israel to allay such anger since:

Americans and Arabs nurture such different conceptions of what constitutes a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it is hard to imagine Washington ever adopting a policy toward it that would be truly popular in the Arab world. The most "pro-Palestinian" policy realistically conceivable would look something like the Clinton plan presented in late 2000, but even this would entail major Palestinian compromises (such as the renunciation of the right of pre-1967 refugees to return to their homes inside Israel proper).

Of course, this point in no way constitutes evidence for the assertion that Arab anger is more of a response to domestic oppression than it is to foreign encroachments.  Nonetheless, it does throw the ball back into Michael's court by demanding to know how exactly progressives might attenuate Arab resentment of the United States and Israel.  Michael?

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've always feared that people who talk about the thinking of an entire demographic - in the case of the articles cited below, the "Arab mind" - ran some significant risks. It's dangerous to think that a group of individual people, all of them richly ... [Read More]

Comments

Mike Doran confuses corrupt Arab regimes' exploitation of the Palestinian issue and the very sincere sympathy that the Arab on the street has for the plight of the Palestinains. I happen to know that Mike Doran does not speak Arabic (he reads it well though) and does not visit the Arab World regularly: it is possible that he has not been there in more than 10 years and when he was there he was limited to speaking to people in English.


And whether or not Arabs do anything about the situation is no guage. I, personally am against the war in Iraq, but is there anything I can do to change US government policy? It is possible that outside observers would say that Americans aren't really against the war in Iraq because they are not doing anything about it.

I know from long experience in the region that the US governemnt's seemingly blind support for Israel and many Arab goverment's complicity in that support is the single biggest cause of rage on the mythical "Arab Street." So in a sense Doran is right, as every demonstration in support of the Palestinians is a demonstration about local issues as well, i.e. the Arab regimes' failure to put any diplomatic weight behind their empty-for-domestic-consumption-pro-Palestinian rhetoric.

Mike Doran is correct that there is no consensus in the Arab World on what would constitute a fair solution. The Arab Street, however, much more savvy about world affiars/events than the US street, knows blatant hypocrisy when it sees it.

Mike Doran's take on the Arab street provides comfort to lawmakers in Washington, which helps to explain why Doran was recently offered a high-level position at the NSC responsible for the Israel-Palestine desk. The subtext of Doran's article is that there is no point in changing our policy toward Israel becuase it is not going to help our image in the Arab World. This, in my mind, is dangerous thinking and certainly not the way to win "hearts and minds."

Chris-

The Arab Street know hypocricy when they see it? Can they see hypocrisy in their near total silence regarding genocide in the Sudan?

Chris:

Any mass amount of people generally has the IQ of a stick.

Inferring that the Arab street is more savvy than the US street is more than likely wrong.

Both are made of humans, and humans, when in groups, are surprisingly stupid.

And why should Arabs care about the Palestinians? Because they are a racists and religious supremacists who only are concerned about people most like them? That would likely explain the years of outrage about the Palestinians and the almost silence on the infinitely worse treatment by Arab and other Muslim majority governments of racial and religious minorities and even majority Arab groups. I'm afraid it is the "Arab street" that is the most hypocritcal, and much as the Germans had to be shown the true depravity of the Nazi Germany for them to get over themselves, someone needs to give the Arabs a mirror that will show them the true depths of their own cultural depravity.

jk

Total silence? And you have an ear to the Arab street? I can tell you that individual Arabs are appalled by what is happening in the Sudan, but why do you expect them to do more about it than you yourself have done? Again, as I said above but with a different disaster: an outside observe would say of the US and Americans that it/they doesn't/don't care about Darfour because if anyone can do anything about the situation the US can.

And let's suppose for a second that you are right: the average Arab doesn't care about the "non-Arabs" in Darfour. I'm sure you were taught in Friday, Saturday or Sunday school that two wrongs do not make a right or whatever the cliche is. For years, to get back to the original topic, supporters of Israel have justified Israel's blatant disregard for human rights and international law by saying "Well, the Arabs don't do anything to help the Palestinians." Even if this were true (and it is certainly true of many of the corrupt US supported regimes in the Arab World) does this absolve Israel of its responsibility to do the right thing by the Palestinians?

John:

You are absolutely right: a mob is a mob. I should have been clearer. I meant to say that your average "Muhammad" on the Arab street is much better informed than your average "Joe" on the US street.

The United States should arm-twist Israel to make a just peace.

It is the moral thing to do. It is the strategic thing to do, even if it entails risks to the politicians that do it.

Will making Israel "an offer it can't refuse" fix the conflict with the ideological movement represented by al Qaeda? Not by itself.

But it is an essential step. Foot-dragging by Dems out of political cowardice disgraceful.

I can tell you that individual Arabs are appalled by what is happening in the Sudan, but why do you expect them to do more about it than you yourself have done? Again, as I said above but with a different disaster: an outside observe would say of the US and Americans that it/they doesn't/don't care about Darfour because if anyone can do anything about the situation the US can.

And if the US did something about it they would say the US is attacking Arabs and going after Sudan's oil. And while I am certain that there are individual Arabs concerned about the plight of black Sudanese Muslims, and even some concerned about the plight of non Muslims in Sudan, I don't see any evidence that many Arabs are concerned about it.

For years, to get back to the original topic, supporters of Israel have justified Israel's blatant disregard for human rights and international law by saying "Well, the Arabs don't do anything to help the Palestinians."

