Since the Gulf war, the Arab Middle East has experienced a sustained trauma. The Arab world is back where it began a century ago, when Great Britain was the uncontested master of the Arabs’ destiny. Today, the United States dominates the region and bluntly dictates its will to most Arab governments. It deployed an extraordinary armada eight years ago to crush Iraq and now maintains an immense military presence in the Gulf. The US appears to be more closely allied than ever before with Israel, and many Jewish citizens of America are freely migrating to occupied Palestinian territories to accelerate colonization of what remains of Palestine. The prevailing feeling in the Arab world is that of powerlessness, submission and isolation. Very few Arab writers or thinkers dare express such feelings directly, however. Anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist perspectives have been phased out of Arab political thought during the last decade. Even neighboring Iran has recently toned down its criticism of US foreign policies. With America’s dominance worldwide going unchallenged, being openly anti-American is not an easy option for most intellectuals and political columnists. Limited press freedoms, as well as self-censorship, prevent expressions of despair, frustration and anger in the Arab world.
The US, through local allied governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, influences much of the political and military realms of key Arab states, and shapes the cultural and intellectual domains as well. Arab campaigns against US policy have been undertaken only when a government judges that keeping silent before US behavior and its continuing bias in favor of Israel might spark domestic problems and political destabilization. Although the Israeli government complains from time to time about “anti-Zionist” or “anti-Semitic” writings in the Arab press, the US government is not bothered by such expressions of “official” anti-Americanism. A few attacks on its Middle East policy is not as important to the US as the political stability of its local allies. If limited attacks provide a pressure valve for anti-American sentiments, why should the US object?
Fixated on a Culture Clash
One way Arab elites avoid the issue of US hegemony in the Middle East is through a growing preoccupation with issues of cultural identity and civilizational conflicts. This is ironic, considering that the Arab elite, like most elites in the world, is now predominantly Western-educated. Although they may express strong sentiments about their Muslim identity in distinction to their Western socialization, the elite’s lifestyle is increasingly Americanized. Impotence before the enormity of US hegemony is masked by continuous declarations asserting the specificity of a “Muslim” identity.
The focus on cultural rather than political indices of US global domination has been encouraged and exacerbated by Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations. Instead of addressing the reasons for the dramatic power imbalances in the region, Arab intellectuals have fixated on the capacity of so-called Muslim values to coexist peacefully with so-called Christian Western values (or Judeo-Christian civilization). In order to avoid the devastating wars between Islam and the West that Huntington has predicted, responsible scholars are expected to enhance understanding between “Islam” and the West while constantly bemoaning the fact that religious Muslim “zealots” have given Islam a bad name. This distracting line of thought prevents Arab intellectuals from directly confronting the source of their powerlessness and frustration: American military and political hegemony in the Arab World.
The Pro-Israel Lobby and America’s National Interest: A Secondary Issue
Another obstacle to Arab intellectuals’ active confrontation of US hegemony (and their own governments’ role in facilitating it) is the widely held belief that US Middle East policy is dictated exclusively by the American pro-Israel lobby, not by US national interests. Recent developments within the US administration have led to the appointment of several American Jews to key positions in the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, reinforcing the Arab belief that US foreign policy is completely dominated by the pro-Israel lobby. This belief is convenient for the US government itself since it provides Arabs with a logical explanation for the apparent anti-Arab bias in America’s Middle East policy. By blaming the pro-Israel lobby for such policies, Arab intellectuals effectively exonerate the US government from moral responsibility toward the Arab world’s just claims and demands.
Strangely, very few Arab leaders or intellectuals question the logic underlying the widespread belief that a large empire would allow its strategic interests and goals in a key region to be dictated by a single, though influential, ethno-religious group. For decades, many Arab leaders have naively believed that the US political establishment lacks a sound understanding of its long-term interests in the region. In spite of the enduring triumph of US policies in the Middle East since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which resulted in enhanced US influence over the region’s political leadership and control of Arab oil wealth, Arab intellectuals still believe that US foreign policy would be much “friendlier” toward the Arabs if only the pro-Israel lobby were less influential.
When one examines America’s policies in the Arab world analytically, however, without any sentimental feelings about friendship or dialogue between civilizations, it is difficult to conceive of any greater policy successes than those the US has enjoyed in the last 30 years. America’s strategic goals in the Middle East are based on three crucial elements: 1) safe access to oil supplies, a key asset for the economic wellbeing of the Western world; 2) the security and survival of Israel, a country many Americans view as integral to the cultural and religious wellbeing of the West and as a Western presence in an alien and threatening region; and 3) the stability of traditionally pro-Western governments in the region, which enables the continuation of Western hegemony. Given these fundamental US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, America’s success in the region is unqualified and undeniable, even when viewed in comparison with its many foreign policy achievements in the last half-century. In view of this success, the extent of the pro-Israel lobby’s influence on US foreign policy is irrelevant. After all, the lobby operates in accordance with American political traditions and US laws and does not harm national interests as defined by the majority of America’s political elite. The Arab elite and the few Americans sympathetic to the Arabs are alone in believing that the pro-Israel lobby damages American national interests in the Middle East. Hence, it is a losing game to analyze the machinations of “the lobby” and to denounce its activities as an obstacle to the attainment of US foreign policy objectives.
