The view from Beirut

An American in Lebanon warns that despite Bush's efforts, Arabs will likely view an attack on terrorism as a war on Islam.

By Paul Wachter

Published September 21, 2001 7:14PM (EDT)

A few days after the attacks on New York and Washington, the new U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, toured the southern villages of Hasbaya, Marjayoun and Nabatieh. Asked if he felt safe, the ambassador said, "I'm wearing a short-sleeve shirt," pointing out that he wasn't clad in body armor. This self-assurance hardly gelled with the official statement the ambassador made the following day, when he said Lebanon was still harboring groups that Washington considers as "terrorist." It was a clear reference to Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian-backed Shiite movement whose stronghold -- the formerly Israeli-occupied south -- Battle had just visited.

But the ambassador's earlier, offhand and implicit departure from protocol had an obvious explanation. In the wake of the terrorist strikes, as the United States drummed itself into a war frenzy, Battle wanted to reassure Americans living in the Middle East. And as a tiny, but conspicuously hateful, percentage of Americans continue to harass -- and even murder -- Muslims, Arabs and people they mistake for them living in the United States, Americans in the Middle East can't help but wonder if they'll receive similar treatment once President Bush's "war on terrorism" commences.

I have lived in Lebanon for almost three years, studying at the American University of Beirut and writing for the local English newspaper. During this time, I have watched CNN in a room full of Arab students, including Iraqis, as U.S. warplanes pummeled Baghdad; I have walked through campus as students demonstrated after Israeli, U.S.-made fighter planes bombed power plants and bridges outside Beirut; and I have even stood among the faithful as Hezbollah triumphantly paraded captured tanks following the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. At no point during my time in Lebanon have I felt unsafe because I'm American.

Nor do I now. (Whether I'll feel safe from U.S. bombers if there is any substance to reports that Osama bin Laden may have fled to Lebanon is another question.) After the attacks, television clips endlessly replayed Palestinian celebrations in refugee camps in the West Bank, giving the impression that the Middle East erupted with joy at the news. Yes, there were also sporadic, short-lived celebrations at a couple of camps in Lebanon. But aside from these, neither I nor any other Americans I know (including some in other parts of the Arab world) have witnessed any public or private displays of joy following the Sept. 11 attacks. On the contrary, my Lebanese friends called me to offer their sympathies. Strangers approached me and did the same. Nonetheless, I am worried that once the scope of America's "war on terrorism" unfolds, I may, for the first time in Lebanon, have reason to fear for my safety. And the fear is no less real for being anticipatory.

War blurs the distinction between a government's foreign policy and its citizens, a distinction that was obviously and tragically not appreciated by the WTC and Pentagon murderers. It is a distinction respected neither by Palestinian suicide bombers nor those Israeli soldiers who fail to acknowledge the difference between a man with a gun and a boy with a stone. The distinction was also erased during Lebanon's bloody civil war, which claimed 170,000 lives and -- as Westerners will recall -- saw the kidnappings of numerous Americans and other foreign innocents. War emboldens the worst, most jingoistic elements in a society -- people like Frank S. Roque, the man suspected of shooting and killing a Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Ariz. "I'm a patriot," Roque said when he was arrested. "I'm a damn American all the way."

The Bush administration is certainly concerned about the Middle East's response to Washington's impending war. Like his father before him, on the eve of the Gulf War, George W. Bush is reaching out to his friends in the Arab world, much to Israel's concern. Washington is assuring King Abdullah of Jordan, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- a monarch in all but name -- that this war is not against Islam or Arabs, a point he also made in his address on Thursday night.

But the fact remains that this is how a campaign that targets the Muslim Middle East will be viewed by millions of Arabs and Muslims -- most of whom do not condone the Sept. 11 attacks -- especially if Washington's strikes coincide with an Israeli escalation in the occupied territories.

When my discussions with Lebanese friends -- Muslims and Christians -- about the WTC and Pentagon attacks progress past the mutual expressions of shock and outrage, they inevitably turn to U.S. policy in the region. My friends talk about how Bush Sr. turned his back on Lebanon, allowing Assad Sr. to assume control of the country in exchange for Syria's support in the war against Iraq. They question America's unwavering support for Israel -- which invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an attempt to prevent PLO attacks across the border, an action that backfired when a more dangerous opponent, Hezbollah, took the PLO's place. They ask me why Hezbollah soldiers fighting against an illegal occupation are considered "terrorists" while the label is not applied to the Israeli soldiers who in 1996 killed more than 100 innocents by shelling a U.N. shelter in the southern town of Qana. (A top-level U.N. inquiry found that the Israeli claim that the shelling was a mistake was "unlikely.")

The classification of Hezbollah as "terrorist" was also recently challenged by Gibran Tueni, the charismatic Christian publisher of An-Nahar, the country's most prestigious Arabic newspaper. No friend of Hezbollah or its Syrian backers, Tueni wrote in a front-page editorial: "Let us be frank. Hezbollah, which has joined Lebanon's political life and has refrained from any operations against the Israeli army outside the Shebaa Farms (a sliver of land, claimed by Lebanon, that Israel occupied along with the Golan Heights), cannot be classified as terrorist -- even if we disapprove of its politics."

It was not lost on my Lebanese friends that five days after America's tragedy, the anniversary of a horrific massacre committed on Lebanese soil went almost entirely unmarked by the Western press. On Sept. 16, 1982, Christian militiamen allied with Israel began their three-day slaughter in two Palestinian refugee camps that killed 1,800 men, women and children. An Israeli commission held then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon "indirectly responsible" for the atrocities in Sabra and Shatila; recently, Palestinian survivors have filed suit in a Belgian court, arguing that Sharon's culpability is far greater.

In Beirut, around 3,000 people participated in a march to commemorate the 19th anniversary of the massacre. Banners in the crowd conveyed various messages. One acknowledged the suffering in America: "We the victims of terrorism condemn all forms of terror against civilians everywhere." There were numerous posters with variations of the "stop the occupation" theme. And one impolitic sign simply read, "Kill the butcher Sharon."

One British journalist who did acknowledge this anniversary, as he does each year, was the Independent's Robert Fisk. Fisk, who lives in Beirut, also urged the United States to arrest and prosecute those responsible for the attacks, rather than lash out with bombs and missiles. He pointed out that bin Laden and his cohorts perpetrated their crime "to provoke the United States into just the blind, arrogant punch that the U.S. military is preparing."

The hawks in the Bush administration, like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, are urging a far-ranging military campaign that would target not only bin Laden, but also extend to Iraq and, perhaps, Syria and Lebanon. Cooler heads, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, argue for retaliation on a smaller scale, one that would target the perpetrators of the crime and combat terrorism without endangering Washington's relationships with various Arab leaders. Powell's is the wiser course, but it is still a military response. For now, no one in the White House -- and precious few outside it -- are talking about a larger reassessment of American policy in the region.

Living in the Middle East, I can't help but think that America's safety requires more fundamental changes. I can't help but recall the words of a Sicilian nobleman in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel "The Leopard." Challenged by the tide of Italian nationalism, he tells his father: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter is pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Beirut.

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