An Arab liberal's anguish

I like jeans, Lou Reed, and 'The Simpsons' - but that doesn't make me agree with US Mideast policy.

I am a young liberal Muslim Arab, the trilingual product of French and American schools. While I grew up in Beirut, most of my friends grew up in Montreal, New York, London, or Paris. I wear jeans and miniskirts - not a veil. I listen to David Bowie and Lou Reed. I watch "Sex and the City," "The Simpsons," and Woody Allen. I've attended an American university, and plan to pursue a career in international affairs in Washington.

If there is to be a pro-American cadre in the Arab world, one would think its members would look like me and my friends. Indeed, when the State Department's strategists talk about combating anti-Americanism and about spreading democracy, they're talking about cultivating more Arabs like me.

Yet, despite my upbringing and orientation, I feel deeply estranged from everything the United States is trying to do in the Middle East. My friends and I aren't buying what the US government has to offer. For all our understanding of the US, the US seems not to understand who we are.

We share the Arab heart. Whether we're from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, or elsewhere in the Middle East, we share a language, holidays, foods, literature. We even share the same nostalgia - like the Sunday family gathering at Grandmother's house, where we gorged on meza (the feast before the feast). As much as we may look and act like Westerners, our roots are different - as are our politics.

President Bush thinks that our problem is hatred. Speaking to a joint session of Congress just after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, "They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

I don't know how the terrorists feel about this statement, but I see things quite differently. When I'm home in Beirut, I do see hatred of the US. But it's hardly hatred of American freedoms. We all admire these liberties and would like to integrate them in our own societies - I, for one, benefit from them every day working here in the US. Rather, the Arab rancor I perceive stems significantly from dismay over American policy toward us, which uses few of the democratic values Americans practice and expect in their own country.

By supporting authoritarian governments in the region, the US is generally viewed by Arab liberals - who would like to see change in their societies and leadership - as a belligerent external force that promotes and prolongs injustice and is indifferent to Arab suffering.

In Lebanon, I observe an Arab identity that is hardening around perceived US hostility. It is seen as antipathy not toward what Arabs do, but toward Arabs themselves.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American administration seems to act as if Arabs are all Muslims (they aren't) and all Muslims are Arabs (not so, either). We are all lumped together; we are all suspect - and I feel as if the US is pushing me away.

In all of this, I feel a bit trapped. "Arab" is a vague term - perhaps as vague as the idea of "the West." In a strange way, I feel part of each. Culturally I may look and act "Western," but politically I'm "Arab." I want my country to find its own solutions to its political and economic problems without pressure from the West.

A common thread that unites Arabs across the Middle East is the shared sense of threat from Israel. This surprises Americans, who generally see Israel as the aggrieved party, or don't understand the history of the region which is so geographically, economically, and politically entangled with the Palestinians' plight.

It's not just a military threat to countries bordering on Israel - as in Lebanon, which was occupied by Israel for two decades. It's the political consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that spill over into the whole region. We see an American policy that seems to excuse Israeli excesses and to pursue broader Israeli goals. So we feel outgunned not only in the Middle East, but also in the salons of Washington and the halls of Congress.

Certainly the turmoil in the Arab world and the long sense of injustice is not new. But it has been aggravated in modern history as much by our own corrupt leaders as it has been by French and British colonial rule and the US-Soviet schism that set us on the road we're on now.

The more time passes, the more frustration is being anchored in Arabs' hearts and, unfortunately, their minds. Many Arabs - from the poorest to the most advantaged, the most religious to the most secular - feel impotent to change their conditions. Out of this despair grows an anger and rage that focuses on the US.

The authoritarian leaders of the Arab world have been in power for decades, in part due to American support. By accepting the status quo, the US is seen to prolong it.

For example, the US bolsters undemocratic regimes across the region - from Egypt to Jordan to Saudi Arabia - mainly to prevent Islamic movements unfriendly to the US from reaching power through democratic means. I don't want a fundamentalist Islamic government, either, but I'd rather see my people make that choice at the ballot box than the US doing it for us.

It is true, Middle Eastern citizens lack civil liberties and freedoms. People are sometimes imprisoned when they protest their governments policies and try to bring about change. And there is scarce freedom of expression and pervasive censorship. But still, I believe durable democracy can come only from within these nations. It cannot be imposed from abroad, and certainly not by the US, whose policies so consistently have failed to produce a genuine democracy in the region.

For centuries, foreign intervention has not meant liberation, it has meant political handicapping to serve the interests of a foreign power. The struggle unfolding in "liberated" Iraq emphasizes why we need to try another way.

It is an inherent contradiction to impose democracy. Given the lengthy gestation of America's own democratic institutions, it's like asking Iraq to evolve politically overnight.

When we create a genuine democracy for ourselves, it will have to be on our terms and at our own pace. And when we do, we're likely to arrive at decisions - on such issues as trade relationships and the role of government and religion in society - that trouble others, particularly the US. In other words: Democracy is not necessarily synonymous with liberal or pro-Western values.

There are many ideas about democratization competing for attention in the Arab world - from Islamic fundamentalism to pro-Western liberalism - and many of them I don't like.

But the American tactic of imposing democracy is one I like even less. It seems impossible for this to succeed.

The real goal is not to hold an election or two. If democracy is to take root in the Arab world, we need to be left to do it ourselves, at our own pace.

Undoubtedly, we do need help, but in ways respectful of our dignity and the genuine democratic process. The US and other Western nations ought to promote human rights, freedom of speech, and other reforms, but not by threat or with deadlines. It should be done through effectively supporting nongovernmental organizations and the civil society, and by enhancing economic development.

There is one thing on which Mr. Bush and I agree: Positive change is necessary. I hope he will let us make it on our terms, because people in my region will not make it on his.

Alia Fattouh is a research analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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