November 23, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 551

Arab Liberals Eight Years After 9/11: Obama's Overtures Towards Iran, Extremists Seen as a Sign of Weakness

November 23, 2009 | By C. Jacob*
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 551


According to Arab liberals, today, eight years after September 11, 2001, Islam has been stigmatized, and Al-Qaeda is attacking Muslims with total disregard for the sanctity of their lives, public places, or holidays. They claim that Arab countries have not implemented sufficient reform, that they remain under the sway of conspiracy theories, that they are incapable of apologizing collectively to those whom they have harmed, and that they still believe fictional tales praising the Taliban. The liberals also contend that there has been no change in the Arab mentality, that the Arabs still object to any Western military action on Arab or Muslim territory, and that U.S. President Barack Obama's policy of extending his hand to Iran and to extremists worldwide is being interpreted as weakness.

Following are excerpts from relevant articles:

Obama's Overtures - Seen As Weakness by Extremist Regimes, Terrorist Elements

Columnist for the liberal website Elaph 'Aziz Al-Haj wrote: "The policy adopted by the Bush administration in dealing with the September 11 [attacks] has been subjected to a slander campaign, in which Obama and his party have played a significant role. This campaign is still being waged with frenetic energy… We have warned time and again about the danger of extending a hand to enemies in the name of openness and dialogue, while disregarding the victims of these elements or regimes - the regimes with which Obama seems to be so eager to consort at any price. Those who promote extremism, terrorism, and international tension interpret as weakness Obama's policy of seeking rapprochement [with his enemies] instead of brandishing a truncheon in their faces.

"The international tribunal for the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq] Al-Hariri [has been sacrificed] on the altar of U.S. openness towards Syria. Today, we see that [Rafiq Al-Hariri's son Sa'd] Al-Hariri cannot form a government, even though his coalition won the elections. Would it be an exaggeration to place some responsibility [for this] on the U.S. administration, which is extending a hand to Syria and Iran?

"[Likewise, Sudanese President 'Omar] Al-Bashir's trial has evaporated [into thin air]! The U.S. has supplanted it with the opening of all channels to Al-Bashir, while denying the annihilation war in Darfur.

"In the name of openness towards Syria, the U.S. has uttered not a [single] word of solidarity with the victims of the bloody Wednesday [August 19, 2009] explosions [in Baghdad], and maintains impassive neutrality vis-à-vis both Iraq, the victim, and Syria, the aggressor…

"Iran completely misinterpreted Obama's inconsistent policy towards it: It has become more arrogant and more persistent in contending that its nuclear dossier is closed and no longer to be discussed. It continues to import state-of-the-art weapons from North Korea and Russia.

"The Taliban has returned to Afghanistan, in one swoop, and Al-Qaeda has expanded its activities into Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen…

"The war on terror demands immediate and decisive action - that is, to pursue extremists and terrorists and to show no tolerance towards them, without succumbing to [our] propensity to behave like angels, and without falling victim to lawyers who take advantage of loopholes in law to benefit criminals…

"We should have learned some serious lessons from the September 11 attacks: first and foremost, that Islamic terrorism has become an all-encompassing, ubiquitous war against the values of freedom and democracy and against human life, and that the 'war on terror' slogan was no mistake - nay, it is the only correct slogan for dealing with terrorist warfare, whereas years of flexibility in the name of openness towards regimes spreading or supporting terrorism - particularly Iran - has only encouraged them to pursue a strategy of tension, interference in the regional [affairs], and nuclear expansion.

"Obama addressed his famous message to the Muslim world - but which 'world' and which 'elements' did he have in mind? The Islamic world is a combination of rank-and-file citizens and political, cultural, religious, and ethnic elements; it is not monolithic. Which audience was Obama targeting?

"What does [Obama] mean by his campaign against Western countries that restrict the hijab? What [did he mean] by appointing a woman who wears hijab as his advisor? Or by hosting a young black Muslim woman wearing hijab? Could he not [instead] have shown deference to a liberal Muslim woman who does not wear hijab? [What did he mean by] honoring an American [woman] wearing a hijab… for refusing to remove it in court?

