How to turn a criminal to a hero

The U.S. attacks on Osama bin Laden have transformed him into a local hero.

Published August 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the U.S. cruise-missile attacks against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Sudan, a predictable wave of anti-American fervor is sweeping the Middle East and the Muslim world. What is unusual is that the anger is coming from political moderates who loathe bin Laden and his brand of violent Islamic fundamentalism as much as the United States does.

Behind the images of angry mobs burning effigies of President Clinton is a vast hinterland of outrage and reluctant sympathy for bin Laden, populated not only by the poor and disenfranchised but also by articulate middle-class Arabs and Muslims who have the most to lose from the challenges posed by the wealthy Saudi-turned-Islamic warrior.

Railing for the removal of American forces from the Persian Gulf and a return by Middle Eastern governments to strict Islamic law and values, fundamentalists like bin Laden are widely regarded by Arab moderates as threats to the stability of their societies. To illustrate the consequences of bin Laden's vision, moderates point to the civil war in Algeria, where fighting between militant Muslims and government troops over the past five years has left at least 80,000 dead. In Egypt, where Islamic militants have attacked tourists and intellectuals and tried to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak, there is broad support among middle-class Egyptians for the government's crackdown on violent fundamentalist groups.

Yet in response to the American attacks on bin Laden, Sanaa Al Said, a columnist for the Egyptian newspaper Al Wafd, wrote: "Overnight, the man has been transformed from an outlawed criminal on the run into a national hero standing against a hated superpower ... which has come to our region and wreaked its own havoc here ... Changes are on the way. U.S. hegemony will, one day, come to an end, and then the world will breathe more freely."

Moderate Arab governments, many of them U.S. allies with terrorist problems of their own, have studiously kept quiet about the attack. But in their silence, other Arab commentators have echoed the same themes as Al Said: America's clumsiness in dealing with bin Laden, its double standard when dealing with Israeli violence and its tendency to use force and embargoes when dealing with Arabs and Muslims. While such sentiments have long formed the core of Arab intellectual thought, the American attack has brought this anger to the surface, where it is likely to influence government leaders -- and future U.S. policy.

"Among the Arab and Muslim middle classes, there is a lot of resentment toward U.S. policies, toward the status quo; and tremendous frustration that their governments can't do anything," says Shibley Telhami, a professor of Middle Eastern affairs at the University of Maryland. "Therefore someone like bin Laden, who challenges the status quo, is seen by the middle classes as a sympathetic figure, even if they don't like him or his agenda."

Resentment toward America by Arab elites also has become personal. Outside
American media circles, perhaps the biggest supporters of the "Wag the Dog"
interpretation of the U.S. attack -- that Clinton struck to deflect attention
from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal -- are Arab writers, journalists and
intellectuals. In the Arab world, this interpretation flows logically from an
earlier conspiracy theory about the scandal, which holds that Lewinsky, who is
Jewish, was part of a plot hatched by Israel and its American Jewish
supporters to cripple Clinton's ability to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin

Telhami, who also writes a weekly commentary for the Arabic-language Radio
Monte Carlo, says he spends much of his efforts trying to convince Arab
intellectuals that such conspiracy theories are overheated fantasies. But from
the vantage point of the Middle East, he notes, it is difficult for Arabs to
view Clinton's strike against bin Laden in isolation from the other components
making up America's Middle East policy.

In addition to Clinton's reluctance to confront Israel's excesses, he says,
"Arabs look at the region and they see four countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya and
Sudan -- under severe international sanctions that are U.S.-led and
unprecedented in [the] history of international relations. They see five Middle
Eastern countries [same as above, plus Syria] listed as sponsors of terrorism,
and they see American forces based on the territories of eight countries in
the region." (Those eight are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE and Oman.)

"So while conspiracy theories are crazy, there are still some objective
reasons why people think that the U.S. is targeting them. And they make a lot
of stories out of it," he says.

Another chord that bin Laden has struck among Arab elites is their
nervousness about the phenomenon of globalization, which many view as a
thinly veiled attempt by the U.S. to Americanize the world by
expanding global markets and then filling its shelves with American products,
ideas and expectations. At a recent conference on globalization in Asilah,
Morocco, speaker after speaker from the Arab world portrayed globalization as
a new form of American imperialism, destined to gobble up their economies and
societies and incorporate them into a global landscape defined by McDonald's,
the Internet and Bruce Willis movies.

"This globalization is a raging torrent that's going to wash away our borders,
our cultures and our identities," warned Mamoun Fandy, an Egyptian who
teaches Middle East politics at Georgetown University. It is worth noting that
Fandy's concerns are not that different from the warnings against American
imperialism issued by bin Laden himself.

With the Arab and Muslim worlds in an uproar over the U.S. attack, the
question now is what affect this anger will have on Middle East governments
and, by extension, U.S. policy in the region.

Some maintain that the outrage of the Arab elites doesn't really matter at
all. These observers note that with the exception of the fall of the Iranian
shah, the authoritarian governments of the Middle East have learned how to
deal with popular unrest and know how to balance their need for survival
against their need for the United States. Others believe that the deep
resentments unleashed by the American attack eventually will destabilize the
regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other pro-American countries.

"The truth is always in the middle," Telhami says, "and the truth is this:
What's happening isn't going to immediately threaten the Saudi regime or the
Egyptian regime. But it's going to limit their options. It means that when the
United States faces a crisis with Iraq in the next few weeks, where the use of
force will be contemplated, the chances that the U.S. will get any cooperation
from Muslim and Arab countries will have diminished dramatically as a
consequence of this. The same applies to any coalition coming together around
the issue of terrorism."

Many analysts of the region say the only way the United States can avoid that
lonely scenario is by addressing moderate Arab concerns. That means not only
punishing enemies like bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but also pushing Israel
harder on the peace process and encouraging moderates in Iran. And it means
demonstrating that globalization includes benefits for Arabs that go beyond
Big Macs and cyberporn.

Just as the U.S. cruise missiles sent an unmistakable message to bin Laden,
Arab moderates appear to be sending a message to President Clinton. That
message says the moderates don't like bin Laden any more than the Americans
do. But it also warns that the societies of the region are fragile and could
fracture as a result of one-dimensional American policies. If that happens,
they seem to be saying, President Clinton's new war against terror could
become a clash of civilizations.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Jonathan Broder

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

Afghanistan Bill Clinton Egyptian Protests Iraq Middle East Osama Bin Laden