Politics and Perceptions in the Middle East after September 11
Published on: Mar 26, 2004

A year after the events of September 11, 2001, we seem to be suffering a widening gulf between the broad American perception of politics in the Middle East and the political perceptions of most political forces and ordinary individuals in the Middle East. A frequent popular American tendency to view the Middle East in rather simplistic, essentialist, static and one-dimensional terms contrasts sharply with political perceptions from within the region, which suggest rather that the region is defined by a complex and dynamic web of multiple issues in a variety of sectors. Among the most pressing issues that challenge and sometimes plague the peoples of the Middle East--especially the Arab World that I know best and of which I speak predominantly here--are those of internal governance systems, economic conditions and trends, the tension between religiosity and secularism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and its repercussions, and the complex, often uneasy, relationships among citizens' ethnic, tribal, and other communal identities and their state identity. Beyond the borders of the states, the Mideast region suffers very confused relationships between Arab states and the United States, and broadly imprecise, often contradictory, attitudes towards economic and political linkages at the regional and global levels. Brisk social change, environmental stress, and population-resource imbalances challenge most societies in the area, which also suffer the impact of exaggerated militarism and its consequent economic drain. Civil societies throughout the area are at very different stages of development, as is witnessed perhaps most clearly in the very broad range of conditions and opportunities that define women and youth throughout the area.

Other important issues challenge the peoples and states of the Middle East, whose worldviews and attitudes toward political developments are the result of the many levels of interaction and tension among these important issues. Rather than being static and one-dimensional, the political perceptions, beliefs, and conduct of Middle Easterners are, in fact, complex, multi-tiered, nuanced, constantly evolving, and both reflective of indigenous values and reactive to external impulses. The troubling fact seems to be that on most of these core issues mentioned above, and for most of the people in the area, most trends are broadly negative and worrying. While the general political, economic and social order of the region remains stable, as it has been for decades, without significant danger of either military coups or popular revolutions, this relative stability hides an underlying frustration and perhaps even humiliation that defines the lives of many Middle Easterners, especially Arabs, Turks, and Iranians.

As this broad-brush description of the Middle East is juxtaposed against the consequences of the events of September 11, two questions suggest themselves: 1. what is the linkage, if any, between the above factors and trends and the phenomenon of terror, especially Bin Laden-type Islamist terror against the USA? 2. What has happened since September 11 to address the core issues of concern to the majority of Arabs, and thus to indicate if the underlying frustrations and humiliations that feed terror are increasing or decreasing?

My impression is that the answer to both questions is negative, and thus very troubling. On the first issue, it is clear that the difficult socio-economic-political environment that defines much of the Arab-Asian region provides a fertile breeding ground of mass discontent, from which emerge small groups of militants and a handful of terrorists like those who attacked the USA on September 11. The litany of sectoral deficiencies and negative trends--existential issues to many families--generates a pool of mass anger that will not remain acquiescent to the status quo; rather, as we have witnessed in the last two decades, it will generate mass movements of political protest and challenge at one level (Islamism), a lower level of criminality and degradation of public order (corruption, crime), and small pockets of violent confrontation and terror, directed within the region or at Western targets.

On the second issue, it appears that since September 11, in most Arab countries with few exceptions, most of the troubling conditions and trends mentioned above have remained the same or worsened, and new stresses and tensions have been superimposed onto the region as a consequence of indigenous and Western reactions to terror, in the form of the American-defined and -led "war against terrorism". Many Arab countries have suffered regression in their human rights and political participation conditions; greater state control of their citizens, and more repression in some cases, are widely seen by Arab citizens as their states' preferred means of participating in the war against terrorism, given most Arab states' very high reliance on American military and/or economic assistance. This has tended to heighten anti-American sentiments at popular levels and within political elites, and has also increased local tensions between Arab citizens and state authorities. Arabs widely see this trend as reflecting rising neo-colonial forces and values that threaten to transform American global economic dominance or even hegemony into overt political and military hegemony. The pressure from Washington for forced regime change in Iraq after mid-2002, the rapid expansion of permanent American military bases in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the possibility of a long-term American military-political presence in Iraq are all widely seen by Arabs as signs of a novel American imperial adventure.

