Sept. 11: View from the Arab street

By CLAUDE SALHANI   |   Sept. 6, 2002 at 4:34 PM
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(Part of UPI's Special Report on Sept. 11)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- As America began its war on terrorism shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, the anticipated reaction from the so-called Arab street remained a major preoccupation.

No one knew exactly how the Arab and Islamic world would react to America's latest military expedition. Yet, the "Great Muslim Upset" that so many political pundits had predicted in the days following the start of the Afghan campaign never quite materialized.

The "Arab street," from which much dire reaction was feared, remained largely silent. Ominous warnings about continuing the Afghan war during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan failed to bring about the wrath of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims.

In fact, support for master terrorist Osama bin Laden, his Qaida organization and their one-time Taliban allies was minimal at best, even when Mullah Omar, the former Taliban supreme chief, was calling for mass protests, while American bombs erroneously hit a hospital, and as Israeli tanks rolled back into the West Bank, besieging Yasser Arafat in his PLO headquarters in Ramallah.

A study by Martin Indyk, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tracked the number of demonstrations in 21 Arab countries from Morocco to Dubai, since the start of the war on terrorism, until Nov. 2001.

During the first week of the campaign: nine demonstrations.

During the second week: three.

During the third week: one.

During the fourth week: two.

During the fifth week: zero.

And during the sixth week: one.

Why such lethargy?

Most Arab countries -- including Saudi Arabia, where traditional Wahabism dominates -- would, much as the West, prefer to see the Islamist fundamentalist menace disappear. The threats to their stability perpetrated by the likes of bin Laden hangs over the heads of Middle East rulers like the fabled sword of Damocles.

The reason much of the Islamic and Arab world remained so quiet during weeks of intense bombing of the Taliban and al Qaida positions in Afghanistan is because the vast majority of the people in those countries, especially their leaders, realize extremism in Islam is not for them. As Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International once pointed out "...the real lesson of the Iranian revolution is that it did not spread anywhere and brought misery to its people."

The people of Afghanistan, oppressed by strict Taliban dogma, rushed out to greet those who came to liberate them and to embrace once-banned Western culture -- from television to barber shops -- with outstretched arms and open minds. The speed with which the people of Afghanistan turned against the Taliban speaks volumes, as does the silence from the rest of the Arab world that accompanied that rush.

Bin Laden and his lieutenants had hoped to turn this conflict into one of Islam versus the world; clearly, they have failed to do so. As President George W. Bush and other Western leaders were clear to point out from the start of the war on terrorism, the world is not out to get Islam, just as Islam is not set to destroy non-believers of the faith.

The spark bin Laden had hoped to ignite turned out to be a dud.

The Sept. 11 attacks, however, should serve as a lesson, and a wakeup call, for the United States that not all is right in its relationship with the Arab and the Islamic world, and that several points of contention need to be addressed. There are serious -- and potentially dangerous -- issues that continue to engender anger and hatred against America. Left unattended, this hatred will boil over to produce even more extremism.

Although the Sept. 11 attacks succeeded in killing nearly 3,000 innocent American civilians, it is important, nevertheless, to remember that most of the anger emanating from the Arab street (as opposed to the terrorist groups) is not directed at the people of America, but toward the U.S. government. The government is seen by this Arab street to adopt double standards -- one for dealing with them, and another for dealing with Israel. Statements by the U.S. president calling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "a man of peace," for example, while his tanks are pounding away at Palestinian towns and villages, will not endear the American government to this said Arab street. Often, the anger will even be directed toward their own governments, which for obvious reasons they cannot be seen to openly attack.

Instead, America becomes the fall guy.

Insisting, as Washington does, that some Arab leaders must go while continuing to support highly corrupt and autocratic monarchies in the area is another sore point. Continued sanctions against Iraq -- sanctions that have proven to be ineffective and harmful to the people of Iraq, rather than its leadership -- is yet another.

The sanctions have clearly failed to prevent Saddam Hussein from re-arming, or deterred him from aggressively pursuing biological, chemical, and even possible nuclear warfare programs. The Iraqi president and his elitist top echelon are clearly not feeling the crunch of these sanctions, and the initial desired effect -- that the people would rise up to overthrow the regime -- obviously has not worked. In fact, it achieved quite the opposite, with the Iraqi people, as well as much of the Arab and Islamic world, blaming the United States for the suffering of innocent Iraqis.

If the Middle East problem is approached with an open mind and without bias, it will win the United States many more friends and allies in the area. The Arab street remained silent as America began fighting its war on terrorism, but will the same silence persist if America takes the war to Iraq? One could not be certain the same apathy will prevail.

Today, amid rumblings of war, much is being said and written about that Arab street. Currently, multiple predictions are being advanced on how those millions of Arabs will react to the United States' possible military intervention in Iraq, as is now rumored, amid the new "frenzy," to borrow the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The real danger from the Arab street for the United States is not that they might set a few American embassies afire or trash a fast-food restaurant or two. The more realistic threat is that of an economic boycott of American products, as has already begun to develop (albeit in an disorganized way) in Saudi Arabia, where there have been reports of a grassroots move to buy generic cola bottled in Iran rather than American brands.

A more generalized embargo of U.S.-made goods, such as the one imposed on a wide variety of products by the Arab Boycott Bureau after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war, will hurt American businesses, already hit by a recession. Athletic goods, beauty products, cars, clothes, electronics, fast food outlets, films, investment firms -- all could be hard hit from an organized Islamic refusal to buy American goods. The buying power -- or in this case, the refusal to buy --from 1.4 billion people could be an effective weapon.

Two recent developments spooked the Saudis, whose bankers as well as several investors have started withdrawing funds -- some $600 billion -- from American financial institutions, depositing them instead in Europe and offshore institutions.

One development was a Rand Corporation paper delivered to the defense secretary's private think tank -- the Defense Policy Board -- severely criticizing Saudi Arabia, calling it "a kernel of evil."

The other was a potential trillion-dollar lawsuit filed by the families of Sept. 11 victims.

Arab street anger will hit Americans where it hurts the most -- their pocketbooks -- by forcing them to spend more on defense, for example, or even worse for the average taxpayer, to pay up more for all those gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans that abound on American highways. The current price of $30 for a barrel of oil could shoot up to $40, representing about $2 per gallon at the pump.

Of course, these assumptions are based on a short-term war, but if the conflict stretches out, the strategic oil reserves will be triggered to maintain the flow of oil, says Roger Diwan, managing director of The Petrolem Finance Company, a Washington think tank that closely monitors the oil markets. "But if the war goes bad, then anything could happen," adds Diwan.

One doomsday scenario includes Saddam Hussein targeting the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields.

Already, Saudi refusal to allow the use of its military bases to U.S. troops operating in Afghanistan, as well as those gearing up for a potential assault on Iraq, will cost the American tax payer an additional $4 billion as operations are forced to shift from Saudi bases to Qatar, just a few miles away, and to carrier-based facilities in the Arabian and Indian Oceans.

Over the last decade the power of the Arab street has slowly transformed itself from that of a wild mob ransacking American diplomatic missions, to that of wise financial and economical retaliation that can cause far more harm to the American economy in the long run.

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(This analysis is part of UPI's Special Report on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Claude Salhani is a UPI senior editor who spent 15 years as a correspondent in the Middle East).

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