Israel and the United States often argued that “there are no moderate Arabs to negotiate” with in creating a lasting peace in the Middle East.
This is how Israel regarded the late Palestinian chairman Yassir Arafat in 2002 when tanks rolled into Ramallah, surrounding the embattled leader, before reappraising and eventually talking with the Palestinian chairman before his passing in 2004.
The idea that the Arab world has become “radicalized” has become the modus operandi of the Israeli government in dealing with the Palestinians and Arab governments, notably the Syrians and Hamas in Gaza.
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University and author of numerous books on the Middle East, argues that the concept “moderate” needs to be reexamined as whole.
“In this context [moderate] almost always means someone who does as he is told and does not oppose what Washington wants,” the author of the upcoming book, Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East, told The Media Line.
He argues that leaders across the region are treated differently based on their appeasement of America’s vision of the Middle East. This creates a misunderstanding among Western elites on how the region is viewed.
“[Former Syrian President] Hafiz Al-Asad and his son, for example, were and are willing to negotiate with Israel, but they oppose U.S. policy in a variety of regards. Their regime is repressive and dictatorial, but so is the Egyptian regime, so clearly that is not the key factor,” he continued.
In Lebanon, there exists a strong communist contingent that scares Americans, who have long been indoctrinated against anything red.
Hamra, a more upscale area of Beirut, boasts numerous cafes and restaurants that hearken back to an era when intellectuals espoused Marxist ideology openly and without impediment.
Nizar Ghanim, project officer at the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue in Beirut, is one of the new secularists, but he has become alienated from discourse over the current conflicts taking hold in the region.
By all accounts, he is a moderate, Westernized and ready for dialogue between East and West. Living in a country where religious fault lines are strong and the chasm of religion often disrupts society, Ghanim sees religion as a pervasive force.
“What this country needs is less religion. We see what religion has done to our country. People are on the streets clashing and gearing up for some sort of battle each day, and this cannot be what we want for our country,” argues Ghanim, a Druze from the center of the country.
“This country needs a secular state that is politically and economically viable in the international community. We need a liberalized economy, and the only way to actually have a stable country is to implement a secular state where these religious parties are not the leaders in political debate. They obviously haven’t helped,” he says.
Egypt is home to numerous converging political tendencies, almost all of which would be considered “moderate” in the eyes of their American counterparts. The problem is that President Hosni Mubarak is portrayed by Washington as the ideal “moderate” Arab leader.
Khalidi points to the contradictions, citing police violence, mass arrests and the silencing of political opponents as a major argument for why the term “moderate” should be reexamined.
George Ishaq is a leading activist with the Kifaya (Enough) movement, that calls for an end to Mubarak’s rule and is opposed to Gamal Mubarak – the president’s son – taking over the reins of power. He believes that if the American government is unwilling to reach out to those in the country calling for democratic change, they will soon discover the so-called moderates will quickly become radicalized.
“We want change. That is what Kifaya is doing, but Washington continues to support the regime here and allows it to detain leaders, such as Ayman Nour and others who disagree with the government,” he begins in his downtown Cairo office.
“If they are not careful, considering the recent Israeli war on Gaza, many Egyptians will become even more angry at America for its decisions to allow this horrible government to do what it wants.
“We are ready for change, but there has to be pressure from [President] Obama.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s most powerful and popular opposition organization. Since Israel’s war in Gaza its power has grown exponentially, scaring many Western observers who view Islamic organizations with distrust.
An opinion editor for a major American newspaper said that, “I"ve read The Looming Tower and I"m not interested in publishing a piece that legitimizes the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The book, written by Lawrence Wright, which chronicles Muslim extremism through the actions of the personalities that helped create Al-Qa’ida, reveals how easily swayed Americans and the West can be when dealing with Islamic movements.
A major player in modern terrorism is Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamic thinker often credited with being the father of Al-Qa’ida. Qutb, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before being expelled from the organization because his views were too radical and violent, has tarnished the Brotherhood in Egypt, making editors unwilling to publish material that “legitimizes” the Islamic movement.
There is no basis for such attacks, says Muhammad Habib, a deputy in the Brotherhood. He argues that the Brotherhood has never been involved in violent activity in its history, other than its support of the Free Officer Corps, which overthrew the Egyptian king in 1952, only to be banned and attacked by president Gamal ‘Abd A-Na’sir a few years later.
“Any act of violence, or violent tendencies, are not part of the Brotherhood’s ideology. For example, Qutb was removed from the group because of his views,” the deputy said.
This has done little to dissuade American thinkers on the “radical” nature of the Brotherhood, including Wright, who has influenced American thinking about the Brotherhood.
Gamal Al-Banna, a leading, but often ostracized progressive Islamic thinker and brother of Brotherhood founder Hasan Al-Banna, says that America is not ready to deal with Islam with tolerance and understanding because of the hatred that resulted from the September 11 attacks.
“Many Americans now see all Arabs as Muslims and all Muslims as terrorists,” Al-Banna, who is not a member of the Brotherhood, says. “This in itself creates the illusion that one can find all the answers by looking at the people within the societies that the terrorists come out of.
“This is wrong, because it means that anyone who follows Islam and is political becomes the enemy, or the terrorist.”
The question then is what can be done in order to not alienate the “moderates.” Khalidi, who has written and talked extensively on democratic change in the region, says that “true democracy” must be undertaken and supported by Washington.
“The only thing that can be done is to encourage true democracy in countries allied with the United States like Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, where Islamic movements are powerful.
“Whether these movements will continue to play by democratic rules where democracy is systematically foiled by the state with the support of the U.S. is unknowable. But the alternative – opening up the political system – seems preferable to me,” he argues.
With tanks and war continuing to prevail across the region as the “solution” to peace, Israel and the United States must be careful not to turn the so-called moderates toward radicalism and violence.