Hating America: A History » Chapter 7-The Great Satan
THE GREAT SATAN
If at least one good thing might come out of September 11, 2001, the most terrible terrorist attack in modern history, surely it could have been expected to be heightened world sympathy for the United States. In fact, however, the opposite happened. Usama bin Ladin and his al-Qa’ida organization organized the operation in the first place because they wanted to identify America as an evil country that was the source of the world’s problems.
To some extent, they succeeded in far more than just hijacking four planes and crashing them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It was also the greatest graphic demonstration of anti-Americanism and advertisement for that doctrine that had ever happened.
There were two types of anti-American responses. The first and more extreme was the idea, mainly in the Middle East and among Muslims, that bin Ladin was right, the attacks were justified, and there had to be more armed struggle against the United States and its influence. The other approach—even more widespread in the Middle East and Muslim worlds and other areas as well–was to say there was much truth in bin Ladin’s claims and large legitimate grievances against the United States, though the attack itself was excessive and American influence should be fought with non-violent means. While the first school of thought wanted to fight America, the second was content merely to blame America.
For almost a half-century before September 11, anti-Americanism had been a major force in the Middle East. But before that date it had usually been part of a larger world view, an accessory albeit an important one. Now, however, anti-Americanism was placed at the very center of Arab nationalist and Islamist ideology.
The Middle East version of anti-Americanism possessed its own distinctive roots, course of development, and list of complaints. At the same time, though, it had, like counterparts elsewhere, the same dual concept of America, two mutually reinforcing ideas in building an anti-American vision.
On one hand, the United States was portrayed as a bad/society, especially dangerous since its model might displace the Arab/Muslim culture and way of life. On the other hand, the United States had an evil foreign policy, antagonistic to Arab/Muslim interests because it sought to injure, conquer, and dominate the Middle East. The root of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, then, is not so much the substance of American words or deeds but the deliberate reinterpretation of American words or deeds to make them seem hostile and evil.
What were some of the causes that made Middle Eastern anti-Americanism so intense? First, and ironically, was the fact that anti-Americanism developed later in the Middle East than in Europe or Latin America, largely because that region’s significant contacts with the United States only took place in relatively recent times. It came onto the stage at the time of that phenomenon’s highest, most intense, phase. Middle Eastern views of America were formed at the time that country was a global power and seen mainly in that light.
Second, and perhaps even more significant, was that cultural distance made it far easier to distort the nature and motives of the United States. Europe and Latin America knew they shared a great deal in common with America. Ultimately, the United States was only a variation—even if some considered it a perverted one—of their own civilization. For the Arab and Muslim world, however, the United States was not only far more alien but often seen as the embodiment of the entire Western world.
A third key element was the entwining of anti-Americanism with the Arab world’s, and later Iran’s, political system. At the root of this version of anti-Americanism, was less a factually based set of grievances than a campaign far more systematic and keyed to political advantage than elsewhere in the world. Most of the ruling and opinion-making elite—even those whose countries maintained good relations with the United States, as in Saudi Arabia or Egypt–had strong political motives for endorsing anti-American views and making them a key part of their strategy for retaining power.
As in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, anti-Americanism was a state-supported doctrine. The reason was that in the Arab world and Iran, ruling ideologies—Arab nationalism and Islamism, respectively—saw themselves as alternative models of how society should be organized. For them, America was a rival for the loyalties of their own people and the preservation of the way of life they wanted. Consequently, it must be discredited and defeated for their vision to triumph.
Unlike in Europe or Latin America, these dictatorial regimes controlled all social institutions, including the media, mosque, and schools, using them to spread systematically their version of the United States. Also in comparison to other places, the liberal forces which had always been the main foes of anti-Americanism in Europe and Latin America were far weaker there.
Fourth, the visible failure of Middle Eastern regimes made them need to wield anti-Americanism all the more. How else could they explain their own inability to unite the Arab world, destroy Israel, bring rapid economic development, or gave their people more freedom than by citing U.S. sabotage? To survive, they needed to persuade their people that the main threat came from a powerful and evil external enemy which required them to unite around their government to fight.
Even governments considered relatively moderate which maintained good formal relations with the United States, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia, still vigorously promoted anti-Americanism to deflect attention and blame from their domestic and foreign policy failures, to mobilize internal support against a make-believe enemy, to forge militant credentials, and to appease radical neighbors. They were happy to receive U.S. help and protection while denouncing the country that gave it.
Finally, anti-Americanism also became an important tool for revolutionary movements, trying to portray their rulers as American stooges and themselves as patriots fighting against imperialism. This was not such an unusual posture, as it had been adopted elsewhere by Communists and nationalists in many countries. What made it different, however, was the fact that in the Middle East these forces were increasingly Islamist, meaning America was seen as a threat in the passionate and sensitive area of attacking one’s religion.
Such men as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who seized power in Iran in 1979, and Usama bin Ladin, who tried to foment revolution in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, viewed America as an alternative model of society that was subverting Muslim culture and religion. For them, too, like the Arab nationalists, the United States seemed to block their ambition to rule the region, a demon against whom they could mobilize the masses, and a rationale for their inability to overthrow Arab governments. Millions of their followers and those influenced by them were persuaded by their slogans that Islam was the answer and that America was the problem.
Moreover, while the revolutionaries were trying to kill their rulers, they actually agreed with them on the point of promoting anti-Americanism. The mutual accusations against the United States of Arab nationalist regimes and Islamist oppositions reinforced each other. Rulers even increased the volume of their anti-American rhetoric to coopt potential supporters of the opposition and to shore up their Islamic, as well as patriotic, legitimacy. The result was a spiraling upward of anti-American propaganda.
As a result of government policy, anti-Americanism became official doctrine even when relations seemed best and regardless of U.S. actions favoring Arab or Muslim interests. Since anti-Americanism became state policy in the Arab world in the late 1950s—and in Iran since 1979—schools, religious authorities, intellectuals, political figures, and the media have repeated these themes with little or no alternative point of view being available to their audiences.
But it was not merely a matter of regimes twisting the arms of its intellectual class which has been the main carrier of anti-Americanism throughout the world. The overwhelming majority of Arab teachers, writers, and journalists were true believers in Arab nationalist (and sometimes Islamist) ideology and they promoted anti-Americanism to serve these causes. Whatever their own degree of personal Westernization, doing so validated their militant credentials and cultural authenticity while also bringing them rewards from the regimes that generally paid their salaries and gave them access to the means of communication.
The message presented from all these sources was of a hostile, imperialistic, and repressive America. Since there were supposedly no real conflicts among Arabs or Muslims, their quarrels and disagreements were said to be solely due to U.S. machinations. Israel, whose elimination was also high on the Arab and Islamist agenda, supposedly only existed because of U.S. backing. Thus, America—and not the rulers’ misgovernment or the ideologies’ bankruptcy–was largely responsible for the fact that the Arab (or Muslim) world is not united, strong, happy, pious, filled with social justice, freed of Israel’s existence, and wealthy.
