Politics & Policy

In The Arab Spin Room

Three different reactions to the SOTU.

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. State of the Union addresses have developed two audiences: one in America, and the other in the Middle East. The White House’s words are resonating both with the hopeful and the hateful in all quarters between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans; never before have American presidential speeches meant so much to so many in the Arab world. Many people fear them, many others despise them. But a rising and unstoppable number of men and women are beginning to hold on to these words, clinging to them as harbingers of dreams that might, finally, come true.

One hour before this last State of the Union address, al Jazeera’s office in Washington had assembled its big artillery for the event. Deployed across the country was an army of correspondents: at the White House, on the Hill, at the U.N., and in Iowa.

Inside D.C. headquarters, al Jazeera’s bureau chief conducted a panel with Shibli Talhami, from Maryland University, and Asad Abukhalil, from California State University via satellite. The panel’s objective? Translate the speech and “analyze” it for its viewers–that is, produce the “official version” for millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

When I was asked the next day on MSNBC about the Arab world’s reaction to the speech, many would have expected me to provide one collective response for an entire bloc of people. But unlike my colleagues, I provided the less easily understandable answer. “There is no one Arab world reaction,” I replied, “there are at least three of them.” For despite al Jazeera’s powerful attempts to describe the game as America on one side, and the Arab and Persian-speaking Middle East on the other, the State of the Union–in my judgment–provoked three distinct reactions.

The first–openly advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, inspired by al Jazeera and its Hezbollah-controlled sister outfit, al-Manar in Beirut, and expressed in newspapers such as al-Hayat (Saudi financed), Techrine (Syrian Baathist), and the like–was to open fire on the speech. A deluge of attacks fused seamlessly with the classical rhetoric of the 1970s, and with a taste of jihadism. The American president was made into a hideous monster ready to kill masses of Arabs. It was the reverse psychology of September 11.

Asad Abukhalil, who teaches in California and is a frequent contributor to al Jazeera, screamed in Arabic: “When Bush speaks of democracy, I call on all Arabs through TV to rush to the shelters. It is war!” Abukhalil continued his “analysis” of the speech: Instead of “human rights,” Bush actually said: “Jails are being and will be built in the region and in Iraq.” Al Jazeera took care of vilifying the speech, while the jihadist websites then spread the Jazeerified version throughout the region, until it mushroomed out of control. Yet that response was what many in the Middle East-studies community in the U.S., and their colleagues in the media, branded the “voice of the Arab world.”

The second type of reaction was less vocal, and spoke to geopolitical realities. President Bush has certainly warned the dictators and terrorists of the consequences of their continued misbehavior, which explains the tidal wave of hatred from these groups. But the speech also asked America’s “friends” to continue with their efforts to “eradicate the seeds of fanaticism and extremism.” For all of us who are monitoring the political debate in the region, this meant the Saudi–but also Yemeni, Egyptian, and Jordanian–low-key efforts to crack down on terror.

The third and most significant reaction, however, was the one least seen in the West. It was the response from the underdogs, the dissidents, and the people who have simply had enough of Middle Eastern mayhem. Kuwait, for example, applauded the speech; so did the Governing Council in Iraq, as did other civilized societies. In a sense, they were glad to have their misery publicly acknowledged in Washington. Students and reformers in Iran cheered, and opposition movements in Syria and Lebanon breathed better. Southern Sudanese and Nubians were encouraged and reinvigorated; Berbers and liberal secularists in Algeria applauded. And from the deepest regions of underground activism, dissident websites–with writers around the Arab world, including women in Saudi Arabia–began counting the days. They had heard the voice of the most powerful man on Earth–the president of the United States–promise them a brighter future.

How ironic. Inside Byzantium (read: Washington’s beltway), this never factored into the debate. There, people only want to know “Where are the WMDs?” and “What are we doing in Iraq?” But in the parts of the Middle East that you don’t see on al Jazeera, Shiites, Kurds, liberal Sunnis, democratic Arabs, oppressed minorities, women, and students are reading President Bush’s speech in disbelief: “Who among our own presidents-for-life and fundamentalist monarchs has ever mentioned the mass graves and our vanished human rights? Let it come from the American president, and even if he is not serious, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the Truth was said.” This is the real response to the State of the Union–people who, after a long time, finally dare to hope.

Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East Studies and an MSNBC Middle East and terrorism analyst.

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