US Image Problem Rooted in History, Not Media

by RAMZY BAROUD

US President George W. Bush yet once again blamed Arab media for his country’s image problem.

"I recognize we got an image issue, particularly when you have television stations, Arabic television stations that are constantly just pounding America–saying America is fighting Islam, Americans can’t stand Muslims, this is a war against a religion," Bush commented following a speech in Philadelphia on Monday, December 12.

It’s disturbing to think that the president truly believes that Arab and Muslim contempt for his government stems from Arab media detractors, rather than his administration’s misguided policies. Simply put, Arab and Muslim nations’ disdain for the Bush administration is a natural human response to colonization, military oppression, and the degrading regimes they bring about. Before offering his impulsive remarks, President Bush should’ve consulted the history of the Middle East–of which his clique often claims mastery–a region whose past has been marred with utter contempt for foreign occupiers and unyielding struggle to force them out.

Indeed, the US image problem has little to do with newspapers and 24-hours news channels, and more to do with the dangerous insistence on ignoring the roots of the West’s fallout with Muslims, not always as a religious group, but as colonized and exploited nations.

Indeed, for centuries, the Muslim-dominated Middle East has captured the West’s imagination in a myriad of ways. Yet, as is often the case, the disparity of power and wealth dictated the course of Western action–and reaction–then concentrated mostly in Europe. Up until the second half of the twentieth century, much of the Middle East–not to mention other regions that were viewed as lands of equally ‘inferior’ races–fell victim to untold exploitation, degradation, and often, brutal violence.

Little has been done since most Middle Eastern nations attained their independence in recent decades, to redeem the roots of hatred; to the contrary, much was done to exasperate the animosity.

In the second half of the past century, colonialism was brought to an end in its conventional ways, perhaps, with Palestine remaining the most practical and tragic example; but its dialectics–those of political and economic hegemony–were hardly altered. The Arabs, after all, still had plenty to offer and the West, now US-dominated, persistently saw Arab offerings purely through colonialist-colored lenses: spoils; plain and simple.

Evidently, European imperialism–despite constant attempts to delineate the differences between French colonial experiences and those of Britain, for example–had devastated Middle Eastern cultures. Even the positive contributions to local cultures during those years, were mostly unintentional and often cosmetic.

The conventional colonialist experience was forced to yield in the years following the end of World War II to alternative methods that would still allow Western countries to safeguard their economic interests in the region. Militarily weakened and unable to tame the fractious colonies, yet reluctant to treat former subjects as equal partners, Western nations were compelled to devise new colonial stratagem. Arab nations for example were subjugated through Western-sponsored local elites, corruptible and coercive. Many Arab intellectuals have rightly argued that a decided halt of Western imperialism never truly actualized. Direct and indirect intervention in Arab affairs–with the same arrogant expectations–continued to mar the relationship between the West and Arabs.

The United States in particular, joining the colonial club at a later stage, was not always viewed as a colonial menace. The US government’s strong stance against the trio British-French-Israeli aggression against Egypt in 1956 placed it in a somewhat different category from the rest. However, the US colonial status, bashful and reluctant at first, was forcefully shaped during the Arab-Israel war of 1967. Only then did the United States’ devout and resolved support of Israel–a colonial protégé itself–fully actualize.

Since then, the US political, financial and military commitment to Israel has further damaged the perception of the Arab and Muslim peoples of the United States. Thus being anti-Israel–a common feeling among most Arabs and Muslims, for obvious reasons–was tantamount to being anti-American. The failure of Arab regimes to take a strong stand against both also added to the tension. The fury and bitterness espoused by early colonial experiences lingered, unscathed. To pretend that extremism and terrorism, plaguing many spots in the Arab and Muslim world are irrelevant to this debate, is to ignore the roots of the violence at the expense of innocent lives everywhere.

As if its despised involvement in helping shape a miserable reality throughout the Middle East was not enough, the US occupation of Iraq, the heart of the Arab world in March 2003 earned it the designation of colonial master. More, the fact that the war on Iraq took place largely as a result of neo-conservative plotting–a dedicated pro-Israeli camp–and amid the cheers of Israeli leaders, Arabs were left–as reflected in their media–with no other option but to view the US as an official enemy of the Arab people, as belligerent as former European colonialists, and twice as lethal.

It appears too late for President Bush to appreciate this attempt at explaining the roots of his country’s image problem. Indeed, in his Philadelphia speech, he seemed heedless of history, its complexities and its many good lessons. It was the media who should be blamed for his problem with Arabs and Muslims, he insisted. With such a misconstrued perception, one’s hope for a serious change of course in US foreign policy would have to be shelved, long enough for reason to prevail, or for history to repeat itself.

RAMZY BAROUD, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. He is the author of the forthcoming book: Writing on the Palestinian Uprising: A Chronology of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London). He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com.

 

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