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Eric Severeid, one of the greatest American journalists of the twentieth century, once said that it is impossible to protect your reputation against someone determined to misinterpret you. That is also true in international affairs. There are honest misunderstandings, and then there’s deliberate slander or at least the predisposition to hate and lie.
These reflections arise from what is, in its own terms, a small story about an Afghan protest against an alleged desecration of the Koran by U.S. troops. What makes it particularly interesting was that the march ended by burning an effigy of President Barack Obama.
Obama, of course, has done everything possible to be popular among Muslims. Yet the best-laid lands of mice and men often go awry. What goes wrong?
–People who have limited sources of information, highly politicized and sensationalist media or are used to getting data through word of mouth are more likely to believe wild rumors without checking them further. In contrast to Western authority figures, who usually promote more moderate behavior among those they influence, opinionmakers in Muslim majority countries are often ideological militants or demagogues who encourage militancy.
–Those having conflicts of interest with you and/or ideological predispositions are more likely to believe bad things about you on limited or no evidence.
–Forces that hate you and want to defeat and perhaps destroy you will tell deliberate lies to manipulate others, cleverly formulated so that the others believe them.
–When there are profound cultural gaps people cannot understand how you behave, your motives, and what makes sense or is ridiculous. How would the average Afghan or Palestinian have any notion about how the American system works or how Americans behave?
–Societies lacking the scientific method, Western-style critical education, and Enlightenment values won’t do basic things like comparing sources, examining a story for internal contradictions, demanding specifics and documentation, etc.
Now this is not true only of Third World societies. It is not hard to discuss parallel things in Western countries—especially in history (witch trials, for example)—or ideas—belief in superstition amd myths–yet this proves the argument.
First, such events took place in past times when modern Western society and its institutions were less developed.
Second, they most often take place among people with little power or influence over national governments or major decisionmaking.
Third, opinionmakers try to combat false information and extremism. Efforts are made to check the facts accurately.
Fourth, institutions like the media, schools, and others promote tolerance and moderation. Of course, these things are not always true—Nazi Germany being the foremost example—but they generally prevail in 2009.
Indeed, despite hysteria over “Islamophobia,” the treatment of diverse groups and immigrants, in the United States at least and generally speaking in Europe has been remarkably tolerant given what might be expected or what could have happened.
Yet despite Political Correctness ignores the fact that these problems are far more present in Third World—and especially in Muslim-majority societies than they are in contemporary Western ones.
This is hardly the first lynch mob situation set off by rumors. Indeed, such things have been happening for centuries, previously around such claims as that a Christian or Jew had cursed Muahmmad, defiled some Muslim text or object, attacked or insulted an individual Muslim, or kidnapped a Muslim woman.
The reason why such stories are almost always false is that even if a Christian or Muslim had been inclined to do any such thing he would have been too afraid to ever do such a thing knowing that the outcome would be mass violence against his community and his own death. Indeed, these communities with few exceptions—the Christians of Lebanon being one of the few—had completely adapted themselves to always showing deference and keeping a low profile, in practice accepting dhimmi status.
When such outbreaks did occur, however, the situation could end in a pogrom or forced conversion (the alternative being death) by the victims. In more recent times—often in Egypt–one sees many cases in which a Coptic Christian man is accused of dating a Muslim woman or some other rumor spreads which leads to anti-Christian riots. What usually follows is that the police don’t interfere and then arrest as many Christians as Muslims, followed by media reports (echoed in the Western press) that both sides started the fighting.
By the way, what’s it called if someone gathers together lots of people who hate you, lie about you, and want to see you dead; let’s them talk without criticism or investigation of their wild, contradictory, and unproven claims; and then uses this testimony to condemn you? Answer: the Goldstone Commission report.
In this latest Afghan case, U.S. officials denied that any Koran desecration occurred and instead—probably accurately–accused the Taliban of deliberately spreading lies to make people hate America. Nonetheless, demonstrators insisted that they believed that U.S. troops had desecrated a Koran in some place near the capital even though they didn’t have a specific time, place, or details of the event.
By the way, the demonstration began at Kabul University, which makes it likely many of the participants were college students, not uneducated peasants.
The beliefs that Westerners or Israelis hate and want to destroy Islam; are deceitful enemies, and similar such things have been deeply inculcated by families, religious training, and political indoctrination. It is not easy or lightly overcome. If American soldiers sacrifice to liberate Iraq from a dictatorship or help Afghanistan; if the United State provides massive economic aid or development assistance or diplomatic support, these efforts will not be seen as generous but imperialistic.
There is simply no way to overcome such perceptions. Even those most directly benefitting from assistance—say the Egyptian political elite—will not only denounce the United States or West frequently but in fact have an even greater need to do so precisely to “prove” they are not Western or American lackeys and to mobilize mass support for themselves.
The idea that a concerted effort to show respect—generally unreciprocated—act unselfishly, praise Islam, gain popularity, or follow policies that will satisfy such populations is going to have a major effect in changing the behavior of Middle Eastern countries or peoples is quite naïve.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t better and worse strategies or that it is futile to try to build links, but respect for strength, strategic credibility, and material leverage are going to be far more important than gratitude.
Finally, there is the basic diplomatic reality that any decision will inevitably lead to hostility. No matter how much U.S. policy tries to distance itself from Israel, it won’t be far enough for many or most. Whether the United States leaves or stays to fight in Afghanistan will make enemies. Consider how little strategic or military benefit the United States has received from saving Kuwait in 1991; saving Saudi Arabia from Iran in the 1980s and Iraq in 1991; becoming patron of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority; or pouring billions of dollars into Egypt in aid.
How many more times will Obama be burnt in effigy by the very people he has bent over double-backwards to please, appease, or apologize to so often?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.