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In the Muslim world,
anger and introspection

By Anthony Shadid and John Donnelly, Globe Staff, 9/5/2002

   
Spanning two worlds
Egyptian artist Hoda Lutfi (above), who was educated in the United States and Canada, sees insecurities in both the Arab world and the West. Halim Abdel-Halim, an architect who studied at Cal-Berkeley, fears only more violence lies ahead. (AP Photos)


Venting anger
This bumper sticker from Cairo reads: "Buy their products and kill a Palestinian."


CAIRO - Halim Abdel-Halim is an urbane Egyptian architect who was trained at the University of California-Berkeley. He is helping plan a new campus for the American University in Cairo, and in his work, he thinks about ''what ought to be advanced from American civilization.''

He watched the Sept. 11 terror attacks rattle the United States like an earthquake and was outraged by the murder of innocents. But he also felt the aftershocks, which seemed to shake apart his own Islamic world and reveal its powerlessness.

His faith in American ideals waned as the year after Sept. 11 unfolded. What consumes him now is what he sees as the US government's blunt use of power in the Middle East. He seethes at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and braces for what could come next: a US war against Iraq.

''The Americans are losing the judgment that gives legitimacy to the rule of power, and that has to do with wisdom and balance,'' he lamented in his Cairo office, cluttered with architectual designs and maps of the Arab world's largest city. ''And when I see that happening, I see no way out of this except more violence.''

For policymakers in Washington, such a message from one who adores America should be sobering, especially now as the United States reverses a decade-long cut in public diplomacy funding and prepares to spend tens of millions of dollars to sell itself to the Arab world and beyond.

Nearly a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, senior Bush administration officials acknowledge that the much-trumpeted efforts at trying to win the hearts and minds of Muslims have failed miserably so far, and can only succeed eventually if the US government articulates a policy that helps promote Middle East peace. Complicating the efforts, many in Washington agree, is administration infighting on the decisive question on what to do about Iraq.

The result is ugly: an angry Arab world on the sidelines; European powers becoming increasingly hostile toward US intentions; and American public diplomacy making little headway, even as energetic officials promote a bundle of new ideas.

'Looking for progress'

"Public diplomacy is great, and advertising is great, but you've got to have a product," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in an interview recently, specifically addressing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. "And the product the people of the Arab world are looking for is progress toward a Middle East peace solution. . . . Public diplomacy can do a lot to blunt it, but it isn't going to turn it around. What's going to turn it around is when we achieve some success between the Israelis and the Palestinians."

The shock waves from Sept. 11 produced widespread introspection among Americans about why those from radical fringes of Islam hate the United States, a country that terror leader Osama bin Laden once said "supported the butcher over the victim, the oppressor over the innocent child."

Inside the State Department, a major part of the response has been to fight those perceptions by better explaining US positions, including bringing out of retirement Christopher Ross, a former ambassador and fluent Arabic speaker, to appear live on television in the Arab world.

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But the bloody violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians televised nightly into Muslim communities from Morocco to Indonesia has overshadowed those efforts, US officials acknowledge. The often breathless television coverage from a sudden wealth of Arab satellite stations, Al-Jazeera king among them, has had an impact reminiscent of the influence of US networks during the Vietnam War, Arab and US analysts say. Those images, along with President Bush's seemingly unwavering support of Israel and his call for the ouster of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, feed Arab disillusionment rooted in another date: Sept. 28, 2000, the start of the Palestinian uprising.

Few would doubt that there are more who hate America today than a year ago. On the walls of buildings in Cairo, posters angrily declare, "American commodities are Israeli bullets." Another chides, "Buy McDonald's and kill a Palestinian."

But anger is only part of the story. More than at any time in recent memory, the Arab world has engaged in its own introspection, questioning what went wrong and how it became - in the words of one former diplomat - "a wealthy nation of poor people." They are struggling with their own regimes that Abdel-Halim, the architect, says have put them "under occupation." And liberals to Islamists are searching for ways out of political stagnation, economic decline, and emergency measures that no longer have the justification of war or insurgency.

This introspection, best amplified by a groundbreaking United Nations study by Arab intellectuals on the sad state of Arab affairs, may yet provide the Bush administration with an opening - if slim - to put forward its ideas and ideals for democratic societies.

'All in one bag'

Egyptian by birth and Muslim by belief, Hoda Lutfi identifies with neither. She is an artist living in Egypt, she says simply, a statement that defines not only her work but also her view of the conflicts pitting Arab against American, East against West, Muslim against Christian or Jew.

