Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?

by Rami G. Khouri
Today's day-to-day news reports suggest that the overall relationship between Arab/Muslim societies and the West, especially the United States, is a worsening cycle of war, threats, fears, and savage killings. The reality is more complex, with confrontations at several levels counterbalanced by underlying compatibilities that provide potential common ground for a healthier relationship in the future. The present, however, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, is defined by warfare and angry confrontation, and many reasons explain this grim reality.

Yet it is probably worth keeping in mind that the vast majorities of people in both camps would not willingly choose and probably do not enthusiastically support the military invasions, terrorism, and other forms of violent confrontation that define many aspects of Arab/Islamic-Western ties today. The fighting is the work of relatively small minorities - but it happens because of a wider and deeper enabling environment in which older perceptions and stronger tensions persist on both sides.

If we take American-Arab or American-Middle Eastern relations as the core of the wider Islamic-Western relationship, we can identify several significant reasons why so many parties on both sides have clashed in recent years. Modern history is probably the single most important backdrop to the tensions, represented by the prevalent Middle Eastern suspicion of Western armies coming into the region to occupy, exploit, or redefine its people and countries.

Arab memories even of the Crusades, more than eight centuries earlier, remain real and politically relevant. In the past two centuries since Napoleon's armies invaded Egypt and launched the modern European colonial era in the Middle East, local public opinion remains deeply resentful of Western political and military intervention. This has been manifested again in widespread Middle Eastern opposition to the American-led war to change the Iraqi regime and redraw the political map of the region.

The bitter historical legacy of the region is compounded by four powerful associated contemporary issues: economic distress, brisk social change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sustained tradition of Arab autocracy and dictatorship. The combination of these factors has created an Arab/Islamic landscape that is generally suspicious of Western motives, and often critical of existing indigenous regimes and elites that are seen to be created and supported by the West. In recent years, this restive, indignant, often humiliated public mood has also spawned small bands of militants who have used terror against their own regimes and the West.

The common, chronic foundation for this confrontational mindset among the average Arab or Iranian is the sense that Europeans and Americans view the Middle East purely in selfish utilitarian terms - as lands to be exploited for their mineral or commercial assets, or their strategic value in wider global contests (during the Cold War and now in the "war on terror"). The common perception across the Middle East is that Western powers for two centuries have routinely used their diplomatic power and sent their armies to occupy our lands, remove nationalist or anti-Western regimes they dislike, preserve conservative regimes and dictators they are comfortable with, maintain access to oil, or ensure Israel's superiority over all neighboring countries.

For half a century during the Cold War and the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the West broadly promoted autocratic and authoritarian Arab, Turkish, and Iranian regimes because this served the West's and Israel's purposes - without any concern for the sentiments, rights, or aspirations of ordinary citizens in this region. This has been coupled since the mid-1980s by two other factors that have increased popular opposition to the local elites and regimes and to their Western supporters. Economic stagnation, even regression in some countries, has become a volatile political force, fuelling calls to deal with the indignities of corruption, abuse of power, and widening disparities. At the same time, many in the Middle East feel that their basic cultural and religious values - let alone their national and political rights - are vulnerable to a Western-led onslaught couched in the dynamics of globalization, the communications revolution, and free trade.

This combination of historical anxiety, economic stress, and the vulnerability of one's most basic social, national, and religious identity has created masses of distressed people who have not found an outlet for their concerns in domestic political change, and thus often direct their anger - and recently their bombs - at the West.

So as indigenous Islamist, nationalist, or leftist movements emerged in recent decades, and challenged local regimes, Israel, and the US, they usually found a deep groundswell of public acclaim. Support for Nasser, Khomeini, the Palestinian resistance, Hizbollah, Mossadegh, Saddam Hussein, or even Osama Bin Laden today reflects this deep legacy of anti-Western and anti-Israeli bitterness, resentment, and indignity in Middle Eastern public opinion.

Therefore few in the Middle East believe that an American or European who talks of promoting peace, prosperity, or democracy in our region does so out of a sense that Arabs and Iranians deserve this right. Not only do many Westerners and Middle Easterners now clash military, but those who seek to work together for democracy, justice and reform are often hindered by the debilitating legacy of fear, suspicion, and anger.

The only good news in this otherwise gloomy picture is that global and regional public opinion surveys (especially the Global Values Survey) routinely confirm that Arabs/Muslims and Americans/Westerners share most of the basic values related to good governance, such as participation, accountability, justice, and equality. There is a fertile, enduring foundation of positive personal and public values that can be exploited to bring Arabs/Muslims and the West into a more constructive new relationship. But these values that provide a powerful common ground for a new relationship remain crushed under the weight of confrontation, war, and terrorism that dominate the scene today. Until the constraints of modern history are addressed and redressed, the potential for a mutually more beneficial Arab/Islamic-Western relationship will remain dormant in most spheres of life.

**Rami G. Khouri is the Executive Editor, the Daily Star newspaper, Beirut, Lebanon.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity.

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.
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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata