The US and Muslim Nations: Failure to Engage – A Review of the Brookings Institution’s Poll on Arab Public Opinion
By Seyed Safavi and H Safavi
International Peace Studies Centre (IPSC)
The Brooking Institution’s 2010 poll on Arab public opinion offers important insights. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this poll is that it sheds light on the relation between the American government and Muslim nations. The major problem in the American government’s construction of its Middle East policy is that it either does not see the wide gap between Muslim nations and their governments, or it has decided to ignore it. The US does have allies in the Middle East; the question is who are these allies? When Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the littoral states of the Persian Gulf, which not only receive military assistance from America but in many cases also host American military bases and align their foreign policy with that of the United States are labelled as the United State’s friends and allies, it is important to realise and constantly remember that this label is only applicable to the governments of these countries and not to their nations. Furthermore, the Muslim nations’ perception of the American government is very different to that of those Arab/Muslim governments who are its allies. This is an important reality, which seems to be ignored by the American government. It is important because it is this very reality that has led to an American defeat in Afghanistan and has resulted in the growing power of the Taliban; further, it has led to an increase, and not a decrease in what the United States has defined as terrorism and as such has brought about the defeat of the self proclaimed centre piece of the American government’s foreign policy in the region, i.e. the “war on terror”.
It is important to note that the pan-Arabism of the 1950s and 70s has been replaced to a large extent by pan-Islamism amongst the Muslim nations, a pan-Islamism which is active and plays an important socio-political role. There are many examples which point to this shift, from the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 and the support it received across Arab nations (not governments), to the rise of the AK Party in Turkey, the election of Hamas, which is an Islamic movement, in the Palestinian legislative elections of 2006 as opposed to the secular Fatah (of course the disillusionment of the Palestinians with Fatah as a result of its corruption and failures was central in this), the support enjoyed by Hezbollah on Arab streets, the strengthening of Ikhwan(Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt and many other examples. Alongside this shift, a great level of disillusionment with the American government, if not outright anti-Americanism is evident in Muslim countries from the Middle East and North Africa to Central and South Asia and the Far East. This is as a result of the military adventures of the United States in the Middle East and the civilian deaths and destruction which has ensued from them, the unconditional support of the United States for Israel, and most recently the disillusionment of the Muslim masses with the promises that President Barack Obama made in his Cairo speech.
President Obama’s Cairo Speech and the Brookings Institution’s 2010 Poll of Arab Public Opinion
President Obama’s Cairo speech[i] in which he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” was seen as the beginning of a shift, at least in terms of rhetoric, in the relationship between the American government and the Muslim world. However, more than one year on, there is a great disillusionment in the Muslim world with the Obama administration.
As the Brookings Institution’s poll on Arab Public opinion which was published on the 5th August 2010 clearly portrayed, in 2010 62% compared to 23% in 2009, viewed president Obama negatively; furthermore, in 2010 63% compared to 15% in 2009 were discouraged by the Obama administration’s policy in the Middle East, this is a staggering 48% change in the space of only one year. The primary reason for this negative view has been identified as the American government’s unconditional support for Israel and President Obama’s failure to take any concrete steps until this week, towards the Middle East peace process, or to bring an end to the construction of Israeli settlements, followed by his inaction in the face of Israel’s refusal to do so. Add to this the situation in Afghanistan, the constant military threats against Iran, and Guantanamo Bay which to this day remains open, even though president
Obama in his Cairo speech made a promise to have it closed by the end of 2009.
Why is it important to pay attention to the gap between Muslim nations and their governments?
In order to answer this question, it is necessary to contextualise the discourse between the West, particularly the United States and the Muslim world; thus, a good starting point is the “war on terror”.