This high degree of distrust and rejection that results is characterized by a Syrian journalist’s claim that the United States follows a Nazi model, “Lie, lie, until the lie becomes truth. But U.S. lies have not become truth.” In most of the Arab and large parts of the Muslim world, though, it was anti-Americanism that became accepted as truth despite the absence or distortion of evidence for such assertions.
In the words of Salman Rushdie, the reason for the power and prevalence of anti-Americanism is its value as:
“a smokescreen for Muslim nations’ many defects–their corruption, their incompetence, their oppression of their own citizens, their economic, scientific and cultural stagnation. America-hating has become a badge of identity, making possible a chest-beating, flag-burning rhetoric…that makes men feel good. It contains a strong streak of hypocrisy, hating…America because it has made of itself what [they] cannot….What America is accused of–closed-mindedness, stereotyping, ignorance–is also what its accusers would see if they looked into a mirror.”
Thus, the main U.S. utility for the region’s oppressive dictatorships was not as protector but as an excuse for their failings. For the Arab world’s ills, as Ajami wrote, anti-Americanism was the “placebo.” The Palestinian writer Daoud Kuttab argued, “When the average Arab citizen tries to reconcile his desire for domestic freedom, his feelings of frustration at home, American support for his government, and the increasing presence of Western culture he is caught in the middle. It is easier to lash out at a distant America than to risk raising one’s voice against the local dictators.”
Given anti-Americanism’s intensity and pervasiveness in deliberately misexplaining the meaning of U.S. policy and values, ordinary people accepted its claims as truth. Surrounded daily by anti-American messages taught by teachers, journalists, religious authorities, and by government and opposition leaders alike, it was hardly surprising that the masses accepted and echoed such sentiments. They were fed on a steady diet of distortions about the nature of American society and foreign policy, with little or no different views to be heard.
Living with so much corruption, repression, economic stagnation, social restrictions, and lack of hope, people had an urgent need to find someone to blame. Since they were powerless to criticize publicly or replace their own dictators, it is hardly surprising that the United States became their principal scapegoat or that anti-Americanism was a popular way to blow off steam.
As the Lebanese-American scholar Fouad Ajami put it:
“The populations shut out of power fell back on their imaginations and their bitterness. They resented the rulers but could not overthrow them. It was easier to lash out at American power and question American purposes. And they have been permitted the political space to do so. They can burn American flags at will, so long as they remember that the rulers and their prerogatives are beyond scrutiny. The rulers…know when to indulge the periodic outbursts at American power.”
Given this relentless effort by regimes, radical oppositions, and intellectuals belonging to both camps, the Middle East became one of the few places where anti-Americanism has truly become a populist doctrine actually accepted by a large majority of people. “For many Arabs, regardless of their politics,” writes the Arab-American academic Fawaz Gerges, the United States was portrayed as “the embodiment of evil, [responsible for all the world’s] ills and misfortunes.”
The masses were programmed in this direction not only by direct criticism of the United States but also by the systematic distortion of its deeds and policies. “There can be no written praise of America, no acknowledgment of its tolerance or hospitality,” wrote Ajami. No serious Arab work “has spoken of the American political experience or the American cultural landscape with any appreciation.”
Those defending the United States or pointing to the dictatorial regimes as the real problem were few in number. Since they were labeled as traitors to Islam or the Arab nation, such people required a great deal of personal courage but were any way silenced or denied media access, facing considerable career and even personal risks. At any rate, advocates of such Western ideas as pluralist democracy, free enterprise, human rights, civil liberties, or friendship with the West, these arguments were dismissed and discredited as the misleading and ruinous notions promulgated by American imperialism.
But the goals of regimes and ideologies or even specific events and conflicting interests were not all that was at stake. Anti-Americanism also reflected the degree to which modernization, Westernization, and globalization has been highly problematic in the Arab world. Nowhere else, then, is resistance to such influences so uncompromising and thoroughgoing as in the Arab and Muslim world along both religious and nationalistic lines. Equally, nowhere else were these new ideas and institutions so identified specifically with the United States.
For Europe and even Latin America, the United States and its influence or way of life represented only a part of these phenomena, many of which were actually European in origin. But for the Arab world, coming to full consciousness in the aftermath of European colonialism and the era of American supremacy, these were alien ideas highly identified uniquely with the United State. As a result, anti-Americanism existed in a much purer form in the Middle East, as a doctrine for disparaging a whole set of ideas that included equality for women to equality for ethnic and religious groups, from new styles of music to greater personal freedom.
The man who could most credibly claim to be the intellectual author of anti-Americanism in the Arab world was Sayyid Qutb, who was also the most important founding theorist of revolutionary Islamism. Qutb’s critique of America was an exclusively civilizational one, with virtually no reference to American policies. In 1948, the 42-year-old Qutb was sent by Egypt’s education ministry to the United States to study its schooling methods. In articles written for Egyptian periodicals and later in a 1951 book, The America I Have Seen, Qutb expressed his horror about life in Greeley, Colorado, where he studied curriculum at the Colorado State Teachers College.
Like his European and Latin American predecessors in anti-Americanism, Qutb saw his own people as spiritual superiors threatened by an inferior and dangerous culture. Yet in Qutb’s case, his miscomprehension, knee-jerk hatred of the “other,” and seeing any society different from his own as inferior, he and his anti-American successors embodied in far more extreme ways the very characteristics they condemned as distorting America’s alleged vision of Arabs and Muslims.
To show that Americans had bad taste, he described a young American man with large brightly colored tattoos of animals. The attention paid by residents of Greeley to their lawns proved Americans were selfish people interested only in material things. The competition among the town’s Christian ministers showed how everything in America was invested with the spirit of business, while a church dance scandalized him by its “seductive atmosphere” and the visibility of women’s legs.
In terms close to historic French anti-Americanism, Qutb explained that all high culture was imported from Europe and that the only art form Americans did well were films since this media combined “craftsmanship and primitive emotions.” American material civilization might be successful, he concluded, but its people were not, and their abilities were only materialistic ones that subverted spirituality and mocked the proper way of life and relationship between people and God.
According to Qutb, then–in terms not so far from classical European anti-Americanism—the United States was technologically advanced yet spiritually primitive. In the Arab anti-American discourse that followed, it would be possible to respect the United States for its technological ingenuity, productivity and living standards but the conclusion, in Qutb’s words, was that, “man cannot maintain his balance before the machine and risks becoming a machine himself. He is unable to shoulder the burden of exhausting work and forge ahead on the path of inhumanity, he unleashes the animal within.”
Its society “reminds one of the days when man lived in jungles and caves” because it appreciates only “muscular strength rather than values in family or social life.” Violence is another characteristic in the Arab anti-American lexicon. For Qutb, this was demonstrated by a preference for such sports as boxing and football. Thus, “The American is by his very nature a warrior who loves combat.” This explains why the United States is brutal and aggressive abroad.
In contrast to secular Europeans who disdain America as fanatically religious, however, Muslim anti-Americans see it as distressingly atheist and thus a godless threat to any pious society. Qutb wrote that despite its profusion of church buildings no one is less able to appreciate religion than Americans.”
