The recent wave of angry street protests sweeping the Arab world may be presented as an indication of the rise of anti-American feelings and rhetoric in the region, but this analysis would be misleading. The harsh reaction of Egyptian and Tunisian civil society activists to the recent visits of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo and Tunis would reinforce the proposition that the Arab Spring has confirmed the predominance of anti-Americanism as deeply rooted antagonism that transcends US policy and change of administrations. The United States, it seems, is an intrinsic enemy – no amount of expression of good will, good gestures, or policy shifts will diffuse the rejection of the United States in the region, its demonization, and the targeting of its nationals.
While anti-Americanism remains an integral component of Arab political culture, it can be argued that the post-Arab Spring period has witnessed its quantitative and qualitative retreat. It may be difficult to reconcile such a claim with the high decibel media coverage of protests, but once the context of the intensification of political discourse in all its forms is accounted for, this apparent surge is revealed as part of an overall increase in the production and consumption of narratives in a political culture in turmoil.
The anti-trailer protests that have dominated the news cycle over the past two weeks are indeed reflective of an affront felt across Muslim communities towards the deliberately disrespectful production. As such, they do raise, again, the unresolved issue of reconciling freedom of speech, a value deemed primary and nonnegotiable in much of the West, with the expectation of respect of fundamental symbols that is anchored in the Islamic tradition. The globalization and personalization of media and communication has created an evident conflict between these two values, with as of yet no credible solution, or even a coherent conversation. And indications abound that the genuine feelings of offense have been exploited by multiple parties in diverse settings for political mobilization. Yet, despite all the spectacular images thus generated, the participation in these protests was definitively modest in comparison with the mobilization achieved in the same locales on other, less global-news-worthy issues.
Credible reports from Libya suggest that the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues was a pre-meditated operation that exploited the Benghazi protest. The killing of Stevens, whose commitment to the Libyan cause was reciprocated across Libya by expressions of respect and affection, was widely condemned by Libyans, with spontaneous demonstrations of anguish and regret occurring in both Benghazi and Tripoli. These manifestations of sympathy and regret gained far less coverage. Yet, his death serves to reinforce two opposing narratives, both ultimately feeding the strain of anti-Americanism in Arab political culture.
In their pre-packaged ideological phrasing, proponents of anti-Americanism portray the assassination of Ambassador Stevens as the Libyan national reaction to the on-going attempt by the United States at imposing a new order to serve its interests, at the detriment of the will and welfare of the Libyan people. The event is thus applauded and calls for similar actions elsewhere in the Arab world are issued. While commanding the attention of global media outlets, the propaganda character of this line of presentation leave it with virtually no traction in the Arab world, outside of the ideological circles already committed to anti-US rhetoric and action. However, both the assassination and its endorsement by the ideological fringe are substantive materials used to enrich the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim narrative that has some currency in the West, with further examples of ingratitude, treachery, and irrationality. In turn, this narrative is recycled in Arab media as the backdrop that confirms that“productions”such as the recent film disparaging the Prophet are not individual actions, but part of an attitude and policy that encompasses much of the United States.
While this feedback loop has the net effect of exacerbating the latent mistrust between Arab and American cultural scenes, it obfuscates the fact that, since the Arab Spring, the focus on the United States as a major player in affecting the fate of Arab societies has implicitly receded, with much of the conversation being rephrased to focus on local actors.
The problem is that this does not translate into a lasting gain for mutual trust and understanding: it is merely an opening in need of cultivation, and the United States has still to find the right formula for such development.
Both the Obama and Bush administrations experimented with grand concepts aimed at dislodging anti-Americanism from Arab political discourse. From the democracy promotion approach adopted by the George W. Bush administration in its early years, to the positive engagement policy of President Barack Obama, the problem has not been the content of the message, but its lack of sustainability. Political considerations may have dictated the alterations, and eventual faltering of these approaches. From their Arab recipients perspective, however, the shifts in policy are often deemed as a confirmation of their utilitarian, non-principled, character – a reading that feeds onto the cynicism that fuels anti-Americanism. The problem of longevity of official US policy is structural, affected both by the unending flux in political considerations and the short US electoral cycle (which imposes on any policy, in the best case scenario, a time limit of eight years).
It is a fact that the US brand suffers from bad reception. Reworking this damaged brand will necessitate addressing matters of policy. But more importantly, it requires a cultural exposure to the United States beyond the two current prisms of Hollywood and anti-Americanism. All the current noise notwithstanding, today is a moment of opportunity that US civil society, far more than the US government, could capitalize upon for an engagement that dispels myths and enables the often muted and obscured constructive exchange between Arab and US cultures. The permanence of Arab anti-Americanism – not unlike the autocratic regimes that openly or secretly fostered it – may indeed prove to be an illusion.