How Arabs view the anti-mosque movement

Two recent arguments about the impact of the rising anti-Islam trend in the U.S. -- from the Stupid!Storm around the Manhattan mosque to the lunacy of "national burn a Quran day" -- on the Arab world strike me as not quite right.  Last week, Bill Kristol cited the translation of a column by Saudi TV station al-Arabiya director Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed downplaying the relevance of the mosque as evidence that the argument should be over.  Meanwhile, several recent articles claim that the mosque had become the #1 topic of discussion on jihadist forums.   Both are wrong, in different ways.  Most Arab columnists agree with the argument that the anti-mosque movement will badly harm Arab and Muslim views of the United States, contra Rashed, but there isn't as much active discussion of it in the forums as you'd expect.  That isn't a reason to relax, though.  The impact is likely to be felt not so much on extremists, whose views about America are rather fixed, but on the vast middle ground, the Arab and Muslim mainstream which both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized as crucial both for defeating al-Qaeda and for achieving broad American national interests. And that mainstream, not the extremists themselves, is where our attention needs to be focused. 

A closer look at Arab mainstream media and jihadist forum debates shows what I mean.  A scan of the major op-ed pages quickly reveals that Rashed is very much a minority voice in the unfolding Arab debate.  Rashed's column caught the attention of anti-mosque activists such as Kristol, because it suited their needs.  But if Kristol really wants Americans to take their cues from Arab columnists, here's a more representative sample of commentary over the last few days:

  • Jamil al-Nimri, a Jordanian liberal writing for al-Ghad, who writes that the backlash against the mosque has unleashed a wave of bigotry and hate, at the expense of the intended message of an enlightened and tolerant Islam. 
  • Mohammed al-Hammadi, an Emirati writer for al-Ittihad, who describes the mosque as a moment for America to choose whether it truly believes in freedom.
  • Abd al-Haq Azouzi, a Moroccan writing for al-Ittihad, who reverses the familiar question to ask "why do they hate us?," and warns that those cynically manufacturing the issue for political benefit are unleashing an uncontrollable wave of hatred.
  • Abdullah al-Shayji, a Kuwaiti writing for al-Ittihad, who sees the mosque battle as a fundamental test of the place of Muslims in America and fears rising Islamophobia.
  • Ragheda Dergham, writing in al-Hayat, warns that the campaign against the mosque threatens Islamic moderation.
  • Manar al-Shourbji, in Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm, reflects that the campaign against the mosque demonstrates that the good intentions of the mosque's founders were not enough in the face of rising anti-Islam extremism in America.

And this is just from the last few days.  The most positive spin on the mosque crisis is actually that it's all politics.  A number of columnists argue that it is just  Republicans cynically using the Islam issue to hurt Obama and help their re-election campaign.   But even those columnists generally go on to worry that such forces, once unleashed, are hard to control.   Fortunately, the courageous remarks of figures such as Michael Bloomberg have also received prominent coverage --- something which gives moderate figures something to grasp onto when arguing against the extremists.   And that's what they need, both for their own sake and for ours.  

Meanwhile, the mosque has barely registered on the major jihadist forums which I frequent -- yesterday, on the leading al-Shamoukh forum, it was not mentioned in the headline of a single one of the first ten pages of posts (more than 500 in all).  There have been a few threads, as Evan Kohlmann has claimed, but it's a fairly minor theme within the forum debates ("Burn a Quran Day" has actually had more traction than the NY mosque thus far, actually).   Certainly no triumphalism about how they'll soon have a monument to victory, as you hear so often out there on the American lunatic fringe. I have no doubt that al-Qaeda and like-minded extremists will eventually use the anti-mosque movement in their propaganda, since it so perfectly fits their narrative of a West at war with Islam --- the very narrative which both the Bush administration and the Obama administration worked so hard to combat over the last few years.  I suspect that the participants in the forums aren't talking about it much is that it simply confirms what they already believe about America.  They'll use it, but don't see much to argue about. 

That's the opposite of the Arab mainstream, which is vigorously arguing about what it means for the future of America's relationship with Muslims --- both in America and in the world.  Where the anti-mosque movement and escalating anti-Islam rhetoric is really resonating is with the Arab mainstream --- that vast middle ground which had hoped that the election of Barack Obama would mark a real change from the Bush administration but have grown increasingly disappointed.   The mosque issue has been covered heavily on Arab satellite TV stations such as al-Jazeera, and the images of angry Americans chanting slogans and waving signs against Islam have resonated much like the images of angry Arabs burning American flags and denouncing U.S. policy did with American viewers after 9/11.   The recent public opinion surveys showing widespread hostility towards Islam among Americans have also gotten a lot of attention. 

It all contributes to the ongoing deterioriation of their residual hope in Obama's ability to bring about meaningful change. It's confirming the worst fears of too many mainstream Arabs and Muslims, and thus providing fodder for the extremists who hope to exploit that atmosphere. It's become a cliche to say so, but it's true:  by fueling the narrative of a clash of civilizations and an inevitable war between Islam and the West, this unfortunate trend is empowering extremists on all sides and weakening moderates.  That's exactly the dynamic which I warned about here and in my recent Foreign Affairs article, and it's one which counter-terrorism professionals and public diplomacy specialists alike understand needs to be broken before it's too late. 

