Among many major misconceptions pertaining to Arabs and Muslims is the common
belief that they are a weak-willed, irrelevant collective, easily influenced
and effortlessly manipulated. This mistaken assumption underscores the very
ailment that has afflicted United States foreign policy in the Middle East for
As media pundits and commentators began their drum-rolling in anticipation of
US President Barack Obama's speech in Egypt on Thursday, very few paid
attention to the fact that Arabs and Muslims are not so naive as to be wooed by
mere rhetoric, but that they are significant players in their own affairs,
capable of resistance and change.
To begin with, it's underhanded and foolish to speak of one Arab
and Muslim polity, as if geography, class, language and politics, among many
other factors, are irrelevant attributes which are easily overlooked. Why is
there an insistence on addressing Arabs and Muslims as one unified body - that
is, the so-called "Muslim world" - that behaves according to specific
rationale; predisposed to respond to the same stimuli? True, various groups
within the Arab and Muslim collective share common history, language and
religion, but even the same groups differ in historic interpretations, dialects
and religious sects and frames of reference.
Why the reductionism? Is it true that a struggling North African immigrant in a
French slum carries the same values, expectations and outlook on life as an
wealthy, SUV-driving Arab in the Gulf? Does a poor Egyptian, grappling for
recognition within a political body that has room for only the chosen few,
relate to the world the same way as does a Malaysian Muslim with a wide range
of opportunities, civic, economic and political?
Even within the same country, among the same people, adhering to the same
religion, does the world mean the same, and will Obama's words in Egypt
represent the unifying lexicon that will meet every Arab or a Muslim man or
woman's aspirations? Can one lump together those who collaborated with those
who resisted; those who exploited others and those who were exploited; those
who had plenty and those who had none?
As the countdown to Obama's visit nears the highly anticipated day, pundits and
polls are pouring in. A recent survey conducted by Shilbey Telhami and Zogby
International was carried out in six Arab countries, each representing unique
collective experiences that cannot be compared. The poll declared that Obama is
popular among Arabs, yet Arabs are still skeptical of the US. It was learned
that Iraq matters the most, followed by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There is no denial that Arabs in various countries have major perceptions and
expectations in common. But who is to say that there are not more commonalities
between the poor of Egypt and Mexico, than the elites of Egypt and Pakistan?
However, such assertion would be irrelevant for one main reason: Arabs and
Muslims have been demonized collectively, targeted collectively and at times,
victimized collectively. In other words, it's US foreign policy towards various
Arab and Muslim collectives that largely explains the constant lumping of all
Arabs and all Muslims into one single category.
Arabs and Muslims seem only relevant as a collective whenever the US is
interested in carrying out a rhetorical policy shift, a war, a self-serving
"democracy" campaign, and so forth. They are available as a collective to be
duly demonized as "terrorist" or readily shunned for subscribing to the "wrong"
David Schenker, writing for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
website was honest enough in explaining the significance of Obama's speech in
Cairo. He pointed out that Iran is a major issue that Obama and moderate Arabs
have in common. His explanation is straightforward: "Tehran's progress toward a
nuclear weapon and its provision of material and ideological support for moqawama,
or resistance, across the region is of grave concern to Washington and its
moderate Arab allies."
According to the poll cited above, only a fraction of Arabs surveyed seem
concerned by the Iranian nuclear program. This leaves Iran posing one major
"threat", its support of resistance.
It's ironic that resistance, which is a universal right for any oppressed
individual or collective, is being dealt with as a "grave concern". This
explains, in part, the lingering illusion that continues to mar US foreign
policy, and also highlight the common strength that Arab and Muslim masses
continue to wield, their ability to resist. Amid the democracy programs that
have appeared and disappeared in recent years - George W Bush's Middle East
democracy project being one - none was an outcome of genuine and collective
movements in Arab and Muslim nations. Such genuine movements, although in
existence, are unpopular in Washington, for they seem inconsistent with US
This leaves one last aspect of collective self-expression, again, resistance,
in all of its manifestations. It's the root causes of Arab and Muslim
resistance that are most deserving of analysis and understanding, as opposed to
mere dismissal on the grounds that it's a "grave concern".
If Obama continues to approach Arabs and Muslims as one single collective,
ready to be manipulated and wooed with bogus promises, fancy rhetoric and
impressive body language, then he will surely be disappointed. Highly
politicized, skeptical and, frankly, fed-up societies refuse to be reduced to a
mere percentage in some opinion poll that can be swayed this way or that,
whenever the US administration determines the time and place.
It's that incessant lack of depth that has caused the US so much grief in the
Middle East, and will cost it even more if such imprudence persists.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of
PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers,
journals and anthologies around the world. His latest book is The
Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle (Pluto Press,
London). His forthcoming book is My Father was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story.