Posted on September 09, 2002 in Washington Watch

Last week I traveled to Cairo to address the Arab League’s Foreign Ministers meeting. I had been invited by Secretary General Amre Mousa to speak to this important assembly of Arab leaders on the current political situation in the United States and on the status of the U.S.-Arab relationship.

What follows is a distillation of my observations.

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It is important, I noted, to recognize that we are about to commemorate the terrible anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11.It must be understand that that day was a profound and painful shock for all Americans. It was, in many ways, a unique and all enveloping tragedy. None of us escaped it’s impact. We all were affected by the horror and sadness of September 11.

The attacks had an especially complex impact on Arab Americans. We are Americans and it was our country that was attacked and our people who died. Arab Americans were also part of the rescue effort. Dozens of New York City Police and rescue workers were Arab Americans who bravely toiled at Ground Zero.

Because the terrorists were Arabs and some Americans assumed our collective guilt, Arab Americans were also victims of hate crimes of violence and discrimination. Stories of this backlash are well known in the Arab world. Not as well understood, however, is how Arab Americans and Muslims have been defended and protected by law enforcement and by the good works of ordinary citizens who refused to allow bigots to define America. Significant coalitions have been organized to defend and protect Arab American rights. On the national and local levels, resolutions have been passed decrying hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims and actions have been taken to punish those who have violated our rights.

This was the personal side of September 11, but there were profound political consequences that resulted from the attacks and these, I noted, must also be addressed, because they have done grave damage to the U.S.-Arab relationship.

Because the country was in shock and many Americans were angry and afraid, the field was open for those with an anti-Arab agenda to exploit the fear and the anger. Neo-conservatives, religious fundamentalists and hard-line pro-Israeli groups projected themselves into the post-September 11 discussion in a concerted effort to negatively define Islam, the Arab world, in general, and many Arab countries.

Because these groups have such extensive outreach capabilities and because their efforts were largely uncontested, they have done real harm. We cannot underestimate, I warned the Ministers, the damage they have caused to the U.S. public perceptions of the Arab world and the danger they continue to pose to Middle East peace and stability.

I specifically noted the following key areas of concern:

  • the image and standing of two key U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been gravely affected. For example, I noted that before September 11, Saudi Arabia had a net favorable rating in U.S. public opinion of 56 percent favorable to 28 percent unfavorable. In October 2001, this had dropped to 49 percent favorable to 33 percent unfavorable. In December it was 24 percent favorable to 58 percent unfavorable. Today it is less than 20 percent favorable to over 60 percent unfavorable;

  • the attacks on Islam continue from America’s religious right and from neo-conservative commentators. This campaign has not only been used to delegitimize the religion itself, but to justify efforts to violate the rights of U.S. Muslims;

  • working together with Israel’s supporters and bolstered by the waves of bombings of civilians in Israel, the same U.S. groups have sought to delegitimize the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. The Palestinian Authority has been discredited and many more Americans now support Israel’s repressive policies. The Bush Administration, bending to political pressure from those very same groups, has now adopted many elements of their anti-Palestinian agenda;

  • and finally, this same extremist coalition has continued to press for a war against Iraq and has largely succeeded in convincing the Administration to adopt their approach.

All of this has occurred, I reminded the Ministers, while Arabs were largely absent from the U.S. debate. Arab Americans were, for the most part, left alone to struggle to defend themselves, the integrity of their community, Arab culture and Islam, and to argue the policy debate on Palestine and Iraq.

Arab leaders came and met with U.S. officials, but virtually no Arab delegations came to meet with the American people. Agreements were made with Washington, while out in the heartland of America negative campaigns were being waged that cut the ground out from under the U.S.-Arab relationship.

Where I asked, were the much talked about Arab information campaigns? Israel has had more than a delegation a week visiting U.S. cities urging their case across the country. Why can’t Arabs do the same? The battle, I reminded the Ministers, was not on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, it was on the main streets in small and large cities all over the United States.

What I urged the Ministers to do is to engage American people directly, in person. Americans today, want to know about Arabs and want to learn about the Islamic faith. Tragically the groups who are educating them have an anti-Arab agenda.

In the same vein I cautioned the Arab leaders to consider the fact that as a result of September 11, a light is now being shown on Arab society. Americans are asking, “Who are these people?” “How do they live?” “Are they like us?” For the first time attention is being paid to the social and cultural realities of the Arab world. And, therefore, the questions of civil and political rights and freedoms, the status of women and economic opportunities are being noted. Change, therefore, has become an imperative and these matters must be addressed.

With regard to two key questions of U.S. foreign policy–the Palestinian issue and Iraq–so much more also needs to be done. I noted, that not only had President Bush ignored the significant Arab peace plan endorsed at the last Arab summit–but the Arabs, also appear to have let it die. I should be taken off the shelf and given new life. It is, I suggested, a good product, but it needs to be sold.

I observed that a slight opening still remains that can be taken advantage of to avoid a devastating war over Iraq. While the Arabs must do more to make their case and explain the consequences of such a war to the American people. The Iraqis too must act. It would be wrong for the Iraqi regime to overplay their hand and ignore the real danger they and the entire region face. They have but one chance to avoid the consequences of a war and that is to accept the UN efforts to send weapons inspectors back to their country.

I closed my remarks by observing that while U.S. opinion had been impacted by these negative campaigns, public opinion was still soft and could be changed. Despite the concerted efforts of an extremist coalition that has exploited the anger and fear resulting from September 11, most Americans still want to be fair and balanced. But to change opinion and to avert a war, a real campaign must be waged to reach out to the American people.

A year after September 11, it is clear that real damage has been done to the U.S.-Arab relationship. The Arab world must respond to repair and rebuild what was lost. That was my message. I hope it was heard.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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