Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0

Bearded Arabs 1; American ladies 0

The Daily Star
Saturday, February 25, 2006

By Rami G. Khouri

Nothing better captures the broad lines of the great contestation that now defines the Middle East than the four very telegenic characters who have crisscrossed the region during the past week: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her colleague in charge of U.S. public policy, Karen Hughes, Hamas official Khaled Meshaal and the young Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Their travels have been closely followed by the news media, which instinctively recognize a gladiatorial battle for the future when they see it, as is the case here.

Two of these four Middle Eastern itinerant ideologues are slick, appointed American political figures who spend many of their waking hours preaching the benefits of democratic elections in the Arab world. Two others are bearded Arab Islamists who have come to power through the American-supported vehicle of democratic elections in the Arab world. It would seem to be a match made in heaven: bearded Arab politicos who wish to expand their own efficient constituencies and militias into governing systems that enhance the wellbeing of their fellow citizens; and the American ladies who combine the bouncy enthusiasm of young high school cheerleaders with the more daring inclination to engage in political genetic engineering in order to enhance the wellbeing of Arab citizens and the security of Americans, in one fell swoop.

This convergence and happy ideological marriage has not happened. Instead, Rice and Hughes, when they are not preaching democracy for Arabs, spend the few remaining hours of their days fighting the incumbency of democratically elected Arabs. In response, elected bearded Arab politicos like Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ Political Bureau, and Sadr, who leads a powerful Shiite movement and militia in Iraq, increase their legitimacy and their impact through two parallel routes. They engage in electoral politics by being more responsive and accountable to the needs of their constituents, and they generate wider emotional and political appeal by defying Washington and its policies and presence in the Middle East.

The likelihood is that this past week will go down in the record books as one in which the American ladies significantly lost ground to the bearded Arabs. This is due to the simple reason that both the style and substance of American policies run sharply counter to the sentiments of ordinary Arabs, while the Meshaal-Sadr school of politics caters directly to ordinary people’s powerful emotional and political needs.

Rice’s trip to four Arab capitals embodies the explicit American diplomatic drive to convince Arab governments to quarantine Hamas and starve the Palestinians of aid funds, until Hamas changes its views and actions vis-a-vis Israel. This policy will be rejected by all Arab governments, and is also likely to set back Washington’s standing in the region more than any other action in recent years, even the unpopular Iraq war. That is because opposition to Hamas touches on and sharply inflames several deep nerves that already form the foundation of widespread skepticism about American foreign policy in the Arab world and internationally.

The first is the sense that the United States is neither serious nor consistent about promoting democracy. The second is that it fights mightily against Arabs or others in the region who try to manifest their identity through expressions of Islamism. The third is that Washington wages vigorous battles against any Arabs, Muslims, or others in the world who dare to resist Israel’s occupation and subjugation of Arabs, in Palestine and elsewhere. The fourth is that Washington treats sovereign Arab governments with contempt, expecting them to ignore their own public opinion and bend to America’s desires at the snap of a finger.

Not surprisingly, the trend of public opinion and political sentiments on the ground throughout the Middle East has been in favor of mainstream Islamists who simultaneously accept democratic pluralism, defy the U.S., resist Israeli occupation and colonization, and demand less corruption and more efficient governance at home. So Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood and movements like Sadr’s are winning elections, even when America-friendly governments such as Egypt’s restrict their freedom of movement.

Meshaal’s and Sadr’s travels around the Middle East this week were more like a victory lap than anything else. We must challenge some of their past behavior and future plans, to be sure. But we must also admit that these Islamist leaders have more legitimacy in the Middle East than all of Rice’s and Hughes’ copious democratic rhetoric, and all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.

What to do instead? Elected democratic incumbents in Washington, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere should engage honestly, to move toward a common middle ground where Arab, Iranian, Turkish, European and American policies could happily coexist. This desirable terrain would include indigenous religious and social values, universal good governance standards, global principles that assert national sovereignty and reject colonial occupation, and legitimate leaders who have both the political credibility and the managerial capacity to synchronize all these factors into sensible, sustainable policies. High-profile American officials should explore this more humane, mutually beneficial approach during their visits to our convoluted lands, rather than mainly lecture and offend us.

This week’s score: bearded Arabs 1, American ladies 0.

Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for The Daily Star.

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Filed under Democracy, Islamism, Middle East & Muslim World, U.S.

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