Similar themes recur in the relatively sparse—compared to Europe—Arab travel literature about the United States. Yusuf al-Hasan, a Palestinian, in a 1986 travel book about the country, said it lashes out to punish others without reflection or reasoning, “Just like the cowboy who lives in a world in which only the fastest to pull his gun survives.” As a result, explains Egyptian satirist Mahmud al-Sadani, “America is the greatest, largest, and most obnoxious empire in history.” It helps the strong against the weak, Israel against the Arabs. It invades Panama on the “pretext” that its dictator is involved in drug-dealing but really only to control the Panama Canal, or opposes Cuba as a dictatorship while supporting other Latin American dictators.
Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is thus based on a comprehensive critique of America based on such issues as America’s history, society, and analogies with its behavior elsewhere in the world. In some cases, these ideas are drawn by European sources, either read or absorbed during studies there, though increasingly they may come from the direct experience of those who attended universities in the United States.
Many of these sentiments arise from cultural clashes, a pattern similar to nineteenth-century European anti-Americanism. Indeed, even on issues where Arab-Muslim differences to the West in general seem likely to be paramount, there is still a striking similarity to the confrontation of those from more traditional past European societies with America.
Such is the case with the view of women’s role in America. Qutb’s discussion of this issue positively drips with a sense of sensual danger, a frightening power that might overwhelm the pious and subvert Arab-Muslim society as the social equivalent of a nuclear weapon. He describes the American female as a temptress, acting her part in a system Qutb described as “biological”:
“The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs—and she shows all this and does not hide it.”
Like their European counterparts, Middle Eastern critics also viewed America as a country where women suffered from the loss of their proper role and an excess of social power. Islamist Iran’s spiritual guide Ali al-Husseini al-Khamene’i explained that women were treated better in his country than in America where they suffered humiliations in home and offices.” A secular Egyptian journalist used an argument identical to Islamists and nineteenth-century European anti-Americans: since the United States was controlled by “money and sex…the materialistic ambition of some American women ends with…broken hearts and homes, and sick, exhausted souls, and with them drowning their wretchedness in drugs and alcohol.”
If American women had subverted their own men to destruction, they could also be portrayed as playing that same role of seducing Arab men into cultural surrender. The secular leftist Egyptian Sherif Hetata wrote a novel entitled The Net in 1982 with a plot like a Soviet Cold War story. The Egyptian hero is tempted by a glamorous, mysterious American woman spy to leave a state-run pharmaceutical company to work for an American multinational. He also abandons his wife, who represents traditional Egyptian virtues. But the evil American’s real purpose is to destroy the Egyptian left. The love affair ends in disaster, the woman is murdered and her Egyptian victim is executed as a traitor. The moral is that disaster threatens if Egypt heeds the siren call of a falsely glittering but treacherous America.
This idea of a disgusting society inevitably producing a repellent foreign policy often appears in Middle Eastern anti-Americanism. And so while the political side of anti-Americanism is more commonly expressed than the cultural-civilizational side, this is in no small part due to the fact that the latter is taken for granted. In a remarkable passage, Saddam brought the two aspects together in telling his subjects, “The United States exports evil, in terms of corruption and criminality, not only to any place to which its armies travel, but also to any place where its movies go.”
Ironically, the main architect of Arab nationalist anti-Americanism, the secularist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was the man who executed Qutb on charges of fomenting an Islamist revolution against himself. As the Arab world’s leader and would-be unifier, Nasser knew that the United States would not back his plans to seize control of the region and overturn all the other regimes. Therefore, he had to declare America as the enemy of the Arabs in general and stir up hostility to it.
But the United States did not quite live up to the role that Nasser assigned it, marking the growing distinction between the image of the United States held and disseminated by Arab regimes and reality. Not only was anti-Americanism in the Arab world formulated at a time when the United States played a relatively minor role in the region—and had little to do with Israel—but America had even supported Nasser’s 1952 coup and saved him from being overthrown by a British-French-Israeli attack in 1956.
It was in fact Nasser’s alliance with the USSR in his bid to subvert moderate Arab countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon, and become the region’s leader that made U.S. policymakers oppose his ambitions. Even then, despite the aggressive and imperialist reputation imputed to it, the United States did not do much against him. Moreover, in its efforts against radical Arab nationalism, far from being anti-Islam, U.S. policy became literally its political patron, seeing traditionalist Muslims in the region as a bulwark against Communism and radical Arab nationalism.
Meanwhile, Arab nationalists came to run the most aggressive, repressive regimes, intimidate moderate traditionalists, and win over almost the entire intellectual class. They claimed that their own doctrine represented the people’s will and anyone who disagreed was a U.S. stooge. As Arab nationalist regimes seized control of Iraq in 1958, Syria in 1963, and Libya in 1970 this system spread as did the systematic anti-American indoctrination it used. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, for example, Nasser explained away his humiliating defeat at Israel’s hands by falsely claiming his forces had been destroyed by the U.S. air force. Egyptian schoolchildren were taught ever afterward the lie that the United States attacked Egypt and fought alongside Israel in the 1967 war. Israel was portrayed as either America’s stooge or master.
In reality, though, the United States had no significant relationship with Israel until the 1970s. The sole major U.S. intervention was in 1953 in Iran, where American leaders feared that Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh’s government was being taken over by Communist forces. This action, though it enjoyed considerable support among Iran’s Muslim clerics, was the one deed that could be portrayed as a grievance equivalent to those prevalent in Latin America. Unlike in Latin America or Asia, however, where the United States openly confronted, fought, or overthrew governments it deemed hostile, in the Middle East America courted even Arab radical forces, worrying that those it antagonized would side with the USSR. This strategy eventually worked with Egypt in the late 1970s and that country became the recipient of large-scale U.S. aid and assistance, without having any effect on the massive production of anti-American propaganda by the regime.
The Arab nationalist regimes were virtually the world’s only non-Communist forces aligned with Moscow during the Cold War. When it came to the United States, they borrowed extensively from that bloc’s arguments and propaganda. Like the Communists, they had no use for the democratic, free-enterprise, human rights’-oriented system of the United States. They created dictatorial mobilization states in every respect antithetical to American ideas, values and institutions
Such views were also expressed by PLO leader Yasir Arafat, who saw himself as part of a global Third World revolution against the United States. At a 1969 student convention in Amman, long before there was any U.S. alliance with Israel, he led the crowd in singing a song entitled, “America, the Head of the Snake.” Arafat repeatedly denounced U.S. policy as “an imperialist plot to liquidate the Palestinian cause” and claimed America had caused all the region’s problems. This was despite the fact that the United States never attacked the PLO even though it killed Americans on several occasions and sided with America’s enemies.
The idea that the United States wanted to conquer the region for itself was echoed almost universally by Arab ideologues and leaders. Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad explained in a 1981 speech, “The United States wants us to be puppets so it can manipulate us the way it wants. It wants us to be slaves so it can exploit us the way it wants. It wants to occupy our territory and exploit our masses.. It wants us to be parrots repeating what is said to us.” Yet in fact the United States did not attack Syria and even accepted that country’s occupation of Lebanon.
