Lawrence Pintak, TBS Senior Editor
The following article is adapted from Pintak's new book,
Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the
War of Ideas, published in January 2006 by Pluto Books UK
and the University of Michigan Press.
A radical restructuring of the global media landscape and the
emergence of information ghettos, in which US and Muslim audiences
view policy through conflicting prisms, has transformed Palestine
into a marker of Muslim identity among non-Arab Muslims. This
development results, in part, from a failure of the Bush administration
during its first term to recognize that Washington can no longer
say one thing and do another, and has profound implications
for future US relations with the Muslim world.
During a whirlwind tour of Asia in the fall of 2003, President
George W. Bush met with Indonesian Muslim leaders on the island
of Bali. Emerging from the three hour session, Bush turned to
his aides and expressed amazement that the Indonesians seemed
to believe that Americans saw all Muslims as terrorists. “He
was equally distressed,” The New York Times reported,
“to hear that the United States was so pro-Israel that
it was uninterested in the creation of a Palestinian state living
alongside Israel, despite his frequent declarations calling
for exactly that.”(1)
This moment reflected the yawning gap in worldview, perception
and communications that had fed the rise of anti-Americanism
in the post-9/11 era. It also vividly drove home the degree
to which the Bush administration’s policies and rhetoric
– combined with revolutionary media reform – had
elevated the question of Palestine from an afterthought in the
non-Arab Muslim world to a marker of Muslim identity and measure
of attitudes toward the US.
The New Information Ghettos
A host of public opinion surveys since 9/11 have tracked the
steady disintegration of attitudes toward the US in the Muslim
world, from widespread sympathy immediately after the attacks
to almost universal disdain by the summer of 2004. It is a given
that this shift has had a dramatic impact on Arab views
of US Middle East policy. However, relatively little attention
has been paid to the degree to which Arab issues now inform
US relations with the peoples of the non-Arab Muslim
Palestine has always been a defining issue in the Middle East;
a deeply emotional issue for many Arabs and a cause célèbre
given at least lip service by even the most reactionary regimes.
But in the non-Arab Muslim world, Palestine held no similar
lock on the public psyche. The situation is now very different.
Iraq may today command headlines around the globe, but a confluence
of post-9/11 events have meanwhile elevated the question of
Palestine to the level of a marker of Muslim identity, a development
with policy implications at least as important as the invasion
This heightened sense of Palestine as a Muslim cause
is the result of a revolutionary shift in the international
media, which has resulted in a complete restructuring of what
Marshall McLuhan called “the global village.” The
result is a set of information ghettos whose inhabitants –
in the US and the Muslim world – see dramatically different
versions of the same reality, much as domestic American audiences
are turning to news outlets, such as Fox News, that reinforce
their own ideological worldviews.
The emergence of these information ghettos and the rise of Palestine
as a marker of identity in the non-Arab Muslim world are critical
developments that must be taken into account by those plotting
future US policy.
As this article will illustrate, the turning point in non-Arab
Muslim attitudes toward Palestine came with Israel’s invasion
of the West Bank and Gaza in the spring of 2002, an event that
coincided with a confluence of three critical developments:
A sense of psychological siege among Muslims as a result of
the ‘war on terror;’ the perception of an overtly
pro-Israeli shift in Bush administration policy; and, most critically,
the emergence of Al Jazeera as a primary source of news in the
Middle East and broader non-Arab Muslim world.
Changing Views of Palestine
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and
site of the meeting that so perplexed the president, is emblematic
of this new view of Palestine and its role as a lens through
which non-Arab Muslims perceive US policy.
In the year 2000, a Pew survey reported that 75 percent of Indonesians
held a “favorable view” of the US.(2) In the spring
of 2002, that figure still stood at 61 percent.(3) But by the
spring of 2003 the situation had essentially reversed, with
85 percent of Indonesians surveyed reporting an unfavorable
view of the US.(4) With these new attitudes toward the US came
a new concern for the Palestinians. In a country where the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict had never been more than a tertiary issue, 68 percent
of those polled in 2003 listed Yasser Arafat as the world figure
in whom they had the most confidence. Even more striking,
King Abdullah of Jordan, another major player in the Israel-Palestine
dispute, came in second at 66 percent.(5) The Middle East was
suddenly at the top of the Indonesian agenda.
“There is no other problem which Muslims identify with
more than the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Jusuf Wanandi,
of Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International
Studies, wrote that same year.(6) It was a huge psychological
shift, brought about by the Bush administration’s failure
to understand – or at least try to understand –
Muslim perceptions of US policy, as well as the apparent inability
of the White House to grasp the fact that recent and dramatic
changes in international media structures meant the US government
could no longer write the script for the global narrative, saying
one thing and doing another; nor could it ignore international
realities – like the psychological importance of Palestine
– that inconveniently conflicted with its domestic political
Historically, Indonesians never much cared about the plight
of the Palestinians. When the first Palestinian Intifada broke
out in December 1987, Indonesians barely noticed. The first
mention of the crisis in the country’s largest-circulation
daily, Kompas, came nine days after the uprising began,
in the form of a small photograph from the Associated Press
buried deep inside the paper. The caption read: “Beaten
– Israeli soldiers on Tuesday hit and kicked a Palestinian
youth who was violently protesting in the Gaza Strip. The protests,
which have been occurring since 8 December, also broke on the
Western side of the River Jordan.”(7) The fact that at
least 17 Palestinians had so far been killed by Israeli troops
was not mentioned.
