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Don't Panic! April 16 2003

Your war questions answered

How is the Arab Street reacting to the war in Iraq?

I've heard people talking about it since Sept. 11, but until I started thumbing through my road atlas last week, I didn't even know where it was. It turns out that Arab Street is in Deltona, Fla., near Orlando. As far as I can tell, Arab Street isn't having much of a reaction to the war. For that matter, neither is Arab Lane in Olympia, Wash.

Using the term "Arab Street" when discussing Arab popular opinion is lazy, condescending, and most importantly, misleading. "Arab Street" essentially takes the diverse opinions of 200 million or so Arabic-speaking people in 20 some nations from the Atlantic coast of North Africa to the Persian Gulf and dismisses them as a shouting mob. Imagine a serious discussion about domestic politics beginning with the phrase "The American Street."

One need only look at the diversity of reactions just within Iraq itself to dismiss the notion of a monolithic Arab Street. We expected the people of Southern Iraq to greet American and British soldiers with joy and enthusiasm. After all, as Shi'ite Muslims who were harshly oppressed by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War, we thought they'd be thrilled to see us. In fact, they were mostly nervous and hesitant. They didn't want to prematurely act overjoyed about Saddam's demise. Last time, they got enthused about us (after Gulf War I, when we told them to rise up), we abandoned them and left them for slaughter.

A few miles up an Arab Street in scenic Baghdad, we were expecting serious military and popular resistance to our invasion. It never materialized though. Military resistance was weak and, instead of seeing groups of people playa hatin' on American soldiers as foreign conquerers, we saw scenes of celebration that looked an awful lot like a combination of Eastern Europe after the collapse of Soviet domination in 1989 and a college campus after a big football win.

According to reports on Al-Jazeera (slogan: FOX for Arabs), public reaction elsewhere in the Arab world is mixed. Even people who hated that the war started in the first place and who are suspicious of U.S. intentions are happy to see Saddam go. Nevertheless, Arab nationalist pride, which typically extends beyond national borders to include all Arabic-speaking nations, has suffered a blow with Iraq's military collapse. The idea of an Arab leader, however despotic, successfully challenging the U.S. military might was an appealing one.

The Arab streets where Saddam had the most support were probably those of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip. They enjoyed Saddam's generous donations to the families of suicide bombers. And even though he was really, really bad at it, they also admired him for taking on what they view as the American-Israeli alliance that keeps them down. His popularity was no doubt also helped by the fact that, as non-Iraqis, he couldn't oppress, torture, jail, or kill them.

On the other hand, Palestinians with a little more sense have some reasons to be happy at Saddam's demise. First of all, their fellow Arabs in Iraq no longer have to live under his tyranny. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, right before the war started, President Bush tried to appease the Arabs by promising them a "road map" to peace between Israelis and Palestinians once Saddam was toppled. Wry cynical note: War gets satellite-guided global positioning systems, but peace only gets road maps.

andisheh@creativeloafing.com



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