President Saddam Hussein spoke the same way, arguing for example in 1990 shortly before invading Kuwait that the United States would seize control of the region unless the Arabs united behind him to fight against it. But not only did the United States never fight against Saddam, it even helped him win his war against Iran in the 1980s. As radical Islamists rose to prominence beginning with the 1979 Iranian revolution, they made similar arguments. Khomeini, leader of Iran’s revolution, insisted that the United States as a demonic force making the world a terrible place and preventing the emergence of an Islamist utopia.
Yet Khomeini’s labeling the United States as the “Great Satan” was an intriguing clue to the real issue. In Islam as in Christianity, Satan is not an imperialist bully but a smooth persuader, a tempter who makes his wares seem so attractive that people want to sell him their souls. Precisely because America was so attractive for Iranians Khomeini had to convince them it was so ugly.
Many Arabs and Iranians find American alluring. This makes the task for ideologues, intellectuals, politicians, and revolutionaries to discredit America all the more urgent. What better symbol for this reality than the fact that at their last meeting with U.S. diplomats before taking them hostage in November 1979, Iranian officials spent half the time denouncing America and the other half requesting visas for their relatives.
Thus, anti-Americanism may be based on accusations that American society is ugly but is actually motivated by fear of its lure. Many extremist Islamists, including most of the September 11 terrorists and the militant Iranian students who seized the U.S. embassy there in 1979, had much personal contact with the West. Having come close to embracing “temptation” they barricaded themselves inside a radical Islamist identity to shield them from their own desires.
Similarly, anti-Americanism simultaneously portrayed the United States as arrogant bully and cowardly weakling. Calling America an imperialist giant is a good way to provoke outrage against it but insisting the United States is weak is more likely to mobilize people to fight it. A real superpower, after all, makes a frightening enemy and a useful ally. Indeed, most often anti-American rhetoric is a substitute, not a prelude, for confrontation. Almost everyone wants the benefits of U.S. aid, products, and protection. Despite much talk about boycotts, Arab businessmen seek American trade and investment, while young Arabs are eager for its mass culture, and many would jump at a chance to immigrate to the United States.
Thus, despite constant claims that victory over America was certain, knowing the political-military power and cultural-technological appeal of the United States often gave a decidedly defeatist tone to Middle Eastern anti-Americanism which heightened its passion and stridency. As in Europe and Latin America, much anti-Americanism was inspired by the conclusion that the cultural Americanization of society and the U.S. triumph strategically was inevitable.
At any rate, the idea that the United States was embarked on a program of world conquest—a mainstay of historic European anti-Americanism—was taken for granted in the Arab world and Islamist Iran. For instance, in a long analysis of American history, the mainstream secular Egyptian intellectual Samir Amin explains in his country’s most important newspaper that America is different from Europe because its “extremist Protestant sects” saw themselves as a Nazi-like master race with a “God-given mission” to conquer the globe, making it the most brutal threat the world ever faced. It is no democracy but rather a capitalist dictatorship where politics is merely a form of entertainment to fool the masses into believing they really have some say. The people are doused with disinformation while critics are isolated and forced to sell out or are murdered. “The establishment can easily manipulate ‘public opinion’ by cultivating its stupidity.” Somehow the American people just don’t see this obvious truth.
Given this internally repressive system based on illusions, the United States must create a foreign enemy during times of internal stress in order to keep itself going. Once this was communism, now it is terrorism. But the real American goal is world domination: “to prevent the emergence of any other power which might be capable of putting up resistance” and to ensure that other countries are merely “satellites.” All American presidents agree, Amin explains, that “only one country has the right to be ‘big’ and that is the United States.”
And thus what American policy in the Middle East and elsewhere is really about is to “impose the new imperialist order” on everyone. They must “either accept U.S. hegemony, along with the super-strength ‘liberalism’ it promotes, and which means little more than an exclusive obsession with making money–or reject both.” The world will be remade “in the image of Texas” unless it defeats America’s “neo-Nazi challenge.”
Of course, not everyone accepts such a comprehensive system of explaining America’s true nature. But the basic assumption is that the United States is hostile to the Arabs, the Muslims, and the various countries where they live. Consequently, American actions are portrayed in the worst possible light, no American deed is shown as being positive, and U.S. policies are not described accurately enough to be understood even by those who might be skeptical about the line they are being taught.
Should Egypt show any appreciation for the $2 billion in aid it receive every year from the United States? No, explains the state-owned newspaper al-Akhbar. Egypt did not ask for the money, it was an American initiative. And besides, America is not seeking “friends but agents, which is unacceptable” to Egypt. But why then does Egypt accept the aid, and why does U.S. aid to Israel constitute support while assistance given Egypt is a form of subversion?
Does the desire of many Arabs to migrate to America prove that it is an attractive society? No, explains a panelist on al-Jazira television, because “America’s plunder of Arab resources and its colonialism…imposed the regimes that repress the peoples and oppress them–that is what has forced hundreds of thousands and millions of Arabs to emigrate to Europe and America.”
Can the United States help promote democracy in the Middle East? No, explains an Egyptian newspaper columnist put it in 2003, because, “The American “culture of death and murder cannot lead to the creation of [the] opposite culture [of democracy].” Americans need war to feed their aggressive military economic machine.” In this context, terrorism is seen as simple self-defense by “The weak who possess no means of resisting destruction, plunder, and death…to confront the American culture of murder and destruction.”
The key issue, then, was that specific U.S. actions were only used, and distorted, to fit a pre-existing conception in which nothing America did could vindicate itself. The core principle was of America as an imperialistic state operating on three levels: as a bad model, cultural-intellectual seducer, and military aggressor. It controlled what went on in the Middle East, was responsible for all the bad governments and the failure of revolutions. Israel was either a tool of this imperialist drive or the master of it by controlling America itself. As a result of this pervasive anti-American case, many were ready to agree when bin Ladin’s lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri presented the view that the United States “will not permit any Muslim power to govern in any of the Islamic countries,” being equally ready to make the same conclusion if the word “Arab” were to be substituted for Muslim and Islamic.
These arguments, long on passion and short on evidence, escaped critical scrutiny because they had a monopoly in terms of government sponsorship and acceptance by the intellectual establishment. “You come to us to exhaust our oil and steal more of our land,” explains a leader of the Palestinian Islamist group, Hamas. “We see on your hands nothing but the blood of our peoples…downtrodden and miserable.” The real U.S. goal is to divide the Arabs and destroy their identity, “So that we forget our names and our memory in order to instill the evil you spread all over our land” in fighting among ourselves.
Amin in al-Ahram explained in terms not at all atypical of mainstream writing about America, “The United States practices international terrorism against the whole world.” Its rulers are a “junta of war criminals” whose police force has “powers similar to those of the Gestapo.” An Iranian newspaper made a similar comparison since America terrorizes and bombs other countries and breaks all international rules. “The Americans are infected today with satanic pride and arrogant egotism” [and have been] “throughout the 20th century.” It had trampled on the rights of “Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, and other places in the world that are on the brink of conflagration.” A Saudi writer agrees, accusing the United States of committing terrorist acts “all over the world” seeking global hegemony.