Another four days would pass before Kompas again reported
on the crisis. The paper was instead dominated by news of riots
in South Korea and stories about a scandal involving US presidential
candidate Gary Hart and model Donna Rice. With two million Palestinians
on strike, shutting down Israel’s economy, widespread
rioting and a wave of sympathy attacks against Israeli troops
in Lebanon, the paper ran a short wire service article on its
foreign page about Arab condemnation of Israeli actions in the
Occupied Territories.(8) The following day it printed another
small wire service story.(9) On Dec. 23, with the shooting deaths
of three Palestinians by Israeli forces bringing the death toll
for the two weeks of violence to at least 22, the Intifada finally
made it to the front page of Kompas. The paper wrote
its first editorial on the emerging conflict the same day. While
US editorials evocatively described the “clash of dreams
and realities” in the Occupied Territories that had left
as casualties “Arab lives and Israeli conscience,”(10)
Kompas confined itself to an academic history lesson
of the past 40 years, which failed to even mention Israel’s
conquest of Jerusalem, site of one of Islam’s most sacred
mosques, or the fact that the holy city had been declared the
Jewish capital. Quoting a political science professor from Hebrew
University, the paper dryly explained that there were “basically
two opinions” regarding the Gaza Strip and what Kompas
called “the West Bank of the Jordan River.” “One
thought is the territorial school of thought and the other is
more of a sociological school of thought.” Without betraying
any opinion on the subject, the paper blandly explained that
“the Arab population” of those territories occupied
by Israel “think that these areas that they reside
in are theirs.”(11)
Not only was the newspaper silent about its own opinion of the
violence or the plight of the Palestinians, so too was the Indonesian
government and the country’s Muslim community. The White
House had sharply rebuked Israel for “harsh security measures
and excessive use of live ammunition” against Palestinian
civilians in those opening days of the Intifada,(12) but Kompas
reported no similar concerns from the presidential palace of
the world’s largest Muslim country, nor did its few articles
about the crisis mention local attitudes. The crisis would remain
on the front pages of US newspapers and on editorials and opinion
pages, with talk of “inhumane conditions” for detainees(13)
and the danger that, if it did not resolve the plight of the
Palestinians, “Israel will become another South Africa.”(14)
A headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune, for example,
asked, “Has Israel Lost Its Democracy?”(15) But
Kompas neither posed compelling questions nor cast
its lot with its fellow Muslims. Nor, apparently, did its readers.
Not a single letter to the editor published between December
9 and December 24 mentioned the Palestinians
Kompas exhibited only slightly more interest ten months
later in October 1990 when at least 18 Palestinians were killed
and more than 150 were injured by Israeli forces after they
prevented Jewish extremists from placing a cornerstone for a
“Jewish third temple” on the grounds of al-Aqsa
Mosque. A small article headlined “Israel Shoots Palestinians”
made the bottom corner of the front page, but it was dwarfed
by a four-column photograph showing Israeli soldiers fitting
children with gas masks in anticipation of missile attacks from
Iraq, which was then occupying Kuwait, an image likely to evoke
sympathy for Israelis rather than outrage at Israeli treatment
With the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque closed to Muslims and ringed
by Israel troops, a Kompas editorial still showed little
solidarity with the Palestinians or sense of Muslim outrage,
noting only that, “Whoever is to blame” for the
violence, “the Israeli police have already killed 22 Palestinians
and this event can easily cause other bigger events” in
the Middle East “and even the whole world of Islam.”(16)
An Indonesian picking up the paper three days later would have
assumed the crisis had passed. Newspapers in the US were fixated
on Israel’s refusal to allow entry to a team sent by the
UN Security Council to investigate the shootings, but Kompas
had turned its attention elsewhere. Even a demand from President
George H.W. Bush that an investigation into whether Israel was
responsible for a massacre of Palestinians be “fully implemented”
and a warning from Secretary of State James Baker that Israel
was in danger of being compared to Saddam Hussein in blocking
a UN investigating team(17) passed without mention in Kompas.
The turning point in Indonesia attitudes toward Palestine came
12 years later, in the spring of 2002, when Israel launched
its assault on the Occupied Territories in the midst of the
so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada. Coverage could not have been more
different. Images of Israeli tanks on the West Bank dominated
the front page of Kompas, news articles quoted Indonesian
political figures as denouncing the violence and editorials
shouted condemnations of Israel and expressed praise for Palestinian
“martyrs.” “The Indonesian government strongly
condemns the Israeli military aggression in Ramallah,”
read the lead of a front-page story on April 2, 2002.(18) “An
unstoppable wave of censure” had erupted in Indonesia,
the paper reported the following day.(19) The statements from
the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, a stark
contrast to the silence of the Suharto regime in the first Intifada,
were driven by domestic politics. Across the ideological spectrum,
Indonesians were attuned to and enraged by the violence unfolding
in the Occupied Territories. Where, in the first Intifada, the
Palestinians were portrayed as “they,” a sense of
“we” now infused the coverage.
A poll conducted in Indonesia by Zogby International in the
late spring of 2002, in the midst of the largest Israeli military
operation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the 1967 war,
found that 65 percent of Indonesians rated Palestine as “the
most important” or “a very important” issue.
Not even those surveyed in Saudi Arabia gave it more importance.
