Arab world increasingly wary over confrontation
Wednesday, September 19, 2001
AMMAN, Jordan -- A week after terrorist strikes demolished the World Trade Center and punched a gaping hole in the Pentagon, there is growing alarm and thinly veiled resentment in the Arab world at the prospect of U.S.-led military retaliation aimed at Osama bin Laden.
Despite painstaking coalition-building by the Bush administration in the wake of the devastating suicide attacks, the initial outpouring of sympathy for America in its hour of tragedy is now increasingly colored by other considerations.
Across the region, recent days have seen renewed expressions of fury over U.S. support for Israel, a heightened sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims that may extend to Afghanistan's radical Taliban regime, and a sharp questioning as to whether sufficient proof yet exists to target anyone in the Sept. 11 attacks.
In some quarters, doubts about backing America were crystallized by hearing President Bush refer to a "crusade" against perpetrators of terrorist acts -- a term that for many here recalls the Crusades, the medieval wars against Muslims in the Holy Land by a succession of Christian monarchs in Europe. An aide said Tuesday the president regrets using the word "crusade" -- that Bush only meant to say that his is a "broad cause" against terrorism.
Also prompting unease was the president's use of colorful Wild West terminology in vowing to get bin Laden "dead or alive." The exiled Saudi millionaire, whom the United States considers the prime suspect in the attacks, is believed to be living in Afghanistan, which so far has not acceded to U.S. demands to hand him over.
As the confrontation hardens, Arab governments seen as friendly to the United States are uncomfortably aware that their perceived support for American-led military action -- however measured -- would go down badly with many of their citizens.
"It looks like America is planning to wage a holy war against Muslims and Arabs," said Halim Mansour, a 39-year-old librarian in Jordan, one of only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. In Egypt, the other signer of a treaty with the Jewish state, Cairo bookshop manager Ahmed Hendi echoed that view.
"As an Egyptian and a Muslim, I strongly oppose attacking any Muslim country," said Hendi, 40. "It is not yet proved that bin Laden did it -- if he did, he should be brought to trial."
Even further afield, Muslims are wary. At a political meeting late Monday in Malaysia, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, which has close to 1 million members in Malaysia, said Muslims would consider Bush a "gangster" if he ordered retaliatory strikes against suspects without concrete proof.
Vilification of Israel, always at the forefront of public discourse in the Arab world, is going on as usual -- but more and more mainstream commentators and government officials are pointing to the Palestinian conflict as dangerous fuel for future terrorist strikes.
"It's about American arrogance, and the incredible degree of anger that this causes," said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi. "When I see pictures of the plane about to hit the tower, I shudder -- but I think about the kind of suffering America's policies cause every day, and how this could drive someone to commit such an act."
Arab governments, including Jordan's, have said fallout from the attacks on America should not be allowed to divert attention from efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mindful of that view, the United States has put heavy pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians to stop fighting -- which they say they will, at least for now. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced Tuesday he was unilaterally enforcing a cease-fire, and Israel responded by ordering a halt to military operations except in immediate self-defense.
Amid talk of Afghanistan as a likely target for U.S. retaliatory strikes, many in the region thought it would be wrong to lash out at a country already impoverished and miserable by decades of warfare. "Afghanistan is in ruins anyway," declared 20-year-old Cairo student Rasha Hesham.
The United States' traditional foes in the Arab world, meanwhile, sought to use the tumult to shore up their own cause.
A spiritual leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas issued a religious edict Tuesday saying that those who sided with the United States against fellow Muslims would be considered traitors.
"It is illegal for any Muslim group or state ... to cooperate or align itself with America in any way," said Sheik Hamed Bitawi, a Hamas leader in the West Bank town of Nablus.
Iraq's Saddam Hussein, in what he billed as an open letter to the American people, weighed in with pre-emptive criticism of any retaliatory strike. The official Iraqi news agency quoted him as saying that Washington is operating on the assumption that "Islam, with Arabs in the lead ... are enemies of the United States."
The United States raised an international coalition that included Arabs to force Saddam to reverse his 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Some held that retaliatory U.S. strikes would only spawn more of the same hatreds that lay behind the Sept. 11 attacks.
"War is not a game -- the victims will be in the thousands, and this war will not resolve the question of terrorism," said Saudi civil servant Ahmed Al-Dubaikhi. "In fact, the number of terrorists will multiply, and give justification for retaliation all over the world."