Arab-U.S. relations: back to square one

Anti-imperialist rhetoric dominates Moroccan symposium

Published August 22, 1996 12:20PM (EDT)


At a recent symposium here on relations between the Arab world and the United States, Abdelwahab Badarkhan, the
editorial director of the Lebanese Al Nahar newspaper in London, referred to Israel as "a foreign transplant in the Arab body that survives only because of American support." A Moroccan professor explained away the widespread corruption, authoritarianism and economic stagnation that infects Arab regimes today as "the legacy of Western colonialism." And a Sudanese writer now living in London excused the phenomenon of Islamic political violence, which has targeted secular Arab writers like himself as "one of the diseases that we inherited from the West."

Given the seismic events that have rocked the Middle East over the past few years, from the end of the Cold War to the new political and economic ties between Israel and some of its neighbors, one might have expected Arab intellectuals to have moved, however tentatively, beyond such rhetoric. But to judge by statements made by the Arab writers, journalists and academics gathered earlier this month in this Atlantic
seacoast city, little seems to have changed in the hearts and minds of Araby's most prominent thinkers and theoreticians.

"I must say I was quite surprised," said Henry Siegman, a senior
fellow at New York's Council on Foreign Relations and one of a dozen or so American Middle East specialists who attended the week-long symposium. "I heard rhetoric that reminded me of days that I had hoped were long gone."

That came as no surprise to Mohammed Benaissa, Morocco's ambassador to the United States and the organizer of the Asilah conference. "Ever since the end of the Cold War and Persian Gulf war, the gap in comprehension between the Arabs and the United States is getting wider," said Benaissa. But he vigorously defended the conference as the first in what he hopes will be a regular exchange between Arab and American intellectuals to help demolish mutually destructive stereotypes.

"We are now entering into a new era, a new world order, if you
will, in which the United States is the dominant force and Israel is
inescapably part of the equation. There is new technology, the globalization of communication and economies, a whole new system of values. The Arabs have a very bad image in the United States. Unless we come together and understand one another, we Arabs are in danger of becoming marginalized."

If anyone has the energy and credibility to build bridges of understanding, it is the 56-year-old Benaissa. An energetic businessman, former minister of culture and close confident of Morocco's King Hassan, Benaissa recently hosted a black-tie cultural gala in Washington, featuring an Arab orchestra and a Moroccan rabbi singing solos. At one point, James Wolfensohn, the World Bank's Jewish president and an accomplished cellist in
his own right, donned a fez, picked up a cello and jammed with the Moroccan musicians on stage. Not to be outdone, a number of Jewish lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), jumped onto the stage and danced.

No such cultural sharing was seen at Asilah, however. Arab and American participants hurled accusations at one another across the conference table. The Americans condemned the Arabs for not raising their voices against terrorism; the Arabs challenged the Americans' definition of terror itself. The Americans assailed growing
Islamic violence in Arab countries; the Arabs accused the Americans of making the violence possible by its funding and training of Islamic militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And so on.

Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, cut through the impasse. She acknowledged that part of the reason the U.S. supported Israel was the political power of American Jews, pointing out that no American politician operated free of political constraints. But, she added, there was also a deep cultural affinity between Americans and Israelis that formed the basis for the enormous reservoir of sympathy for the Jewish state.

As for the "Jewish lobby," which many Arab participants had assailed as the hidden hand behind U.S. policy in the Middle East, Kipper explained that American Jewish activists, in tapping that reservoir, were only doing what the American democratic process encourages its citizens to do -- participate. "Your Arab American brothers and the Arab diplomatic corps would be better served by dropping this absurd notion of a Jewish conspiracy, learning how the game is played in the United States and then playing it yourselves," she said.

Kipper's bluntness cut the intellectual ice. Iraqi-born Hani Findakly, a New York-based financial executive, reminded Arab participants of the Arab world's deepening economic problems, as evidenced by explosive birth rates and the lack of jobs. Egyptian newspaper columnist Mohammed Wahby then chimed in, pointing out that Israel's annual GDP of $90 billion outpaces that of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon combined. "I remind of this so you will start dealing with Israel from a position of reality, not dreams," he said.

The conference closed with a communiqué that acknowledged the differences between Arab and American participants but called for
further dialogue. That was enough for Benaissa to claim success.
"The more people talk and get to know one another, the more familiar our cultures become," he said. His next project: to turn a sprawling palace in Asilah into an institute of American studies, where visiting U.S. academics, government officials, members of Congress and artists will participate in two-week seminars to teach Arabs the way the United States really works.

"Our misunderstandings didn't begin in a day and they won't be eradicated in a day," said Benaissa. "But this is a start. Besides, we have no choice, do we?"

Quote of the day

GOP's reefer madness

"I don't believe that America's high school students say, 'Hmmm, the President didn't inhale -- let's party.' These are much longer term phenomena."

-- Mark A.R. Kleiman, professor of policy studies at UCLA, on GOP attempts to blame rising marijuana use among teens on Clinton's personal example in Thursday's New York Times.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------