At the same time, 78 percent had an “unfavorable”
view of US policy toward the Palestinians and 66 percent supported
an independent Palestinian state.(20)
A distant “Arab” event had been transformed into
an Islamic cause, galvanizing non-Arab Muslims half a world
away. “Palestine’s struggle is a struggle along
God’s ways which should be supported by all Muslims since
Israel’s Zionism of unbelievers have declared war against
the Muslim community,” Majalis Ulamaa Indonesia,
the leading Islamic clerics organization, declared.(21) Talk
of “crimes against humanity” and “Israeli
unbelievers and their terrorizing acts” filled the media.
Highly publicized meetings were held in Parliament and the presidential
palace. The speaker of Parliament called for the government
to “react in a very strong and clear way” and the
vice president met the Palestinian ambassador to Indonesia to
offer his support.(22) The connection between Indonesians and
the Palestinians was driven home on another level as well, with
Indonesian commentators drawing analogies to their own country’s
colonial struggle and pointing out that Megawati’s father,
Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, “himself was
a very tough leader who fought several forms of colonialism.”(23)
Equally significant, political observers were quick to link
Israel’s actions to those of the US. Using the American
“war on terror” as an excuse to crush the Palestinians,
said analyst Dewi Fortuna Anwar, was “a dirty way to conquer
a political opponent.” If the US failed to reign in the
Israelis, she said, it would confirm that “the US view
of terrorism is one-sided,” thus undermining the anti-terror
Why had this dramatic shift taken place? Part of the answer
could be found in the “Al Jazeera effect,” named
for the Qatar-based television channel that revolutionized the
media landscape in the Middle East and beyond. According to
Goenawan Mohamad, founding editor of the magazine Tempo
and one of the most respected figures in Indonesian journalism,
when it came to international news, newspaper editors during
the earlier Suharto era “took their lead” from state-run
television, which gave almost no attention to the first Intifada.(25)
The stories that did air in that period were brief clips from
US television networks. By the time the second, or al-Aqsa,
Intifada broke out, several things had changed. Suharto’s
forced resignation in 1998 had ushered in an era of reformasi,
in which most government controls were removed and the country
witnessed the birth of a vibrant media sector, with the number
of publications growing from 260 to more than 800, television
channels increasing from six to 29, and the population of journalists
rising from some 6,000 to more than 25,000.(26) At the same
time, Al Jazeera had come to the fore in the Middle East, providing
a new perspective on the conflicts of that region. Where CNN
and other Western television networks had provided Indonesian
television with its coverage of previous conflicts, beginning
with Afghanistan Al Jazeera supplied the footage and the framing.
This new Arab view of war had a profound effect on Indonesian
A Gallup poll conducted in December 2001 and January 2002 found
that 89 percent of Indonesians surveyed called US military action
in Afghanistan “morally unjustified”(27) and the
suspicion that America was engaged in a crusade against Islam
began to take root. Many Indonesians retained their generally
positive view of the US, but their sense of identification with
fellow Muslims in the Middle East and South Asia was growing,
as was their interest in once-distant political events. When
Israel invaded the West Bank and Gaza in the spring of 2002,
Indonesian television provided extensive coverage via the cameras
of Al Jazeera, and the print media followed suit, further politicizing
the Indonesian body politic. Coverage of the US invasion of
Iraq a year later was all-pervasive. One of the aggressive new
channels, the Kompas-owned TV-7, stayed on the air
24 hours a day to cover the conflict, carrying Al Jazeera’s
coverage live and unedited, complete with Bahasa Indonesia translation,
from 11 p.m. until 11 a.m. everyday. The result was new antipathy
for both the US and the US media. “We believe Al Jazeera
more because what they said about the war is true,” said
Suhendro,(28) a Jakarta businessman and mosque leader, who watched
both Western channels and Al Jazeera. “They showed us
how Iraqi civilians have become the victims of the war. Children,
mothers, old people, civilians killed and injured because of
their war. I see them losing their hands and legs and other
body parts. Scenes I will never see on CNN.”(29)
Words are No Longer Enough
Before Al Jazeera came along, the world saw itself through the
prism of the Western -- particularly US -- media, which dominated
the global information flow. Stories reflected the worldviews
and cultural biases of the primarily American journalists who
reported them, employed footage shot and edited from a Western
perspective, and followed a broad agenda set largely at the
White House. For decades, viewers in the Arab world and beyond
had to rely on brief clips on CNN or the BBC for news of their
own region, or coverage provided to their terrestrial TV stations
by Western news organizations.
By 9/11, Qatar-based Al Jazeera -- which began broadcasting
in the late 1990s -- had revolutionized the Arab media scene,
replacing the Western networks as the prime source of news about
the region; supplying its viewers and terrestrial stations with
“hours and hours of uncut footage that was never available
before,” notes Salwa Kaana, the Internet editor of the
Palestinian daily Al Quds Al Arabi.(30) Suddenly, Arabs
and Muslims were seeing vivid and unrelenting images of the
impact of US policy in Palestine, Afghanistan, and later Iraq,
as seen from an Arab perspective.
The impact in the Arab world was dramatic. But from a US policy
perspective, the affect in the broader Muslim world was particularly
notable, especially on the question of Palestine. Where the
conflicts of the Middle East were once distant events, Al Jazeera
brought them into the living rooms of non-Arab Muslims at a
time when they had already become more politicized by the ‘war
on terror.’ It wasn’t even necessary to have a satellite
dish, since terrestrial channels made extensive use of coverage
of the Intifada and the US invasion of Iraq by Al Jazeera and
its imitators, such as Al Arabiya and Abu Dhabi TV.
As Al Jazeera and the other cross-border Arab channels brought
the wars of the Middle East and South Asia into the living rooms
of Muslims from Morocco to Malaysia, they increased the appetite
for more, which meant that newspapers across the region ratcheted
up their coverage as well – the so-called “Al Jazeera
In an earlier era, the proclivity of successive US administrations
to say one thing and do another was, to a large degree, masked
behind a veil of media silence. This silence was a legacy of
the fact that in the Middle East and many Muslim-majority countries
– where the media was (and still is) government controlled
– reporters toed the government line, had few resources,
and “the concept of television journalism …was virtually
nonexistent.”(31) With the arrival of Al Jazeera and its
clones, independent Web sites and loosened restrictions on print
media in some countries, all that changed. An open, cross-border
public sphere arose, freed of dependence on the Western media
lens. Now, what America said and what it did was right there
for the world to see.
“Our foreign policy is for the development of a Palestinian
state that lives side by side with Israel in peace and I'm the
first president to ever articulate such a vision," President
Bush declared, standing on a beach in Bali after that 2003 meeting
with Indonesian Muslim leaders.(32) But Indonesians weren’t
buying; they had seen on their television screens what US policy
toward Israel had wrought on the West Bank and Gaza. In the
face of images of dead babies and destroyed homes, words were
no longer enough. An administration that prided itself on message
management at home was trapped in a communications time warp
– applying twentieth century policy communications strategies
to a twenty-first century media world. The global village had
been subject to urban renewal but the Bush White House was still
waiting to sign the construction permit.
To Americans, Vietnam was the first television war. To Arabs
and Muslims, Afghanistan and Palestine played the same role.
For the first time, images of a conflict were captured by Arab
cameras and reported through an Arab and Muslim frame. Most
damning for the US, statements by American officials talking
of liberty and democracy were often carried over footage of
the civilian casualties of war, just as split-screen scenes
of US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners were later matched with
Israelis doing the same to Palestinians.
For non-Arab Muslim viewers with little historic connection
to the Palestine conflict, these images struck a very sensitive
nerve, already rubbed raw by the rhetoric of the war on terror.
The plight of the Palestinians became the plight of Muslims
A Question of Denial
There was a particular irony in the fact that Palestine became
a key measure of political legitimacy for the world’s
Muslims. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Israel’s
supporters in the US mounted a concerted effort to quash any
suggestion that anger over the plight of Palestinians and US
support for Israel may have had anything to do with the bombings.
“Israel Isn’t the Issue,” read the headline
of a Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Norman Podhertz
of the conservative Heritage Foundation, a consistent defender
of Israel.(33) Added David Harris, executive director of the
American Jewish Committee: “Only those reaching for the
most complicated or conspiratorial theories would reach the
conclusion that Israel is somehow central to the story.”(34)
The campaign to head off any identification of US policy toward
Israel with the roots of animosity driving anti-American terrorism
manifest itself in two ways: Statements like those above further
sensitized the antenna of government officials and newspaper
editorial writers, exacerbating the traditional reluctance to
criticize Israel for the many reasons of politics and culture
much written about elsewhere. At the same time, those who did
imply even an indirect connection between US Israel policy and
the tragedy of 9/11 were quickly denounced as anti-Semites.
Such a seemingly extreme reaction reflected the fact that, “[f]or
many Jews, [the] entire situation is terrifying,” as Jennifer
Laszlo, a pollster active in Jewish causes, told one reporter.(35)
The effort to silence critics was not confined to the US mainland.
After Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an Indonesian political researcher
and presidential advisor, published a column in The Jakarta
Post suggesting such a link, the US ambassador to Indonesia,
Robert Gelbard, wrote to the paper denouncing her “anti-Semitic
and misinformed comments.”(36) This extreme level of defensiveness
largely shut down the opportunity to re-examine Arab and Muslim
perceptions of American policy toward Israel. The irony was
that while Israel’s supporters in the US were dismissing
linkage, some Israelis themselves saw the bombings as a clarion
call. “The world must at long last treat the festering
wound of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is poisoning
the whole body of humanity,” wrote Israeli peace activist
Uri Avnery.(37) His voice was lost in a cacophony of denial
emanating from official circles in the US and Israel.
No matter how vociferous the denials among Israel’s defenders,
they could not change reality; Palestine was, as Shibley Telhami
put it, “the prism of pain” through which Arabs
saw the world.(38) “Nothing has shaped the Arab mood since
the post-World War II [period] more than the developments concerning
Palestine,” agreed Egypt’s ambassador to Indonesia,
Ezzat Saad el Sayed.(39) Others were even more pointed in their
conclusions. “Israel was the real [party] responsible
for this bloody tragedy,” Jalal Duwaydar of Egypt’s
Al Akhbar newspaper wrote in a column published Sept.
