THE Arab states of the Gulf have recently issued a statement blacklisting some 300 Arab writers who did not support the war against Iraq or took other political positions the Gulf states deemed contrary to their interests. Forty-eight of these writers are from Egypt, a country that sacrificed its people for the liberation of Kuwait.
Although this action may appear small by comparison to other events in the Middle East, it is very telling about the inner dynamics of the Arab world and the future of American influence in the region.
This is not the first time Arab writers have been punished for their views. Twelve years ago, many Egyptian writers were blacklisted by the Gulf states for writing in favor of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. At that time, officials from the Gulf met in Baghdad to denounce Egypt's action and the Egyptian writers who supported the peace treaty.
Now the same Gulf bureaucrats have met again to punish writers who advocated peace or spoke out against the despotism of the Gulf regimes, except the meeting is not in Baghdad this time; it is in Kuwait City.
The blacklist prevents writers from publishing or distributing their work within the Gulf states. Given the current influence of Gulf wealth over the governments of poverty-stricken Arab countries, however, the blacklist can also prevent the writers from publishing in their own countries. It could even lead to their imprisonment or assassination, as may have been the case with the trial of Egyptian novelist Ala Hamid and the killing of Egyptian author Farag Fouda.
Unfortunately, it is the best of Arab culture that is being punished. The writers blacklisted are among the Arab world's most humane and secular scholarly thinkers. The list includes Mohammed Hiekal, whose book analyzing the events leading up to the assassination of Anwar Sadat, "Autumn of Anger," is a standard reference for students of modern Middle Eastern history. Also included are other liberal writers like Fareeda Naqash and Nawal Saadawi, two leading feminists who are critical of the Gulf countries ' treatment of women.
The threats these writers face will influence image and interests of the United States in the region. After all, the Gulf states are currently posing as the surrogates of the US - any attack against them is an attack on the US.
This has lead many Middle Easterners to assume that the Gulf states also represent the American position concerning the human rights of Arab citizens. It could make American outrage over Iran's threats against Salman Rushdie seem highly hypocritical. Ironically, many of the Arab intellectuals who defended Mr. Rushdie are at risk from the US-backed Gulf states because they committed the secular blasphemy of criticizing the Gulf regimes.
The blacklisting of the writers comes at a time when animosity between Arab countries is intense. The Gulf war created bitterness not only between regimes, but also between Arab peoples. This animosity has also increased as a result of the current border disputes among many Arab states, some of which are taking dangerous turns.
Egyptian troops reportedly massed on the border with Sudan are apparently ready to fight for Halaib, a southern region that both Egypt and Sudan claim. Saudi Arabia and Yemen have an intense border conflict over the oil-rich areas between the two countries; Bahrain and Qatar are also at odds.
In this atmosphere, it appears that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is not the end of inter-Arab wars, but the beginning.
These are not mere disputes over borders. They are cultural disputes between the secular forces represented by the voices of the blacklisted writers and their readers and the traditionalist and fundamentalist forces represented by the wealthy absolute monarchies in the Gulf. In this dispute the US is allying itself with the most oppressive and intolerant element of Arab culture. It favors the conservative Gulf Arabs over the liberal element represented by the writers.
America's interest in the Middle East is best served if the US administration uses this incident to take a stance that favors freedom of expression and basic human rights, American ideals much admired by educated Middle Easterners. To lecture about these ideals at home and support those who actively work to deny them abroad not only puts a lasting stain on America's image in the region, it undermines the meaning of the values themselves.