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Why Don't "They" Like Us?:  Repressive Regimes

A continuation of Why Don't "They" Like Us?:

From the letters to the LA Times, 9/20/01:

It has always been a mystery to me why the U.S. government has never taken any degree of blame for the recent tragedy at the World Trade Center. The U.S. would never tolerate a foreign power on its soil, yet views its military forces and influence in the Middle East as justified. Arabs and Muslims throughout the world have every right to resent American troops in their homelands, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca. The age of imperialism has been over for a long time.

As long as this government continues in its misguided foreign policy toward the Middle East, it will be the American people who pay the price.


Bin Laden's terrorists want to remove these foreign troops, which they consider an occupying force. Their goal is to topple the corrupt Arab regimes and replace them with fundamentalist Islamic states. Their goal is not to attack "freedom" or "democracy," if anyone is still unclear on the point.

Judging by the popularity of American products, many Muslims may not care about imposing an Islamic state. But they do care about eliminating the repressive regimes that control them, so Bin Laden's message resonates. Whether US troops are present or not, America helps keep these regimes in power.

From the LA Times, 10/8/01:

Arab Regimes Breed Discontent and Anger at U.S., Analysts Say

Mideast: Washington is allied with repressive governments and hasn't pushed democracy.


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Abdullah Dasmal was sipping coffee in a cafe here two weeks ago when the news came that his country had cut diplomatic ties with Afghanistan. His mobile phone chirped, and a message in flowing Arabic script winked onto the tiny screen.

Within minutes, all the shop's Arab patrons were reaching into their pockets to withdraw phones chiming in a cacophony of tones. Friends throughout the oil-rich Emirates were forwarding the same message.

It was short and simple: "Stand together with Afghanistan!" "You see," Dasmal, 34, said, pointing to his phone. "Even the rich are willing to sacrifice their lives. They may be wearing jeans or speaking English, but they'll go to the holy war, even if our government tries to stop them."

Even before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan on Sunday, a burning hatred of the U.S. simmered in much of the Arab world—including here, one of the most cosmopolitan and moderate Arab nations.

The explanation for the anger caroming through cafes and marketplaces is the same as elsewhere in the Arab world: the U.S. support of Israel and its alleged indifference to the Palestinians killed in the year-old intifada, and long-term sanctions against Iraq blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of women and children.

But deeper than those obvious reasons, analysts and ordinary citizens say, is another factor, an uncomfortable reality long ignored by the West: The governments of the Arab nations are among the most repressive in the world.

In most of the countries, there is no free press. There is no freedom of association. Dissent is crushed. Torture is common. Opposition parties are weak or ineffective.

As a result, the rulers of Arab countries are often out of step with their people. So although most Arab leaders have pledged cooperation in the U.S.-led battle against terrorism, their people are far less supportive.

Even worse, some analysts argue, the lack of a democratic outlet in Arab countries fosters a breeding ground for Islamic extremists such as Osama bin Laden and allies in his Al Qaeda terrorist network.

In a taped statement aired hours after Sunday's attack, Bin Laden tried to exploit the split between Arab governments and their people. He charged that Arab governments had "backed the butcher against the victim, the oppressor against the innocent child."

Experts say Bin Laden is able to appeal to rank-and-file Arabs angered by years of government oppression and factors such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The lack of democracy and support of human rights has contributed to a sense of frustration, anger and humiliation," said Judy Barsalou, grant director with the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded agency focused on conflict resolution. "That's a direct pipeline to new terrorists."

U.S. alliances with repressive regimes during the Cold War often wound up exploding, such as the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Nicaragua, which was ousted by the Marxist Sandinistas, or the U.S.-supported shah of Iran, whose ouster gave rise to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now, at the start of a new war on terrorism, some analysts fear that the U.S. may be on the verge of repeating past mistakes, supporting authoritarian governments whose people may one day rebel and set fire to the Middle East.

As the U.S. embarks on what President Bush calls a fight to preserve values of freedom and democracy, it is rushing to seek closer ties with governments that are largely hostile to just such values.

"If you support absolute power and prevent people from expressing their grievances, it's like giving permission for them to take their grievances [to extremist groups]," said Essam al Arian, a leader of an outlawed political group in Egypt.