12, 2001. “Washington has sacrificed all its interests,
values, resolutions of international legitimacy and principles
of international law merely to consolidate the Israeli occupation
and injustice.” It was just one of many such comments
across the region and beyond – and precisely what Israel’s
Neo-conservatives within the Bush administration would later
claim that “the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.”(40)
In other words, overthrow Saddam, put the fear of US military
might into the minds of other Arab states, and the Palestinian
conflict could be solved. This fatally flawed strategy betrayed
the ignorance – or conscious denial – of Middle
East realities among the neo-conservatives who authored it.
Looking back, Gen. Anthony Zinni, the one-time commander of
US forces in the region, who President Bush had appointed Middle
East envoy in 2002, told an audience, referring to the Iraq
invasion: “I couldn't believe what I was hearing about
the benefits of this strategic move. That the road to Jerusalem
led through Baghdad, when just the opposite is true, the road
to Baghdad led through Jerusalem. You solve the Middle East
peace process; you'd be surprised what kinds of others things
will work out.”(41) Yet the administration’s official
line did accurately reflect one reality: The existence
of a Washington mindset in which every aspect of US Middle East
policy was calculated on the basis of how it would affect Israel.
In a twisted way, the neo-cons were right: all roads in US Middle
East policy did lead to Jerusalem.
There is much debate over bin Laden’s sincerity regarding
the Palestine issue. No matter whether it was a cause of convenience
for bin Laden or central issue, his rhetoric about the Palestinian
struggle, combined with the graphic coverage of the Palestinian
crisis by Al Jazeera and other Arab media, brought the issue
front-and-center in the succeeding years, feeding anti-American
The Israeli-American ‘Us’ against the Muslim
In parallel with the effort to decouple US policy toward Israel
from the motivations behind the 9/11 attacks, Israeli leaders
sought to use the tragedy to firmly link Israel’s war
against the Palestinians with America’s war on terror.
“The fight against terrorism is an international struggle
of the free world against the forces of darkness that seek to
destroy our liberty and our way of life,” Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon said on Sept. 11, 2001, using language that would
become the staple of Bush administration rhetoric. “I
believe that together, we can defeat these forces of evil.”(42)
Writing in the Jerusalem Post Israeli journalist Uri
Dan (who also served as Israel correspondent for The New
York Post), saw the attacks of 9/11 as ushering in a new
era in which
US will join Israel in a totally new approach to the war against
terrorism. A unique situation has arisen in which the dictatorial
terrorist threat against both the American democracy and the
sole democracy in the Middle East has become crystal clear.
This situation will obligate special, more drastic steps to
be taken by both countries, both individually and with greater
coordination than ever before.(43)
Exactly what Israeli officials hoped such a putative new relationship
might mean was evident 24 hours after the attacks of 9/11, when
the Sharon government launched the largest Israeli incursion
into the West Bank in a year and declared Yasser Arafat to be
“our bin Laden.”(44) At first, Bush administration
officials refused to allow themselves to be drawn into the Israeli
“us and them” dichotomy. Recognizing that it was
critical to build a solid coalition with Arab and other Muslim
countries, the president, Secretary of State Colin Powell and
others distanced themselves from Sharon’s comments and
made clear their displeasure at the new Israeli military offensive.
“No matter what you might think about the crisis in the
Middle East, this is not the way to solve it,” said Powell.(45)
To underscore its sensitivity to the dangers that Arabs and
Muslims might perceive the American response to 9/11 as a US-Israeli
campaign, the White House specifically left the Palestinians
off its initial list of terrorist groups to be targeted in the
“war on terror” and opened conversations with Arafat,
who had quickly denounced the 9/11 attacks and signaled his
This issue of what constituted a ‘terrorist’ group
would become a political football deftly manipulated by Sharon.
In his Sept. 20 Congressional address, President Bush vowed
that the ‘war on terrorism’ would continue “until
every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped
and defeated.”(46) When Bush gave the speech, he still
hoped to include as many Arab and Muslim countries as possible
in his new anti-terror coalition. The deliberate choice of the
phrase “of global reach” to describe the terror
groups being targeted was a pragmatic move meant to reassure
these potential Arab and Muslim allies that the US distinguished
between al-Qaeda and more localized groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah
and others, which many in the Middle East looked upon with sympathy
or favor. The decision was made on the basis of what was in
America’s strategic interests. Many at the White House,
the State Department and the Pentagon still wanted to strike
back at Hizbullah for the slaughter of Americans in Beirut in
the early 1980s, but there was a tacit recognition that in the
bigger picture, it was more important to build a broad coalition
against al-Qaeda than to get even with the Lebanese Shi’ite
group. As part of this new pragmatic approach that sought to
reposition the US relationship with the Muslim world, the administration
also revisited the thorny issue of the Palestinian conflict.
