Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Can Obama Work His Magic on Arabs?
By Ramzy Baroud
ccun.org, June 9, 2009
Among many major misconceptions pertaining to Arabs and
Muslims is the common belief that they are a weak-willed, irrelevant
collective, easily influenced and effortlessly manipulated. This mistaken
assumption underscores the very ailment that has afflicted United States
foreign policy in the Middle East for generations.
pundits and commentators began their drum-rolling in anticipation of US
President Barack Obama's speech in Egypt on Thursday, very few paid
attention to the fact that Arabs and Muslims are not so naive as to be
wooed by mere rhetoric, but that they are significant players in their own
affairs, capable of resistance and change.
To begin with, it's
underhanded and foolish to speak of one Arab and Muslim polity, as if
geography, class, language and politics, among many other factors, are
irrelevant attributes which are easily overlooked. Why is there an
insistence on addressing Arabs and Muslims as one unified body - that is,
the so-called "Muslim world" - that behaves according to specific
rationale; predisposed to respond to the same stimuli? True, various
groups within the Arab and Muslim collective share common history,
language and religion, but even the same groups differ in historic
interpretations, dialects and religious sects and frames of reference.
Why the reductionism? Is it true that a struggling North African
immigrant in a French slum carries the same values, expectations and
outlook on life as an wealthy, SUV-driving Arab in the Gulf? Does a poor
Egyptian, grappling for recognition within a political body that has room
for only the chosen few, relate to the world the same way as does a
Malaysian Muslim with a wide range of opportunities, civic, economic and
Even within the same country, among the same people,
adhering to the same religion, does the world mean the same, and will
Obama's words in Egypt represent the unifying lexicon that will meet every
Arab or a Muslim man or woman's aspirations? Can one lump together those
who collaborated with those who resisted; those who exploited others and
those who were exploited; those who had plenty and those who had none?
As the countdown to Obama's visit nears the highly anticipated day,
pundits and polls are pouring in. A recent survey conducted by Shilbey
Telhami and Zogby International was carried out in six Arab countries,
each representing unique collective experiences that cannot be compared.
The poll declared that Obama is popular among Arabs, yet Arabs are still
skeptical of the US. It was learned that Iraq matters the most, followed
by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There is no denial that Arabs in
various countries have major perceptions and expectations in common. But
who is to say that there are not more commonalities between the poor of
Egypt and Mexico, than the elites of Egypt and Pakistan? However, such
assertion would be irrelevant for one main reason: Arabs and Muslims have
been demonized collectively, targeted collectively and at times,
victimized collectively. In other words, it's US foreign policy towards
various Arab and Muslim collectives that largely explains the constant
lumping of all Arabs and all Muslims into one single category.
Arabs and Muslims seem only relevant as a collective whenever the US is
interested in carrying out a rhetorical policy shift, a war, a
self-serving "democracy" campaign, and so forth. They are available as a
collective to be duly demonized as "terrorist" or readily shunned for
subscribing to the "wrong" religion.
David Schenker, writing for
the Washington Institute for Near East Policy website was honest enough in
explaining the significance of Obama's speech in Cairo. He pointed out
that Iran is a major issue that Obama and moderate Arabs have in common.
His explanation is straightforward: "Tehran's progress toward a nuclear
weapon and its provision of material and ideological support for moqawama,
or resistance, across the region is of grave concern to Washington and its
moderate Arab allies."
According to the poll cited above, only a
fraction of Arabs surveyed seem concerned by the Iranian nuclear program.
This leaves Iran posing one major "threat", its support of resistance.
It's ironic that resistance, which is a universal right for any
oppressed individual or collective, is being dealt with as a "grave
concern". This explains, in part, the lingering illusion that continues to
mar US foreign policy, and also highlight the common strength that Arab
and Muslim masses continue to wield, their ability to resist. Amid the
democracy programs that have appeared and disappeared in recent years -
George W Bush's Middle East democracy project being one - none was an
outcome of genuine and collective movements in Arab and Muslim nations.
Such genuine movements, although in existence, are unpopular in
Washington, for they seem inconsistent with US interests.
leaves one last aspect of collective self-expression, again, resistance,
in all of its manifestations. It's the root causes of Arab and Muslim
resistance that are most deserving of analysis and understanding, as
opposed to mere dismissal on the grounds that it's a "grave concern".
If Obama continues to approach Arabs and Muslims as one single
collective, ready to be manipulated and wooed with bogus promises, fancy
rhetoric and impressive body language, then he will surely be
disappointed. Highly politicized, skeptical and, frankly, fed-up societies
refuse to be reduced to a mere percentage in some opinion poll that can be
swayed this way or that, whenever the US administration determines the
time and place.
It's that incessant lack of depth that has caused
the US so much grief in the Middle East, and will cost it even more if
such imprudence persists.
- Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net)
is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been
published in many newspapers, journals and anthologies around the world.
His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a
People's Struggle (Pluto Press, London). His forthcoming book is My Father
was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story.