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Analysis: How Do Arabs View The Violence in Iraq?

  • Roman Kupchinsky

http://gdb.rferl.org/ADABBF04-ECF6-47F2-A75C-2E6FB1A3B97E_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/ADABBF04-ECF6-47F2-A75C-2E6FB1A3B97E_mw800_mh600.jpg Chilling scenes of indiscriminate car bombings, beheadings, and mortar attacks, showing dozens of dead Iraqi civilians, have become a regular feature on Arabic TV news stations like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah, alongside footage of civilians killed during coalition bombing raids and firefights with insurgents. Viewed by large audiences in the Middle East, television coverage of the war has generated predictable condemnation of the United States' role in Iraq. At the same time, these reports have also created the image of Sunni insurgents who claim to be battling coalition forces but are often seen killing Shi'ite Muslims.

The recent upsurge in violence has led more Arab scholars, commentators, and politicians to publicly condemn terrorism aimed at Iraqi civilians as counterproductive. Terrorism against civilians is not only incapable of forcing coalition troops out of the country, these critics claim, it could drag the entire Middle East into a sectarian civil war.

The Iraqi insurgents are "willing to kill 90 Iraqi civilians in order to kill one U.S. soldier," Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in June, Beirut's "The Daily Star" reported on 20 August. "Saddam's Ba'athists and even Wahhabis are willing to negotiate with the Americans, all in order to prevent a rise in Shi'ite power," the newspaper quoted the leader of the Lebanese Shi'ite group as saying. This network "will strike at Shi'ite targets in the Arab world, outside Iraq, very soon," he added.

In March 2003, Nasrallah condemned these killings and "warned Al-Qaeda's fighters...that such behavior would damage the Palestinian cause because it would lead to Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian strife, an apparent goal of [Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-]Zarqawi," "The Daily Star" reported.
"Saddam's Ba'athists and even Wahhabis are willing to negotiate with the Americans, all in order to prevent a rise in Shi'ite power."


That the invasion of Iraq has damaged the image of the United States among Muslims has been widely reported. In such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, the ratings of the United States are at their lowest ever. The findings of a June 2004 Zogby International poll "Impressions of America -- How Arabs View America" concluded that "attitudes toward U.S. policy in Iraq and Palestine are extremely low, in the single-digit range."

However, few polls have been taken to gauge the impact that terrorist acts against Iraqi civilians have had upon the same audience. In lieu of hard polling data, one possibility is to turn to recent commentaries in the Arab press for an insight into how some influential Muslims view these events. A sampling of commentary in the Arab press after the hostage tragedy at a school in Beslan in Russia's North Ossetia compiled by the Middle East Media Research Institute (http://www.memri.org) provides some examples.

Writing in the 4 September issue of the London daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat," Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, a former editor, commented: "Obviously not all Muslims are terrorists but, regrettably, the majority of the terrorists in the world are Muslims. The kidnappers of the students in [North] Ossetia are Muslims. The kidnappers and killers of the Nepalese workers and cooks are also Muslims. Those who rape and murder in Darfur are Muslims, and their victims are Muslims as well.... What a terrible record. Does this not say something about us, about our society and our culture?"

Iraqi columnist Aziz al-Hajj wrote on elaph.com on 4 September: "The Arabs and Muslims today contribute nothing to civilization and progress except for blood, severed heads, scorched bodies, and the abduction and murder of children. The jihad for religion and Arab chivalry have turned into the art of exploding, booby trapping, and spilling blood...."

Bater Wardam, a columnist for the Jordanian daily "Al-Dustur" wrote on 5 September: "It is always easy to flee to illusions and to place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists, and on American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case and that those who murder innocent civilians in Iraq after having kidnapped them...came from our midst.... Even worse, we are employing the same moral double standard regarding people's lives that the West uses."

The conflict in Iraq has been central in molding public opinion in the Arab world and many in the Middle East were suspected of accepting the claims of terrorist leaders such as al-Zarqawi about the Iraqi population and its "resolve and steely determination" in opposing the occupation armies. However, the real views held by Iraqis were unknown to their neighbors until a poll was conducted in the country in August 2003 by Zogby International.

Commenting on this poll, Abd al-Moneim Said, the director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, wrote in the Egyptian weekly "Al-Ahram" of 30 October-5 November 2003: "When the first public opinion poll was carried out in Egypt by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in 1998, some national newspapers denounced such research as a form of treason, the assumption being that foreign intelligence services must never know what is on our people's mind. We need to keep public opinion secret to confound the enemy, even if we ourselves remain confused.

"Many Arabs would be surprised to know that Iraqis do not believe that the current occupation necessarily bodes ill for the country.... In all, the poll shows that Iraqis are relatively more united than commonly thought. They believe that what happened to Iraq is not all bad, that the country has a definite chance of improvement, and that the occupation has to end soon, preferably within a year."

The failure of a jihad that is killing more Muslims then avowed enemies was the subject of an article by David Ignatius in "The Daily Star" on 29 September. Citing a new book by French Arabist Gilles Kepel, "The War for Muslim Minds," Ignatius writes: "Rather than waging a successful jihad against the West, the followers of Osama bin Laden have created chaos and destruction within the house of Islam. This internal crisis is known in Arabic as 'fitna': 'It has an opposite and negative connotation from jihad,' explains Kepel. 'It signifies sedition, war in the heart of Islam, a centrifugal force that threatens the faithful with community fragmentation, disintegration and ruin.'

"'The principle goal of terrorism -- to seize power in Muslim countries through mobilization of populations galvanized by jihad's sheer audacity -- has not been realized,' writes Kepel. In fact, bin Laden's followers are losing ground: The Taliban regime in Afghanistan has been toppled; the fence-sitting semi-Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia has taken sides more strongly with the West; Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat; the plight of the Palestinians has never been more dire. And Baghdad, the traditional seat of the Muslim caliphs, is under foreign occupation. Not what you would call a successful jihad," Ignatius concludes.
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