Thursday, September 20, 2012

When you are taught that hate makes you special you get this.

The America of the Arab Street

“Obama, Obama, we are all Osama” the crowd chanted outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11. The slogan also found its way to Tunis, where a mob attacked the embassy as well, and the chant was taken up in Qatar and other Muslim countries.
Why? What happened to the liberal youth of the Arab world in whom we invested our hopes and support? Why are Muslims so sensitive, so easily offended; why do some so readily resort to violence?
The liberal protesters who demanded freedom and democracy last year were able to unite and overthrow dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But their failure to explain what their liberalism stands for has opened the way for a new, Islamist-oriented power elite that capitalizes on old lies and half-truths to twist religion and history to manipulate the masses.
The leaders of nascent democracy-oriented political parties in the Arab world’s most politically vibrant country, Egypt, are hobbled by egotistical rivalries, a lack of centralized leadership, urban elitism and an inability to connect with rural majorities. Secular luminaries like Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or Naguib Sawiris, a prominent businessman and politician, are not at ease in the new Egypt. As their political parties struggle to articulate a message, Islamist leaders with strong religious credentials have been able to mobilize a broad popular base.
Arab societies remain deeply religious. In liberal Morocco, 89 percent of the people say that religion is “very important” in their lives, according to a recent Pew poll. Mosques are packed every Friday; religious events promote widespread charity, and believers are encouraged to support candidates who are perceived to be more godly. But there is a deeper problem that goes well beyond the popular appeal of Islamist parties: A cancerous narrative has taken hold of many Arab minds.
In Egypt, 75 percent of Muslims do not believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks, according to a 2011 Pew poll. Many believe that it was either Israel, the U.S. government, or both. The West is viewed through a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, half-truths and a selective reading of history.
When I met Muhammad Mahdi Akef, the influential former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, in April 2011, he insisted that Al Qaeda was a figment of the Western imagination. The idea that it doesn’t exist, that the United States attacked itself, is buttressed by preachers in mosques, on satellite television channels and in glossy Arabic books.
The United States and the West are widely seen as waging a war on Muslims. Al Qaeda videos promote this vision as a continuation of the Crusades. Many Muslims recall incidents of perceived hostility in their own lifetime — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay; the banning of minarets in Switzerland; the outlawing of face veils in France; NATO troops burning copies of the Koran in Afghanistan. In this vein, the recent anti-Islam film confirms the belief that the West is out to destroy Islam.
In most Arab countries, citizens require government permission to produce films. For many Arabs, it is inconceivable that U.S. citizens are not under the same controls. The attacks on U.S. embassies after the release of the offensive video “Innocence of Muslims” on YouTube must be seen in this context.
When I watch Al Jazeera Arabic I am stunned by unchallenged references in talk show interviews to the “American Zionist plan” or “the American enemy” or the “ally of the Zionist entity.” Attacking the United States has become part of the political culture in much of the Middle East. To challenge it is to be a labeled a “sellout,” a “traitor” or a “Zionist agent” and to court social isolation.
And yet on the streets of Arab capitals, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other American brands remain hugely popular — as are American clothes, technology and television shows and films. The same U.S. embassies that were attacked were surrounded almost daily by long lines of people applying for visas to enter the United States. There are almost 50,000 Saudi students in American universities. Tens of thousands more from across the region are vying to do the same.
On the day that the protests broke out in Egypt and Libya, I was in the Library of Congress in Washington. Founded in 1800, its main reading room has a magnificent dome with dedications to world civilizations — Islamic civilization prominent among them — to which the United States is indebted. A two-volume English translation of the Koran, donated by Thomas Jefferson, is preserved in the library. In 1805, President Jefferson invited the Muslim ambassador from Tunisia to the White House for an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast.
Today, America’s Muslims are freer and more prosperous than Muslims in any other part of the world. Their daily lives show that the narrative about a U.S.-Islam war is a myth.
The Arab world is at an important crossroads. It is time to abandon this false narrative. Not enough has been done to educate Arab and Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East about the reality of religious freedom in America. Their misunderstanding of liberty leads to their silence — or worse, incitement.
A U.S. invitation to Ali Gomaa, Egypt’s grand mufti, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayyib, grand imam of Al-Azhar, or Saudi Arabia’s popular Sheik Salman al-Awdah as guests of the American people at the president’s State of the Union address in Congress would help demonstrate a different America to young, religious Arabs. These clerics, and others like them, command the support of millions. We can create a new narrative.
The United States can also help by being seen to be a fair arbitrator of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Better relations with some 300 million Arabs strengthens U.S. influence, and helps more than 7 million Israelis, too.
No country has as much soft power at its disposal in the Arab world as does the United States. A new generation of Arabs deserve a better future than following the madness of those who shout “Obama, Obama, we are all Osama.”
Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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