From the prism of the “war on terror”
The American government’s “war on terror” was officially inaugurated in 2001 after the tragic and unjustifiable 9/11 attacks. The attacks gave the Bush administration the opportunity to initiate the discourse of the “war on terror” which after establishing the premises of the war, namely what is terror and who is a terrorist, on the practical level gave the US the necessary excuse to establish their military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia. The US, on the 7th October 2001, less than one month after 9/11, attacked Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom, and engaged in an ongoing war in which the US and her allies have lost and will sooner or later admit defeat. Furthermore, it constructed the necessary public mentality to once again attack Iraq under false pretences of the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq – weapons that were never found as they did not exist in the first place – with the aim of bringing freedom and democracy to its people (and the region as a whole – a plan which was abandoned as some of the authoritarian governments of the Middle East are also American allies); thus, operation Iraqi Freedomwas initiated.
Naom Chosmky in his book Media Control writes, “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”[ii] This is an important statement. It is important for it helps us understand how the US through its propaganda machine was able to create a new demon in order to manufacture consent and to rally not only the American public but also many in Europe against what came to be termed as “radical Islam” and “radical Muslims/Islamists”, thus, paving the way for the use of military violence in order to achieve foreign policy goals and for the establishment of an active military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia, which are of vital geo-strategic importance to the American government due to the energy deposits in the region. “Radical Islam” which came to hold the same position that communism held in American public political discourse during the cold war, came to be represented publicly as the ideology which in the words of former President George W. Bush “exploits Islam to serve a violent, political vision: the establishment, by terrorism and subversion and insurgency, of a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom.”[iii] However, the terms radical Islam and radical Muslims, which came to be synonymous to the term terrorism, in reality became a label which was applied to any movement in the Muslim world which had a socio-political goal or program, which was opposed to the American government’s interests, views or policies, or worse resisted American hegemony in the region, and did not act in accordance to the American government’s foreign policy and interests.
Resistance and Terrorism Represented as One
As radical Islam and radical Muslims had come to occupy the same space as communism and communists did during the cold war, and were constructed as the external enemy that must be feared and must be destroyed, the American public willingly and unquestionably supported any action against all and every group labeled radical Muslim/terrorist, without ever questioning the premises on the basis of which they were designated as such. Thus, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, which were ideologically, operationally and historically very different to Al-Qaeda, simply due to their opposition to the key interests of the United States and her allies in the region and their defense of their own people, came to also be referred to as terrorist movements and terrorist states.
This lack of distinction between legitimate resistance movements, formed and active, for the liberation of their people in the case of Hamas, or the defense of their countries sovereignty in the case of Hezbollah, is a propaganda effort used by the West for western public consumption, but it is also one which causes great alienation in the Muslim world. For example the US State Department’s “country reports on Terrorism 2009”[iv]once again identifies Iran, as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” arguing that Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah and that it “provide(‘s) lethal support, including weapons, training, funding, and guidance, to Iraqi Shi’a militant groups”[v]. However, the largest number of terrorist activities occur in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, and these types of activity occur across the world from Asia to Africa and Europe, arguing simply based on the basis of one region is illogical, furthermore, this is while the Shi’a groups which are said to be supported by Iran can in no way be designated as terrorist groups, and the terrorist activities in Iraq are conducted by the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (this is an irrefutable fact) and not Shi’a movements; on the contrary, Shi’as are the main target of these terrorist attacks. In regards to Hamas and Hezbollah, they are both legitimate resistance groups and not terrorist groups. To support this statement we should look at UN Resolution 42/159[vi]adopted on 7th December 1987 with a vote of 153 to two (the two were Israel and the United States) and the abstention of Honduras condemning terrorism, it becomes clear that Hezbollah and Hamas by definition are resistance movements, and in fact it is the actions of Israel and the US which in many instances amount to state terrorism and are in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention[vii]. It is stated in the resolution that “nothing in the present resolution could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right referred to in the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation or other forms of colonial domination, nor, in accordance with the principles of the Charter and in conformity with the above-mentioned Declaration, the right of these peoples to struggle to this end and to seek and receive support.”
Although placing the “axis of resistance”, both on the state level as represented by Iran and Syria and the popular level as represented by Hamas and Hezbollah, served in rallying the American public and large segments of the European publics against them, it also served as yet another instance which portrayed to the Muslim nations, that the “war on terror”, was not so much a war on terror than it was a war against the American government’s geo-political and geo-strategic adversaries.
