Although President Bush repeatedly says that the US is not biased against Islam, the recent appointment of Elliot Abrams to head the National Security Council’s Near East and North African office delivers exactly the opposite message to the regions 250 million plus Muslims. Putting Abrams in charge of the office that oversees Arab-Israeli relations and peace promoting efforts in the region all but eliminates any possibility for Bush to portray himself as an advocate for peace, justice and reconciliation between Israelis, Palestinians and the neighboring countries.
Like several of the other neo-conservatives populating Bush’s staff, he is a strong supporter of the ultra-right wing in Israel. For two years, I worked with Abrams on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. From the vantage point of the Commission, as an American and as a Muslim, I had the unfortunate opportunity of witnessing — clearly and unequivocally — the deep bias that Abrams brings to his new position. Perhaps the most telling experience was a disastrous trip to the Middle East, where Abrams provoked a diplomatic flap and alienated the kind of people whose support we now need if we are to be effective in fighting terrorism.
In the spring of 2001, the Commissioners decided that a trip to the Middle East was in order, agreeing to include Egypt and Saudi Arabia in view of the discrimination against religious minorities, particularly Christians, in those countries. Because the Commission had also addressed discrimination in Israel against Muslims, Christians and non-Orthodox Jews in previous meetings, naturally Israel would be added to the itinerary. As Chairman of the Commission at the time, Abrams led the delegation to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but did not go to Jerusalem with three of us as he was of the opinion that there are no problems with religious freedom in Israel that would warrant the attention of the Commission.
A brief look at the Country Reports on Human Rights published annually by the State Department reveals that the degree of discrimination against minorities in Israel proper (not to mention the Occupied Territories) is at least on par with if not worse than that experienced by Coptic Christians in Egypt. Nevertheless, during Abrams chairmanship, the Commission did not apply a uniform standard by which to judge religious freedom violations of any given country, relying instead on personal perceptions and preferences.
Bypassing Israel was not the only way Abrams undermined the Commission’s visit to the Middle East. By failing to adjust his schedule, Abrams managed to snub the leading Islamic cleric in Egypt, Sheikh Tantawi of al-Azhar, which nearly created a diplomatic nightmare that was only narrowly averted by the intervention of the US Ambassador. Ultimately, under the leadership of Abrams, the Commission published reports on over a dozen countries, including those visited throughout the year, except for Israel.
Reasonable people can and do disagree over many aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. But reasonable disagreements should never include deliberate provocation of political and spiritual leaders whose support and understanding we Americans need if we are going to succeed in making the world a safer place. The list of Abrams’ problematic statements and actions regarding Israel, Palestine, Islam and the Arab world goes on, but the confidentiality agreement of the Commission prevents further public disclosure.
With such unapologetic bias already demonstrated, how can anyone expect Abrams to do anything but perpetuate the status quo in favor of Israeli hegemony? While his is not an elected position, he still is accountable to the American people, whose taxes contribute to his salary and who care about US policy in the Middle East.
During Ramadan, the Bush Administration made overtures to the Muslim community by hosting Iftars at the White House and State Department, followed by President Bush’s visit to a mosque and a positive speech about Islam on Eid-ul-Fitr. The Administration better be prepared to spend even more time and money on its public relations campaign to deal with the wake left by Abrams as he embarks on diplomatic efforts abroad. However, it may be that Bush’s true intention is to send a message to the world that, like Abrams, he endorses the current hard-line Israeli posture at the expense of peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, going against US interests in stability for the region.
As such, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand why hostility towards the US is increasing in the Middle East as Palestinians suffer more each day. Since this Administration is willing to sacrifice human rights for other strategic interests, it must be prepared to pay the price in decreased popularity around the world. The only problem is that average Americans who are affected by our foreign policy are being served by those who are too willing to abandon the American value of justice.
Bush’s public relations team is engaged in wishful, naive and patronizing thinking by suggesting to him that superficial statements and gestures towards Muslims and Arabs will make them view our government in a more favorable light. By appointing Abrams to this post, the President has failed to show to the world’s one billion Muslims that he is sincerely interested in peace, ending terrorism, and promoting peaceful cooperation with our country. Instead, while the United States says that its actions are directed against terrorists and not Islam, Abrams’ appointment makes those words appear as hollow as a Trent Lott apology.
Dr. LAILA AL-MARAYATI was an appointed member of the nine-person US Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001. She is based in Los Angeles.