Distorted American Views Persist

BOSTON - I was in the United States 16 months ago when an Egyptian national popular uprising forced Husni Mubarak to quit his presidency, and I was in the United States again this week when Mohammad Mursi was elected as the new Egyptian president. Then and now, Americans remain unsure about how to react to the popular revolutions that felled their long-time autocratic Arab allies, who in most cases were replaced by more legitimate, Islamist-led governments.
At the same time, though, Americans -- who helped to define the modern revolutionary and democratic era in the 18th Century -- instinctively tend to support national populist revolutions that create government systems based on the consent of the governed and democratic electoral pluralism. When Arabs carry out these revolutionary and democratic endeavors, however, American society reacts with obvious hesitancy alongside the flashes of enthusiasm. It is important for Americans and Arabs alike to understand this phenomenon, because it reflects much deeper perceptions, sentiments or biases that will continue to haunt relations between Arabs and Americans and prevent them from ever fully embracing one another, or simply developing normal relations. My own sense is that two main underlying problems are to blame: the intrusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington’s deep pro-Israel bias into American-Arab relations, and the lingering consequences of several unpleasant encounters between the United States and various Arab, Iranian or South Asian parties that defined themselves in Islamist terms (Iran, Hizbullah, Al-Qaeda and others).
This was evident this week when I was reading through some “quality” American press coverage of the Mursi election victory (the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle). One story in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage on June 25 was a textbook case of the bias and confusion that regularly recur in American reactions to the current transformational events in the Arab world; and one sentence in particular captured this phenomenon succinctly: A front page story on the Mursi victory noted that, “Many secular Egyptians watched uneasily, wondering what Islamist rule will mean for a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate and pro-American governance.”
Many things are wrong with this sentence and the perceptions that underpin it.
• What is a “secular Egyptian”? These phrases are used too easily to have much meaning, because they do not capture the reality that most Egyptians (according to recent polls) are very religious, want their public life and governance to reflect the best of their religious values, but do not want religious figures to run the government. The Arab Middle East is defined by populations who respect religious values but also want secular governments run by competent managers, who are simultaneously secular and religious.
• What in the world is “Islamist rule”? This is another term that American and other media throw around without either defining it clearly or validating it in the political realities of the countries they are talking about. Mursi and his colleagues have spent the past month explaining how they will run the presidency as an institution that reflects all Egyptians, and do not speak of “Islamic rule,” nor do Egyptians generally.
• Egypt’s many decades as “a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate and pro-American governance,” more or less explain why the anti-Mubarak revolution took place. The American media and political cultures regularly use such facile and even hollow phrases to describe Egypt and other “moderate” Arab countries that are soft on Israel and carry out American directives and preferences in the region, especially in the security and economic arenas. Moderate? Egypt has been deeply immoderate and extremist in running a security state that so badly demeaned and disfigured its own people for over half a century that they finally rose up in revolt.
• The same article also quotes American, Israeli and Arab officials as being concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood victory could be, “a complication to efforts at Arab-Israeli peace talks.” If any Wall Street Journal editors or correspondents believe that there are any serious Arab-Israeli peace talk efforts underway, they are professionally obligated either to document and verify that fact (which they cannot do, because there are no such serious efforts) or come clean and stop living in the world of childish, hallucinatory and propagandistic illusions that define the arena of Middle East policy in Washington and Israel.
These few examples are from just one news story, plucked from a vast American media and political universe. This widespread tendency in the United States to view the Arab world through such distorted lenses makes doubt, hesitancy, mistrust and skepticism the most common reactions to our political transformations. The Arab world is changing in dramatic ways; it is time that Americans and others who deal with the Arabs also change commensurately, if accuracy and honesty are in fact part of their own world. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global