Although President Obama in his Cairo speech spoke of engagement and dialogue as a means for advancing his foreign policy goals, and quoted Thomas Jefferson saying, “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be,” the Obama administration has not only made no concrete efforts in real terms to engage with Iran, but has continued with its unilateral sanctions and threats of military offensive against Iran, as far as the U.S. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen saying that the US has plans in place for attacking Iran when needed and that military options “remain on the table”[viii]. This is while Iran is seen by the large majority of Muslim nations as the defender and champion of Muslim interests, rights and dignity, and is supported by the Muslim nation to the extent that in the Brookings Institution’s poll a staggering 92% were of the view that the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it has the right to its nuclear program, while 70% were of the view that Iran seeks nuclear weapons yet it still has the right to its nuclear program, and more interestingly 57% were of the view that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons it will be a positive outcome for the Middle East region. It is necessary here to reiterate that Iran has constantly stressed that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes and to this day no factual evidence has been found to the contrary.
Distortion of History: Two Opposing Historic Understandings
Another important point to take note of is that in the discourse of the “war on terror”, the history of the relations between the Muslim nations and the West was tailored, fabricated and distorted. This distorted history which was presented to the western masses in order to rally them behind the American government’s “war on terror”, in practice put the initial date of the relation of the West and Muslims as the 11thof September 2001, ignoring 1400 years of common history between the Muslims and the West which has both negative and positive aspects.
Thus, in this discourse the history of the relations between the two which was presented to the western masses, is one which begins by 9/11 when “radical Muslims” attacked the World Trade Centre in New York, and as a result, the American government and her allies were forced to defend themselves against them by the “war on terror”, by the occupation of Muslim countries, by Guantanamo Bay and the secret American prisons across the world, by Abu Ghraib, by the use of torture, countless civilian deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and support for Israel as it waged its own so called war on terror against Hezbollah in 2006 killing 1,191 Lebanese civilians and destroying the infrastructure of the country, and against Hamas and the people of Gaza, through the ongoing blockade of coastal strip and the military assault on it in 2008-2009 which resulted in 1,166-1,417 Civilian deaths, and in which the Israeli military’s actions resulted in countless breaches of the Geneva Convention[ix].
Through this distortion of history and stressing on the imminent danger faced by the West from radical Muslim terrorists they rallied the American public and large segments of Europe behind them. So now the history of the relation between the two sides in the mindset of an average westerner is a 9-year old history which begins by the violence, and evil of “radical Muslims” who were portrayed in the words of President Bush as “the very worst in human nature”[x] and includes the occupation of two Muslim countries which led to countless civilian deaths. However, for Muslims this history is a much longer, much more painful history, it is the history of colonialism and exploitation in centuries past, the history of synthetic maps drawn by the British in the Middle East and North Africa, the history of the usurpation of Palestine, it is the history of the silence of parts of the West against the atrocities of Israel and against its crimes against humanity conducted against the Palestinians, it is the history of stolen democracies, of the arming of dictators such as Saddam Hussein with chemical and biological weapons and every advanced weaponry to attack not only another Muslim nation but to attack his own people, it is the history of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and astronomical civilian deaths which are mentioned as mere statistic in the western media; it is the history of Abu Ghraib , Guantanamo Bay and countless other secret prisons in which Muslims are held, humiliated and tortured without trial. For Muslims the history is a history of the support of the US for ‘patrimonialist’ regimes across the region. It is a history of violence.
The Perspective of Muslim Nations
It is with this mindset, and from this historical vantage point that Muslim nations see the United States government and her allies. The American government’s “war on terror” has failed, and this failure to a large extent is because the American government has ignored Muslim nations, and instead concentrated its remains happy with the support it has from some Arab governments in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and is engaged in manufacturing consent amongst its own public through the use of propaganda disseminated widely by western media corporations. The failure is evident in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, in which the Taliban day by day grows stronger, and in Yemen, in North Africa, and in the Middle East in which more and more groups are using the symbolic name Al-Qaeda. Thus, if we look at the reality on the ground, it is evident to every objective observer that the rate of so called radicalisation has increased, Al-Qaeda from an unknown organisation, has turned into a symbolic name, adopted by movements across the Muslim world.
What the American government must realise is that the nations of the region have no trust in it. As the Brookings Institution’s poll has shown, this is largely due to the American government’s continued unconditional support for Israel (61% were most disappointed with the American government for the Israeli Palestinian conflict) and because they see the American government’s policy towards the Muslim world at large, and particularly the Middle East to revolve around protecting Israel regardless of its actions (49% were of this view), controlling oil (45 % were of this view), weakening the Muslim world (33% were of this view) and preserving regional and global dominance (33% were of this view).
It is time for the American government to rectify its mistakes. We have time and again said, that the American government’s support for Israel, not only alienates it from the Arab and Muslim world, but it also directly endangers American security, and the security and progress of American and NATO forces in Muslim lands. If the American government has failed in the “war on terror”, if Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are growing stronger, if the American government finds no friend amongst the Muslim nations, it is because of its continued failure in understanding the reality on the ground, and its inflexibility and lack of ability to shed the mentality of the empire. This is reflected in the American government’s foreign policy. The American government needs the Muslim world and the Middle East for real economic, security and energy needs. However, it will never be able to protect its interests in the region or feel safe, as long as it is seen as an exploiter, an occupier, and as an unconditional defender of Israel.
We have said time and again, that a real shift is needed in the American government’s behaviour towards the region, particularly towards Israel. As we have said before “there is need for a shift in the behaviour of the West towards Israel, whereby Israel, like any other state is held accountable for its actions by legal tools such as UN Security Council resolutions, sanctions and trade and arms embargoes. This policy shift, which would mark an end to policy of double standards employed by the US and her allies in the Middle East, will directly result in a behavioural change in Israel. In the absence of a policy of impunity for its crimes and breaches, Israel will have to respect its obligations under international humanitarian treaties. This is one of the preconditions for successful peace negotiations, and it is a first step to ensure the establishment of a just peace in the Middle East.”[xi] “The continuing policy of double standards adopted by the West [in enforcing international law] is the primary root cause of what is termed as Islamic extremism, among other names, in the West. The solution is simple, the rule of law and justice, nothing more; the Muslim world does not require sympathy or favours, it requires justice and fair treatment.”[xii]
Stable and just peace in the region requires engagement with the Muslim nations, first, by their own governments, which due to their patrimonialism have alienated themselves from their people, and occupy positions, which are not reflective of their nation as a whole. In the realm of international relations, the two primary issues which need to be addressed are 1) the nature of the relations of these governments with the US (both in its positive and negative manifestation); this is comprised of different elements such as the construction of foreign policy, sovereignty and relation with other Muslim countries; 2) the position held by these governments towards Israel and the Palestinian people and the resistance both in rhetoric and action. The changing perception of Egypt in the Muslim world since the start of the Gaza blockade and the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza conflict in contrast to the perception of Turkey most recently after the killings onboard the Freedom Flotilla, are interesting cases in this regards.
Secondly the west particularly the United states need to engage with the Muslim nations, not through rhetoric, or violence, but through dialogue and understanding.
[ii] Chomsky, Naom, Media control, USA: Stories press, p 21
[iii] George W. Bush Speech, at the National Endowment for Democracy Washington, DC October 6, 2005: http://www.presidentialrhetoric.com/speeches/10.06.05.html
[vii] Avery good and factual example of this is the UN fact finding mission into the 2008-2009 Israel-Gaza war which found “strong evidence that Israeli forces committed grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in Gaza, including: willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, and extensive destruction of property.” “Israel’s blockade of Gaza amounts to a violation of Israel’s obligations as an Occupying Power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The deliberate actions of the Israeli forces and the declared policies of the Government indicate the intention to inflict collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip.” A copy of the report can be found at: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/12session/A-HRC-12-48.pdf
[ix] See endnote 7.
[x] President Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attack: http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/11/bush.speech.text/index.html