No, we have justified it by saying that Arabs as a whole won't make peace, and that Arab governments and Arab society is much worse. I would rather be an Israeli Arab than a minority in one those Arab countries. I say the outrage expressed by Arabs and amount of time dedicated to that expression should be proportional to the magnitude of the depredations. Given Arab society and governments is considerably worse and considerably larger, they should spend most of their time expressing significantly more outrage at themselves and other Arab countries.

Truly the only thing I object to regarding Israel is their building of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. They should raze most of them and focus on an exchange of land along the future borders of Israel that will create the most militarily defensible boundary. But let's not forget the mass expulsion and pogroms of Jews and expropriation of their property perpertrated by Arab governments. I would suggest giving the Palestinians those expropriated properties as part of any settlement, because clearly any sort of just settlement would have to deal with the issue of expropriated Jewish propery, but no Israeli Jew would want to make any of those countries home again.

I meant to say that your average "Muhammad" on the Arab street is much better informed than your average "Joe" on the US street.

Whatever. Your average member of the Arab street has his mind battered by the relentless repetition of various conspiracy theories by Arab media, Islamic clerics, and Arab governments. One can not possibily be well informed in that environment.

I hope you don't mind if I comment about this mostly American issue as an outsider (interested German), but maybe a different perspective is meritous here after all.

To me it seems that the question whether the outrage and resentment on the famous Arab street is just the forefront of a different question: "Is it our fault that they think like this or is this someone else's?" Of course what ATM conveniently labels to be "relentless repetitions of various conspiracy theories" enhances the trend, but did it cause it? Is this all to it? Hostile propaganda?

Look around in the world. American standing worldwide has drastically plummeted to all-time lows, and not only in circles traditionally weary or maybe even hostile. Take me, for example, who has always been a staunch pro-American in political discussions. What has happened prior and after the Iraq war has made me very weary and distrustful of America. The way how venomous patriotism was successfully used to silence reason in the phase the Iraq war was purposefully engineered by interested circles. The way the triumphalists have openly derided the principles of international law and later even human right issues during the torture scandal. The unilateral support of Israel in the palestinian issue. And and and.

My point: The drop in respect for America in _my_ mind wasn't caused by evil arabic propagandists. It was caused by the policies of the American administration. It was caused by the disturbing failure of the American media to counterbalance the war blitz. It was caused by the slight majority of Americans who decided to sanction things at the next elections. And all these issues didn't touch me directly - but for Arabs, this is different. And if I, as a pro-western traditional friend of America was forced to seriously reevaluate my opinions, gets a nasty shiver, then what would all this mean for an educated Arab?

To put my rant in perspective: If you're seriously trying to convince yourself that the anti-americanism in Arab streets isn't primarily caused by your own actions, then I believe that you're actively deluding yourself.

Given the venemous anti-Americanism of mainstream German media that showed up rather quickly after 9/11, and the fact that a signficant fraction of Germans believed all sorts of conspiracy theories regarding the US government and 9/11 in early 2002, I don't think there is evidence to believe that Germans can evaluate the US fairly. Germans' apparent preference for totalitarian China and somewhat authoritarian Russia combined with the willingness of Germany and Europe in general to pander to Arab sentiment for economic reasons (and to minimize their chances of getting targeted) has made me seriously skeptical about German common sense and has made me realize that they did not learn the fundamental lesson of WWII: totalitarian governments that actively and visciously suppress their citizens are the ones that can't be trusted in the long run.

As for triumphalists having "openly derided the principles of international law" it partly because of European actions during past decade that we have come to realize that international law isn't worth much. France and Russia (and Germany too) did much to undermine the cease-fire agreement after the first Gulf War which required Iraq amongst other things, to verifiably disarm completely and improve the treatment of its citizens. Essentially France, Russia, and China used their Security Council votes as economic bargaining chips for gaining contracts and future oil concessions from Iraq. Their companies profiteered from the UN Oil for Food Program and offered bribes and kickbacks to Saddam to win contracts, allowing Saddam to gain hard currency and non-essential goods that he needed to maintain his grip on power. The UN Oil for Food scandal along with the multitude of other scandals plaguing the UN currently are strong evidence that international law and international institutions have not been working.

To put my rant in perspective: If you're seriously trying to convince yourself that the anti-americanism in Arab streets isn't primarily caused by your own actions, then I believe that you're actively deluding yourself.

Do you think our actions happen in a vacuum? It works both ways you know, our actions are a response to the actions of others. So maybe the Arabs should try to understand us. The simple fact of the matter is that we in the US hear far more of their views than Arabs hear of our views. And maybe if Arabs heeded our viewpoint, they would make their own countries a better place to live while eliminating the reasons for our own actions.

What does the moral credibility of Germany and the rest of Europe, have to do with Arab perception of US actions? Of course the actions of the US have contributed to Arab anti-Americanism. Whether those actions have been fairly analyzed by Arabs, or whether they are worse than any other country's actions is entirely beside the point. The issue at hand is a matter of perception; and the perception of the US is quite a bit more negative now than 4 years ago.
The military and diplomatic actions of the US are not roundly condemned throughout the world and there are compelling reasons for and against much of what has transpired in Iraq. However, the public stance of the Bush administration is another matter. By not admitting to any mistakes, nor even doubts about their course, the administration is causing most of its own perception problems.
The disparity between news reports from Iraq and the Bush administrations public announcements is embarassing. If the news media is to blame for only reporting the bad, then the administration should feel obliged to point to concrete good news. If the situation is really as bad as the anti-war movement claims, then the administration should stop trying to paint a rosy picture, and start giving reasonable arguments supporting its current policies-- continuing the mission because it is a noble cause is not a reasonable argument because it admits no critical analysis.

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