These and other American policies are fuelling a wider, deeper, and more virulent and violent form of anti-Americanism throughout the Arab-Asian region and in other parts of the world, expressed occasionally in the form of assassinations of American officials, troops, or civilians in the Middle East. The important point to keep in mind is that the rising anti-Americanism is driven almost exclusively by cumulative frustration and anger with the substance and style of American foreign policy in the area, and not by any imagined opposition to basic American values of freedom, democracy, equality and tolerance. The list of specific complaints about the manner and substance of American foreign policy is long, and seems to be expanding parallel with the faster projection of American power into the Arab-Asian region. Among the most common accusations that are made against the USA are that it applies a grievous double standard in implementing UN resolutions in, for example, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Western Sahara, and other contested lands; it uses countries when it needs them and then precipitously abandons them to their own fates; it makes lavish promises when it needs to build a coalition for war, then tends to forget most of the promises when the fighting is over; it only musters a global armada against terror when Americans are traumatized, but not when others around the world die in much larger numbers from the same evil; it happily supports and uses dictatorial regimes while routinely preaching the value of democracy; it maintains a flagrantly imbalanced, pro-Israeli tilt in the Arab-Israeli conflict while also insisting on remaining the sole mediator; it dictates arrogantly to the world, making short-term American political goals the litmus test of whether other countries will be supported or left to languish; it uses the UN selectively and expediently, and ignores it when that proves more useful to it; and it seeks to define global norms through its own narrow values and ideologies, including on such important issues as global environmental protection standards, criminal prosecution, trade, and others.

Most people in the Arab-Asian region would probably say that they feel that the United States' policies since September 11 have aggravated all of these long-standing policy complaints, and given billions of people new reasons to criticize the USA and to maintain some political distance from it. From the perspective of the ordinary Arab citizen, it seems to me, the view is that the events and aftermath of September 11 did not so much change the world as they magnified, expanded and exacerbated the basic political, economic and strategic forces that have long defined relations between the USA and the Middle East. Those historical forces and political traditions are seen by the average Arab as largely to blame for the frustrating and humiliating dilemma that defines the lives of most people in this region today--a dilemma comprising the twin failures of ordinary Arabs to achieve satisfactory security or identity. Most Arabs still seek the path to real, long-term economic and political security, and the means to express their own political and religious identities freely and openly.

One of the areas where the diversity and dynamism of the Middle East is most visible is in the identities of its peoples. The lack of opportunity to engage in free and fair political competition has resulted in the current situation, in which the absence of credible political ideologies has pushed people to hold onto other identities, including tribalism and ethnicity, religion, monarchy, official state ideologies, pan-Arabism, and regional identities, with smaller numbers finding their identity in the currents and values of globalization, human rights and democracy, others seeking emigration and the adoption of new, non-Middle Eastern identities, and some opting for war and perpetual conflict.

The mass disappointment, frustration and fear that plague so many people in the Arab World continue to foment an environment that is conducive to extremism and terror. While only a handful of Arabs have engaged in terror, growing numbers of citizens seem increasingly resigned to enduring a world defined simultaneously by neo-colonial American military adventures, a frozen Arab political status quo, and increasing incidents of terror against American targets. The continued simultaneous stresses on the average Arab man and woman--political economic, social, environmental, military--portend a volatile region that may become even more politically convoluted in the short run, due to the worsening legacy of political violence that now unites the United States, many Arabs, Israel, and perhaps soon Turkey and Iran in a terrible cycle in which September 11, in the perceptions of most Arabs, was a point of acceleration along a known road, rather than a fundamental shift towards a new direction of madness.