In early October 2001, after President Bush remarked that, “The
idea of a Palestinian state has always been part of a vision,
so long as the right to Israel to exist is respected,”(47)
Sharon accused the US and its allies of trying to “appease
the Arabs at our expense.”(48) The White House quickly
labeled Sharon’s comments “unacceptable,”(49)
but in the same statement, merely confirmed what Arabs and Muslims
believed they already knew: “Israel can have no better
or stronger friend than the United States and [no] better friend
than President Bush,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer
told reporters.(50) To many in the Middle East, this served
as more evidence of the impermeable bond between the US and
Israel. “As the White House spokesman has said, the United
States is Israel's best ally and friend in the entire world,”
wrote columnist Ahmad Al-Jindi in Cairo’s Al Akhbar.(51)
Many Arab media outlets were nonetheless cautiously hopeful
the US would continue to move toward a more evenhanded approach
to the Palestinian conflict. That expectation was bolstered
by a November speech on US Middle East policy given by Secretary
of State Powell, in which he painted a picture of Palestinian
and Israeli suffering, noting that, “Both sides
will need to face up to some plain truths about where this process
is heading” and “make hard compromises.”(52)
Yet US resolve to take a new evenhanded approach to the conflict
had already begun to fray. The first public sign came in late
October 2001 when the Jerusalem Post reported that
President Bush had explicitly told Israeli Foreign Minister
Shimon Peres that he now considered Hizbullah a terrorist organization
of global reach, “making it clear for the first time that
the Iranian-backed group would be targeted in the next phase
of the US-led war on terrorism.”(53)
Any remaining Arab and Muslim hopes of US parity in the Middle
East would be dashed with Sharon’s visit to the White
House in early December 2001. Through the autumn, the Bush administration
had publicly kept up its pressure on the Israeli leader to resume
negotiations with Arafat, with whom Washington had opened a
dialogue. The diplomatic initiative was recognition that the
US could not afford to have the Palestinian crisis undermine
efforts to bring Arab and Muslim countries into the ‘war
on terror’ coalition. However, as Sharon arrived in Washington
for what was expected to be a round of meetings in which he
would face strong pressure to compromise with Arafat, suicide
bombers from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas struck in
Haifa and Jerusalem, killing 26 people and injuring more than
150 in retaliation for the earlier Israeli assassination of
a leading Hamas official.(54) During an emergency meeting with
Sharon at the White House, President Bush denounced the “horrific
acts of murder” and demanded that Arafat reign in the
radicals.(55) It was the first in a series of pivotal events
that would have a serious negative impact on Arab and Muslim
perceptions. Washington made clear that the burden for achieving
peace now rested firmly on Arafat’s shoulders.(56)
Less than 24 hours later, with Sharon back in Israel, Israel
launched a major assault on the Occupied Territories. Helicopter
gun-ships pounded positions around the Palestinian leader’s
headquarters and targeted the security infrastructure of the
Palestinian Authority. Much to the chagrin of America’s
would-be Arab allies, the Bush administration resolutely refused
to denounce the latest violence. Israel “obviously has
the right to defend itself,” White House spokesman Ari
Fleisher told reporters. “The President understands that
very clearly.”(57) Colin Powell said the crisis was “a
moment of truth” for Arafat and demanded that the Palestinian
leader arrest those responsible for the suicide bombings, which,
he said, were not only “dastardly acts of terror, they
were attacks against his [Arafat’s] authority.”(58)
From the Muslim world, the timing of the new Israeli offensive,
the day after Sharon was welcomed at the White House, and the
tone of the US response were all evidence of an American “green
light”(59) for Sharon’s plan to use the US ‘war
on terror’ as cover for his own expansionist goals. “The
White House has justified these crimes by saying Israel has
the right to defend itself,” noted Al Watan of
Saudi Arabia.(60) This perception was driven home by Sharon
himself, who, in a nationwide speech the night after returning
from Washington, echoed President Bush in declaring that Israel
would wage a “war on terror . . . with all the means at
our disposal.”(61) The parallels between Sharon’s
speech and the language President Bush had been using since
9/11 was so apparent that former secretary of state Lawrence
Eagleburger complained Sharon was “piggy-backing off our
own war,” noting that, from the perspective of US interests,
“this link to Israel is - can be a problem.”(62)
Under any circumstances, this psychological linking of America’s
‘war on terror’ with Israel’s conflict with
the Palestinians was an impediment to winning Arab and Muslim
support for the US-led coalition. The fact that it was Ariel
Sharon with whom the president was seen as siding made matters
infinitely worse. Sharon was, without match, the most hated
man in the Arab world.
In the coming months, from the perspective of the Muslim world,
the Bush administration slid inexorably into the Israeli camp,
even as the president dispatched envoys to the Middle East because,
he said, “we fully understand that in order to be effective
in our fight against terror … we need others to join us.”(63)
Both the media and leaders in Arab and Muslim countries warned
the US that it was undermining its own interests and that US
“support for the current Israeli policy is a strategic
blunder.”(64) Pressure on Arafat, who had been confined
to his Ramallah compound by Israeli troops since December, continued
to build. In early February 2002, against the backdrop of Palestinian
suicide bombings and Israeli attacks in the Occupied Territories,
Sharon was back at the White House, being welcomed by the president
as “a good friend” who shared “our mutual
desire to rid the world of terror.”(65) Though he stopped
short of acceding to Sharon’s request that the US cut
ties to the PLO, the president promised, “We will continue
to keep pressure on Mr. Arafat to convince him that he must
take serious concrete, real steps to reduce terrorist activity
in the Middle East.”(66) Numerous observers across the
Muslim world all responded with the same question: “If
Palestinian violence is seen as terrorism, what then is Israeli
aggression?” asked Malaysia’s New Straits Times
reflecting a widely-shared perception of deliberate American
myopia.(67) What was evident to Arabs and Muslims was also becoming
apparent to some Americans. The Christian Science Monitor
observed that “in the wake of the war on terrorism, the
yellow "caution" lights the United States once flashed
at Israel have largely turned green.”(68)
And the sea of green -- on everything
from Israel's isolation and virtual imprisonment of Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat, to its comparison of the struggle with
Palestinians to the war on terrorism -- is drawing into question
the ability of the US government to be a balanced arbiter in
one of the world's most dangerous conflicts.(69)
Despite such perceptions at home and abroad, the Bush administration
continued its twin policies of tactic support for Israel’s
steadily escalating military campaign in the Occupied Territories
and the isolation of Arafat. While the Palestinian leader remained
under political and physical siege at his headquarters in Ramallah,
Sharon became a frequent visitor to Washington. He was back
at the White House in early February 2002, where he declared
the time had come to replace Arafat with new Palestinian leadership.