Lutfi is another Egyptian who spans many worlds. She first went to the United States as a 16-year-old high school exchange student. She went on to complete her doctorate in Islamic cultural history at McGill University in Montreal and later taught at Harvard. More recently, her academic work has given way to painting, where she employs a collage of influences - from Cretan art to Madonna - to bridge what she sees as the tired categories of nationality, ethnicity, or belief.

But after Sept. 11, she has found it more difficult to escape those categories. In looking at the United States and the Arab world, she insists that they act the same. Both sides are insecure, she says.

"I want to turn the tables around," Lutfi said, pulling on a cigarette at a rooftop Cairo restaurant. "You are saying to me that I am dogmatic and I'm violent and all that. But look at yourselves and then understand human nature. When you're insecure, you act that way."

"It's a mirror," she said.

For Americans, insecurity is a common theme in the post-Sept. 11 world. The response to the attacks was sweeping, abroad and at home. But rarely did those fears intrude on questions of identity. That hasn't been the case in much of the Arab and Muslim world.

Bush has defined the Americans' response to vulnerability, casting the fight in terms of "good versus evil" or "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists." One of the lowest points for many Arabs came when Bush called for Arafat's ouster. In a region where the Palestinian uprising enjoys almost universal support, many felt Arafat's humiliation on a visceral level and saw the Americans as arrogant and full of self-righteous power.

Missing, they say, is dialogue.

"Without exception, every Arab - unless he or she is out of their mind, and has no sense at all - is realizing we are in the same bag as the Palestinians," said Abdel-Halim. "There's a realization that all of us - Islamists or radicals or Marxists or liberals - we're all in one bag, and this one bag is being condemned as a whole and being threatened."

There is a broader anxiety, too, over what is seen as American omnipotence. That sentiment was captured by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, when he said in Afghanistan last month that America "had come to a misunderstanding of its power and interests." Others phrase it as "blind power" or "power without justice" and see US policy as implacably anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. At the extreme, such sentiment appeared to prompt some Palestinians to dance in the streets on Sept. 11. Those images were quickly disowned by most Arabs as exaggerated. But anti-US feelings certainly fueled the outrage in the Arab world that greeted US calls for changes in Arab education, rekindling still-resonant memories of Western colonialism.

"Americans think that what America sees has to be perceived by everybody, and what America decides has to be accepted by everybody," said Hassan Hanafi, a Cairo University professor and Islamic reformer. "America sees itself as the judge and the gladiator at the same time."

Arab introspection

Beyond this anger, nevertheless, Sept. 11 has unleashed introspection in the Arab world.

Chants in pro-Palestinian rallies in the spring targeted the Egyptian government in the same breath as Israel and the United States: "Freedom, where are you? Where are you? The secret police are between us and you." A poster making the rounds in Cairo pictured a student killed by Egyptian police in a demonstration in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, with a Palestinian killed by Israeli forces.

"People are thinking we're on one side, and the government is on the other," said Gamal Eid, an Egyptian activist.

In the face of the disenchantment, Arab scholars and policymakers wrote a report in July for the United Nations. It found their region among the world's most undemocratic, where women were subject to severe inequality, and all suffered from poor health care, substandard education, and little access to information technology.

Clovis Maksoud, a former Arab League representative to the United Nations and an adviser to the report, called it "a breakthrough without being a provocation. . . . There is a great deal of dynamism in the Arab world, there is a great deal of questioning. There is not yet a sense of direction."

That questioning has gone to the heart of the prevalent insecurity.

On the one hand, many in the region have engaged in an Islamic triumphalism, seeking security in the refuge of faith. They draw strength from the belief that while the West is technologically more advanced and economically and militarily more powerful, Islam, and the culture it produced, remains a superior value system: family over the individual, spirituality as a substitute for American materialism.

The flip side to the retrenchment, though, has been an intellectual foment that feeds on disenchantment and recognizes the stagnation.

Calls for democratic reform have increased - as have calls for adherence to human rights and government accountability. Among Islamic intellectuals, there is a search for a more modern faith. But in a bitter irony, one of those activists says the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere has become so poisoned that those efforts could fail.

