09.08.11

Mideast’s Changing View of America

After 9/11, the U.S. spent millions trying to improve its image in the Middle East. In the afterglow of the Arab Spring, Randall Lane polls the region to see what has—and hasn't—changed.

Among the findings:
· An exclusive Newsweek–Daily Beast poll of 1,000 Egyptians reveals that a majority (53 percent) doesn’t believe that al Qaeda was responsible for the Twin Tower attacks—instead affixing blame to Israel, the U.S. government, or an unknown entity.
· In the same survey, 62 percent either don’t believe the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden or they aren’t sure.
· Only 11 percent of Egyptians think America cares about their interests.

To understand America’s current standing in the Arab world 10 years after 9/11, it’s instructive to visit Obros, a coffeehouse-cum-nightclub in Beirut. The place is a tribute to Kennedy-era “American kitsch,” and its 35-year-old proprietor Joulan El Aschkar displays a sophisticated touch, from Pierre Cardin–period wallpaper to Mad Men–worthy vintage furniture and electronics to 100 gigabytes of forgotten '60s hits like B. J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” rotating with fully intended irony.

I’m merely there for free Wi-Fi, but when El Aschkar notices an actual American in his shrine to America, he eagerly engages me in conversation, then directs my laptop to his family’s website—solely devoted to the idea that the World Trade Center attack was an inside job perpetrated by U.S. neocons. “I just ask questions,” he shrugs mischievously. “The American version isn’t credible.”

This duality—desperate need for love entwined with either willful ignorance or even nuanced hate—has underlain the Arab view of America for a generation, unchanged even by the collapse of the Twin Towers. But based on my recent trip across the region, a confluence—Arab Spring and the technology that empowered it—has provided the U.S. a new chance to push reset with a half-billion Arabs, as long as it can shout louder than increasingly sophisticated bunk merchants like El Aschkar.

Ask about basic political facts—al Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11, or the death of Osama bin Laden—and even the most educated will start popping off inanities.

I’ve been dealing with this frustrating relationship for much of the past decade. Shortly after 9/11, in an effort to win Arab “hearts and minds” in the mold of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, the State Department poured hundreds of millions into a new public-diplomacy initiative, overseen by former ad executive Charlotte Beers and then Bush communications czar Karen Hughes. In short order came Radio Sawa (“together”), television’s Alhurra (“the free one”) and Hi Magazine (named for the one English word the whole world knows), which, inspired by the post-9/11 call to service, I steered editorially in print and online in 2003 and 2004.

Hi, sold on newsstands in 20 Arab countries, was charged with providing a window into, and dialogue with, the U.S. for Arabs between 18 and 35. To maximize the project’s efficacy, I conducted perhaps the most extensive qualitative study of Arab sentiment about America in the post-9/11 era. With two colleagues, I traveled across the Arab world—the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco—for two weeks on what we called a “listening research tour,” interviewing scores of young Arabs individually, in focus groups and at giant roundtables, using Hi as proxy for the region’s perpetual question: what do you think about the U.S.? While the magazine’s scope was strictly cultural, the answer eight years ago, on the heels of the Iraq invasion, usually came down to some combination of the words “America," “Bush,” and local expletives.

Curious about whether that had changed, I repeated that itinerary this summer, conducting a dozen panels in those same four countries, with subjects representing the diversity of the Arab World, from fully covered Persian Gulf oil heiresses to skirt-donning Beirut Christians to democracy-minded Tahrir Square veterans to Casablanca slum kids fending off suicide-bomber entreaties. Their viewpoint again proved surprisingly consistent—and had shifted dramatically from my last go-round.

That background narrative, it turns out, drives everything. It’s hard to overstate the Iraq War’s effect on brand America: it fed into Arab insecurities, exploited in turn by regional demagogues, that outsiders are at fault for whatever ails them. At one raucous meeting at a university in Casablanca, which we later dubbed “The Pinata Session,” 120 students eager to tee off on an American, any American, swarmed what was supposed to be a meet-and-greet with two dozen journalism majors, showering us with two hours of prewritten diatribes.

