Communication vital step in cultural understanding

When I returned after a year of working in the Middle East, my sister barraged me with questions. One of the first she asked was, “Why do they hate us?” She also wanted to know why Arabs hate Israel and why they link the U.S. to Israel. I put on my anthropologist hat and gave her questions some thought.

Despite media references that tend to group all the members of the Arab community under one large umbrella, a great diversity of opinion exists abroad, particularly regarding U.S. foreign policy. I talked to a variety of foreign nationals while overseas, and repeatedly heard certain complaints. Arabs oppose Western interference in general and U.S. policy in particular for two main reasons: carte blanche support of Israel and political hypocrisy.

On the issue of Israel, many Arabs consider the very existence of the country to be a slight to the Arab world. They view the country as a holdover from the era when colonial powers could have their way with impunity. Beyond any historical animosity between Jews and Muslims, the current degree of hostility owes much to the manner by which Israel was created.

Great Britain, which mandated Israel’s existence as a last colonial action, drew the borders roughly in accordance with a decree from the United Nations. When the United States recognized Israel as a state, holy ground of three religions became held by one. The conflict over the Temple Mount clearly illustrates the friction this created. Gershom Gorenberg spoke to the Middle East Forum about the Temple Mount in 2001 and explained that because of religious belief, the land of the Temple Mount is the most disputed area in the world. Having Arab-Palestinian control stripped from these religious sites by a colonial power enflamed the region.

The U.S. support for Israel, which many Arabs saw as a Jewish invasion, led to both countries getting lumped together in the eyes of the public. The English language newspaper Gulf News calls Israel the 51st state and an American military outpost. However, while the United States does give a large amount of aid to the Israelis, they also aid the Palestinians, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the Gulf region.

Many Arabs I spoke with cited U.S. reasoning for the war against Iraq and its continued support for Israel as typical examples of American hypocrisy.

Saddam tortured and killed his opposition. Many Arabs accuse Israel of similar abuses against Palestinian civilians, such as the destruction of Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon. At these camps, Ariel Sharon, later to be the prime minister of Israel, permitted the killing of hundreds of civilians, but no media attention or complaints came from the United States.

Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) generate another point of alleged U.S. hypocrisy from the Arab point of view. While unproven, most experts agree that the Israelis have possessed nuclear weapons for years. The United States holds one of the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet, in addition to huge stockpiles of chemical agents and even some biological ones. Despite this, the United States does not plan to disarm, nor does it demand that Israel disarm. Meanwhile, U.S. policy used the alleged presence of WMDs as an excuse to invade Iraq.

Iraqi support for terrorism also motivated the U.S.-led invasion. The Arab world knew that Saddam allowed very few Islamic militants into his country. The 9-11 Commission Report found that differences in ideology between Saddam and Al Qaeda made cooperation highly unlikely. Saddam saw Islamo-fascist terrorists as a destabilizing threat and routinely tortured and executed them, just as he would many other political dissidents under his rule. It’s widely assumed in the intelligence community that most of the terrorist activity in Iraq came from covert Iranian operations run by members of the Pasdaran (a sort of militarized CIA in Iran). I never heard an Arab absolve Saddam of blame for the crimes the United States accused him of committing. What they did take issue with was the United States giving Israel a free pass on these same issues.

My sister now looks at these issues with a broader perspective since we discussed them. I hope that my conversations overseas had the same result. Only by better understanding each other can we all get along peacefully on this tiny planet.

Jason Olivero is majoring in electrical engineering and has a degree in anthropology from the University of Florida.