"When you speak about a dialogue of civilizations, people are laughing," said Abul-Ela Maadi. "They say, 'What dialogue?' "

Administration policy

Does the Bush administration want to talk? Its record of unilateralism - including rejections of the Kyoto Protocol on climate control and the International Criminal Court - as well as signals of going alone in launching a war against Iraq lead many to believe that Washington has no interest in a dialogue.

Neoconservatives in the administration, said Richard W. Murphy, a former US ambassador in the Arab world, "have communicated in a sense, 'We don't give a damn what they think, that the key to the solution in the Middle East is to get rid of Saddam Hussein . . . and once we have accomplished that mission, we can all get on with it.' That is not selling a message."

"There are major differences over how to proceed," said a former Pentagon policy analyst who recently attended several administration public diplomacy meetings. He spoke on condition of anonymity. "Nobody knows what the hell to do. Before you can proceed, you have to have a vision, and we have yet to hear the administration articulate a strategic vision for the Middle East."

The last comprehensive US policy on the Middle East called for dual containment of Iran and Iraq and was aimed at isolating both countries while giving peace talks time to develop. That policy was outlined May 13, 1993, by Martin Indyk, then a senior National Security Council official in the Clinton administration.

The lack of a major policy, though, hasn't stopped administration efforts to sell itself. This summer, the House approved a project that would spend $255 million over two years to improve the State Department's communication strategies, finance exchange programs in Muslim countries, and expand US international television and radio programming. The television project alone would run $135 million. The Senate is envisioning legislation just as far-reaching.

For now, the centerpiece is Radio Sawa, already widely popular in Jordan and the Persian Gulf for play lists featuring Jennifer Lopez and Egypt's Amr Diab. It also is broadcasting on AM in Iraq and hopes to break into markets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. After drawing listeners with popular music, the station will steadily increase programming on US policy and positions.

But the administration has had many setbacks as well. The Pentagon's attempt to create a new propaganda machine, called the Office of Strategic Influence, fell victim in February to inter-department squabbling and accounts in the media that it had planned to spread "disinformation" in foreign countries. The controversy later contributed to the canceling of a public diplomacy conference being put together by the National Defense University in Washington for analysts from the White House, State and Defense departments, and Middle Eastern governments.

"People were worried that since we were funded by the Defense Department whether we would be seen as part of OSI, and wondered how the conference would be perceived in the region itself," said a participant in the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity.

At a dinner party recently in Washington, senior US officials and Arab diplomats discussed the fallout from the cancellation. But one Arab diplomat questioned whether the United States really should be so brazen in preaching its values to the Arab world.

The ambassador talked about how the Arab world has "tried to learn so much from the United States." But he wondered what could be learned from a country "where there are complaints about the ability to hold fair elections, where elections are decided by the judiciary, and where there are issues about ballot boxes as well."

He offered the description of the 2000 US presidential election good-naturedly, but the message stuck. Hours later, many guests left chattering about seeing democracy from new perspectives.

'A state of helplessness'

The current conversation in the Arab world is dominated by a theme of powerlessness. In part, that theme is the product of stagnation in a region that the Arab development report ranked last in the world for its civil liberties, free media, and political rights. It reflects, too, a helplessness inculcated by the seemingly overwhelming power of the United States.

"The world is standing in an amazing state of helplessness and sense of impotence in the face of American power, and that is absolutely dangerous," Abdel-Halim said. "Now you find yourself standing up in front of the dominant force in the world. It's America, with its obvious misjudgment - to be very modest about it - and yet you cannot do anything. I'm talking about the European Union, the Arab world, the whole world."

"Who will say to the Americans, 'No, we disagree with you?' " he asked.

Some of those working most intimately in public diplomacy recognize those sentiments. Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese-American journalist and news director of Radio Sawa, says his project will never succeed if cast as propaganda.

Arabs "have nothing going for them," he said. "You can't come and lecture them. You don't sound arrogant or condescending. Show people in the Middle East that you respect them."

Respect is not a small point in the Arab world. It is not uncommon to hear Arabs reach back to 1957, when then US Senator John F. Kennedy supported Algerian independence.

Maksoud, the former Arab diplomat, calls for a reframing of the question, "Why do they hate us?"

"That was an impulsive and understandably reactive question," he said. "It is not a question of hate. There is a fringe that hates in any society. But hatred is the culmination of hopelessness and a break with any form of dialogue. Anger is an invitation to conversation, to explanation, to persuasion, to debate, even to intellectual confrontation. But it wants to remain in contact."

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/5/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.





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