CAIRO – The reaction in most of the Arab world was instantaneous: even from the depths of the shadowy underworld where he still lurks, Osama bin Laden has not lost his fabulous sense of timing. After a long silence, the world’s former Public Enemy Number One – recently dethroned by Saddam Hussein – has delivered a crucial audio message to all Muslims at the start of the three-day Eid festival, which marks the end of the hajj. Al Jazeera has been rebroadcasting the entire, uncut bin Laden tape around the clock. The audio is excellent, and an array of different sources in Cairo, apart from Al Jazeera, affirm that it is indeed bin Laden’s voice.
At first some were thinking – irony of ironies – that bin Laden himself had provided the smoking gun the administration of US President George W. Bush is incapable of digging up: the lethal connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda. But after attentively listening to the message on Al Jazeera – an activity obviously not pursued by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s minions – everything is clear. Bin Laden exhorts Muslims to support the Iraqi population – not the Iraqi government. He calls again for a jihad against the United States. And he brands any Arab ruler who would support the US against Iraq as “an apostate whose blood should be spilled.”
Bin Laden’s latest propaganda coup – as far as the Arab world is concerned – contrasts with the de facto failure of Powell’s presentation at the United Nations Security Council. The No 1 propaganda challenge for the Bush administration remains how to prove a connection between al-Qaeda and the need, right here, right now, not later, of regime change in Iraq. The awesome, relentless US propaganda machine may have swayed a great deal of domestic opinion, but the indisputable fact remains that the majority of world opinion is still not convinced about the evidence, the timing and the motives of the Bush administration – and suspects a hidden agenda.
It’s always crucial to keep in mind the sequence of events. The United States arbitrarily determined that its so-called war against terrorism would be a total, global, unlimited war. Unable to exterminate al-Qaeda, or even apprehend its leadership, it switched to an easier prey, the “axis of evil.” Unable to confront nuclear-armed North Korea, it concentrated all its efforts on the weakest link: Iraq. For one year now the US has been imposing on the whole world a mono-thematic agenda: war against Iraq. An avalanche of polls confirm week after week that the absolute majority of popular opinion around the world is convinced there’s no evidence Saddam Hussein is about to pulverize the planet with a few vials of anthrax. Anti-war activists in London preparing next Saturday’s huge rally in Hyde Park speak for much of public opinion everywhere when they point out that “every piece of compelling new evidence for the necessity of war turns out to be even more ludicrous than the last, so we’ve now arrived at plagiarized student theses and crackly intercepted phone calls that couldn’t secure a conviction for possession of dope.”
Apart from the doctoring of dossiers or pure and simple plagiarism, there’s also the indisputable fact that in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Tony Blair is now facing an unheard-of rebellion by his top spies at MI6. Asia Times Online has confirmed that last week they used one of Blair’s favorite weapons – the strategic leak – against the prime minister. The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) received a Defense Intelligence Staff (DIS) classified paper, written last month, showing that for British intelligence there is no connection whatsoever between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The paper said there had been contacts between al-Qaeda operatives and some of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services in the past, but they led to nowhere because of total mistrust and absolutely incompatible ideologies.
Washington’s hawks obviously don’t give a damn about popular sentiment anywhere. They react with the usual vocabulary: these people are leftists, communists, anti-globalization protesters, anti-imperialists, anti-Americans or whatever. But the current global anti-war movement is not composed only of activists and militants: it involves all sectors of civil society, the average Joe, Kim or Ahmad. Even in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak’s government in fact cracks down on any manifestation of popular anger, there is now a committee for human shields willing to go to Iraq. Ahmed Abdel Salam, the head of the committee, says: “They are all volunteers, and no government has the right to stop them from defending Arab land. Because today it is Iraq; tomorrow we know it will be Egypt.” Abdel Salam says: “We have volunteers from Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, the [United Arab] Emirates and Qatar, and we hope that this mass migration to Baghdad will put pressure on many Arab governments.”