"Were not these and other [gestures] aimed at winning over Muslim extremists, while at the same time withholding due attention from secular Muslim individuals and streams…?" [1]

Muslims Bear the Brunt of Al-Qaeda's Terrorism

Former dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at Qatar University Dr. 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari wrote: "A post-September 11 world is less secure [than before], and people are more preoccupied with and restricted by security measures everywhere they live or travel. However, the misfortunes that befell the Muslims are even greater, [in that] the Muslims, and in particular the Arabs, have [universally] come to be regarded as suspects and culprits. [Thus,] Al-Qaeda has done a great service to the rightist extremist movements in Europe, which have taken advantage of the Europeans' 'concern' about the Muslims [who reside there] to inculcate in the consciousness of the European public a negative image of Islam, in order to garner its political support, enhance their own influence, and rise to power. They then proceeded to help promote restrictions on the freedoms and rights of the Islamic diaspora.

"For all that, during the past eight years, Al-Qaeda has not been able to organize an attack against the U.S., or, as of 2005, against Europe. It has, however, become the enemy of the Muslims, wreaking havoc in their homes and causing mass destruction, devastation, murder, and bloodshed [in their midst].

"The main thrust of Al-Qaeda's [aggression] has been against unprotected public places: [bus] stations, popular restaurants, mosques, and sacred tombs. No place has been safe from the desecration wrought by this organization, which respects neither the sanctity of mosques, of the month of Ramadan, or of innocent Muslim souls.

"[Today,] eight years after the September 11 attacks, the vast Islamic arena is rife with bloody explosions occurring on a daily basis; with pervasive suicide attacks; and with violent conflicts. Every day, more and more innocent victims are killed in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Algeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and everywhere else in the Islamic world.

"This is the only legacy of September 11. Ultimately, it is the Muslims, and especially the Arabs, who are the victims: it is they who must face the inferno of [Al-Qaeda] terrorism that is consuming their homes. It is they who bear the brunt and pay the price [of terrorism] with their own lives and the lives of their children, as well as with their money and development projects - without even mentioning the negative image that the Muslims have acquired worldwide."

There Has Been Reform in the Arab Countries - But Not Enough

"The Muslims have not seen the last of September 11's negative impact - nor is there any sign that they will in the near future. [True,] these [September 11] attacks were one of the factors that prompted Arab countries to reassess their situation and to implement political, economic, and social reforms. [As a result,] the status of women in the Islamic world has improved, and they have been granted numerous rights; progress has been achieved in family legislation; and [school] curricula have been revised, especially in the framework of religious education. Some order has been achieved and supervision established over charitable institutions, mosque pulpits, and the [ideological] messages of religious sermons.

But neither the reassessment nor the measures taken as a result have crystallized into a clearly defined, goal-oriented strategy to deal with issues such as 'What kind of learning are we striving for?' 'What kind of change in the religious discourse should there be?' 'What standard of living do we envision for future generations?'..."

Conspiracy Theory Still Holds Sway

"Despite a vast body of evidence, and despite Al-Qaeda's boastful acknowledgement [of responsibility] for its exploits, broad sectors among the elites and the public at large still doubt that Al-Qaeda was behind [the September 11 attacks], and consider them to be a 'U.S.-Zionist conspiracy' to infiltrate the Islamic world.

"[That is why] some jumped for joy at the publication of a book by an unknown French author, claiming that [on September 11] the U.S. had struck itself. [Following his book's publication,] he [the author] was lavishly wined and dined, earned millions [of dollars], became famous - and then sunk into oblivion.

"[But] the conspiracy theory still holds sway… Those who refuse to acknowledge Al-Qaeda's responsibility [for the attacks] cling to this view - because if they abandon it, they will have to admit that the U.S. is correct to blame extremism and terrorism on the curricula and the religious discourse [in Arab countries].

