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Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2001 / 29 Tishrei, 5762

Michael Barone

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By silence betrayed --
WHEN the bombing started in Afghanistan October 7, the response from Saudi Arabia was–silence. The response from Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was silence for two days; he finally indicated lukewarm support for the airstrikes on October 9. The response from the Palestinian Authority was still more silence. Most Americans' first response will be: Good. Better silence than the denunciations that came from Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

But silence is not enough. One reason "why they hate us" (as one magazine's cover put it) is that in the Arab and Muslim worlds the propagandists of hate have had a near monopoly of the public

dialogue. This is true not only in states that sponsor terrorism–Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Taliban's Afghanistan–but also in so-called moderate Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis subsidize the spread of Wahhabi Islam–the 18th-century fundamentalism subscribed to by the Saudi royal family and Osama bin Laden. The message they spread is one of condemnation of the American way of life. Egypt's government-run press, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in the October 8 New Yorker, prints reams of vile anti-American, anti-Israel, and antisemitic propaganda. Prominent Egyptian journalists claim that the World Trade Center tower attacks were the work of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Egyptian media reprint as authentic the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a forgery by czarist Russia's secret police that was definitively debunked in the 1920s.

This is dangerous stuff. Saudi and Egyptian leaders have often whispered to Americans that they don't believe any of it but that they allow the propagation of such hateful messages because it gives their dissidents a way to vent their anger. These regimes make a deal: Intellectuals can attack the United States and Israel as long as they leave the local government alone. But ideas have consequences. The saturation of such messages over Arab and some Muslim media has made many believers. They, like the masses in Hitler's rallies or the fanatics of imperial Japan, really believe this stuff. Hence the crowds in Yassir Arafat's Palestine cheering at the news of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.

Friendly persuasion. One of our aims in this war against terrorism must be to change the public dialogue in the Arab and Muslim world. Someone needs to make the case for freedom and democracy. Some of that can be done by an Arab version of the old Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. But much must be done by Arab and Muslim regimes themselves. Old Middle East hands will reply that that is impossible: Leaders like Mubarak, Arafat, and the Saudi royal family will risk their lives if they rein in the radicals. But that could have been said four weeks ago about Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. Now, having concluded he must enlist in our war against terrorism, Musharraf is making the case against the hatred propaganda too. He must know he is targeted by Islamic radicals; so he will use the brutality and cunning that got him where he is to stay there.

It will be said as well that people's ideas cannot be changed. But that is plainly wrong. People's ideas were changed in Germany and Japan after 1945 by regimes installed by the United States. Countries that seethed with hatred and fanaticism have become peaceful, free, competent democracies. Another example is Mexico. From 1930 through the 1980s Mexico's PRI governments subsidized its intellectuals with cushy jobs and ambassadorships and encouraged them to produce anti-Yanqui propaganda; Mexico's diplomats took an unflinching anti-U.S. line in foreign policy. Sophisticated Mexicans would whisper to Americans that this policy let its intellectuals vent and kept them happy with the regime. But since 1988, Mexico's Presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ernesto Zedillo, and Vicente Fox have taken an increasingly pro-U.S. line. They endorsed NAFTA and shook up Mexico's subsidized industries and bureaucracies; the television network Televisa switched from promoting a pro-government, anti-Yanqui line to presenting more evenhanded news, with competition from TV Azteca and cable. The result: Not only Mexico's leaders but most of the Mexican people as measured in a Reforma poll have taken pro-U.S. positions since September 11.

The initiative for change in Mexico was taken by Mexicans. In the Middle East, it will have to be taken by the United States. We must let Mubarak and Arafat and the Saudis know–perhaps we have done this already–that their media must change, and that this is very important to us. And we must get them to take public stands in favor of our policy, despite the political risk, as Musharraf has. Silence is no longer enough. We need lip service, too.

Michael Baone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2001, Michael Barone