Posted on November 17, 1997 in Washington Watch

Dr. Ron Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland and one of the leading African-American intellectuals, was once asked to explain the “Farrakhan phenomenon.” Minister Louis Farrakhan is the current leader of the movement in the U.S. known as the Nation of Islam.

“Farrakhan,” Walters responded, “can best be understood as the measure of the depth of Black alienation from White America.” This alienation, Walters continued, was felt at every level of African-American society: the poor, the young and unemployed, and even those successful and well-established who have been scarred by discrimination. Since, in varying degrees, many have experienced this alienation, the appeal of Farrakhan is broader than his actual membership.

The Minister’s appeal is in his blatant and often times outrageous challenge to the dominant American culture. When he defies the authorities or when he denounces major institutions, he strikes a responsive chord. And because his appeal is based on deeply felt alienation, when he is attacked, his appeal becomes even stronger. In this regard, the Farrakhan phenomenon is as much a psychological phenomenon of anger and alienation as it is a political phenomenon.

What is clear to the majority of African-American leaders is that this phenomenon is not a solution to the dilemmas faced by their community. Farrakhan, and the support he receives, is a symptom of the problems facing Black America, not its cure.

I thought of this model in the past week as I watched the displays of pro-Saddam sentiment in Iraq, in Cairo, in Ramallah, and in Gaza. The point I am seeking to make became clearer as I engaged callers to my call-in radio and T.V. programs on ANA-TV in the U.S.

What was being played out in the demonstrations and the phone calls was a measure of the depth of Arab alienation from the existing world order. In almost every instance, there was anger. Anger at the U.S. “double standard,” anger at the failure of the world community to enforce resolutions against Iraq but not against Israel, and anger at the plight of the Iraqi people.

There was, in all of this, no real support for the regime in Iraq, and no real effort to excuse its abuses or its terror. But, and “but” is an overused word in these discussions, in each instance those who are angry and alienated respond “but what about Qana” or “but what about Netanyahu and Sharon,” etc.

There is a connection between the failing peace process, the obstructionism of the Likud government, and the mood of anger and alienation that has clouded and captured the minds of many.

Former Secretary of State James Baker understood this well. Speaking before Congress on September 4, 1990, at the early stages of Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, he addressed this issue. In response to a Congressman who asked why the U.S. should continue to consider Palestinian needs when there were pro-Saddam rallies in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Baker said,

“One of the most telling arguments that Saddam Hussein makes is that he is the champion of the down-trodden. He [pretends to be] the champion of the Palestinians who have no place to go and who are sorely put-upon, and that is why I think … it is important that we keep our eye as well on the ball of moving … toward some resolution of that problem, because then the ground will not be as fertile as it is today.”

The reason that the Doha Summit has not succeeded in gaining broad Arab support, the reason that the majority of the U.S.’s Arab allies are not supporting a U.S. military response to Saddam’s latest antics, and the reason that on the “Arab street,” as it is called, there is still “fertile ground” is one and the same. There is still, seven years after Baker spoke, a profound Arab sense of grievance with the West’s failure to address legitimate Arab needs and aspirations.

What is most heartening is that major U.S. newspapers have written extensively about this very issue in the past week. And within the Administration itself there is a growing debate. There is recognition that U.S. foreign policy objectives are confounded by our failure to address the root causes of Arab alienation and by our failure to equitably address Arab rights and needs.

Saddam’s outrageous provocations and the supportive response they illicit are not a solution. What has Iraq gained? The Security Council is now unanimous in its resolve to tighten sanctions. The Iraqi people will continue to suffer. And those who demonstrate out of anger are sadly no closer to freedom.

Similarly, simply striking the dictator down is not a solution in and of itself since that could only cause the alienation to grow. The regime in Iraq must comply with U.N. resolutions. But, for the credibility of that institution, and the U.S. that stands behind it, there must be consistency.

As American society has learned, there is a warning bell that must be heard if the Farrakhan phenomenon is to be understood and resolved. The legacy of discrimination against African-Americans and its consequences must be addressed. So too, the world community and especially the U.S. must understand the sources of the phenomenon of alienation that are now being manifested in the Middle East.

If, in Baker’s words, the root causes of Arab despair and anger are addressed and resolved, the ground will not be so fertile and Saddam will be playing to an unresponsive audience.

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