America must be fought and punished because otherwise, as an Iranian newspaper warns, “No country…anywhere in the world will be immune to the cruel nature of [American] arrogance.” And if this was the claim of the Saddam Hussein regime, even Egypt’s leading newspaper also proclaimed that there was still time to fight America: “The world has not yet become a single sphere of influence entirely subject to a single superpower….There is still ability to resist.”
When actually stated in some detail, however, the case against the United States was remarkably thin, certainly compared to what a Latin American, African, or Asian could muster. There were three basic components in the charge sheet: alleged U.S. aggression against Muslim states; supposed U.S. support for dictatorial regimes, and support for Israel.
The first category consisted mainly of references to Libya and Sudan, which the United States hit with one bombing raid each in response to terrorist attacks, as well as the 1991 UN- and Arab League-sanctioned war on Iraq and the postwar UN-mandated sanctions when Iraq clearly did not meet its own agreements. Despite the attempt to portray post-September 11 counter-terrorist activities as objectionable, such acts of aggression, then, were virtually nonexistent.
Equally, there was nothing that could reasonably be called economic exploitation. Arab oil-producing countries had been the main beneficiaries of petroleum pricing and production since the early 1970s and little U.S. investment elsewhere. It was hard to argue that Arabs are poor because Americans are rich—though this did not stop some from doing so—and it could not be claimed that Arab raw materials are sold at low prices in exchange for high-priced Western industrial goods, a situation quite different from that of those countries that have only cacao.
The false claims of injury at American hands take on remarkable forms. In 1999, an Egypt Air passenger plane that took off from New York crashed in a way suggesting sabotage by a co-pilot due to Islamist political motives or a psychological breakdown. Egyptian official statements and the state-controlled media presented this tragedy as the result of a U.S.-orchestrated conspiracy or at least cover-up designed to slander Egypt. Yet rather than confront this slander, the U.S. government acted typically in trying to avoid offending Egyptian sensibilities in its report, though it would never gain credit for an approach so at odds with the false image being purveyed to Egypt’s people.
The second variety of complaint contained a paradox. For if the United States was criticized when it went against Arab states, it could also be condemned for cooperating with them. As one writer put it, Arabs said that their governments were so “corrupt and authoritarian” because the United States gave them billions of dollars each year so they must be U.S. puppets. But the only country to which the United States gave large-scale aid was Egypt, which in turn promoted anti-Americanism because America was not helping the Arabs enough.
The United States was constantly said to dominate everything and through conspiracies, to be behind every government or event. It was blamed for supporting “unpopular” or “repressive” regimes even by those representing the worst examples of this genre. Khamene’i, Khomeini’s successor as Iran’s spiritual guide, complained in 1997, “The American government speaks of…democracy and support[s] some of the most despotic regimes in different parts of the world.” Even high-ranking Saudi officials complained that the United States backed “autocrats” and “oppressive” regimes.
But what “despotic” and “oppressive” Arab regimes did they have in mind as being backed by the United States? The most brutal Arab rulers were also the most energetic advocates of anti-Americanism, yet many Arabs believed the United States was so powerful that it controlled even those most outwardly hostile to it. Thus, Saddam, Arafat, Khomeini, Asad, and others were said to be American agents. After all, it was explained, the United States could easily remove those it really opposed.
Thus, the United States was not only blamed by the dictatorships but blamed for them as well. Whenever it pressed regimes for reform or moderate policies, they accused it of a bullying imperialism; when it dealt with them as legitimate rulers they accused it of blocking democracy and keeping tyrants in power.
In fact, during the twentieth century’s second half no Arab government existed because of U.S. backing. Incumbent rulers retained power without its help. At most, U.S. policy gave occasional protection to more moderate Arab regimes against foreign attack, a tradition culminating with an American-led coalition freeing Kuwait from Iraqi aggression in 1991. And if anything the story of U.S. policy in the Middle East has proven how little it was able to affect the policy of Arab regimes, or Islamist Iran, too, for that matter.
Equally, on no occasion did Arab governments get direct U.S. help against internal threats. In contrast to Latin America, counterinsurgency against radicals—at least until after September 11–was never done with U.S. assistance or at American behest. For example, it was Britain which aided Oman to battle a Marxist insurgency in the 1970s and France that helped Algeria fight Islamist revolutionaries in the 1990s. Aside from fighting Iraq in 1991 as part of a UN-mandated, Arab league-endorsed coalition there had been only two short-lived U.S. military interventions into Lebanon–in 1958 and 1982–that had little effect on that country’s internal politics.
Claiming that the United States controlled governments over which it had little influence was merely another way of expressing the idea that America was both malevolent and omnipotent. It was fancifully implied that these countries would become democracies if not for America subverting this process. Regimes that systematically defied the United States—like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Syria, which were outright hostile, or Egypt and Saudi Arabia, that ignored U.S. requests they didn’t want to fulfill–were said by anti-American ideologues to be really doing its bidding. As the editor of an influential Arab newspaper put it:
“[Arab regimes] sell oil at prices said to be determined mainly by America, open their countries for U.S. military bases, facilitate American control and domination over the Arab world’s economic resources including oil, and convert the Arab world into a huge consuming market for U.S. products. In addition they are purported to make unnecessary huge arms deals worth billions of dollars which allegedly give them a capacity to suppress the people rather than using the money for socio-economic development.”
Finally, there was an attempt to reduce all of American policy to a single issue defined as “U.S. support for Israel,” while also distorting the nature and policies of Israel itself. A typical example of this approach was made by Khalid Amayreh in an article published in 2001:
“America is the tormentor of my people. It is to me, as a Palestinian, what Nazi Germany was to the Jews. America is the all-powerful devil that spreads oppression and death in my neighborhood…America is the author of 53 years of suffering, death, bereavement, occupation, oppression, homelessness and victimization… the usurper of my people’s right to human rights, democracy, civil liberties, development and a dignified life.”
As the phrase “53 years” showed, the real accusation was that America’s sinned by not permitting the violent destruction of Israel. But the United States backed creation of a Palestinian state in 1948 and had little to do with this conflict until the 1970s, when it began energetically pursuing a long process of trying to negotiate a compromise solution to the dispute. It never conspired to help Israel dominate the Middle East, oppress or exterminate Arabs or Muslims, or any of the similar notions daily put forward as unquestionable truth in the Arab world. Its policy toward Israel revolved around two basic principles: to help it survive real threats to eliminate that state and to broker a negotiated peace agreement acceptable to both sides in order to end the conflict.
For decades, the Arab states and the Palestinian movement were unwilling to make peace with Israel. Yet whenever opportunities seemed to arise for diplomatic progress, the United States seized them, believing a peace agreement to be in its interest precisely because it wanted good relations with the Arab world. By resolving this issue, the United States would be better able to promote regional stability, reduce the possibility of war, and ensure its own regional position.