Few Stabs at Democracy

Many former Communist countries have embraced free and fair elections. Every nation in the Western hemisphere except Cuba is a democracy. Throughout much of Asia, democratic institutions have taken hold, even in volatile countries such as Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

But from North Africa through the Levant to the Persian Gulf, there are only scattered attempts at democracy.

The U.S. has never pushed hard for democracy in the area. In large part, this is because of the fear that fundamentalist extremists could take over after democratic elections, leading to the creation of an Islamic state eager to attack Israel and unleash terror throughout the world.

But it is also because the U.S. has more important concerns in the region than democracy, analysts say.

"There's a long-standing tradition to look away from human rights and democracy to protect oil and Israel," said Les Campbell, the Middle East regional director for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a bipartisan group promoting democracy throughout the world. "When you cut through it, it's those two things."

The lack of democracy benefits the countries' leaders, who often have vested interests in maintaining the region's stability—to preserve personal oil fortunes, for example.

But to maintain stability, they have had to focus societal anger away from internal problems such as poverty and lack of social mobility toward external problems such as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

This, in turn, backfires against the United States by stirring outrage and postponing meaningful, long-term solutions, experts say.

"It's a false stability," said Arian, the leader of the outlawed Egyptian group. "We call it the fire under the ashes."

A Mostly Closed Society

The Arab world has never been a beacon of freedom. Although periods of political openness have existed in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, the region has never sustained a fully open and democratic society.

Rulers in the region range from hereditary monarchs such as Saudi Arabia's King Fahd to dictators such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and presidents such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, chosen in electoral contests routinely criticized as unfair.

Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen are cited as having the most democratic governments, but with significant qualification. Tunisia has been criticized repeatedly for crushing an open press. Morocco and Jordan are monarchies. Yemen is listed as a terrorist-supporting nation by the U.S. State Department.

Mahfouz Azzam, the vice president of Egypt's Labor Party, said Mubarak's ruling party controls the polling places, voter lists and ballot boxes, enabling it to manipulate results. Of 454 seats in the People's Assembly, fewer than two dozen are controlled by opposition figures.

Street protests are routinely quashed throughout the region. In many Arab countries, for instance, police constrained protests on the one-year anniversary of the Palestinian intifada in late September with rows of riot police or bans on public gatherings.

The frustrations can easily be seen in the streets.

Ahmad Rikaby, a geography professor, and his friend Ahmad Awadallah, a chef, recently came to the historic Al Azhar mosque in central Cairo for Friday prayers.

As the two stood under a beating sun surrounded by black-clad security police with machine guns, both scoffed at the idea that Egypt is a democracy.

"In Egypt, we can't demonstrate against [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon. If we could, I would demonstrate now, at once," Rikaby said.

A further problem in the Arab world is the lack of a free press. In most places, media are state-supported. In the United Arab Emirates, the top story in the papers about two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on America was a paean to the wise leadership of Sheik Zayed ibn Sultan al Nuhayyan, the country's leader for 30 years.

And when newspapers and television stations strive to criticize, they are often attacked. In Tunisia last year, a journalist went on a 40-day hunger strike against police who had arrested his brother and shut off his phone.

Human rights get even less respect. Last year, a Saudi newspaper glowingly reported an incident in which a man who had thrown acid in another man's face, blinding him, had his eye surgically removed. Saudi Arabia follows a strict Islamic code called Sharia.

Many Arab countries have an extensive apparatus of secret police. In many nations, groups that advocate a civil society or human rights simply do not exist.

It's a recipe for a society in which anger builds but has no place to go.

"If you treat people as slaves and don't respect their morality, their religion, their character and way of behavior, what do you think will happen?" Azzam asked. "If you support military force against people at the same time you are preaching democracy, what do you think will happen?"

Opposition Crushed

The Arab world itself is proof of the problems repression can bring. Its long history of crushing opposition groups partly explains its fertility in terms of extremist organizations.

Many of the extremist groups, such as Egypt's Islamic Jihad and Gamaa al Islamiya, were founded after governments outlawed and imprisoned tens of thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The brotherhood, founded in the late 1920s, sought a nonviolent path to uniting all Muslim countries into a single nation with an Islamic government.

In fact, the original aim of Bin Laden and many other terrorist leaders was to overthrow Arab governments they considered illegitimate. When those governments cracked down, the groups turned to attack the United States, accused of propping up the authoritarian regimes, as well as supporting Israel.

