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Dangerous myths persist in Arab views about America

There are as many myths clouding Americans' understanding of the Arab world as there are myths believed by those in the Arab world that distort their understanding of America and its people.

On account of globalisation, many aspects of American culture are known world-wide. In spite of this, there are as many myths clouding Americans' understanding of the Arab world as there are myths believed by those in the Arab world that distort their understanding of America and its people.

First, there is the assumption that US policy formulation is deliberative, based on reasoned understanding of problems and consequences. It is this myth that often gives rise to conspiracy theories.

For example, when America invaded Iraq and it rapidly became clear that the entire enterprise had gone awry, some Arabs believed that instead of being a massive ill-conceived blunder, the goal all along had been to create chaos, weakening Iraq, thereby making it dependent on a continued American military presence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that the ideologues who dominated the Bush administration's policy actually believed their own rhetoric. Seeing the world through their distorted interpretation of what ended the Soviet Empire, and coloured by their (let me be blunt) racist view of Arabs, they really believed that a demonstration of overwhelming force ("shock and awe") and firm resolve, backed up by military might, would be sufficient to topple the dictator and liberate the people of Iraq.

In their mythic view, they saw the Iraqi people, cowed by power, greeting American forces with "flowers and candy", with democracy blooming and then spreading across the Middle East. The neo-conservative "planners" of this fantasy-turned-debacle, didn't listen to the more experienced professionals in the US military or diplomatic corps who repeatedly warned them that Iraq would not be the "cakewalk" they expected and that the Iraqi people would not look kindly on an occupation.

That the ensuing resistance and sectarian violence, the unleashing and emboldening of Iran, and the resultant regional insecurity were unanticipated was not accepted by many in the Arab world. That the world's one remaining superpower could simply have been blundering along was beyond belief. Conspiracy theories were hatched to explain away this reality.

There is also the myth that the Israel lobby and, by extension, the Jewish community, control all the levers of power in America. It is true that many American Jews have become successful in many areas of US corporate and cultural life. But it is also true that most wealth and power in the US is still in the hands of good old-fashioned White Anglo Saxon Protestants.

There can be no doubt that those who lobby for Israel are a force to be reckoned with, but several facts must also be considered: right-wing Christians (who form 40 per cent of the Republican Party's voter base) have a major role in shaping policies toward the Middle East. But polls show that most American Jews (and Christians) do not support hard-line Israeli positions.

The myth of the invincible American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) is also powerful and destructive. The problem is that this myth is so widely believed, in the Arab world and beyond, that it has taken on a life of its own and is accepted by Aipac's supporters and opponents alike. The idea that "if you cross them, they will defeat you" is so widely believed that it causes many in Congress to simply "go along to get along". The reality is quite different. Many of those elected officials who claim that Aipac beat them (for which, Aipac gladly accepts the credit, since it fuels the myth of their power), lost for other quite unrelated reasons. And I know of too many instances where Aipac has tried to defeat candidates and couldn't.

Another myth is that Americans are increasingly intolerant of Muslims and Arabs, and that America is a hostile and un-welcoming place. The reality is quite the opposite. It is true that we've had a spike in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate crimes, but official statistics establish that the numbers of these incidents still pale when compared, for example, to anti-Semitic acts directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.

More to the point, gestures of support for Arabs and Muslims are too numerous to mention but more difficult to record. During the stressful period when the Park 51 controversy was raging and that nutty preacher in Florida was threatening to burn a Quran, I had the honour of participating in an extraordinary meeting in Washington. The meeting brought together in one room the heads of the National Council of Churches USA (representing every major Protestant and Orthodox Christian denomination), leaders from the US Catholic Bishops Conference, leaders from most major Jewish groups, representatives of major African American religious groupings, and the heads of the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. We debated for three hours before passing a strong resolution condemning the intolerance and bigotry toward Islam that was on display in New York, Florida and Tennessee. The next day, however, this important consensus statement received only scant mention in US and international media- the press was too busy covering the nutty provocateur in Florida.

They say "bad news is big news". And "the loudest voice gets the most attention". But bad news and loud voices don't define reality. Just as extremists and haters in other societies do not speak for those societies, neither do they speak for all Americans.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and the author of Arab Voices: What they are saying to us and why it matters

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