The Arab street explodes

The U.S. war with Iraq is interpreted as an attack on Islam and Arabs, as violent protests erupt around the world.

Published March 22, 2003 11:59PM (EST)

There was fury Friday across the Muslim world. Two protesters in Yemen were killed as they tried to storm the American embassy. In Jordan, according to Al Jazeera, 80,000 people defied a government ban to march and police used tear gas to disperse a crowd in the city of Ma-an. In Cairo, Egypt, tens of thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets after Friday prayers. Some set overturned cars alight and the police beat and arrested hundreds. In Jakarta, Indonesia, according to the Jakarta Post, 2,500 people protested outside the U.S. embassy, with larger protests scheduled for Sunday. And according to the BBC, thousands protested across Africa, in Bangladesh, Indian-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan, where a "million man march" is planned for Sunday.

Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi-born Harvard graduate student living in Cairo, says there's a feeling of emergency on the ground. "It's very, very tense," he says. "Everyone is angry. Everyone is depressed. I think [the government] is a bit worried. One can tell by the ruthlessness in countering today's demos. The security hit and arrested only men yesterday. Today they're hitting women as well and arresting them."

In the months leading up to war, there was endless debate about how the so-called Arab street would react, and what widespread rage in the Muslim world would mean. The rage, clearly, is there. Its implications are still unclear.

"I'm a little surprised," says Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. "I didn't think there would be so much so soon. But it's too early to say how it will play out. We're in the second day of the war."

"Going back to the first Gulf War, there was talk of the Arab street which never materialized," says Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc.," a book about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. "This time there's going to be much more going on. All around the Muslim world, the war in Iraq is seen as an attack on Islam. That's just a fact."

Yet it's not just religious radicals who are taking to the streets -- far from it. "While there are Islamists, Nasserists and the usual suspects, there are just thousands and thousands of citizens all over," Antoon said, describing the demonstrations Thursday and Friday. "Even the usually apathetic American University in Cairo students, who are mostly from the elite, were out there yesterday hitting the police back."

To Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, the presence of AUC students demonstrated how widespread anti-U.S. sentiment is in Egypt right now. The school's students are the Westernized children of the Egyptian upper class, and in the past, he says, "AUC students haven't been at the forefront of these kinds of protests. This was not a protest of the disenfranchised of Egypt, though lord knows there are enough of those. This was a protest by the children of the elite. What that tells you is this war is being read in the Arab world as an attack on the Arab nation. These young people have no use whatsoever for Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, but it's their region that's being attacked, their people."

That impression is only strengthened by what they see on TV. People in the Arab world see a very different war on television than Americans do. As'ad AbuKhalil, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, has three satellite dishes and monitors broadcasts from across the Middle East, including Abu Dhabi TV, Al Jazeera, Hezbollah TV and Jordanian TV. While Americans watch Baghdad burn from a distance, most of the Arab channels have corespondents inside the city, and they emphasize reporting of civilian casualties. There's also lots of news about worldwide protests. "On Al Jazeera, the first picture you see today is a guy with blood on his face from the confrontation in Egypt and an item about how many people were killed in the clashes in Yemen," he says.

Additionally, the stations play up the Iraqi government's bravado-filled propaganda, AbuKhalil says, making it seem as if they're making a heroic last stand. "Arabs are waiting for glimmers of good news. If there's a delay in the advancement of troops, it's seen as a sign of resistance from the Iraqis. You have to remember the political culture of my region. Growing up, we have only known defeat. We are very eager for a victory. Nobody thinks Iraq is going to prevail. What they think is resistance is going to be stiff, and anything that thumbs its nose at the United States is seen as a good sign."

In the short term, such antagonism may be of little political consequence. "Arab public opinion hasn't counted for a very great deal any time recently," Cole says. "Very few of these states have the kind of elections where public opinion would matter." And no one suggests that these demonstrations are yet anywhere near large enough to threaten regimes.

But autocratic regimes like Egypt's are going to have to crack down to contain the fury of their citizens, creating even more repression -- precisely the opposite of the rolling democracy promised by some of the war's architects. "Arab regimes certainly have the skills of survival and staying in power," says AbuKhalil. "But I see there is a crisis. The answer could be they have to turn into Saddam-like forces." Otherwise the people's anger at America will weaken governments that support the superpower against their will.

In democratic Muslim countries like Indonesia and Pakistan, the war and the demonstrations it has sparked help religious radicals. "There, long-term problems could emerge from this war, precisely because the public has the ability to put a parliament or prime minister in place who support their position," says Cole. He says that after next year's election in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, "We don't know if this government will stay in power and what might replace it if people get upset."

Meanwhile, many have noted that the war could help al-Qaida recruits, and recent reports of jihadists heading to Iraq seem to confirm this. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, "The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted Islamist fundamentalists in London as stating that thousands of Arab Afghans (a term applied to Arabs who volunteered to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan) have entered Iraq to participate in suicide missions against American forces. The same sources also revealed that 2,500 Lebanese Islamists have been in Iraq for six months in special training camps. " And according to the BBC, the Nigerian government, which has banned protests, reports that some of its citizens are heading to Iraq to fight American forces.

"The jihadis go into the mosques to recruit, and when America is raining down bombs on Baghdad, all of a sudden their reading of the Koran, that calls you to take action against America to defend Muslims, is more resonant," says Cole.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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