Marc Lynch

Debating an Attack on Iran

This morning, I posted my first contribution to the Atlantic's online debate about Jeffrey Goldberg's much-debated cover story on whether Israel will attack Iran.   I take Goldberg's reporting seriously, particularly since I have heard many similar comments from both U.S. and Israeli officials.   That's precisely why I believe that it's important to engage the argument for an attack on Iran head on.... now, rather than after a bad decision has already been made.  What do I think?   Well, the title chosen by the editors doesn't leave much to the imagination:  "Striking Iran is Unwarranted and It  Would Mean Disaster."  I argue that "the argument for a military strike on Iran remains weak, with massive potential negative effects, very limited prospects for significant positive impact, and much less urgency than its proponents claim. It is Obama's sound strategic judgement, not his lack of will, which makes an attack unlikely."   The entire debate has been instructive.  

The debate about Goldberg's article over the last couple of weeks has been quite robust --- both the give and take among the eight panelists assembled by the Atlantic, and the broader discussion across the blogosphere which has been regularly rounded up in editor JJ Gould's daily summaries.   Gould has done an impressive job of orchestrating actual dialogue across analytical divides (Elliott Abrams is scheduled to respond to my post soon, and I am supposed to respond to Reuel Gerecht's post after he publishes it in a few days).  And, while I'm at it, a special shout-out to Goldberg for his strong stance on the New York mosque craziness --- he has been a strong voice, and a brave one.

Contrary to the complaint by skeptics like the Leveretts that since they weren't included the debate could only be an "echo chamber" (for the record, we published their take on the Middle East Channel here), many of the panelists have pushed back hard.  Some, like Gerecht, do indeed argue for military action.  But the general trend of the discussion is best captured by former State Department official Nicholas Burns, who came away "more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran's nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield."   Gary Milhollin doubts that an attack would really have a decisive impact on the Iranian nuclear program, while Robin Wright argues that we are "nowhere near the point of no return."  Some echo chamber.  Add in the vibrant debate across many other sites (which I won't try to summarize for fear of offending those whose contributions I leave out), and I'd say that Goldberg's article has succeeded not in paving the way for military action but in focusing attention on the issue in such a way as to make an attack less likely.

While I'm not going to reproduce my whole essay here, here are some of the major points:

  • a military strike is not likely to put an end to Iran's nuclear potential, or to provide any significant sense of certainty (I do not find Goldberg's notion of Israeli commandos quickly darting in from Iraqi Kurdistan to check things out especially reassuring).
  • the idea Israel has a fixed deadline is not credible. Israeli officials and American Iran hawks have paraded a never-ending series of such immutable deadlines over the last decade -- of 2006, of 2007, of 2008, and now of December 2010. None proved quite so immutable.
  • the costs could be high:  a strike by Americans or Israelis could trigger a wave of regional chaos, badly weaken the already struggling Green Movement, and seriously complicate the U.S. drawdown from Iraq. It would prove the death-knell for Obama's efforts to construct a new relationship with the Muslim communities of the world, trigger a wave of anti-American rage among Arab publics, deeply complicate the tentative moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 
  • The "war bluff" argument -- that we will be most effective at diplomacy if we can credibly threaten force, with Israel playing the "bad cop" to force Iran to deal with the American "good cop" -- only works if there is adequate trust between the U.S. and Israel. This is why the Obama administration has taken to consulting so regularly and at such high levels with Israel, in order to ensure that communication is clear and consistent. Goldberg's suggestion that Israeli officials would nevertheless be prepared to spring such a surprise undermines that trust.
  • If Israel truly felt such existential urgency, then wouldn't it be willing to make concessions on Gaza or the peace process in order to build international support and sympathy? If Israel hopes to build an international consensus, this has been an odd way to go about it.
  • Much of the alleged urgency to attack Iran is rooted in an oddly anachronistic view of rising Iranian power in the region. But in fact, Iran's image and influence have been in retreat in the region during much of Obama's administration. Obama's initial outreach challenged the Iranian regime, which had grown quite comfortable in dealing with the Bush administration's aggressive rhetoric dividing the region into moderate and radical camps -- which had the self-defeating effect of ceding the popular mantle of "resistance" to Iran by default. But Iran today is isolated and beleaguered within the region, and has proven unable to capitalize on Obama's declining popularity or U.S. policy mistakes. 
  • That the leadership of most Gulf states remains deeply suspicious of Iran, and that the Saudi-owned media is full of anti-Iranian commentary and reporting, is nothing new. But compared to two years ago, Iran's position with Arab publics and the "resistance" trend is also far weaker. Turkey now offers a far more attractive -- and effective -- brand of "resistance", with its advanced economy, moderate Islamist and fully democratic politics, and creative diplomacy. Meanwhile, the botched aftermath of the Iranian elections and the repression of the Green Movement -- heavily covered by al-Jazeera and other popular Arab media --- badly harmed its image with Arab publics. An Israeli or American attack on Iran would almost certainly bring these publics intensely back to Iran's side, though, rescuing them from their own decline. 
  • The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, however (see MEC editor Amjad Atallah's excellent post on this here). While Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.  Arab leaders will likely continue to welcome any efforts to contain Iranian power, particularly when it takes the form of major arms deals and political support. And they will likely continue to mutter and complain about America's failure to magically solve their problems for them. But those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed -- especially if there is still no progress on the peace process.

There's more, including a strong warning to not repeat the experience of 2002:  as a general rule, beware of those claiming that there are no options other than war and that time is running out, that the benefits of an attack will be high and the costs low, and that it won't affect other important issues.  Hopefully we've learned something.  More on the debate later this week, when it officially wraps up.  

UPDATE:  Elliott Abrams responds by complaining that I blame Israel for everything, while declining to engage with any of my actual arguments.  How disappointing -- for some reason, I have to admit that I expected better.  

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