Contrast that with my recent visit to Casablanca, where I happened upon a parade of 20,000 protesters, stretched across a half mile, calling for democratic reforms from the autocratic King Mohammed VI. For two hours, the placard-raising marchers chanted in unison—The people of Libya and Syria keep getting killed—they’re not afraid!.... Shakira got a million! (a reference to the singer’s fee at a royal event)...Look, see, the people are scary!—and precisely zero had anything to do with America (or Israel, for that matter). “The consensus is this: it’s a Moroccan problem,” Reda Oulamine, a top opposition leader, told me during the march, “and it’s being decided by the Moroccan street.”

This attitude shift proved universal across the region. Iraq was almost never mentioned, nor was 9/11 or al Qaeda, and rather than rail at what America had imposed on them, the young Arabs instead criticized how America reacted to them. (President Obama’s failure to support Egyptian revolutionaries until after Mubarak was clearly a goner, and his inconsistency helping Libya’s rebels, but not Syria’s, were both widely criticized.) By taking control of their own fates, in reality and perception—highly important in this prideful culture—the conversation has become more respectful and adult.

So it was that in 2011 I found myself having the kind of dialogue that Hi, whose funding was pulled in 2005, had always aspired to have. Over lunch in the dark basement of Tabouleh, a restaurant in Cairo’s Garden City, seven Egyptian bloggers, including many of the digital heroes of the Tahrir Square Facebook revolution, debated U.S. subsidies to Egypt. “We don’t want money,” says one blogger, Safa. “We want to make sure we go the right way.” No, counters Ahmad, “we need the money, but it must be with no strings attached.” Eventually, the talk turns to nuts-and-bolts democracy, the real Jefferson-Hamilton stuff (one of the bloggers, Karim, had already requested a translated copy of the Constitution): federalism, the role of the military, and, above all, the peaceful transfer of power that inspires quadrennial awe worldwide.

Such technology-fueled enlightenment comes with an equally perilous downside, as evidenced by my conspiracy-minded Beirut coffee-shop friend. Ask this group, or any others about basic political facts—al Qaeda’s responsibility for 9/11, or the death of Osama bin Laden—and even the most educated, whether blogger or student or lawyer, will start popping off inanities. “Aw, they’re sick about plots,” Gibran Tueni, the Western-oriented editor of Beirut’s Al-Nahar had warned me on my first trip to the region, less than two years before he was killed by a car bomb. “Whenever they see something that isn’t there, they say, ahhh.” And that was before YouTube, Google, and WikiLeaks.

Indeed, an exclusive Newsweek–Daily Beast poll of 1,000 Egyptians reveals that, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, a majority (53 percent) don’t believe that al Qaeda was responsible for the Twin Tower attacks, instead affixing blame to Israel, the U.S. government or an unknown entity. This kind of dangerous misinformation carries into even the most recent current events. In the same survey, 62 percent either don’t believe the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, or they aren’t sure.

Even among the friendliest audience that could be assembled—a class at an American-run English-language school—skepticism reigns, and a random YouTube video carries as much weight as a New York Times front-page story.

“We haven’t seen any proof that he’s actually dead—or even existed,” says 17-year-old Manal Maatiri.

“We need to see it to trust it,” Houda Biyad, a 28-year-old medical assistant, chimes in.

“We need evidence,” adds 17-year-old Buhary El-Quasamy. When I point out that both Obama and al Qaeda agree on the basic facts that the U.S. killed bin Laden, she shrugs. “Well, I can say anything I want, too.”

Such are the responses when the region’s leaders—and the press they controlled—have systematically lied to their citizens for 30 years, ingraining a distrust in what leaders or the media says that borders on absolute.

But perhaps there’s also a dividend from such cynicism. Every survey shows widespread Arab antipathy for American policy—the Newsweek–Daily Beast poll found that only 11 percent of Egyptians think America cares about their interests. But when you pull back the layers, cutting through the decades of institutional demagoguery, the qualities America inspires would warm the heart of any marketing manager.

As an ice-breaking exercise, I asked everyone I interviewed on my trip to free-associate the first word they thought about when they hear “America.” There were numerous cynics (“greedy,” “consumerism,” “McDonald’s”) and the occasional outlier (“Sex and the City”), but a majority repeated affirmative terms like melting pot, power, democracy, modernity. Even a majority of jaded Newsweek–Daily Beast poll respondents said that the U.S. had a positive effect on the world—the highest of any nation we asked about. Blend it all together, and that’s an image of America well positioned for the new Arab World.