Despite today marking the sixth anniversary of Sept. 11, US policymakers and pundits continue to use the same misleading approach toward understanding the Arab world.
When you pose a question about two disparate cultures and their intertwined relationship, common sense leads you to involve both parties. Yet, for the past six years, I have watched the D.C. circles fail to do just that. Each anniversary, I witness Americans asking Americans, discussing among other Americans, the topic of something none of them are – Arabs. Six years after the devastating attacks, Americans are still asking that ubiquitous question: "Why do they hate us?"
Efforts to answer this question have been prolific. Conventions, speeches, research, opinion polls, books, articles, the list goes on. But in the end they lack the necessary depth and rigor, failing to listen to Arab voices and enhance understanding of the Arab world.
Six years after the attacks, there is more prejudice, more fear, and, regrettably, more distance to overcome in order to adequately understand one another.
Now, there are many things wrong with this infamous question, "Why do they hate us?" First, it leads one to assume that Arabs, in general, hate America – a mendacious statement containing a respectable amount of prejudice.
Second, the word "us" suggests a misleading conflation of American policies and citizens. In other words, the phrasing implies that the alleged hatred from Arabs is directed toward the American people and not toward specific US institutions or policies. Although terrorists like Osama bin Laden have claimed that any American citizen is a target, the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims oppose this attitude.
US policies, more than anything, are the source of animosity toward America. In fact, Arabs, for the most part, recognize the difference between America's citizens and its policies, citing their grievances with the superpower not in regard to the "American way of life," but to the Iraq war, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and America's double standards in promoting democracy.
Finally, by identifying Arabs as "they," the misleading notion that the Arab world is a monolithic, homogenous unit enjoying a single worldview is brought about. The question's rationale poses Arab liberals and political Islamists, as well as "radical" and "moderate" Islamists, as Arabs sharing the same attitudes and feelings – not only a deceptive view of any eclectic society, but an ignorant one as well.
According to a poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in March, 76 percent of Moroccan citizens expressed an unfavorable view of America, with nearly 50 percent of them expressing their views as "very unfavorable." In addition, Egypt – one of the largest recipients of US foreign aid – came in at an incredible 93 percent, with 86 percent of those polled expressing a "very unfavorable" attitude toward the US government.
These numbers are not only disturbing because of the obvious evidence of Arab discontent with America, but also because of the US's recent public diplomacy efforts, such as Radio Sawa, the Al-Hurra satellite television network, and several State Department-funded cultural-exchange programs. Despite the estimated $850 million spent on these efforts, they have obviously failed as it was only in 2004 when 53 percent of Egyptians said they held negative feelings toward the superpower – a number that has risen almost 80 percent in three years.
Part of this failure stems from the flawed question most often used by Americans in regards to the Arab world: "Why do they hate us?" Yet, if Americans insist on posing this question, I pose another. "Why don't 'you' ask 'them'?" Arab involvement, plain and simple, is key.
As an Egyptian-American living in Washington, I am disturbed by the fact that Arabs have been largely neglected in this debate about the relationship between the two societies I consider home – America and the Arab world.
Sure, there are Arab voices in the Washington arena, but they are extremely limited. "Arab" representation comes to Washington policymakers in the form of the governing elite of more than a dozen Arab embassies, and the so-called Arab experts, who tend to be Westernized and distant from the realities of the Arab world. Consulting with such persons will not generate the answers America seeks for its proper understanding of the Arab world, nor will it help in the prevention of another terrorist attack.
The lack of indigenous Arab voices in Washington limits the quest for mutual understanding. For Americans to understand the Arab world, they need to read what these indigenous Arabs write, understand what they watch, and listen to Arab academics rather than to heads of government.
With an unprecedented rise in Arab discontent toward the US taking place, it is time for Washington to recognize the shortcomings of its public diplomacy efforts and try anew. Not until we seek out the voices of indigenous Arabs will all of us – that's you and me, Americans and Arabs – be able to effectively communicate.
• Mohamed Elmenshawy is the editor in chief of Arab Insight, a new journal published by the World Security Institute in Washington.