All over the world, a river of humanity is saying – as the organizers of the London rally put it – that the war against Iraq will be waged “in the name of ridding the world of chemical weapons, by the power that spread napalm and Agent Orange across half a continent. It will be waged to rid the world of a dictator who gassed his own people and invaded Iran, when those acts could only have been carried out with the backing of the only superpower in the first place.” Even US public opinion is increasingly uncomfortable with the hawks’ methods of coercion, threat and force – their strategy to market a new war. But it is also true that a great deal of US public opinion only retains that Saddam Hussein is part of the axis of evil; US corporate media have bought into this Bible-thumping reference uncritically. So Joseph Goebbels’ maxim once again is the rule: If you repeat something often enough, people will believe it whether it is true or not.
The war has not even started, but casualties mount on every front. The European Union is divided: France and Germany lead a peace front, and a collection of former Soviet-satellite nations that begged to enter the Union, plus some second-rate EU powers, are supporting the war (Spain, for instance, supports the United States but also wants more money from the top EU donors, France, Germany and Benelux). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – an irrelevant mechanism in the post-Cold War world – is split: diplomats in Brussels widely deride the “parade of vassals” – the Eastern European countries recently admitted to NATO. The UN Security Council is split: among the five veto-wielding members, there are two hawks (the United States and Britain) against three relative doves (France, Russia and China). Trans-Atlantic relations are in tatters, with once again US hawks – with characteristic elegance – throwing a barrage of abuse against not only French and German politicians and diplomats, but against their people as well.
All this noxious polarization has been brought about by a single issue: the war on Iraq.
The images that Americans and Arabs have of each other are also key victims of the propaganda wars. Bahgat Korany, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, enumerates the five major stereotypes that Americans have of Arabs. Curiously, they all begin with B: Bedouin, belly dancer, bazaar man, billionaire, bomber.
Abdel Moneim Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also in Cairo, analyzes in detail what is behind these stereotypes: “The Bedouin – not necessarily negative – is portrayed as a treacherous, lecherous womanizer and kidnapper, warring, raiding and looting. The belly dancer practices an art passed down through the ages, but is portrayed as a seductress, the symbol of degeneracy, prostitution and crime. The bazaar man exists in any society, but in the Western media he represents the oily haggler and wily ripoff artist. The billionaire represents those filthy rich Arabs, bloated by a wealth they do not deserve and who inevitably squander their fortunes, ostentatiously, on debauchery and gambling.”
The bomber, according to Moneim Said, is a unique stereotype: “It always comes with the prefix ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’. Never, for example, were the members of the Baader Meinhof Gang called ‘German’ terrorists, or the members of the Red Brigades ‘Catholic’ terrorists. Bomber, thus, denotes more than just abhorrent criminal behavior: it has come to connote a society and a religion.” Monem Said adds a sixth B to the list compiled by Korany: backward, a term infamously used by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after September 11, 2001, to define Islam.
It’s fair to argue that these stereotypes are now being vigorously enforced by the absolute majority of the US media – and in a smaller scale by some media sectors in some European countries. The stereotypes of the American as a dangerous cowboy and the Arab as a lethal terrorist are even stronger after September 11. Monem Said agrees that “the Arab image of the ruthless American cowboy, guns blazing regardless of right and wrong, and the American image of the Arab terrorist – driven by a relentless frenzy and always ready to blow something up, or blow himself up, if he gets the urge to kill someone – have collided head-on.”
Everybody in fact has been a victim of the propaganda wars. In recent US polls, Egypt and Saudi Arabia plummeted in the ratings of Americans’ favorite countries. Egypt used to beat Israel in popularity, now it ranks lower. Saudi Arabia used to have a positive image, now it’s negative. According to the latest Gallup poll, France and Germany are also going down – because of their approach to the Iraqi crisis. In the Arab world, Washington’s hawks and the uncritical US media are targets of tremendous popular anger – an anger that encompasses the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, the suffering of Palestinians under occupation shown around the clock on TV, and the US obsession of smashing Iraq.
