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Why We Hear the Muslim World All Too Well

By Barry Rubin

Message to New York Times: Read your own op-ed page.

The Times and other American media and educational institutions are giving increasing amounts of space to people from the Moslem-majority and Arabic-speaking states in the apparent hope of understanding better their world view. Sometimes, however, they have a hard time hearing what is being said.

Here is what the newspaper’s editorial for February 8 claims and urges:

“We don’t know if there is any mixture of incentives or sanctions that can wean Iran of its nuclear ambitions. But we are certain that the Bush administration never tried to find it. This means not only direct talks, but also far more persuasive diplomatic incentives, including a credible offer of improved relations and security guarantees.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/09/opinion/09mon1.html

And this, of course, is what the Obama administration is going to do with Iran and Syria. Others urge the same techniques are applies to Hamas, Hizballah, and even—though this is rarer—the Taliban and al-Qaida.

But to understand why this belief is so misguided one merely need read…the Times of February 8, within inches of the above-quoted editorial.

I’m referring here to the truly shocking op-ed by Alaa al Aswany entitled, “Why the Muslim World Can’t Hear Obama.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08aswany.html. A better title would be, “Why the Muslim World Won’t Hear Obama.”

The piece is overlong, convoluted, and not particularly well written. It should be noted that the author, a novelist among other things, is considered a moderate.

Alas, for moderation in the Arab world.

There are two themes: the one against Israel and the one against Arab governments. Because these have not been resolved, the author says, all of President Obama’s apologies and efforts are a big yawn.

So what would the author—and presumably all the Arabs and Muslims—want Obama and America to do? Well, to put it briefly, help overthrow all the Arab governments and help wipe Israel off the map.

I wrote the above sentence in a particularly blunt way but it really does not exaggerate the message here.

First of all, Egypt and other Arab states are dictatorships: “Here in Egypt, we don’t have previous or future presidents, only the present head of state who seized power through sham elections and keeps it by force, and who will probably remain in power until the end of his days.”

Wait a minute, though! Remember the last president of the United States, the one who pushed for democracy and criticized the governmental systems? The Arab world didn’t seem too thrilled about him. Egyptian intellectuals screamed this was imperialist interference in internal affairs and so on. So after all those years of bashing Bush for—rightly or wrongly—proposing dictatorships be replaced with democracy are we to believe that they will now bash Obama for proposing to work with the existing regimes?

This, of course, is an unsolvable problem. Whatever the United States does here is going to be wrong. There is no way America can please Iran. Well, I take that back. If America helps it overthrow all those bad Arab dictatorships and replace them with Islamist regimes then Iran will probably be happy.

And Alaa al Aswany will be able to read the Times more easily, as a political refugee living in New York.

Then there’s point two:

“We expected him to address the reports that the Israeli military illegally used white phosphorus against the people of Gaza. We also wanted Mr. Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth:  the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.”

Regarding “essential truth,” isn’t the Times supposed to publish things that are factually correct? Israel has already been cleared of the phony white phosphorus charge. So why is this article allowed to repeat it? Here is indeed a lesson: people in the Arab world often lie about you. No matter what you do, how much aid you give, how many concessions you offer or implement, it will be said: you didn’t do anything. Give more. Pay more. Apologize more. Change more.

But perhaps the most important and chilling sentence of the op-ed is this, and if people were paying attention to such things nowadays they would be thoroughly shocked:

“We also wanted Mr. Obama, who studied law and political science at the greatest American universities, to recognize what we see as a simple, essential truth: the right of people in an occupied territory to resist military occupation.”

What are the implications of this sentence: that the United States should endorse terrorism and violence in at least three conflicts. According to the terrorist forces, Afghanistan and Iraq are under foreign occupation. If Obama was to do as suggested, he would be backing attacks not only on civilians and governments there but also the killing of American soldiers.

As for the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, south Lebanon, and much of the West Bank and still faces attacks. In 2000, Israel proposed to make peace based on a two-state solution with a Palestinian state having its capital in Jerusalem. The Palestinian side turned it down.

Since Hamas and other radical forces assert that Israel is an occupying power, attacking it—which includes firing rockets at civilian targets—is legitimate. Moreover, if there is any occupation left, it is due to the political strategy of the Palestinian Authority in rejecting a political solution.

Yet that is far from the entire problem here. For much or most of the Muslim and Arab world views all of Israel as “occupied territory.” The only way for occupation to end is for Israel to end. The author here does not make clear what land is being discussed, though the op-ed easily could have limited the territory in question to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem. Have no doubt how most Muslims and Arabs read the phrase about occupied territory: Obama must abandon Israel altogether.

So how can Obama appease or please the Muslim-majority world? We are told by this moderate: by backing the right of Hamas and Hizballah to attack Israel.

This, then, is the supposed moderate position, the minimum way by which Obama can make friends in the region. Clearly, the author here doesn’t speak for everyone. Certainly the relatively moderate Arab regimes and their supporters want more U.S. support for themselves.

Yet there is much truth in this article’s stance. The only way for America to “win over” this public opinion and the radical groups is to surrender to them or join them. President Obama and editors of the Times, please hear what you are being told here, and despair of ever satisfying such enormous and dangerous demands by some combination of charm and concessions.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, write me at [email protected].

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To subscribe to Gloria Center publications for free, write [email protected].

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