Feeding an Arab sense of victimization

A new phenomenon, whose origins can be traced to some Arab leaders, is ominously finding its way into the public discourse in Arab societies, and by implication into the collective consciousness of the Arabs. This phenomenon has serious implications for the world at large, virtually making a clash of civilizations between the Muslim world and the West a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This phenomenon (which is as innovative as it is dangerous in its subliminal hypothesis) rests on the idea that Arabs are the subjects of an anti-Semitism of the 21st century, whereby their dehumanization and victimization are explicitly sought and encouraged, particularly by the United States. This neo-anti-Semitism was born of a sentiment that American neoconservatives with influence in the Bush administration have condescending and hostile views of the Arab world.

It follows from this logic that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, or other examples of American abuses against Arabs, was a mere consequence of the systematic neo-anti-Semitism permeating the US administration and the armed forces. Notwithstanding the distortion of the use of the term anti-Semitism, its new definition implies that the West in general and the US in particular have made of the Arabs the persecuted Jews of today. Correspondingly, the assumption is that the elimination of the Arabs and of their culture is sanctioned.

This is, of course, preposterous. As an American of Lebanese descent I find such convoluted and distorted logic outrageous. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners was horrific and all those responsible should be held accountable. In fact, 12 investigations have been launched to look into the abuse scandal. The US Senate recently passed a bill that would require the US government to abide by the Geneva conventions in the treatment of prisoners of war. This was echoed by none other than President George W. Bush. The US Supreme Court recently decreed that all prisoners of war had constitutional rights.

The US, unlike Middle Eastern states where violations of human rights are routinely committed in the name of national security, has been transparent in addressing all issues emanating from the "war on terrorism." As various congressional investigations and the investigation by the Sept. 11 Commission have shown, the American media and Congress are well into a process of self-criticism over the war in Iraq. This has reflected an uneasiness prevailing in American society and in its political leadership.

Facing an unprecedented war on terrorism, the US is torn between its duty to protect its citizens and a desire to uphold the nation's civil liberties. It is against this background that American actions must be examined. One must remind the Arab world that the US is a microcosm of the world. Ethnic and religious communities from all over the world, including Arabs and Muslims, have found a home in the US, where the constitution protects their rights. Needless to say, prejudice does exist. Historically, immigrants such as the Irish, the Italians and the Jews, not to mention those of African origin, have been discriminated against. But they all engaged America's system of government and became part of the country's social fabric.

The Arabs are the new kids on the block and always needed to engage the system as well; in fact, they have started to do so. In that case is it legitimate to posit that neo-anti-Semitism is also directed against Arab-Americans?

Usually, history is harsh in its verdicts. But in the case of the neoconservatives and their allies, who are said to have misrepresented the case to invade Iraq, it is the present that is unsparingly harsh. Bearing this in mind, no one can deny that the neocons contributed to the removal of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, who were responsible for the rape, collective punishment and death of countless numbers of Arabs and Kurds and the near elimination of their culture. Iraq's Hulagus are either dead or in prison.

Seemingly, what lies at the heart of the effort of Arab regimes to propagate the notion of neo-anti-Semitism is a calculated attempt to find both a new fig leaf behind which to hide the more sordid aspects of their autocratic rule, and a new pretext to secure this rule in a world where extremism has been fed by the whip of their oppression and the lack of public space in their societies. Not surprisingly, these same Arab regimes have been intimidating and imprisoning Arab reformers while also advancing an Arab version of democracy, or what passes for democracy, that contrasts with that in the West.

Consequently, the concept of neo-anti-Semitism disingenuously provokes the Arab sense of victimization as an excuse for Arab shortcomings, further exacerbating frustrations in the Middle East, even as the regimes in the region avoid dealing with their deeper causes.

At this critical juncture in US-Arab relations, Arabs need to be as self-critical as they are critical of American actions. Their criticism must be realistic and in tune with what is happening in the Muslim and Western worlds. Otherwise, the clash of civilizations is a dead certainty.

Robert Rabil was project manager of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project in Washington. He is the author of "Embattled Neighbors: Israel, Syria and Lebanon." He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR





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