"Who is protecting these regimes? It's their uncle, Uncle Sam," Azzam said.

A fully democratic Middle East would be no panacea. The extremist groups are the primary argument against abandoning the region's kings, dictators and dubiously elected presidents.

The key would be to create transitional governments that somehow manage to keep the lid on the more violent elements while allowing full expression to fundamentalists' concerns.

And some scholars and local leaders have suggested that the idea of religious government based on Islam is antithetical to a pluralistic democracy.

But even if the structures of Western-style democracy, with legislatures and a president, don't work, its basic principles—free and fair elections, the rule of law, civil rights—could be adapted to an Arab society.

If not, Rikaby, the geography professor, said the future is clear.

"It's like a balloon. It's best to let a little air out," he said. "If you don't let it out, it will get hard and blow up, like a bomb."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Lack of openness fuels rage
From "First, Know the Enemy, Then Act" by Dale F. Eickelman. In the LA Times, 12/9/01:

Because many governments in the Middle East are deeply suspicious of an open press, nongovernmental organizations and open expression, it is no surprise that the public is increasingly influenced by the often extreme and hard-to-censor "new media." Leadership can remain anonymous, an advantage in the Middle East, which, in general, has a democracy deficit and a demonstrated propensity for cracking down on critics.

One consequence of this democracy deficit is to magnify the power of the street in the Arab world. Bin Laden speaks in the vivid language of popular Islamic preachers and builds on a deep and widespread resentment against the West and local ruling elites identified with it. The lack of formal outlets to express diverse political opinions makes it easier for terrorists like Bin Laden, who cloaks himself in religion, to hijack some in his audience and motivate a lethal few to action.

We must accept that there will always be ideas available to justify intolerance and violence, and there will also always be ways for terrorists to manipulate open societies for their own nefarious ends. Countering radical ideologies and theologies of violence is not easy. Yet, the very proliferation of voices arguing in open debate about the role of Islam in the modern world and in contemporary society can contribute significantly to defusing terrorist appeals to the street. Public opinion is easier to hijack in the absence of full debate. Without public discussion, ideas are reduced to their simplest and starkest terms. That is why British Prime Minister Tony Blair's response to Al Qaeda videotaped propaganda on Qatar's Al Jazeera Satellite TV last October—he immediately asked Al Jazeera for equal time to reply—was more appropriate than the first U.S. response, which was to call for censoring the broadcast of Al Qaeda tapes.

The best long-term way to mitigate the continuing threat of terrorism is to encourage Middle Eastern states to be more responsive to their populations' demands for participation. Some countries, including some of our allies, see such "open society" activities as subversive—as Egypt demonstrated in May when a security court sentenced civil rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim to seven years of hard labor for criticizing the regime and calling into question the fairness of recent elections.

It is no easy job to convince Arab states that it is in their interest to create open societies. But they must recognize that increasing levels of education, greater ease of travel and the rise of new communications media are turning the Arab street into a public sphere in which large numbers of people—and not just a political and economic elite—want a say in governance and public issues. Some countries, like Morocco, have been moving steadily in that direction. The terrorist option has no appeal to Moroccans. They have a greater stake in their society. The example of neighboring Algeria offers Moroccans a harrowing example of the alternative, and the Moroccan street speaks of it often.

There are liberal as well as illiberal voices in the Middle East and multiple contenders for the guardianship and interpretation of Islamic beliefs and values. Giving larger numbers of people a greater stake in decision-making in their societies and the opportunity to express their views will undermine the appeal of the terrorist alternative—and diminish its appeal to the street.

We have it, they don't, because of us
From the LA Times, 10/5/01:

Muslims Abhor the Double Standard


Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA

Since Sept. 11, we have repeatedly heard that the Muslim world "hates American values"—a view that is dangerously wrong. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims or even Islamist political parties do not challenge most American values, but query whether the United States is constant to its own values, especially the spread of democracy.

If you travel around the Muslim world, it quickly becomes evident that there is immense respect for a great variety of American values. Muslims admire U.S. democracy, a feature conspicuously lacking in their home countries, where any whisper of opposition under brutal dictatorships frequently results in jailing, torture and even execution; where there are no elections, no civil liberties and often considerable racial or religious discrimination.

