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As Americans Criticize Arab World, Activists Ponder New Pr Campaign

January 1, 2002
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Facing increasingly hostile American attitudes toward the Arab world since Sept. 11, Arab American activists talk of adopting a public relations strategy similar to the “hasbarah” campaign of pro-Israel advocates.

Hasbarah is a uniquely Hebrew term that means part explanation, part public relations — and part propaganda.

Arab American activists say their brethren overseas could use a bit of it: A new Zogby International poll indicates that as Americans struggle to understand why they were attacked on Sept. 11, a growing number are lashing out at ostensible U.S. allies in the Arab Middle East like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Asked about Egypt, the largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel, 38 percent of respondents indicated a favorable view, while 34 percent held a negative view. That’s down from 64 percent who had a favorable view of Egypt in 1993, when the Oslo peace process began.

The numbers are worse for Saudi Arabia, which has hosted American troops since the Gulf War a decade ago: Only 24 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the sheikdom, while a resounding 58 percent have negative views, according to the Zogby poll.

To counter the onslaught of bad press — and what activists hint is a hidden Jewish agenda to discredit Egypt and Saudi Arabia — activists say they must hit the talk shows and opinion pages. They also encourage spokesmen from the Arab world to their case directly to the American people, not just to the American government.

“Right now, the sense is that the Arabs are not good allies, so there should be a more active and vibrant PR coming out of the moderate Arab states,” said John Zogby, president of the polling firm and himself an Arab American activist of Lebanese Christian descent.

“The Arabs should be stating the difficulties they have, that leaning so heavily toward the U.S. opens up the possibility of fundamentalist activity within their borders,” he said. “I think that story has to be told.”

U.S. pundits now blame the regime in question for the flourishing fundamentalist movement, as countless young men seek a spiritual refuge from political repression and economic deprivation.

Zogby’s brother James, president of the Arab American Institute — which the brothers co-founded — also says the problem is mainly one of public relations.

“The problem is that the Egyptians and Saudis are being defined by groups not supportive of the Arab-U.S. relationship, who write the Saudis aren’t cooperating with this, the Egyptians haven’t done that,” James Zogby said.

He identified the responsible groups as “neo-conservatives,” “the Christian right,” and “some groups in the Jewish community.”

“These canards have stuck in the public craw and must be responded to in the same public venues in which they’re made,” Zogby said.

Jewish leaders reject the idea of a concerted, Jewish-led campaign against Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“These countries have always been largely immune from scrutiny for various reasons, like concern for their stability. What exposes them is that the 19 terrorists came from those countries, and the media have finally begun to look at a reality that all along has gotten minor mention, including the diatribes and incitement against the U.S. and their governments’ failure to act,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “This is the truth finally coming out, and reality catching up with itself.”

Activists say it’s too early to tell whether Americans’ increasingly dim view of the Arab world is a logical outgrowth of Sept. 11 and a blip in U.S.-Arab relations, or the start of a trend.

They dispute the notion that Islam or the general Muslim world is at fault for Sept. 11, but say if the recent media criticism of Egypt and Saudi Arabia continues unabated, it may bring about the “clash of civilizations” — pitting Islam against the West — prophesied by the scholar Samuel Huntington.

It was little more than a year ago that the political fortunes of Arab and Muslim Americans seemed to be on the rise.

During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, American Jewish leaders noted with concern — and a touch of admiration — the rising political maturity, savvy and influence of the Arab American community.

But the Sept. 11 attacks have sent the community reeling, forcing it to fend off hate crimes, racial profiling and mass arrests.

Not that Americans are projecting their antipathy for the Arab world onto Arab Americans.

Indeed, since President Bush’s public embrace of Arab and Muslim Americans and his call not to impose collective guilt, Zogby International says Americans’ positive sentiment toward Arab Americans is at an all-time high, with nearly two-thirds offering favorable responses, John Zogby said.

Views of the Arab world, though, are a different story.

In the weeks following Sept. 11, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” The Arab world and Arab Americans were quick to cite the U.S. troop presence in Saudi Arabia, U.S.-backed sanctions against Iraq, the economic and cultural ramifications of globalization — and of course, Israeli treatment of Palestinians, which the Arab world believes carries America’s endorsement.

Since then, U.S. reporters in the field and pundits in New York and Washington have turned their attention to the two countries that bore and bred most of the suicide hijackers — Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Osama bin Laden is Saudi, while his longtime No. 2 man is Egyptian.

The heightened scrutiny has made for lousy PR and has elicited strong protests from Egypt and Saudi Arabia — which have lashed out, explicitly or implicitly, at world Jewry and its alleged stranglehold on international media.

Zogby polled 1,004 Americans, with a 3.2 percent margin of error.

Respondents weren’t asked this time to explain their negative views of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In an October poll by Zogby, the most common reasons given were the two countries’ “relation to the terrorists,” “don’t know where they stand,” “don’t trust them” and “their government.”

As for Israel, the Jewish state had a favorable rating of 59 percent, a number consistent with previous results. Its negative rating, however, has doubled since Sept. 11, from 14 percent to 28 percent. The poll did not ask respondents to explain why.

The Palestinian Authority, which traditionally garners low marks, is seen favorably by only 10 percent of the U.S. public, and negatively by 72 percent, according to the poll.

For both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the recent poll numbers are the worst Zogby International has ever recorded, John Zogby said.

He and others lay much of the blame at the media’s door, but a Jewish leader credits the media for telling it like it is.

“These problems are not being manufactured by the media; we’ve said for a long time there are problems with extremism, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “If there’s growing recognition that these problems exist, we’re happy with that. But from our perspective, we’d much rather see these countries move to address these problems seriously than to see hostile American attitudes toward them.”

Still, pro-Arab advocates sense a pattern to the criticism.

“I don’t want to make this into a conspiracy, because I don’t think it is,” said Edward Abington, President Clinton’s consul general in Jerusalem from 1993-97 and now one of the Palestinian Authority’s leading lobbyists in Washington.

“But the ones who have been the most consistently pro-Israel from a right-wing point of view, and what I consider to be anti-Arab, are the same who are very vitriolic in their commentary about Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, believes he knows why.

“The Saudis and Egyptians are the two Arab states with some influence on Washington’s policy-making, especially when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli process,” Ibish said. “Close relations are an obstacle to 100 percent identification with Israeli policies.”

Nevertheless, Ibish acknowledged that “some criticism is warranted, and a very serious discussion needs to take place about the lack of democracy and openness in the Arab world.”

At the same time, he said, Americans should also be made aware of their government’s role in shaping the policies of various Arab regimes.

“This is different from ‘hasbarah,’ because hasbarah is statecraft in another form — the art of spin to promote or defend Israel and Israeli policies,” he said.

“But we can’t afford that right now. There are loud and prominent voices in America and the Arab world that cast these events in terms of a clash of civilizations, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he continued. “I feel the need for some radical honesty about the failings of both Arabs and Americans, of the form that will probably lose us friends from both sides.”

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