Al Jazeera at least tries to bridge the gap. The United States always derided Arab media as an extension of Arab’s autocratic regimes. Al Jazeera is not an Arab CNN – especially in the sense that it does not function as a 24-hour rolling press release of the Pentagon and the State Department. Al Jazeera follows the BBC tradition: one point of view has to be counter-balanced by an opposite point of view. When Al Jazeera instantly became a huge hit in the West as well, the US establishment immediately branded it as a propaganda tool of the Taliban. Washington demanded that networks not rebroadcast bin Laden’s interviews because they might contain coded messages to terrorist sleeper cells. It was a classic case of US hypocrisy regarding freedom of speech. Not by accident, Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul was hit by a US not-so-smart bomb hours before the Northern Alliance entered the Afghan capital in November 2001.
Monem Said tries to find explanations for the “sad irony of a large and growing Arab-Muslim presence in the West and the persistence of a negative Western image of Arabs and Muslims.” He enumerates some of them: “The West has little accurate knowledge about Islam, which for long has been regarded as a form of heresy and a rival to Christianity. Also, history shows a lengthy record of conflict with the Arab-Muslim world, from the Crusades to the Ottoman encroachment into Europe to the gates of Vienna, and from the Muslim rebellion against the British Empire in India to liberation movements in the Middle East. The Zionist cause and Israel have also taken their toll on Arab-Western relations.” And of course there are all sorts of distortions operated by the media: “Because of [their] general lack of knowledge of Arabic, the media approach to events in the Middle East is through a distorting lens that has worked to foment certain stereotypes.” Monem Said also recognizes that “the Taliban, the armed Islamist groups in Algeria and the general attitude towards women in Islamic societies have done enormous damage to the Western image of Arab and Muslim peoples.”
A solution for Arabs is to speak and convey their message in the dominant language: English. That’s exactly what Al Jazeera wants to do. The network is studying the launch of an English-language service – something that would render CNN totally irrelevant as far as coverage of Arab issues is concerned. Mustafa El-Feki, an Egyptian political scientist, knows that Al Jazeera is still an exception, and he chooses to criticize the Arab media as a whole as still incapable of communicating: “To make others hear us, Arabs should learn the technique of understanding the way the other side thinks. We should talk to them using their language instead of ours.” He mirrors progressive Arab thought when he says that the image of Islam must be corrected after September 11 and the launch of the war against terrorism. Most of all, says El-Feki, “we should stop blaming others for our problems. We are to some extent responsible for the current state of affairs. If Arab countries had true democracy, were progressing in technology and had a united agenda, we would never have reached such a humiliating state.”
The Arab-American divide is now joined by the European-American divide. In America’s corporate media, the French are now depicted as cowardly, venal, anti-American and, of course, are lumped together as “old Europe” with Germany by that stellar scholar Donald Rumsfeld. France’s and Germany’s irredeemable crime is not to follow the Bush administration’s Iraq obsession. The crude barrage of stereotyping by the US media – an extension of the notorious francophobia of the Bushites – has just reinforced the widespread popular perception not only in France and Germany, but also in practically every Latin and Northern European country, of the Bushites as a bunch of trigger-happy cowboys following a fundamentalist Bible-thumping Texas preacher. British playwright Harold Pinter described Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as a “bloodthirsty wild animal,” and the definition stuck – even in faithful US-ally Britain.
The abuse from both sides of the Atlantic now mirrors the incomprehension between Arabs and Americans. And all because of what? Because France and Germany are saying what the majority of public opinion worldwide is saying. The UN, and only the UN – through its weapons inspectors, and for as long as it takes – has to decide whether Iraq is a menace to mankind or not. And to launch a war against an Arab nation is to play Osama bin Laden’s game. Bin Laden himself has sensed this great new marketing opportunity – and he has delivered his message right on time. It seems that once again the invisible man is betting on winning the propaganda wars.