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' 370 (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)
Screenshot from 'Innocence of Muslims' 370
(photo credit: 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 world).
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 groups.
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 hubs.
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 hand either.
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:
• The 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.
Recent 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 stability.
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 opinion.
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 Israel.
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 revolution.
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 processes.
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.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.