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Scholars Analyze Anti-American Sentiments - 2001-09-25

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have left many Americans puzzled by the depth of hostility and rage in the Middle East that is directed toward the United States. That anger has been simmering for more than half a century.

Anger toward the United States as expressed on Arab streets has intensified in recent years as the Middle East peace process falters.

Arabs complain of double standards. They point to Washington's war against Iraq over its 1990 invasion of Kuwait but its perceived reluctance to push Israel harder to withdraw from Palestinian territories it has occupied since 1967.

John Esposito, who heads Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding says the deterioration of the peace process has fueled that anger. He said, "What they're seeing is, yes, the violence on both sides, but also the disproportionate amount of violence from the Israeli side in terms of injuries and deaths and fire power. And they're seeing American weapons being used by Israelis against Palestinians. This naturally feeds an anti-Americanism."

Analysts also cite Arab anger over U.S. and European support for the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, which displaced millions of Arabs from their homeland.

The list of grievances includes the impact of U.S. sanctions on the predominantly Muslim populations of Iraq, Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan. Muslims have also criticized the presence of U.S. soldiers, described as infidels and nonbelievers, in Saudi Arabia, which is home to the holiest shrines of Islam.

Middle East watchers like Anisa Abdel-Fattah, who helps edit the Middle East Affairs Journal, says U.S. credibility has been damaged by these policies. "The Muslims," he said, "are saying we can accept, support and assist a real campaign against terrorism but not if you want to have a campaign against human rights activism, reform movements in the Muslim world who are asking for democratization in the Muslim world and other reforms, resistance to occupation. Then of course there is going to be a problem. What is that problem? It's the problem of credibility."

Professor William Beeman of Brown University's Anthropology Department adds long-standing Arab complaints of the excesses of Western society and its sense of cultural superiority, which Arabs feel is being imposed on them. "In the Middle Eastern world," he said, "there is no trouble whatsoever with technology. Technological development is very much encouraged. The problem with things like mass media has not to do with the technology itself but the content. And what people object to are Western moral sensibilities and Western ideas of proper behavior impinging in the Islamic world and essentially the contrast that exist there."

Middle East scholars say extremists have capitalized on that simmering to recruit supporters to their war against the West.

Professor Esposito laments their abuse of the Islamic concept of Jihad. "Remember," he said, "Jihad means generically the struggle of a Muslim to be a good Muslim and the Muslim community to embody what Islam is about. Jihad includes the notion that the obligation to be a good Muslim is also an obligation to defend Islam or the community when it is under siege, when it is being threatened or attacked."

Mr. Esposito says Muslim extremists have demonized the United States and portrayed U.S. policies as an attack on Islam to try to justify their war and recruit followers to their cause.