Wednesday, August 18, 2004

KERRY WINS THE ARAB VOTE

KERRY WINS THE ARAB VOTE

By AMIR TAHERI

August 18, 2004 -- ALTHOUGH attempts at linking President George W. Bush to the Arabs have generated a veritable industry in the past two years, there is evidence that most Arabs favor his Democratic Party challenger Sen. John F. Kerry. A Zogby poll taken this month shows that in the November presidential election Kerry is likely to collect more than two-thirds of the Arab-American vote. A similar pattern is emerging in the Arab world itself.
"If it were up to us, it would be 60 percent Kerry, 40 percent Bush," says Iyad Abu-Chaqra, an Arab columnist who has followed American politics for years. "Most Arabs have one dream this year: to see George W. Bush booted out."

Dislike for Bush has created the most curious Arab coalition in a long time.

The pan-Arab nationalists are angry at Bush because, toppling Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Baghdad, he destroyed the illusion of a "strongman" leading Arabs to unity and socialism. "It may take a generation before anyone talks of Arab unity without being laughed out of the room," says columnist Ahmad Rabii. "Those who dreamed of an Arab superpower will never forgive Bush." The pan-Islamists also dislike Bush, but for different reasons.

They see his talk of democracy as an attempt at preventing them from establishing their "ideal Islamic" system based on the Shariah rather than elections.

Bush's "Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative" is seen by Islamists as "a plot to impose a Western model."

"The Muslim world is not a blank sheet on which Mr. Bush could draw what he likes," says writer Walid Abi-Merchid, who would vote for Kerry if he could. Opposition to Bush's plans for democratization in the Middle East is put even more dramatically by Muhammad Shariatmadari, a mullah of Arab origin now acting as an advisor to Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenehi.

"Bush is trying to develop an American Islam," Shariatmadari says. "He thinks that Americans will not be safe in their homes until the Muslim world is dominated by pro-U.S. governments."

That view is echoed in sermons preached at mosques throughout the Middle East, Europe and the United States in recent weeks with an eye on the forthcoming American election.

One theme of these sermons is that Bush's call for free elections and reform in the Muslim world amounts to "an act of cultural aggression."

"Our Prophet did not run for office in any election," the sermon says. "He did not win any political debate. [Instead] he won the war against the infidel."

A deep-seated fear of elections is one key feature of the Islamist political psyche. The Koran includes a chapter entitled "Parties" (Ahzab), to warn against splitting the Umma (the community of the faithful) into rival political groups vying for power. "Kerry's recent statement that he would abandon Bush's democracy campaign in the Muslim world will please many Islamists," says the novelist Rubee Madhoun.

At an official level, most Arab and other Muslim governments are careful not to take sides. But it is clear that most want Kerry to win.

Since almost all Arab regimes could be described as despotic, it is clear that they all feel targeted by Bush's calls for reform and democratization.

Bush has committed himself to changing Washington's 60-year-old policy of supporting the status quo in the region. It is, therefore, no surprise that all regimes in the region feel threatened to some degree. Their hope is that under a President Kerry, the United States would abandon Bush's "adventurous attempt to remould the region."

"America needs a new perspective," says Javad Zarif, the Islamic Republic's ambassador to the United Nations. "The United States must change attitudes that have harmed its interests in the region."

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa has echoed similar sentiments in private conversations. He describes the liberation of Iraq as "the opening of the gates of Hell." In a recent meeting in Cairo, he told a visiting European diplomat that Kerry would be able to "close those gates."

The anti-Bush sentiment of the ruling elites in the Middle East is reflected in efforts to screen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's celluloid attack on the U.S. president. Last week, the mullahs running the Farabi Cinema complex in Tehran scrapped the season's program to screen Moore's "documentary."

"This film unmasks the Great Satan America," a spokesman said. "It tells Muslim people why they are right in hating America. It is the duty of every believer to see [this film] and learn the truth."

With the exception of Kuwait, which has banned it, Moore's film is shown or sold in pirated cassette form throughout the Arab world. Anti-American Arab television stations, including one owned by the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah, have broadcast chunks of Moore's attack on Bush with commentaries more virulent than the original.

"We may not be able to drive the Americans out of Iraq," says Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader in Lebanon. "But we can drive Bush out of the White House by heating things up in Iraq." Bush is also seen as too pro-Israel in his Middle East policy.

"I would rather have [Israeli Premier Ariel] Sharon than Bush," says Abu-Chaqra. "The Palestinians may have a chance with Sharon; they have none with Bush."

Bush, however, has some supporters in the Arab countries and in the broader Muslim world. "The Arabs have never known what is good for them," says Iraqi columnist Adnan Hussein. "This is why they hate Bush. But what is Bush saying? He is telling them that their regimes are corrupt and bankrupt and that they have no future without democracy."

The Nobel prize-winning novelist Neguib Mahfouz expressed similar sentiments in a recent column published in a Cairo newspaper. He warned that any reversion by the United States to the policy of supporting the status quo is a setback for democracy in the region. Mahfouz believes that Bush is right in his diagnosis that lack of democracy breeds terrorism in the Middle East.

Other pro-reform writers, notably Daoud Kuttab, Ahmad Bishara and Abdul-Mun'em Saeed have also called on the United States to remain true to Bush's promise of supporting reform and democratization in the Muslim world.

Some Arabs, however, believe that, whoever is elected in the United States, there will be little change in Washington's policies in the Middle East.

"What we have is the madness that strikes the Arabs every four years when the Americans have a presidential election," says Walid Jumblatt, a Lebanese former minister and leftist leader. "The truth is that there is nothing in this [the American election] for the Arabs. Whoever wins, the fact remains that the United States is against the Arabs on all key issues, starting with Palestine."

E-mail:

amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com

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