Rising anti-Semitism in the Arab world has become a convenient substitute for the “forbidden” articulation of anti-American sentiments. Given the undeniable suffering caused by US policies in the Arab world for so many people (e.g., Iraqis, Palestinians and southern Lebanese under Israeli occupation, as well as Libyans under embargo), anti-American feelings would be expected to develop much more rapidly and even explode in most Arab countries.
The Europeans and the Middle East
The oft-repeated hope that Europe can deliver the Arabs from the travails of US hegemony in the Middle East is another diversion from directly addressing the issue of US hegemony. Although France has kept up a modest tradition of trying to forge an independent foreign policy in the Mediterranean region in general and in the Muslim world specifically, no other member of the European Union is ready to break the solidarity among Western allies by contesting US leadership and dominance in the Middle East. Most US strategic goals are accepted to one degree or another by European countries.
No doubt Europe, being closer to the Middle East than the US, perceives from time to time that US and Israeli policies (e.g., the perpetuation of the embargoes on Iraq and Libya and US silence before increasingly aggressive Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and the Lebanese in south Lebanon) are antagonizing large segments of Arab public opinion. Fearful of being victimized by terrorism on their own soil, many European governments attempt to exercise friendly pressure on the US government whenever the Arab world appears to be reaching the boiling point. (Recently, France’s pressure on the US, coupled with that of China and Russia, helped stave off a new military confrontation with Iraq.) Arab states, however, would be unwise to base future policies on the fact that some European countries occasionally challenge US-Israeli hegemony in the Arab world. Russia and China are both in dire need of Western financial aid and technological assistance. Although they may raise an eyebrow or make strong statements against certain aspects of US foreign policy once in a while, it would be foolish to assume that either of these two fragile giants could upset US dominance of the Middle East in the near future.
For the time being, no credible external challenge appears capable of weakening the US-Israeli alliance. If Arab states wish to change this state of affairs, they will have to look inward; only domestic factors can alter the status quo in the Arab world. This development is a long way off, however. What is immediately apparent is the growing gap between Arab popular sentiments, which are increasingly anti-American, and the reticence of the political and intellectual elite to acknowledge that US policy is detrimental to the wellbeing of the region in so many areas. Popular dissatisfaction stems from social discontent and an unbearable feeling of anger and disappointment at the unjust attitudes and practices of the US. The so-called Islamic movements take advantage of the paralysis of the intellectual elite and political establishment to present themselves as the only existing alternative to the present unbearable situation.
Changing the Arab Intellectual Agenda
To break the present stalemate, the intellectual agenda of the Arab elite must be completely reviewed. The enormous energies devoted to brokering a better understanding between “Islam” and the “West” should be redirected toward better uses. The same could be said of analyses of “Islamic movements” along the lines of American “new Orientalism” or the familiar theme of pervasive Jewish influence in the US and Europe. The line between this theme and anti-Semitism is very thin indeed, and harms the image of the Arabs in Western public opinion. In the current political atmosphere, a broad-based popular revolt against US hegemony and the local regimes that enable it does not seem likely. The outcome of the current stagnant political situation in the Arab world cannot be predicted. More terrorist activities are likely, more civil disturbances inside various Arab countries might also occur. The factors that provoked the Lebanese civil war are still at work in the region. Lebanon’s destruction began with clashing views among Arab politicians and intellectuals about how to respond to the US-Western-Israeli alliance and its policy of callous disregard for the rights of the Palestinians. Although much blood has been shed over this issue, it has yet to be resolved in the Arab world.
The prevailing focus in the US as well as in much of the Arab world on religion and civilizational issues will lead nowhere. This discourse can only reinforce the central position of Israel in the Western view of the region while also encouraging the “Islamist” type of anti-Western response. Only through a resurgence of a secular approach to the region’s problems, coupled with openly voiced demands for democratization and Arab solidarity in the face of US hegemony, will new avenues of hope and resistance open in the Arab world. At the present time, however, few Arab intellectuals dare to express secular views.
The Arabs can escape this stagnation only by refusing the current intellectual agenda and developing a new discourse that analyzes the present situation in purely secular terms. After all, Palestinian rights are national secular rights; in no way are they “religious rights.” If international law is to be truly universal, it must be secular; it cannot recognize religious rights based on the Bible or the Qur’an. Christians, Jews and Muslims should have free access to their respective holy places; this is a secular democratic principle of modern law. The right of Arabs to live without embargoes and foreign armies on their soil is also a legitimate secular right.
Arab intellectuals must not accept discussions of their religious beliefs and precepts as a substitute for a discussion of the implementation of principles of international law and ethics. These principles have been disregarded by the West in relation to the creation of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian society, as well as with respect to unjust and painful embargoes on innocent civilian populations. What the West thinks about Islam should be of no concern to the Arabs; problems related to modern Islam concern Muslim societies and should be discussed between Muslims in the context of healthy and democratic domestic political debate. Religion should not be used to veil the reality of foreign domination of the Middle East.