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How the Arab World Reacted to the State of the Union Speech By: Dr. Walid Phares
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 27, 2004


Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. State of the Union addresses have developed two audiences:  one in America and the other in the Middle East. In that latter region of the world, the White House words are resounding with both hope and hatred in all quarters between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. Never before, have American presidential speeches meant so much to so many in the Arab world and in the wider Middle East. Many people fear them, many others despise them, but a rising and unstoppable number of men and women from these warm lands are holding on to these words; clinging to dreams that could come true.   

One hour before this last State of the Union address on Tuesday night, al Jazeera's office in Washington had assembled its big artillery for the event.  Deployed across the country were a roster of correspondents: At the White House on the Hill, Mohammed al Alami. At the UN and in Iowa. 

Inside DC headquarters, al Jazeera's bureau chief conducted a panel with Dr. Shibli Talhami from Maryland University on his side, and Dr. Asad Abukhalil from California State University via satellite. The objective of the operation: translate the speech and analyze it for its viewers. In short: produce the "official version" to millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

When asked on MSNBC the next day what was the reaction of the Arab world, many would have expected me to relay back to the West, how did a whole "bloc" of people react to President Bush's speech. But, unlike other colleagues around the networks and academics on campuses across the nation, I provided the harder to understand answer. "There is no one Arab world reaction," I replied, "there are at least three of them." For despite al Jazeera's powerful attempts to describe the game as America on one side, and the Arab-Persian speaking Middle East on the other, the State of the Union - in my judgment - provoked three types of reactions.

The first type, openly advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, inspired al Jazeera and its Hizbollahi sister, al-Manar in Beirut, and also expressed by newspapers such as al-Hayat (Saudi financed), Techrine (Syrian Ba'ath), and the alike, to open fire on the speech. A deluge of attacks fused electronically and in print with the classical rhetoric of the 1970s with a taste of Jihadism. The American President was made into a hideous monster ready to mass kill Arabs. It was the reverse psychology of September 11.

Asad Abukhalil, who teaches in California and is a frequent contributor on al Jazeera screamed in Arabic: "when Bush speaks of democracy, I call on all Arabs through TV to rush to the shelters. It is war!"  He continued his "analysis" of the speech. Instead of human rights he said: "Jails are being and will be built in the region and in Iraq." 

Commenting on the U.S.-backed broadcast into the region announced by President Bush in his State of the Union, Abukhalil blasted Mid-East based SAWA radio and Iraq based al-Hurra TV. Al-Jazeera did the vilification of the speech, while the Jihadi web sites mushroomed the version onto the region. That was what many in the Middle East studies community in the U.S. and their expert extension in the media would have branded as the "voice of the Arab world." That was almost the BBC version as well: Everyone hated the speech.

That first ideological spasm was real, but came from the recipients of the call for democratization. Obviously, the Ba'ath of Damascus, the radical Mullahs of Iran, the Wahabi clerics of Arabia and their sympathizers across the lands were expected to burst. But there were other reactions, too.

The second type was less vocal, realist and skeptical, but understood in the greater picture.  It spoke to geopolitical realities. President Bush has certainly warned the dictators and the terrorists of future action, which explained the tidal wave of recipient hatred. But the speech asked America's "friends" to continue with their efforts to "eradicate the seeds of fanaticism and extremism." For all of us who are monitoring the political debate in the region, this meant Saudi, but also Yemeni, Egyptian, and Jordanian low key efforts to reform and crack down on terror.

But the most significant reaction was the less seen in the West. That is the voice of the underdogs, the dissidents and the had-enough-of-it people. Kuwait applauded the speech. So did the Governing Council in Iraq. But beyond these two liberated countries, other civil societies expressed their support to the State of the Union. In a sense, it was their state of misery acknowledged in Washington. Students and reformist in Iran sheered. Opposition in Syria and Lebanon breathed better. Southern Sudanese and Nubians reinforced their will. Berbers and liberal seculars in Algeria clapped hands. And from the deepest underground of activism, dissident web sites, with writers around the Arab world, including women in Saudi Arabia, started to count the days. In short: the lowest layers in the region's make-up received their state-of-affairs with the voice of the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States.

How ironic. Inside Byzantium (read Washington's beltway), the debate had no respite. It is still about "where are the WMDs?" and "what are we doing in Iraq?" But down-under, in what will become the future generations of the entire Middle East, Shiites, Kurds, liberal Sunni, democratic Arabs and oppressed minorities, women and students are reading President Bush's speech in disbelief. "Who among our own Presidents-for-life and fundamentalist Monarchs have ever mentioned the mass graves and our vanished human rights?" Let it come from the American President. And if he is not serious, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the Truth was said."   This is from the underground chat rooms.  The people have hope.


Dr Walid Phares is the author of the newly released book Future Jihad. He is also a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.


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