By the same token, U.S. peacemaking efforts were dangerous to those whose plans required continued strife and declining American influence in the region. This is precisely why those who wished to destroy Israel and to block any negotiated settlement objected to U.S. policy: because it would deprive them of this issue as an excuse for retaining or fomenting revolution. Thus, their real anti-American complaint was not that the United States wasn’t doing enough to resolve the conflict but that it might succeed .
During the 1993-2000 peace process, the United States tried hard to succeed, putting the issue at the top of its agenda, moving considerably closer to the Arab/Palestinian standpoint, accepting a Palestinian state, negotiating directly with Arafat and giving him financial aid, and urging Israel to make concessions. The biggest wave of anti-American sentiment in history would thus take place immediately after the greatest U.S. effort to resolve the Palestinian issue to the satisfaction of Arabs and Muslims at the Camp David meeting and in the Clinton Plan of December 2000.
In this context, then, anti-Americanism was more of a weapon than a grievance, with different forces in the Arab world and Islamist Iran using it in slightly different ways. For Saddam’s Iraq, anti-Americanism became a tool in its battle to escape sanctions and rebuild its military might. America not Iraq, it told neighbors, was the real threat to their well-being. For Iran, anti-Americanism was used to discredit domestic demands for reform by claiming moderates were U.S. agents and that fighting the American threat took precedent over internal changes. For Syria, anti-Americanism was a substitute for economic or democratic reform, a rationale for the country’s dreadful state.
For Palestinian leaders, anti-Americanism concealed their own rejection of peace offers and resort to violence. By sponsoring anti-Americanism, Egypt showed it was no U.S. stooge and asserted its leadership as protecting the Arab world from American control. And the Saudis joined bin Ladin, their sworn enemy, in decrying America so as to dilute his domestic appeal, while attributing all U.S. criticisms of Saudi support for terrorism to malevolent anti-Muslim motives.
Finally, there is a truly remarkable factor, unique in the Middle East, of trying to use the promotion of anti-Americanism as a means of blackmail to gain rewards from the United States. Arab governments frequently tell the United States that a popular anti-Americanism over which they have no control threatens both their ability to cooperate with America and U.S. interests. Consequently, they—and those who believe them in the West—insist that the United States must change its policies to be more to their liking or face disaster.
All these tactics were major parts of the Middle Eastern response to the September 11, 2001, attack. While bringing many declarations of sympathy from throughout the Middle East, the remarkable thing about this event was how it actually increased anti-Americanism, an outcome shaped by decades of propaganda against the United States. While individual Arabs and Iranians saw the tragedy as a cause for revaluating their own countries’ policies and societies, this was a distinctly minority standpoint. Much of the post-September 11 anti-Americanism concealed or justified the attackers’ openly stated motives—to spark an Islamist war against an alleged American attempt to destroy Islam and take over the Middle East.
The doctrine behind the attack was that it was a defensive act in response to the fact that a corrupt and evil United States was attacking Arabs and Muslims. This argument fit with what the Arab masses had long been told. Seeing bin Ladin act on this idea brought it to life and won adherents for a more systematic, high-profile anti-Americanism. The U.S. measures taken in response—attacks on Afghanistan and Iran, efforts to battle terrorists elsewhere, and even the American public information campaign and changes in domestic laws—were then portrayed as proof of the very imperialist expansionism, anti-Arab intentions, and anti-Muslim motives against which the attacks were a supposed reaction.
This false if passionately held sense of victimization by America was why so many exulted at the September 11 attack. Few took up arms but many articulated the basic tenets of anti-Americanism. They had been driven to it, they claimed, by U.S. behavior. America, explained one Palestinian militant, “offers me one of two choices: Either I submissively accept perpetual enslavement and oppression… or become an Usama bin Laden.”
By showing that the United States could be hit and wounded the attack seemed to promise revenge and even ultimate victory. An Iraqi newspaper declared, “The myth of America was destroyed with the World Trade Center in New York….It is the prestige, arrogance and institutions of America that burn….It has dragged the dignity of the U.S. government into the mud and unveiled its vain arrogance.”
Bin Ladin’s great “accomplishment” of September 11 was a defining moment in making anti-Americanism the central issue on the regional agenda. This was the front which bin Ladin identified as the priority for his global Jihadist strategy. For a quarter-century since Iran’s revolution, Islamists had put the emphasis on efforts to overthrow Arab governments but had failed in such places as Lebanon, Egypt and Algeria. Now he proposed a new strategy. Instead of attacking fellow Muslims, an unpopular tactic, Islamists would try to appeal to the masses by killing foreign and infidel Americans. After all, since they were rejecting an “American” paradigm for modernization and change, why not go directly to the source of that despised program?
Contrasting with the official statements of regret by governments were scores of responses like that of Saudi cleric Safar bin Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali: “A tremendous wave of joy…was felt by Muslims in the street, and whoever tells you otherwise is avoiding the truth.” while many of his countrymen passed out candies, slaughtered animals for feasts, or sent congratulatory text messages to each other on mobile telephones. In Bahrain, a journalist wrote, “The United States now is eating a little piece from the bread which she baked and fed to the world for many decades.” A Lebanese man in the street exulted, “We’re ecstatic. Let America have a taste of what we’ve tasted.”
A University of Lebanon lecturer explained people were rejoicing because the attack had been carried out against the headquarters of American colonialism:
“No one thought for a moment about the people who were inside the tallest of the world’s towers as they burned; everyone thought of the American administration and rejoiced at its misfortune, while its leaders scrambled to find a place to hide…. Can anyone really believe that a people of whom the United States has killed hundreds and thousands times the number of people killed in New York…is sorry, and is not happy, when he witnesses this smack to the face of its most bitter enemy?”
But what had the United States actually done to any of these people or nations, compared certainly to what they had been told it had done to them? The Americans had not really killed three hundred thousand or three million Arabs, the statistical claim that this college teacher was making? What was this gigantic grudge based on if not for the falsely implanted belief that American imperialism had been responsible for their problems and was trying to seize control of their destinies?
In Saudi Arabia, the country from which bin Ladin originated, the United States was seen as the key promoter and model of modernization, a process opposed by the powerfully conservative opinion there. Since the government had gone along with U.S. policies in the Gulf, bought American arms, and permitted military training missions after the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, it was a target for traditionalist Muslims and revolutionary Islamists alike. In August 1996, when bin Ladin published a “declaration of war” against America and the Saudi royal family, his main grievance was the claim that the army of the “American crusaders” had occupied the most sacred of all Muslim countries.
Perhaps the specific issue most mentioned within the Middle East as promoting anti-Americanism was the Arab-Israeli conflict. One Lebanese observed, “People are happy. America has always supported terrorism. They see how the innocent Palestinian children are killed and they back the Zionist army that does it. America has never been on the side of justice.” A Palestinian insisted, “This is the language that the United States understands and this is the way to stop America from helping the Zionist terrorists who are killing our children, men and women everyday.”
Yet this was just shortly after the United States had spent eight years trying to broker a peace agreement which would have ended any occupation and created a Palestinian state, only to have its proposals rejected by the Palestinian leader and given no backing by Arab states. Yet Arab governments and media had not informed their citizens of these facts, instead systematically distorting the U.S. role and efforts in order to provoke the maximum anger against it.