At a separate Washington, D.C. news conference, Israeli Defense
Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer claimed that in a private meeting,
Vice President Dick Cheney had said of Arafat, as far as the
vice president was concerned “you can go ahead and hang
him.”(70) US officials vociferously denied Cheney had
ever said such a thing and Ben-Eliezer apologized, but in terms
of Arab and Muslim perceptions, the damage had already been
The idea that the US had given a green light for the assassination
of Arafat was underscored when Sharon and Ben-Eliezer returned
to Jerusalem and Israeli jets bombed a Palestinian security
complex a few hundred yards from Arafat’s compound.(71)
The action was part of a continuing escalation of the violence,
punctuated by Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli air raids
and ground attacks in the West Bank and Gaza, which also hit
UN facilities. So ferocious were the Israeli attacks that the
State Department eventually issued a rare criticism of the Jewish
state: “Though we understand the need for Israel to take
steps to ensure its self-defense, we’re seriously concerned
about Israeli attacks over the past several days.”(72)
Arabs and Muslims welcomed the comment, but noted that it was
carefully couched in language that betrayed what they saw as
America’s inherent bias.
As February 2002 wore on, anger in the Arab and Muslim world
mounted when Israeli troops invaded Nablus and Gaza City; launched
air, ground and sea-borne assaults on Palestinian areas across
the Occupied Territories; and sealed off five West Bank cities.
Even when Arafat arrested three men accused of assassinating
Israeli Interior Minister Rahavam Ze’evi, a key Israeli
demand, Arabs and Muslims heard the US blame Arafat for the
upsurge in violence, while only mildly rebuking Sharon as “unhelpful.”(73)
When Sharon responded to an American call for both sides to
“consider their actions and the consequences very carefully”
by announcing he would seize Palestinian lands to set up new
buffer zones and defeat the “terrorists,”(74) even
as Arafat reiterated his call December for Palestinians to cease
attacks on Israelis, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher
said only, “Israel’s right to defend herself is
The right or wrong of US policy toward Israel is, in the context
of this article, immaterial. The issue is one of perception.
Arabs and Muslims saw American statements and actions as concrete
evidence of the inherent link between the US ‘war on terror’
and Sharon’s campaign against the Palestinians. By the
end of February 2002, as a new wave of suicide bombings prompted
yet another round of Israeli attacks, the death toll in the
17 months of violence had reached more than 1,000 Palestinians
and 288 Israelis.(76) From the perspective of Arabs and Muslims,
the lopsided figures were further evidence of the inherent unfairness
of American criticism of Arafat. That was only reinforced in
the coming months as Israel mounted the largest invasion of
the Occupied Territories since the 1972 Arab-Israeli war, with
what appeared to Arabs and Muslims to be tacit US approval.
From an American perspective, the administration appeared to
be genuinely working for fair and equitable solution. President
Bush sketched out a “roadmap to peace,”(77) endorsed
a Saudi plan for a broad Arab-Israeli settlement, and dispatched
the head of the CIA and his special Middle East envoy, Gen.
Anthony Zinni, to the region. To Arabs and Muslims, the rhetoric
that accompanied these putative peace initiatives sent a clear
message that it was the Palestinians who must bend to America’s
will, even though most of the blood being shed was theirs.
The siege of Ramallah. The assault on Jenin, which left more
than 50 Palestinians dead and some 4,000 homeless in what Amnesty
International would later label Israeli “war crimes.”(78)
The blockade of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity by
Israeli forces, who had trapped a group of Palestinian fighters
in the birthplace of Jesus. Day after day Arabs and Muslims
saw on their television screens and the front-pages of their
newspapers images of Israeli tanks and Palestinian bodies, as
they heard and read statements from the Bush administration
that grew increasingly critical of Arafat and more closely identified
with the Israelis. Each time the administration seemed to finally
reach its breaking point with the Israelis, such as the president’s
early April 2002 declaration that “enough is enough,”(79)
it quickly settled back into what Arabs and Muslims saw as a
pro-Israel tone. Particularly shocking to Arabs and Muslims
was the administration’s adoption of terminology favored
by Sharon, such as “homicide bomber,”(80) which
the president and his spokesman began using in mid-April to
refer to what were more commonly known as suicide bombers. The
comment came even as Powell met with Arafat in his battered
Ramallah headquarters, ending – for the moment –
the administration’s boycott of the Palestinian leader.
Yet any positive attitudes toward the US that the Arafat meetings
might have produced within the Arab and Muslim body politic
were dissipated when President Bush welcomed Powell back to
Washington by endorsing Sharon as “a man of peace.”(81)
Critics at home and abroad were stunned. “To have Sharon,
the butcher of Sabra and Chatilla, believed by many Israelis
to be a war criminal, named a “man of peace” by
President Bush may be one of the worst misstatements any president
has ever made,” wrote Paul ‘Pete’ McCloskey,
Jr., a former Republican member of the US Congress from California.
