Robert Fisk: Bush and Blair have already lost the talking war across the Middle East
10 October 2001
Messrs Bush and Blair may tell the world they are going to win the "war against terrorism" but in the Middle East, where Osama bin Laden is acquiring almost mythic status among Arabs, they have already lost.
Whether it be a Lebanese minister, a Saudi journalist, a Jordanian bank clerk or an Egyptian resident, the response is always the same: Mr bin Laden's voice, repeatedly beamed into millions of homes, articulates the demands and grievances – and fury – of Middle East Muslims who have seen their pro-Western presidents and kings and princes wriggling out of any serious criticism of the Anglo-American bombardment of Afghanistan.
Viewing Mr bin Laden's latest video tape, Western nations concentrated (if they listened at all) on his remarks about the atrocities in the United States. If he expressed his approval, though denied any personal responsibility, didn't this mean that he was really behind the mass slaughter of 11 September?
Arabs listened with different ears. They heard a voice which accused the West of double standards and "arrogance'' towards the Middle East, a voice which addressed the central issue in the lives of so many Arabs: the Palestinian- Israeli conflict and the continuation of Israeli occupation.
Now, as a long-time resident of Cairo put it yesterday, Arabs believe America "is trying to kill the one man ready to tell the truth''.
Arab civilians, usually uneasy about identifying themselves when their views conflict with their government, are now speaking more freely about their anger. "They say their target is bin Laden,'' Samar al-Naji said in Jordan. "Then they strike at innocent people in Afghanistan who have nothing to do with terrorism. "They strike Muslims while ignoring the acts of Israel, the terrorist state which is demolishing Palestinian homes and killing women and children.'' Mr al-Naji is only a bank clerk, at 29 hardly a seasoned politician.
At the Ain Shams University in Cairo, prayers were performed for the dead of Afghanistan and in the Nile delta town of Zagazig, students went to the heart of the problem in all pro-Western Arab regimes. "Our rulers, why are you silent?'' they chanted. "Have you got orders from America?'' This is rubbish, of course. Rulers of what we like to call "moderate" Arab states don't need orders to give their discreet support to the West. And Mr bin Laden is, after all, calling for their own overthrow.
Only in the freer Arab countries could ministers speak their minds. The Lebanese information minister, Ghazi Aridi, regards Mr bin Laden's video tape as "a stroke of intelligence''. There was, he said, "an international incitement against one person. If he is killed, he will become a symbol and if he survives he will become a stronger symbol.''
In the Gulf, feelings are very fragile. "Look, I know old women who are staying up late at night to say prayers for Mr bin Laden,'' a Saudi journalist says. "His appearance on television was very good public relations for him, especially when he talked about Palestine. In public, people don't praise him; there has been no comment in the mosques. But in private, they are all talking about him.''
A Saudi editor, Jamal Kashoggi, insisted that many Saudis were far more critical of Mr bin Laden – believing that he is defaming Islam – and ready to see a less pessimistic outcome in Afghanistan. "Kandahar contains supporters of the monarchy as well as the Taliban,'' he said. "Afghans who were disappointed by the anti-Russian mujahedin and turned to the Taliban are now disappointed with the Taliban and may accept a royalist comeback.'' But this, a view that would most certainly coincide with Saudi Arabia's own royal family, may be a minority one.
In countries which have been afflicted by a "terrorism'' far greater in suffering and death than the crimes against humanity in New York and Washington, the very language used by President Bush has been a cause for great anger.
"I'm sick of hearing about terrorism, terrorism, terrorism,'' a prominent Lebanese construction manager shouted at me. "When you have enemies, they are 'terrorists' or 'madmen' or 'evildoers'. When we have enemies, we are asked to compromise with them. You have bin Laden. We have Sharon – who is your friend and whose hand Mr Bush shakes".
Many Lebanese believe that Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, should be indicted as a war criminal for his role in the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian camps massacre of 1982, in which up to 1,800 civilians – almost half the number of victims slaughtered in America on 11 September – were killed in three days by Israel's Christian militia allies while Israel's army watched from the camp perimeters.
What the press says:
"Unless Washington can do a better job of proving that the violent retribution on which it is now embarked is against all forms of terrorism, Israel included, its support will disappear... and the world will become an even darker place." (Arab News)
"Nothing is more crucial and urgent than a just and lasting resolution of the Palestinian problem and an end to Iraq's stand-off with the United Nations and the US...We are confident the people of this country will... dismiss bin Laden's pathetic attempts to portray himself as the defender of Palestine, Iraq, and all the causes of our nation" (Jordan Times)
"History has never witnessed such impudence and dictatorship." (Siyaset-e Ruz)
United Arab Emirates
"By granting the right to strike all those it considers its enemies, nobody knows when the bombs will hit the spots that Washington will choose. Our region, unfortunately, does not enjoy immunity because of the absence of a joint Arab action and does not even enjoy strategy to face up to an emergency situation." (Al-Khaleej)
"Israel could once again find itself in a key role that could cause the coalition to crumble. It must be hoped that Ariel Sharon... will attempt to maintain as low an Israeli profile as possible." (Ma'ariv)
"Even if the reasons which led to the US war against terrorism are important, the US, as the great political and economic power, should have been more objective and refrained from hasty reactions. Syria, like other Arab and Muslim countries, sees as useless any political or military anti-terrorist action, as long as Israel is not targeted." (Tishrin)
"A criminal act... carried out unilaterally by America in violation of the UN charter and international law... applying the law of the jungle." (Al-Qadissiya)