One good example of the type of knee-jerk hostility that prevails regardless of what the United States does or says was the response to an al-Ahram op-ed piece written by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt David Welch on the September 11 attacks’ second anniversary. Welch’s article praised Egypt but asked in the politest of terms for one small favor: that the (state-controlled) media stop claiming American or Israeli forces carried out the attacks, pointing out that bin Ladin had even claimed responsibility.
The response was an outpouring of anti-American hatred, including a petition by dozens of Egyptian intellectuals, authors, and journalists—who regularly are told by their own government “how to think and write”–demanding the ambassador be removed because he allegedly:
“Spoke as if he were addressing slaves or the citizens of some banana republic, not those representing the voice and conscience of the Arab nation whose roots lie deep in history and whose culture is…the cradle of the conscience of the entire world.…It is odd that the ambassador of any foreign country, whether it be America or Micronesia, should dictate to free Egyptian intellectuals and journalists how to think and write, and [tell them that they] must believe everything America and its media think, even if it is lies….Even if America thinks that it has conquered the globe, it will not succeed in conquering and subduing the free wielders of the pen….We advise the U.S. ambassador to try to salvage his country’s reputation, shamed by its silence on Israel’s crimes, which are in no way less than Hitler’s crimes. If he has time to advise and interfere in Egypt’s domestic matters, we say to him… that it would be better for him to return to his country.”
There are many ironies in this situation. Governments promulgate pro-U.S. statements at the same time as they encourage hate campaigns against it. Behavior gives the lie to rhetoric. For if in fact the United States was really the swaggering, imperialist bully these governments portrayed would not be so quick to defy and denounce it.
Nevertheless, Saddam, bin Ladin, Iran’s leaders and thousands of journalists, professors, and intellectuals in the region argued that America’s behavior proved it could be defeated by the proper methods. Khomeini had once said America “cannot do a damn thing” to stop Islamist revolution. Saddam urged Arabs to battle the United States. Bin Ladin insisted that a small group of terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives would prove America’s vulnerability. The perception of American weakness inspired as much or more anti-Americanism than did that of its great power.
But in its broad outlines and despite the many differences in details or emphasis, the modern form of anti-Americanism in the Middle East was quite parallel to that elsewhere in the world, including Europe, a doctrine predicated on the belief that the United States wanted to conquer the world politically, militarily, economically and culturally. As in Europe, the Cold War’s end and the Soviet Union’s collapse was seen as paving the way for America’s global primacy as the sole superpower.
Such factors as the indispensable U.S. role in preserving Gulf security or achieving Arab-Israeli peace, its military might, the pervasiveness of its cultural products, and the lack of any other power able to match its strength were taken as meaning that the United States could create a world empire. But very few would ask—or be allowed to contest—whether this was an accurate depiction of American motives, deeds, and intentions. While at least in Europe there was a real debate over these issues and a long history of contrary standpoints, in the Middle East those who had the loudest voices and a virtual monopoly on communications presented only evidence of America’s guilt.
Thus, in Lebanon, long beset by inter-communal violence, locally produced terrorism, and a Syrian occupation which had nothing to do with the United States, it was America that was accused of waging a “barbaric onslaught on the nations and countries of the world” because it “is a society of absolute violence and, free from any moral restrictions, scruples, or religious and humanitarian values.”
Another good example of this indictment came from Ali Uqleh Ursan, head of the Syrian writers’ association and himself the faithful servant of a repressive dictatorship which had sponsored terrorism, occupied its neighbor, and killed thousands of its own citizens:
“The fall of the symbol of American power reminded me of the many innocents whose funerals we attended and whose wounds we treated… I remembered the funerals that have been held every day in occupied Palestine since 1987….I remembered Tripoli [Libya] on the day of the American-British aggression, and the attempt to destroy its leader’s house as he slept; then, his daughter was killed under the ruins…. I remembered the oppression of the peoples in Korea and Vietnam….”
[I felt] “tremendous bitterness, revulsion, and disgust towards the country that, in the past half-century, has racked up only a black history of oppression and support for aggression and racism….”
The Americans, he argues, should get back the kind of treatment they have given all of the world’s people, especially the Arabs. Feeling as if he was soaring above the corpse of the World Trade Center, the “symbol of arrogant American imperialist power” was the greatest moment of his life.
In Egypt, America’s closest ally in the Arab world, newspapers claimed that the United States used weapons in the 1991 war against Iraq to cause cancer among Iraqi children, a million of whom had supposedly been butchered by sanctions imposed by the UN but blamed only on America. The editor of Egypt’s most important newspaper, al-Ahram—who was both the country’s leading journalist and a friend of President Husni Mubarak – wrote that the United States air-dropped poisoned food to murder Afghan civilians during its attack on the Taliban in 2001. The editor of Egypt’ss second most important newspaper, Jalal Duweidar of al-Akhbar, explained that the world was now in the hands of a devil called the United States which orders everyone to surrender to its selfish and destructive purposes.
The reaction to the 2003 U.S.-led war on Iraq was met with an even more intensive campaign highlighting such themes. In August 2003, Fatma Abdallah Mahmoud wrote in al-Akhbar that the United States was a “primitive, barbaric, blood-letting” country which “destroys, annihilates, and plunders treasure and oil” from others while perpetrating “abhorrent crimes” in Iraq, Liberia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Palestine. Everywhere evil deeds are carried out by the “children and grandchildren of the gangs of pirates and blood-letters who run [U.S.] policy…the [descendants] of the original criminals, who plundered North America and murdered its original inhabitants, the Indians, to the last man.” There is no basic difference between their “repulsive and loathsome present and their black past, stained with crime and murder.” The author concludes by urging the world’s people to fight America and kill Americans.
Three weeks later, an al-Ahram editorial accused the United States of fomenting all the main acts of terrorism in Iraq, deliberately murdering hundreds of Muslims including a key religious leader, as well as bombing UN headquarters and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. The claim that those responsible for the incidents were really Saddam loyalists and Islamist terrorists was dismissed as American “propaganda aimed at causing world-wide damage to Muslims.” The editorial then called on Iraqis to unite and fight the true enemy, the United States.
These were not mere idle words but incitements to anti-American violence. To tell Muslims that the United States had deliberately murdered a high-ranking cleric and scores of others Muslims and that it was slandering and dividing Muslims so they would kill each other was to encourage future acts of terrorism and murder against Americans.
The bad will promulgated by these arguments and interpretations showed up in public opinion surveys. In an October 2002 poll, 36 percent of Kuwaitis, who U.S. troops had liberated from Iraq in 1991 without trying to exploit the situation to gain any power over them, said the September 11 attacks were justifiable, the highest percentage of any country polled, and 53 percent (“only” 41 percent in another poll), viewed the United States unfavorably. Pakistan, a country the United States had repeatedly supported with aid against India and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was highly antagonistic due to Islamist fervor. Jordan, which the United States had treated generously despite that country’s support for Iraq in the 1991 crisis, showed 62 percent unfavorable toward the United States.
In Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, 87 percent said they had an unfavorable impression of the United States. The figure was 76 percent in Egypt. Residents of Lebanon had the highest favorable opinion of the United States, at 41 percent, followed by NATO ally Turkey with 40 percent. The lowest numbers came from Pakistan, at 5 percent. Twenty-eight percent of Kuwaitis, 27 percent of Indonesians, 22 percent of Jordanians, 22 percent of Moroccans, 16 percent of Saudi Arabians and 14 percent of Iranians surveyed had a favorable view of the United States.
The Iraq war crisis was to raise these negative public opinion figures even higher, since the conflict was put into a context of a U.S. imperialist assault on an Arab and Muslim country. A May 2003 poll showed that anti-Americanism in Jordan peaked so that 99 percent of the people now have a somewhat or very unfavorable opinion of the United States. Hostility was also extremely high in the Palestinian Authority (98 percent). Just 15 percent of Turks, 13 percent of Pakistanis, 27 percent of Lebanese and 27 percent of Moroccans had a positive feeling.
There was, however, one point on which anti-American propaganda was sometimes unsuccessful: most Arabs did not accept the derogation of American society itself. Polls showed favorable views regarding the level of education, freedom, and democracy in the United States. This basic distinction between the views of the masses and intellectuals was similar to patterns in Europe and Latin America.
As one writer put it:
“Ask anyone in Egypt what country they would like to visit, and they will probably say America. Ask them what movie they would like to see and it will probably be an American film. Ask them what school they would like to attend and they will name an American university. They may disagree violently with American policies, but they don’t hate America.”
The highly politicized nature of these attitudes was revealed by the irony that anti-Americanism was declining in Iran. Despite the fact that Iranians had been fed such propaganda for a quarter-century and the United States had economic sanctions against that country, open discontent with the Islamist regime, a more diverse press, the absence of Arab nationalism, and the existence of a strong pro-democracy movement mitigated the factors that pushed anti-Americanism higher in the Arab world.
A 2002 poll indicated that over 64.5 percent of Iranians wanted renewed relations with the United States, contrary to their own government’s policy. On the hostile side, 70.4 percent felt they could not trust the U.S. government and 62 percent were suspicious of the real purpose of the U.S. war against terrorism. Yet 46 percent said U.S. policies on Iran were “to some extent correct” while 45 percent even endorsed U.S. intervention as a possible way to fix Iran’s problems. The government’s response to these results was to close the National Institute for Research and Opinion Polls and to charge its director with criminal offenses.
Ironically, one articulate representative of this view was Hussein Khomeini, grandson of the ayatollah who had been one of the main architects of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism. The younger Khomeini told a Washington audience after the United States overthrew Saddam’s regime, “I don’t see any benefit [that America could have expected] from attacking Iraq…it was just the hand of God that led America down to Iraq, to rid Iraqis of the tyrant.” He hinted that the United States should do the same thing to the Tehran government. “America,” he insisted, “should not be dispassionate about the misery and pain of Iranians. Rather, she should help Iranians gain democracy.”
Of course, this was the kind of pro-interventionist appeal which had often sparked U.S. involvement (and subsequent anti-Americanism) in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The United States could use normal diplomatic behavior by dealing with existing regimes that might be unpopular and dictatorial, opening itself up to charges of backing repressive, unpopular governments. Or it could promote democracy and human rights, opening itself up to charges of being an imperialist power subverting legitimate governments.
The attempt to counter anti-Americanism by showing that the United States wanted to help the Arab people and Muslims by promoting democracy was one important factor in the decision to overthrew the brutal Iraqi dictatorship in 2003. Before that war, Saddam himself had made a self-interested anti-American argument which nonetheless reflected majority Arab opinion:
“The United States wants to impose its hegemony on the Arab world, and as a prelude it wants to control Iraq and then strike the capitals that oppose it and revolt against its hegemony. From Baghdad, which will be under military control, it will strike Damascus and Tehran. It will fragment them and will cause major problems to Saudi Arabia….This way the Arab oil will be under its control and the region, especially the oil sources–after the destruction of Afghanistan–will be under total control of the United States. All these things serve the Israeli interests, and based on this strategy the purpose is to make Israel into a large empire in the area.”
While some Arabs and more Iraqis welcomed this effort, most in the first and many in the second group did not. Instead, the overthrow of Saddam was more often than not portrayed in the Arab world as an act of imperialist aggression, another reason for distrusting and disliking the United States. Coverage on al-Jazira and other Arab media of the U.S. role during and after the war was constantly hostile, placing Americans in the worst light as deliberately committing atrocities and having the worst of motives.
Mahmoud Abd Al-Mun’im Murad, an Egyptian columnist, claimed the U.S. plan was to turn “all human beings, into mute robots serving the American and the Israeli,” to destroy Iraq as part of its plan to control “the entire human race.” The ruling Palestinian Fatah movement indicted Bush as a war criminal who killed Afghan and Iraqi civilians, supported Israel, wanted to “kill many of the world’s children,” and was trying to seize control of the globe’s natural resources. Buthayna Sha’ban, official spokesperson for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, called the United States a terrorist which sought “to take control of the entire region.” The country’s official newspaper claimed that “greedy warmongering monopolist U.S. companies” wanted “more destruction and more devastation” so as to profit from rebuilding Iraq at that country’s expense. The U.S. policy of paying for reconstruction itself without taking Iraqi funds was never mentioned.
The United States cannot find a solution for Middle East anti-Americanism because the answer is not within its grasp. The problem is a product of the regional system itself, of the governing regimes and ideologies which find anti-Americanism to be so useful for their own needs. In this sense, it is like the state-sponsored anti-Americanism of Communism and fascism and different from the far more marginal varieties seen in Europe and Latin America.
Hatred of America is thus used to justify a great deal that is bad in the Arab world and helps keep it politically dominated by dictatorships, socially unfree and economically less successful. Blaming national shortcomings on America means that the Arab debate avoids dealing with the internal problems and weaknesses that are the real cause of their problems. It justifies the view that the only barrier to complete success, prosperity and justice for the Arab (and Islamic) world is the United States. Instead of dealing with privatization, women’s equality, democracy, civil society, freedom of speech, due process of law, and 20 other issues the Arab world needs to address, attention can be diverted to conjuring American conspiracies and threats.
The relatively moderate Jordanian Fahd al-Fanik claimed, “The world has not witnessed such blatant aggression since the days of the Tartars…While pretending to save the Iraqi people it will in fact murder them.” And a Gulf newspaper insisted, “The United States should leave Iraq after apologizing for over a million dead [sic] after an unlawful embargo and a colonial war.”
Fanik’s article ends by asking, “Are the Americans willing to admit their mistakes? This is the most important question of the 21st century, since much of the world’s safety depends on it.” Yet the United States has always been willing—even eager–to admit mistakes. It is part of that penchant for self-improvement and constant change which some of the world finds admirable and part dangerous or sinful. One might better say that much of the world’s safety and the course of the 21st century will depend on whether the world is willing to admit its mistakes about misjudging and hating the United States.