“Those words could only infuriate the very people who
were most likely to volunteer as suicide bombers against us.
Worse, they cause the entire Muslim world to view the United
States as the willing abettor of Sharon’s more recent
acts of brutality in the occupied territories.”(82)
Weeks later, as Israeli armor and aircraft continued operations
in the Occupied Territories and the siege of the Church of the
Nativity dragged on, Sharon was back at the White House, where
President Bush once more praised his desire for peace and told
reporters, “I have been disappointed in Chairman Arafat.
I think he's let the Palestinian people down.”(83) The
comment fed directly into the Arab suspicion that the ‘war
on terror’ was, as the radicals claimed, a Zionist-Christian
conspiracy against Islam. By Sharon’s next White House
visit a month later, the Palestinian death toll in the Intifada
had reached 1,600, including some 300 children,(84) and Arafat
was again politically isolated and still physically besieged
by Israeli armor. Once more, images of a smiling George Bush
welcoming his “friend” Ariel Sharon were juxtaposed
on Arab and Muslim television screens with Israeli tanks and
Palestinian dead and wounded. Once more Arafat was criticized
by the president as an impediment to peace, even as television
viewers across the Muslim world saw him a prisoner of the Israeli
armor that ringed – and continued to shell – his
wrecked headquarters, a beleaguered Arab David facing the Israeli
Goliath and its American patron.
By month’s end, as the violence continued unabated, President
Bush was standing in the Rose Garden demanding that Arafat,
who was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996
with 87 percent of the vote, be replaced by a “new Palestinian
leadership.”(85) This time, he expanded the circle of
responsibility for ending the violence to the Arab world as
a whole, still omitting any mention of Sharon, insisting that
Arab countries must “stop the flow of money, equipment
and recruits to terrorist groups seeking the destruction of
Israel,” and directly equating support for Palestinian
militants with support for the Islamist radicals targeting the
US: “I've said in the past that nations are either with
us or against us in the war on terror.”(86)
It was the final blow. “Both in words and deeds, Bush
has demonstrated that by ‘foes’ he means those who
see things from an angle different from the American perspective,”
said Egypt’s Al Gomhoureya newspaper.(87) Even
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who together with Arafat
and Yitzak Rabin won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating
the Oslo peace accord, was reportedly so “revolted”
by the president’s speech “that he could not listen
to the end.”(88) Writing in the Jordan Times,
journalist Rami Khouri gave the US president credit for acknowledging
the eventual necessity of a Palestinian state, but said this
“heavily camouflaged substantive core” of Bush policy
“was so heavily tilted and burdened by Bush's pro-Israeli
statements that it has been largely lost.”(89) Perceptions
had proved at least as important as policy.
Implications for the Future
Media prophet Marshall McLuhan wrote of a “global village”
that would usher in a “homogenization of the planet.”(90)
The arrival of Al Jazeera has instead resulted in massive urban
renewal in the global village, producing information ghettos
whose citizens see reality through their own media prism, rarely
exposed to the world beyond their electronic neighborhood.
Indonesia offers a case study in the impact this restructuring
of the media has had in the world’s most populous Muslim
country, but it is by no means unique. One need only look across
the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia, where, in his final speech
to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, outgoing Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamed -- a strong supporter of US policy
immediately after 9/11 -- denounced the West’s “open
support for Israeli intransigence and terrorism” against
the Palestinians and highlighted the media fragmentation into
information ghettos when he charged that Western powers “use
their media to hide their misdeeds and spread lies.”(91)
If Palestine profoundly shapes attitudes toward the US 5,000
miles from the Middle East, imagine its grip on the imagination
of Muslims living closer to the region, to say nothing of Arabs
themselves. The implications for US policy are profound.
The rise of Palestine as a marker of Muslim identity means that
the very issue whose import was so widely dismissed after 9/11
is today the key to reversing the rising tide of anti-Americanism.
No action holds the potential to shift Arab and Muslim attitudes
toward the US more than a fair and balanced effort to create
a Palestinian state. Yet even as the Bush administration in
early 2005 launched a new effort to resolve the conflict, there
remained an overwhelming perception among Muslims that the US
opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, despite presidential
statements indicating exactly the opposite.
Whether the President will actually spend “political capital”
on such an effort in his second term, as he has promised, remains
a large question mark as of this writing. However, if he does
mount such an attempt, the degree to which it begins to mitigate
anti-Americanism especially if it fails will
depend in large part on the degree to which Muslims perceive
that the administration’s words and actions are in
synch with its stated goals. That, in turn, will be determined
by whether the Bush administration adapts to the realities of
the 21st Century media landscape, recognizes that the global
narrative is no longer written in Washington, and abandons policy
approaches in which the US says one thing and does another.
Pintak is a journalist-scholar who has written about,
and reported from, the Muslim world for the past 25 years. He
has lived both in the Arab world, where he served as CBS News
Middle East correspondent, and Indonesia. Pintak is the author
of Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy
Ignited the Jihad (Pluto 2003). He currently serves as
director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The
American University in Cairo and senior editor ofTBS.
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3. Ibid. Based on a survey of 1,017 respondents carried out
in Indonesia during July-Aug 2002. Margin of error, 3.1 percent.
See p. 77 for detailed methodology.
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