Anti-American Sentiment Rising in Arab World


Nov. 27, 2002 -- As a U.S.-led war with Iraq looms dangerously on the horizon, there is a growing concern in the West about the backlash in the Arab World.

Anti-American sentiment has been on the rise within the Arab world in recent months. The tough rhetoric of the Bush administration, combined with the threat of an invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing violence between the Israelis and Palestinians is turning public opinion in the Arab world even farther against the United States.

Sporadic acts of violence in recent weeks against Americans in the region have raised the level of concern for the United States. In the past month alone, there have been several attacks on American soldiers in Kuwait, the murder of an American diplomat in Jordan, and just last week, the killing of an American missionary in Lebanon.

A primary concern to the powers of the Western world is the reaction of the "Arab Street." Most Arab regimes have solid relations with the United States. Though not completely pro-American, these governments realize the benefit of good standing with the world's only superpower.

Arabs See United States as Supporters of Oppressive Regimes

This of course proves the great paradox of the Arab world.

It is no secret that the leaders in the Arab world are far more pro-American than their people are. The anti-Americanism of the Arab populace is directly connected to the idea that they view the United States as supporting the regimes they must live under. These regimes, which can be repressive, are not popular, and in many cases have questionable legitimacy.

Legitimate or not, one thing these regimes are not, is frail. In the modern era, not one of the regimes of the Arab world has been overthrown. They have become masters at retaining power and putting down any attempt to challenge their authority. Though they allow some outlet for discontent, the Arab governments know how to keep a lid on the simmering pot.

"You're free in the Arab world to demonstrate, as long as what you want to demonstrate about is some vast abstract cause like anti-Americanism or anti-Zionism," says Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria. "You're absolutely not free to demonstrate against your rulers."

'Arab Street' Has Changed Since Gulf War

Street sentiment was an issue in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War. But the situation is clearly different this time. All of the Arab regimes were willing and ready to publicly support a U.S.-led war with Iraq, and even among those who opposed the United States, the invasion of Kuwait made an obvious case for war in 1991. The United States had international legitimacy. That unflinching public support in the region is sorely missing this time.

Concerns of the "Arab street" bubbling over into violent protests and street demonstrations were overblown a decade ago. But the "Arab street" of this generation is much different. They are younger, more radicalized, and far better informed than their counterparts 10 years ago. The Internet and satellite television have fostered a new Pan Arab political sentiment. A sentiment charged by Israeli-Palestinian issues and anti-American rhetoric.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the newspapers of Saudi Arabia did not report the invasion until four days later. The Saudi government successfully controlled the flow of information to their people until they figured out how they wanted to deal with the Iraqi aggression. That would be impossible in this new age of technology.

Perhaps the most important development in public opinion over the past decade, is the rise of al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, an Arab television news network based in Qatar, did not exist during the Gulf War, but today it reaches more than 35 million viewers. It is the first network based on the idea of a free press, to emerge in the Arab world,

The reports and programs aired on al Jazeera reflect the sentiments of Arab society more than the Arab states themselves. Because it is not a state run media outlet, the network has the freedom to report stories in a way most other media outlets in the region cannot. Though a fair share of fundamentalist ideology filters across its airwaves, viewers are also exposed to a large degree of criticism of Arab regimes. But the criticism is not without consequences. Al Jazeera has been forced to close its bureaus in Jordan and Kuwait, after angering the host governments with their reporting.

The coverage of a U.S.-led war with Iraq could serve to inflame already existing tensions in the Arab world. The deep mistrust and bias of the Arab world, toward the United States, will no doubt provide the tone of the reporting.

"We just do our job by telling the information," says Ibrahim Helal, chief editor of Al Jazeera. "If the information goes against the United States interest, it is not my problem."

Danger of Young Arabs Turning to Extremism

Perhaps the most dangerous effect a war would have at street level would be to deepen the sense of loss, defeat, and anger on the part of the Arab youth. Almost 60 percent of the population of the Arab world is aged 25 or younger. This constituency of the population is driven by the ongoing violence they see everyday taking place in the Middle East.

"In the aftermath of a war with Iraq, there will be an overwhelming pool of new recruits to the Jihadi groups throughout the Middle East to attack American and Western elements," warns Fawas Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. "So while the streets may not erupt, there will be a pull among the Arab youth to the extremist elements of the Arab world."

The consensus seems to be that if there is a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the world will not witness a vast uprising from the region. The consequences will be much more subtle, though perhaps more dangerous in the long run. The level of mistrust of the United States will only grow deeper.

Many Arabs are already convinced that U.S. goals are more far reaching than just Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein. They think the current climate is about oil, and American domination of their region. For many, a war in Iraq will only confirm their suspicions about America's ambitions in the Middle East.

One lesson of Sept. 11, 2001 has been the danger posed by the unintended consequences of American policy. So if the United States succeeds in removing one potential threat by unseating Saddam, another threat that looms just a little deeper below the surface of the Arab world may be an even greater risk in years to come.