“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.” President Obama, Cairo May 5, 2009
In his three appeals (his Al Arabiya interview, Ankara and Cairo speeches) to Arabs and Muslims, President Barack Obama repeated the same theme and almost identical words: America is not and will never be at war with Islam. During his visit to Saudi Arabia and remarks in Egypt, many Arabs were impressed by President Obama’s personal appeal, skillful oration and background. However, looking, beyond these perceived positives, they fear that he is going to embrace and strengthen the status quo in these two influential, but tyrannically ruled Arab countries. Many Arabs hoped that President Obama would call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian governments loudly and publicly to “share power with their people” in a transparent and timely manner. He did not. The Arab people are not brainless; they could differentiate between rhetoric, empty promises and deliverance.
President Obama and his Administration must know that winning Arab hearts and minds and rallying their support in his quest to defeat extremism and its byproduct, terrorism, will take more than rosy oration and support for regimes that most Arabs would like to see go.
While President Obama laudably would like to see American-Arab relations based on our common humanity, human needs and aspirations, he not only failed to address the root causes of those differences, but has also failed even to identify those dangerous and deeply rooted dissimilarities that have defined Arab-American relations for decades, if not centuries. The President did not make clear if he was talking about such obvious differences as language, culture, religion, way of life and history. If this is what he meant by our differences, many of these distinctions can be tolerated and overcome.
However, a less obvious, but more perilous differences that has defined Arab-American relations is that Muslim Arabs, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are raised to disdain non-Muslims, be suspicious of their motives and consider them inferior based on presumed religious, cultural and historical supremacy.
From cradle to grave, most Muslim Arabs are bombarded with religious indoctrination and incitements against non-Muslims. This mental manipulation is reinforced constantly by the Arab ruling oligarchies and their tightly controlled schools, mosques and media. The primary purpose of this process is to control their citizens and render them helpless and hopeless, but it also serves to deflect their disenfranchised citizens’ attention from their governments’ domestic failures by blaming the United States, Israel and others for stunting Arab scientific, technological, political, economic and human development. Without understanding the underpinnings, implications and ramifications of the Saudi and Egyptian domestic polices and face them head on, President Obama’s Administration will come and go without making any progress to improve Arab-American relations or defeat extremism and terrorism peacefully.
This method of control by autocratic Arab regimes worked relatively well prior to the unprecedented rapid globalization and uncontrollable flow of information. However, many Arabs are not only rejecting the old methods of control, but also demanding democratic changes in which they could participate fully in their countries’ decision-making processes. Tragically, these rapidly evolving and unstoppable demands and aspirations of the Arab people cannot be met within the current framework of pre-modern institutions in Arab societies.
Given this state of affairs, how does President Obama expect to transcend such deeply rooted political, religious and social differences between Arabs and Americans, which are imposed and reinforced by repressive and unpopular regimes that the US supports and keeps in power? President Obama’s actions and the direction his administration seems to be going are, thus far, no different from those of the past. His predecessors, other US officials, businesspeople and a number of prestigious American educational institutions have promoted and perused polices to ensure the US access to Arab oil and markets at the expense of the aspirations of the Arab people. This is a major cause of Arab animosity toward the US.
Given the history of autocratic Arab regimes’ clinging to power and the suppression of their people by all means available, it is unlikely that the Arab people’s evolving aspirations will be met within the current political arrangement in the Arab World. Many Arabs had hoped that President Obama would use his personal popularity among Arabs and his promise during his Al Arabiya interview to reach out to disenfranchised Arabs to pressure their regimes to enact bona fide democratic reforms.
The Arab people will support President Obama’s efforts to construct a new foundation for Arab-American relations only if he and his Administration erect policies that will take their interests seriously instead of continuing to support pre-modern institutions and autocracies that have failed their people at home and turn some of them into religious extremist and suicide bombers.
The people of Egypt and Saudi Arabia suffer from perpetual political oppression, religious intolerance, gender segregation and inequality, stifling social taboos and rampant bureaucratic corruption. Many within these populations blame the US for its support and protection of their corrupt autocratic governments on the expense of people liberties.
These are some of the root causes of extremism and terrorism that President Obama wants to defeat. President Obama did not address these issues in a manner that gives his Egyptian and Saudi audience any indication that he will be on their side any more than previous US Administrations when it comes to US policy in the Arab World.
Ali Alyami is the founder and executive director of the Washington based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR. This is the only organization that is focused totally on Saudi Arabia, its government’s policies and their impact on the Saudi people, the Middle East and the international community. CDHR promotes a non-sectarian political structure whereby the rights of all citizens are protected under the rule of law.