Two faces of the Arab street

His Syrian cousin loves America, but is forced to hate her.

Kamal is my Syrian cousin who lives in Damascus. He is a pious Muslim who keeps a low profile. When I decided to Google his name, I was surprised to see that he had made a statement in one of the newspapers denouncing the American war in Iraq and describing the US as a bully.

But I know Kamal, and I know that he admires the West. During our chitchats, his favorite description of the social and economic situation in Syria is "backwardness." He tells me that he would love to move to a "civilized" country where people stand in a queue, where drivers follow the law, and where everyone is "respected" and everything is "clean."

Kamal's statement in the newspaper does not reflect his thought. Rather, it reflects the double-faced character that most of the Arabs and Muslims have to put up, fearing the tyranny they live under.

During my years as a reporter in Beirut, whenever I covered an anti-US protest, I saw most of the protesters trying to hide their faces from cameras. Ask any of them about the reason for doing so, and they will tell you that they do not want to jeopardize getting a visa to the US or to other Western countries.

But those who don't want to risk their visas are the same ones who fear retribution of their ruling regimes, or even their militant peers, if they express any support of the West. These people walk a tightrope. On the one hand, they want to keep their visa prospects high. On the other hand, they want to look as anti-Western as their oppressors want them to look.

The double-face theory explains a good deal of the social behavior of many Arabs. It explains why, even though the majority of Arabs appear to hate America, American multinational franchises are booming in Arab countries.

Whether it is Starbucks, McDonald's, Burger King, or KFC, they are all in high demand in the Arab region. Hollywood movies are widely watched. American pop culture is as widespread in the Middle East as it is here in the US. Most Arabs know Ross and Rachel from the TV sitcom "Friends." Many of them know the rapper 50 Cent and often sing his tunes. Many of them strive to enter the US universities mushrooming across the region.

If you ask these Arabs about the dilemma of loving America and hating it at the same time, the most common answer would be: We love America, but we hate its foreign policy.

American foreign policy, however, does not always work against what many of these Arabs want to see. Only a few would oppose the removal of their tyrant.

When American troops first stormed into Baghdad, the most common footage on TV was that of Iraqis hailing the invaders and often praising President Bush. True, there was no throwing of petals and sweets on US troops. But there were no insurgents either. Violence in Iraq did not break out until the third month after the American invasion – once insurgents had grouped themselves and planned their action.

When jubilant Iraqis saw another form of tyranny, that of the insurgents replacing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, they put on their double-faced characters again.

How do we know what the majority of Iraqis and Arabs feel about America? It's simple. Take the number of insurgents and compare them to that of the Iraqi population. Insurgents are estimated at 15,000 militants, heavily supported and funded by intelligence groups of their neighboring countries. The number, however, is negligible if compared with Iraq's population of 27 million.

Even under Hussein and his 1-million- strong army and intelligence personnel, his entourage would not account for more than 1/27th of the population. That Iraqis hated Hussein is an undisputed fact. Yet they praised him, elected him (Hussein "won" 100 percent of the vote in 2002), and protested against America under him. It was all fear, and part of the double-face strategy.

In any given nation, it takes only a handful of troublemakers to bring everyone to their knees. Iraqi insurgents terrorize the people who are fleeing the country by the thousands. Insurgents coerce the population to look as though they are anti-American. Without them and the support of neighboring intelligence forces, Iraq could have been the strongest democracy in the region and perhaps Operation Iraqi Freedom would have succeeded.

My cousin Kamal loves America, but he is forced to hate her, just like the protesters who hide their faces. There are more than 300 million Arabs, yet only 19 of them were enough to show the world on 9/11 that Arabs and Muslims hate America, an impression that is not necessarily true.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a media analyst, is a former reporter for The Daily Star of Lebanon.

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