Samford University The BelltowerJune 2004

Arab World Expert Describes Causes of Anti-Americanism

“…the transformation of Arab states into systems that are accountable to their own people, respect the rule of law, permit free and open debate, and generate economic opportunity for their citizens, represents the only way to extinguish the appeal of extremist Islam...”

As the United States considered how it would transfer Iraqi national sovereignty in early summer, it faced complex questions that confound democratic reform efforts throughout the Middle East. At the invitation of Samford University's College Society, Arab world specialist Carrie Rosefsky Wickham described those questions to a packed audience at Samford at the end of April.

"How can we promote political freedom in a region with little or no prior experience with democracy, and in which democracy itself has long been stigmatized as a product of the West?," asked Wickham, a Carnegie Scholar and Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University who has lectured at the U.S. State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, among other prestigious venues. "How do we encourage Arab leaders to uphold the rights of women or religious minorities without triggering the accusation that we are trying to impose our values on others? How are we to deal with the fact that the largest, best organized and most popular opposition groups in the Arab world are not committed to democracy but rather seek to establish systems of rule based on Shari'a, or Islamic law? Should we encourage the holding of free and fair competitive elections, knowing that they may permit non-democrats to come to power? Should we use undemocratic means--such as the de facto veto power of the American administrators in Iraq --to impose a democratic constitution and establish unelected bodies with the power to uphold it, even when this conflicts with the majority will?"

In spite of her expertise--or more likely because of it--Wickham offered no easy answers to these questions. She said resolving seemingly intractable differences in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world will require significant and complex changes on all sides. For its part, she said, the U.S. should learn to use its considerable "soft power"--not its hard, coercive power, but the persuasive power of traditional American institutions and freedoms that many Arabs admire and long to see thrive in their own countries.

According to Wickham, "there are many ways for the U.S. to deploy its soft power in the Arab world--through skillful diplomacy, economic aid, and the sharing of our vast educational, legal and technical expertise with Arab governments and citizens committed to reform." She noted that this was the U.S. approach to its defeated enemies after World War II. "As in Germany and Japan ," Wickham said, "the transformation of Arab states into systems that are accountable to their own people, respect the rule of law, permit free and open debate, and generate economic opportunity for their citizens, represents the only way to extinguish the appeal of extremist Islam."

Deep Roots

Wickham said extremist Islam has such appeal because the roots of anti-Americanism in the Arab world are deep. They include the perceived unity of U.S. and Israeli policy, unchallenged anti-American propaganda, the willingness of some Arab leaders to blame America for crises largely created by their own oppressive Middle Eastern regimes, and the desperation of young Arabs who feel powerless to reform their own governments. The result is a significant disparity between the way Americans view themselves and the way Arabs view Americans.

"If asked about our policies in the Middle East ," Wickham said, "many Americans would credit our government leaders for seeking a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and for liberating the Iraqi people from one of the world's most brutal dictatorships. The image of America promoted by Osama bin Laden and other Islamic militants could not be more different." She said bin Laden and others who advocate "total war" against the United States see only America's support for Israel on one hand and oppressive Arab regimes on the other, U.S. military bases in Arab countries, and Arab/American relations driven more by America's thirst for oil than by its democratic ideals. "From this vantage point," Wickham said, "the objective of U.S. policy in the Arab world is to dictate its leaders' policies and control its resources, and in so doing to deprive its citizens of the chance to determine their own future." 

Speaking at Samford shortly before the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal further deepened the crisis in Arab/American relations, Wickham predicted a long road ahead for the United States in the Arab world in general and Iraq in particular. "The building of an effective democracy in Iraq --our stated goal--will literally take generations to accomplish and will require a long-term commitment of American military, economic and humanitarian aid.

It will also require a central role for international bodies like the United Nations to monitor elections, broker compromises between different ethnic, tribal and religious groups, and enforce domestic and cross-border peace." Unfortunately, Wickham said, " America 's credibility as a pro-democracy actor is currently so low in the Arab world that we may actually hurt the cause of reform by too strenuously promoting it."

Anti-Americanism and the key questions in Arab/American relations will loom long after June 30, the date planned for at least limited transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. But as grim as the future may look, Wickham still has hope. "As we look ahead, the challenge for us is not to impose our own values and institutions on the Arab world, but to strengthen the region's internal voices of reform and help them develop their own societies in line with their own priorities, at their own pace, and in ways that continue to move our relationship away from mutual suspicion and hostility toward dialogue, understanding and peace."

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