The tragedy of Arab-American relations

Sadly, I'm not surprised that the evidence for the most devastating terrorist attack in history points to a Middle East connection.

I have just returned from the area after almost two years there as a MacArthur fellow. I was conducting field research on how Islamic movements perceive and interact with the West, particularly the United States. The writing was all over the wall.

For many Arabs, regardless of their politics, the US has replaced colonial Europe as the embodiment of evil. In their eyes, the US is the source of the ills and misfortunes that befell their world in the second part of the past century.

Today, to be politically conscious in the Arab world is to be highly suspicious of America, its policies, and its motives. Radical Islamists blame the US for their defeat at the hands of the pro-US Arab regimes. They claim that the West, particularly the US, tipped the balance of power in favor of secular regimes by providing them with decisive political and logistical support.

Reports about the identity of some of the hijackers point to a heavy presence of perpetrators with Persian Gulf nationalities. It is also likely that the fingerprints of the defeated remnants of Egyptian Jihad and al-jama`a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group) will be found all over this horrendous terrorist attack on the United States. Most of the lieutenants and confidantes of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden - the principal suspect - come from these organizations.

In the past two years, the Afghan-based Mr. bin Laden has successfully recruited dozens of foot soldiers from the Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, signaling a shift in his tactics. This new development bodes ill for the long-term stability of the pro-US oil-producing monarchies.

Unfortunately, bin Laden's rhetoric has sunk deep roots in Arab soil. Hatred toward American foreign policy has become solidly entrenched in Arab popular culture as well as intellectual circles. Public discourse in the mosques and newspapers is full of references to America's legacy of aggression, manipulation, and subjugation of the Arabs.

There is legitimate Arab fury at America resulting from historical conditions and an arsenal of accumulated grievances, such as the questions of Israel, Iraq, and associations with the corrupt ruling elite. However, many Arabs refuse to take either moral or personal responsibility for their predicament. This perpetuates a sense of victimization. It also provides ammunition to terrorist groups, like bin Laden's, which are bent on waging a holy war against the "great Satan."

Acts of hatred follow. On a visit to Hadramout, Yemen, last month with my wife and two children, a few Yemeni boys chatted with us and expressed a genuine desire to "kill" Americans for supporting Israel's oppression of the Palestinians.

It is no longer just bin Laden versus the United States. Arab children are being indoctrinated to hate Americans, thus providing a fertile breeding ground for bin Laden's foot soldiers.

My own generation - people in their 30s and 40s - has also been socialized into an anti-American mindset, which is difficult to critique or deconstruct. America, it is often claimed, conspired to humiliate and dominate the proud Arabs by corrupting their local elite and empowering their hostile neighbors. Intelligent Arab men of letters advance conspiratorial theories to explain Washington's conduct and animosity toward the Arab and Muslim people.

Many Arabs no longer distinguish between their legitimate criticism of US foreign policies and almost everything that America stands for. They dismiss American democracy as being hijacked by the privileged few. Blinded by anti-Americanism, Arabs see little good in American society - and overwhelming cultural and moral decay.

In their commentaries about the indecisive results in last year's US presidential election, Arabs evinced wishful thinking that the American empire was beginning to crumble from within.

Unfortunately, Arab politicians and commentators invest more time and energy in denouncing the US than in understanding American institutions and civil society. The Arab world does not win respect in the West by being morally outraged at United States foreign policy.

Arab countries are not taken seriously by the West, particularly the US, because they have failed to develop, democratize, and normalize relations between state and society. Economically and politically, the Arab Middle East is one of the regions left out in the world race to democratize and globalize. Authoritarianism and patriarchy are highly consolidated on every level of society, from the public sphere to the dinner table.

These shortcomings, not US foreign policies, are largely responsible for the lack of Arab development and progress.

Far from forcing Americans to rethink their stand on the Middle East, this terrorist attack will most likely produce opposite results. It is high time for the Arabs to take charge of their political destiny and fully embrace modernity. This process requires structural reform from within and total engagement with the world, including the eradication of terrorism. It is then - and then only - that just Arab causes will be considered legitimate.

Fawaz A. Gerges is the Christian A. Johnson chair in Middle East and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of 'The Islamists and the West' (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) and 'America and Political Islam' (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

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