Even the most conservative Muslim countries send their kids by the millions to the U.S. for college education. Muslims admire the standards of living in the U.S., but more important appreciate a society in which talent can succeed regardless of background and class. Ethnic and religious differences in the U.S. are handled more successfully than in their homelands. Yes, many Muslims are disturbed at what they view as Western sexual laxity and the vulgarity of media—a concern shared by many Americans as well—and many hold a more traditional view of women's role in society, as does most of the developing world.

Yet Muslims want the freedoms to choose for themselves. The deep tragedy of the Middle East is that most of its citizens feel bitterly frustrated, alienated, imprisoned and fatalistic about their inability to control their own destinies.

Most Muslims crave a change in governance, the right to remove corrupt, incompetent or brutal presidents-for-life or often unresponsive royalty whose highest priorities are the welfare of the royal family.

So it is not our values to which Muslims are hostile; it is their perception of our unwillingness to share these values that brings forth anger. They accuse the U.S. of maintaining a double standard: Our values are fine for home consumption but are not for export. Washington regularly promotes democracy in Latin America and Africa but rarely if ever in the Muslim world.

A former assistant secretary of State for the Middle East has said on more than one occasion that democratization "is not on the American agenda" in the Middle East. The reason? Because Washington finds it more efficient to support a range of dictators across the Arab world as long as they conform to U.S. foreign policy needs.

Sure, oil matters, but every anti-American dictator in the region has always sold it with pleasure. Of course Israel's security must be preserved, but that doesn't give it carte blanche to perpetuate three decades of harsh occupation of the West Bank. Washington views democratization as too "soft" a goal—messy and inconvenient, yet its absence is the root cause of most problems and ultimately the pressure cooker of rage against the U.S. itself.

How long can we ignore this festering sore? Do we doubt that good governance makes a huge difference? Of course democracy is not a panacea or a plug-in appliance, it takes time. But the time to start the process is now, before things get even worse.

The U.S. needs to stand firm for its own values and help extend them to the Muslim world, even if entrenched and unpleasant regimes don't like it. Such a gesture by Washington would bring a sea change in the way Muslims view the U.S.

This is no war over values; it is about American failure to share with others those beliefs that helped to make this country great. Where is our vision? There will always be a handful who hate us for their own extremist reasons, but when we help prop up the entrenched bad governance across the Middle East, it is the extremists who reap the discontent.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

An excerpt from "Perhaps They Don't Hate Our Values" by Mitchell Koss. In the LA Times, 5/26/02:

The strongest backlash to globalization might not come from those rejecting its values—as Al Qaeda and the Taliban tried to do. The greater problem might be with those who crave its benefits but despair of ever getting them. And that comes back to the question of who our enemy really is in our ongoing war on terror. If we were fighting Islamic fundamentalism, then it seems as if we've won decisively—at least in terms of public opinion in places like Egypt.

But if we were fighting popular anger and resentment over the fact that the Islamic world is one of the least-developed and least-democratic parts of the world, and that the U.S. backs the status quo in three of the main Islamic countries—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not coincidentally the three countries that supplied the bulk of Al Qaeda members—then possibly we have a longer haul ahead. As the Egyptians' anger over Israel shows, there are plenty of causes to rally around other than the belief in the need to violently impose strict Islamic government.

Because, finally, now that the whole Arab world is eager to watch "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" globalization won't succeed unless more than a few people win.

An excerpt from "A Native View of War-Torn Land," an article about an Afghan couple who emigrated to the US. In the LA Times, 10/21/01:

The Stanizais disagree with President Bush's assertion that terrorists hate Americans for their freedom. "Nobody hates us," Jahan said. "Most people in the world love Americans. Not for our blue jeans and Coca-Cola. It's for our democracy," she said. "They want a piece of the pie."

If they hate anything, it's the U.S. foreign policies that support despotic or dictatorial regimes, Zaman said. "We take their freedom. Directly, or indirectly, we take their resources or we take their hopes and their dreams and their future away from them. We go and build these huge McDonald's arches in front of a beautiful 9th century mosque in Cairo, for example. We just drag it right in front of their faces," he said.