"By denying Al-Qaeda's responsibility [for September 11], they are in effect denying their own responsibility for the curricula and the religious discourse, which are rife with incitement." [2]

The Arab Mind Has Not Changed - Any Western Encroachment into Muslim Territory is Met with Opposition

Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian liberal intellectual residing in the U.S., wrote that while the world had been changed by September 11, the Arab mind remained the same, and the Arabs still adhere to outdated principles. Thus, he said, the Arabs follow these axioms: "No support for any Western encroachment into Arab or Muslim territory, whatever the reason. No differentiation between vengeance taking revenge on the [Western] governments and on the [Western] people, and any retaliation by the West against the [Arab] governments must be considered retaliation against the people. Arab or Muslim military forces must be called in to resolve local conflicts - not infidel Western [forces]. There is an essential conflict between Islamic culture and Western culture - I am not sure, however, where Islamic culture stands at this point. It is believed that the West has serious plans to destroy Islam, and that we all must rally to prevent it from doing so…"

The Arabs Believe Fictional Tales Praising the Taliban

Al-Nabulsi contended that the Arabs believe fictional stories, e.g.: "a) that the Taliban and 'the Afghani Arabs' [i.e. Arabs who joined the global jihad in Afghanistan] have accomplished more than the previous Afghani regimes, and that they have successfully implemented the true Islamic shari'a in Afghanistan, in all its purity -unprecedented since the time of the first Caliphs; b) that the Taliban and the 'Afghani Arabs' are the purest of all Islamist and Arab political regimes today; and c) that they can defeat any empire that wages war against them just as they defeated the British and the Soviet Empires.

"The people who thronged into the streets in shameless and brazen jubilation on the night of September 11 are [the true representatives] of today's dominant Arab mentality - even though we have often tried to deny this... The Americans were right to ask 'Was there jubilation when Palestinian or other Arab citizens were killed? Certainly not!' The Americans said: 'The Arabs have the right to criticize our policy, but their ugly gloating will not make us abandon it…'

"Is the Arab mind so ineffectual in dealing with [the Arabs'] political problems that the only weapons left to them are those of the poor and the weak - that is, terrorism, often called 'the weapon of the poor' or 'the weapon of the weak' in a lame attempt to justify the September 11 attacks…[?]" [3]

Unlike Other Nations, the Arabs Are Incapable Of Apologizing; The Real Solution to Our Crisis Is Self-Criticism

Arab journalist 'Abdallah Al-Matiri wrote: "Every year, nations apologize for their past mistakes. Every year, the American people apologize to the Japanese for the crime of dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The Japanese, for their part, apologize every year for their crimes against the East Asian countries…

"These examples show that acts of murder and destruction are usually accompanied by a feeling of shame - and therefore the Arabs are an exception to the rule, [since] they invariably refuse to apologize or to acknowledge mistakes.

"This sick, confused, and twisted behavior is the product of a culture that judges not on the basis of 'right vs. wrong' but of 'me vs. the other' - [i.e.] I condemn only that which harms me, and everyone else can go to hell.

"Some claim that although the September 11 attacks were perpetrated by Muslims, the Muslims [as a whole] are not responsible for them; there is no right to lay collective blame. Many have used this argument. Yet I will ask: Throughout past or modern history, has the [Arab or Muslim] nation been known to apologize even once? Has Iraq apologized to Kuwait? Has Egypt apologized to Yemen? Have the Muslims apologized for the crimes they committed in the times of the Muslim Empire? Nothing of the kind has ever happened…

"The only courageous position is the one that prompts man to condemn any crime against humanity, irrespective of its motives. It is the only correct position, because it makes man accept responsibility and condemn an attack against a human being anywhere and at any time… This position seems unrealistic and impracticable in the present unwholesome situation, which is deteriorating daily in weak and afflicted cultures - but the lesson to be learned from all this is that the real solution to our crisis is self-criticism, which must necessarily be painful." [4]

*C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1], September 11, 2009.

[2] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), September 14, 2009.

[3] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), September 16, 2009.

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 16, 2009.

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