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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 25, 2002

The Real Roots of Arab Anti-Americanism

This article from Foreign Affairs argues that it is really Muslim leaders who use anti-Americanism to distract their people from real problems at home.
DAMN YANKEES

Since last year's attacks on New York and Washington, the conventional wisdom about the motivation behind such deadly terrorism has gelled. The violence, we are often told, was a reaction to misguided U.S. policies. For years, certain American actions -- such as the country's support for Israel and for unpopular, oppressive Arab regimes -- had supposedly produced profound grievances throughout the Middle East. Those grievances came to a boil over time, and finally spilled over on September 11. The result was more than 3,000 American deaths.

Although anti-Americanism is genuinely widespread among Arab governments and peoples, however, there is something seriously misleading in this account. Arab and Muslim hatred of the United States is not just, or even mainly, a response to actual U.S. policies -- policies that, if anything, have been remarkably pro-Arab and pro-Muslim over the years. Rather, such animus is largely the product of self-interested manipulation by various groups within Arab society, groups that use anti-Americanism as a foil to distract public attention from other, far more serious problems within those societies.

This distinction should have a profound impact on American policymakers. If Arab anti-Americanism turns out to be grounded in domestic maneuvering rather than American misdeeds, neither launching a public relations campaign nor changing Washington's policies will affect it. In fact, if the United States tries to prove to the Arab world that its intentions are nonthreatening, it could end up making matters even worse. New American attempts at appeasement would only show radicals in the Middle East that their anti-American strategy has succeeded and is the best way to win concessions from the world's sole superpower.

THE BLAME GAME

For years now, anti-Americanism has served as a means of last resort by which failed political systems and movements in the Middle East try to improve their standing. The United States is blamed for much that is bad in the Arab world, and it is used as an excuse for political and social oppression and economic stagnation. By assigning responsibility for their own shortcomings to Washington, Arab leaders distract their subjects' attention from the internal weaknesses that are their real problems. And thus rather than pushing for greater privatization, equality for women, democracy, civil society, freedom of speech, due process of law, or other similar developments sorely needed in the Arab world, the public focuses instead on hating the United States.