More on repressive regimes
Democracies Feel a Chill Wind from U.S. (8/18/02)

Bush gets the message...15 months too late
"Any approach to the Middle East that ignores its political, economic and educational underdevelopment will be built upon sand," said Colin Powell. Good to see the Bush administration finally has the right idea, even if it comes 15 months after 9/11. Of course, some of us had the right idea within 15 hours of 9/11.

From the LA Times, 12/13/02:

U.S. to Push for Broader Democratic Reforms in Arab World

Powell says aid initiative will focus on economic and educational development in Mideast.

By Robin Wright, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a bid to balance the growing U.S. military presence in the Middle East with a more active political role, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on Thursday announced a new Bush administration initiative to press for greater democracy, economic openings and education reform in the Arab world.

"It has become increasingly clear that we must broaden our approach to the region if we are to achieve success. We must work with peoples and governments to close the gulf between expectation and reality — called the hope gap," Powell said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"Any approach to the Middle East that ignores its political, economic and educational underdevelopment will be built upon sand," he said.

Powell's speech, which offered few details, comes at a time when the administration is under fire for letting the U.S.-declared war on terrorism and a possible invasion of Iraq overshadow attention to the region's underlying political and economic problems.

U.S. diplomats point to the dearth of democracy in the Arab world as a critical factor breeding Islamic extremism, but the war on terrorism has led Washington to "put aside its democratic scruples and seek closer ties with autocracies throughout the Middle East and Asia," says Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs.

Powell's remarks — and two earlier speeches by CIA Director George J. Tenet and Richard Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning — were also meant to lay out a vision of how the United States hopes to interact with more than 50 countries in the Islamic world, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.

In a speech to the Nixon Center on Tuesday night, Tenet warned that the United States cannot win the war on terrorism "simply by defeating and dismantling Al Qaeda. To claim victory, we and our allies will need to address the circumstances that bring peoples to despair, weaken governments and create power vacuums that extremists are all too ready to fill."

Tenet also said the United States needs to have some candid discussions with allies about the need to embrace democratic norms, encourage moderate alternatives to radical Islam and to promote opportunities for all Muslims, particularly women. "Friendship without such honesty is a hollow thing indeed," he added.

Speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Haass said that U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat, have failed to make the kind of democratization that has swept the rest of the world a priority in the Islamic world.

In the name of ensuring oil supplies, containing the Soviet Union, Iran and Iraq, securing military bases and dealing with the Arab-Israeli crisis, the United States created a "democratic exception," Haass said — and in the process missed opportunities to build stable and prosperous partners.

"It is not in our interest — or that of the people living in the Muslim world — for the United States to continue this exception. U.S. policy will be more actively engaged in supporting democratic trends in the Muslim world than ever before," Haass said. To launch the U.S.-Middle East Partnership, Powell announced an increase of $29 million in American aid on top of the more than $1 billion in nonmilitary assistance that goes to the region. Additional funding is expected next year, he said.

U.S. officials acknowledge that $29 million is a drop in the bucket for almost two dozen countries with a population totaling more than 260 million people.

Powell pledged that the United States will engage with both the public and private sectors to help ease chronic unemployment in the Arab world.

"Hope begins with a paycheck," Powell said.

On the political front, Washington will seek partnerships with community leaders to strengthen nongovernmental civil society, encourage political participation and "lift the voices of women," Powell said.

"We reject the condescending notion that freedom will not grow in the Middle East, or that there is any region of the world that cannot support democracy," he said.

The United States will seek to provide scholarships and help create better schools and more opportunities for higher education, again focusing particularly on girls.

"When girls' literacy rates improve, all the other important indicators of development in a country improve as well," Powell said.

Some Arab allies welcomed the initiative but faulted the timing.

"It would have been helpful to have done this earlier, although we understand that there are regional issues that delayed the announcement. But we're still glad it came," said one Arab envoy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Jordan's King Abdullah II said it is an important initiative and a "positive step toward bridging the gap between the Arab world and the United States."

Egypt also praised the U.S. move. "The objectives raised — liberalizing economies and enhancing education and expanding democracy — are all issues which are valid and we are working on ourselves," said Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador to the United States.

But he added that progress is required on the Arab-Israeli peace process in order to defuse tensions and create an environment conducive to change.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

Related links
Understanding Islam
Terrorism:  "good" vs. "evil"
America's exceptional values
America's cultural mindset

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