Pernicious Rumors

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I traveled to the Middle East and visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait.  There was a certain amount of sympathy for America at that time, but there were many very bizarre rumors and beliefs about the attack.  One very strong rumor was that Israel had managed the attack and evidence of that, it was said, was that Jews did not go to work in the twin towers that day.  The Israeli motivation was to discredit the Arab cause and Islam in the eyes of all Americans.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I tried very hard to talk sense into some of my friends there with very little impact.  The second rumor was that it had not been Saudis or Arabs who had hijacked the aircraft and crashed into the twin towers and the pentagon.  It was really Mosad, or Israeli intelligence agents posing as Arabs.  Again, the beliefs were hard to shake.  What I found, as well, was total denial that Saudis or Egyptians or that UAE citizens could have been involved.  I probed deeper and found that the prevailing view was that Arabs could not have pulled off such an operation.  And because of this, it must have been Israel. 

Let’s fast forward now to 2008 and a New York Times article of September 9, a few days ago.  The title was “9/11 Rumors That Become Conventional Wisdom” by Michael Slackman.  Slackman probed Arab attitudes in a shopping mall in Dubai, in a park in Algiers, in a café in Riyadh and all over Cairo.  Over and over people told Slackman that they “did not believe that a group of Arabs – like themselves – could possibly have waged such a successful operation against a superpower like the United States.”  They were convinced that both the United States and Israel had to be involved at least in the planning of the operation.  It was too sophisticated and well coordinated and successful to have been an Arab planned operation.  As Slackman quotes a Cairo shopkeeper: “Maybe people who executed the operation were Arabs, but the brains? No way…It was organized by other people, the United States or the Israelis.”  The myth of jews not going to work that day had also persisted.  “Why is it that on 9/11, the Jews didn’t go to work in the building?”

The story has over time morphed from an Israeli plot to an American plot against Muslims with the help of Israel.  This change in perspective has come about because of American actions since 9/11.  “What matters is we think it was an attack against Arabs,” said an electrician in Cairo.  There does not seem to be any hesitation about believing that Americans would attack their own citizens to justify an invasion of an Arab country.  Then, of course, the fact that we did not find Bin Laden is absolute proof that we did not want to find him since he gave us the excuse to continue the fight against Islam. 

It was perhaps understandable in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the Arab man on the street would have reached some bizarre conclusions about the events.  It is absolutely frightening that such attitudes have persisted and become part of the Arab landscape. 

As appalling as the persistence of these rumors is, it is equally appalling that the Arab man on the street has so little respect for Arab capabilities.  This sense of inferiority is a fundamental block to any form of negotiated settlement to the Palestinian issue.  Without the confidence that they can meet the Israelis on their own terms, they will continue to believe that whatever solution is reached, they will believe they were forced to make compromises.  That doesn’t augur well for a viable and sustainable agreement. 

It is equally problematic that the Arabs believe that the United States and Israel, that is the CIA and Mosad, can do whatever they want in the world and if they do not do it, it must be for a reason.  Then the speculation about the reason starts.  The inflated sense of our capabilities creates a problem for us when we do not carry through on our statements and promises. 

It is also a problem that people in the region apply their own experience and concepts of governance to us.  Hafez al Assad felt no remorse about attacking and destroying his own city of Hama – Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds and murdered the Shiites.  There is no trust or confidence in the good intentions of political leaders in the region.  “Mubarak says whatever the Americans want him to say, and he’s lying for them, of course,” according to the shop keeper in Cairo.  And what applies to their own leaders must also apply in the United States.  Cynicism abounds and there are enough statements by religious and other bigots in the US to feed the idea that the US is hostile to Islam.

Does it really matter? I believe it does.  Ultimately, the war on terror depends on the man on the street.  He must help the authorities by reporting suspicious activates - the basic concept of a neighborhood watch.  He must support his government when it attacks terrorists.  And when the people support the terrorists and not those who oppose them, it makes if that much harder for leaders in the region actively to support our efforts.