Savir's Corner: The United States and the Arab world
2013 will be a critical crossroad year for the US-Arab relationship, and has to be treated with urgency, wisdom and courage.
Screenshot from 'Innocence of Muslims' Photo: YouTube Screenshot
The recent outbreaks of violent demonstrations in the Arab world in reaction to
the obscene amateur YouTube video ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad were not
large, but were symptomatic of a fundamental anti- American sentiment backed
with rage and anger in many Arab countries (and most of the Muslim
This was not the first time that American flags were burned by
furious young Arabs. In the United States, while people don’t go to the streets
to burn Egyptian or Libyan flags, there exists a latent anti- Arab sentiment
among many Americans, often bordering on Islamophobia. This was exacerbated by
the 9/11 terror attacks and the subsequent wars against the Taliban and al-Qaida
in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The roots of this American-Arab hostility are,
however, much deeper than a mere reflection of current events. They are deeply
cultural and also result from a gross lack of understanding between the two
The Arab world feels a sense of cultural estrangement from the
globalization process and for that matter a fear of American cultural
colonialism. Hollywood, Broadway, and American television culture are all
perceived as promiscuous, capitalist and lacking respect for basic social
values. America’s policies have always been perceived as attempting to dictate
and interfere, 100 percent pro-Israel and led by interests to aiding dictators
and ensuring oil supply.
From the opposite side, Americans have no
knowledge of Arab culture or society. Arabic music, for example, rarely entered
the MTV world, as opposed to music from other cultures, namely African music.
Umm Kulthum and Madonna don’t go hand-in-hand. Since 9/11 Americans see American
Muslims as potential terrorists and mosques as possible terror cell
Most Americans also perceive the Arabs as a threat to their ally
Israel. The Arab- Muslim value system, as presented by the militant face of
Islam which Americans often encounter, has little to do with the American one.
The Koran, as read by the Muslim Brotherhood or by the Saudi monarchy, let alone
by Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, and the US Bill of Rights, do not go hand in
This is a wide and deep schism which, given recent political
events, has only been aggravated further. If this rift continues it could
deteriorate into more serious violent confrontations and endanger Middle Eastern
stability along with America’s strategic interests, as well as Israel’s. In this
confrontation, both sides may have valid grievances, yet both are fundamentally
wrong and risk their own interests. This is the single most urgent foreign
policy issue that must be addressed by the new American administration (probably
a second Obama term), and also by Arab leaders, in several important ways:
rift between the United States and the Muslim and Arab world is defined by some
analysts as a “clash of civilizations,” making use of Samuel
P. Huntington’s post-Cold War hypothesis regarding hostile relations
between countries, societies and cultures. This is an exaggerated and premature
adaptation of this hypothesis. Therefore this all-too important relationship
should be handled as a political and social rift – without giving in to
comprehensive doomsday scenarios.
• An initial necessary and difficult
step will be to attempt to create greater mutual understanding and steer clear
of such generalizations. Americans tend to see the Muslim and Arab worlds in
monolithic terms, ignorant of the fact that Arabs, numbering roughly 400
million, are less than a third of the world’s Muslims.
Between Sunnis and
Shi’ites, secular and religious, moderates and fanatics, the Muslim world is no
less a mosaic than the Christian or Jewish ones. America too is a multi-cultural
mosaic, brought together by a common ethos.
Today, almost half of
Americans perceive the “Arab Spring” not as a pro-democracy movement to topple
dictatorships, but an attempt of religious Islamist forces to take power and
create Islamic Republics. For that reason, according to recent public opinion
surveys, 70% of Americans favor a decrease in aid to Egypt.
Uncle Sam is
not perceived in a more complex manner in most Arab societies.
polls conducted by the Zogby International institute in the Muslim World show
that America is viewed as a colonialist imposing power, disrespecting societies,
cultures and interests. It is perceived as imposing regimes, policies, unfair
trade and foreign culture.
This explains why, despite massive economic
aid to Egypt and support for the Tahrir Square revolution, only 5% of Egyptians
have a favorable view of the United States. The same is true for most other Arab
and Muslim countries. American interference in the Arab world is shown in these
polls to be perceived as the single greatest obstacle to regional
Seeing as the vast majority of Muslims and Arabs are not
fanatic terrorists, and the vast majority of Americans are hardly colonialists,
a political and social dialogue must begin between civil societies with the
active participation of governments.
Following his inauguration in
January, the American president needs to address the Muslim and Arab world
without apologies and express understanding for Muslim frustration, clearly
define American values and interests and express willingness to cooperate, while
pledging not to interfere in domestic Arab political processes, and to restore
the peace process. Such discourse needs also to resonate with American public
A similar obligation rests on the shoulders of Arab leaders who
are obliged to know better than their constituents. They know all too well that
the United States is the world’s leading superpower, an undeniable success story
and not an imperial power which perceives their countries as potential colonies.
They also know, to varying degrees, the importance of American aid derived from
American taxpayer money, and that any peace in the region cannot happen without
a major American role. This was well understood by Anwar Sadat, King Hussein,
Yasser Arafat and even Hafez Assad. It is in the self-interest of both sides to
create not only better mutual understanding but also cooperation on
socioeconomic issues, as well as on common strategic interests against Iranian
fundamentalism and nuclear ambitions and on the Israeli-Palestinian peace
process. This should not and does not have to come at the expense of America’s
relationship with its No. 1 ally in the region, the State of
These views should be stated clearly on both sides to their own
constituents, even if they are not popular, as their interests are too
interdependent. Barack Obama understands this; Mitt Romney, if elected, will
have to learn it. Mahmoud Abbas should know all too well by now that without
American intervention there will be no viable peace process, and that the most
generous assistance to his economy and nation-building process is dependent on
Washington. It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to act in accordance
with these facts of international life and hold a dialogue with Washington and
America rather than blame them, and to admit to their own constituencies – it’s
not the UN, it’s the US.
There is another possible light at the end of
this tunnel – the young people on both sides of the Atlantic: Young Arabs who
have mobilized on the “American” Facebook and toppled dictatorships and who want
to belong to a globalized world and reap its fruits; and young Americans who are
endlessly more curious today about the world than before the information
The young should engage in dialogue, mainly through social
networks and through higher education. The Arab youth seek good higher education
to develop their skills, and to prepare for the labor market. If in the past
America exported tanks to Arab dictators, it should now export education through
distance learning to our region. Harvard, Princeton and Stanford reflect the
best it has to offer – and the new alliances in the region should be with Cairo,
Amman and Al-Najah (Nablus) universities and their students (as well as with
Israeli academic institutions), parallel to the necessary political dialogue and
2013 will be a critical crossroad year for the US-Arab
relationship, and has to be treated with urgency, wisdom and courage. As for
Israel, a better US-Arab relationship is very much in our interest, vis-à-vis
both the establishment of an anti-Iranian coalition and the necessary regional
peace process. One hopes our next government will understand that.
writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief
negotiator for the Oslo Accords.