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Rattling ‘Doors of Hell’ in Mideast

Every morning, people here read their newspapers to find out the latest image that Westerners have carved of them to fit the West’s own objectives and agendas. For the last two years, Arabs in the Middle East have never stopped being surprised at what is made of them, their religion, their intentions and their national character.

Now comes the possibility that the United States, with or without the United Nations, will go to war with Iraq. Because of the suppressed anger, frustration and humiliation of Arab people, such a war could open “doors of hell” for the region and for West-East relations.

Those in the West who speak about war from their comfortable offices seem to have no idea of how strongly the people in the Middle East feel. The entire world has sympathized with the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and felt great solidarity with the U.S. and its people. Yet since that time, major decisions about the Middle East are made on the basis of “it is said” and “it is believed.” People are targeted and killed on the suspicion that they had intended to do something.

For most of us in the Middle East who have suffered from foreign occupations, war and terrorism, Muslim extremism is a reflection of foreign influence during the Cold War. Religious extremism is alien to societies like Syria that are multi-religious and multiethnic.

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When Muslim extremists used to blow up our innocent citizens and children in our cities, they were condemned and fought by our secular society but were excused as human rights activists by the West. Only after Sept. 11 did the West start to brand them as terrorists, and then it extended that label to the entire Arab and Muslim culture.

Evil is part of human nature. All good Jews, Christians and Muslims always have stood against evil. To act on the premise that one race or one religion or one nation is more prone to violence or extremism or terrorism is racist.

The U.S. has decided to spend millions of dollars to improve its image among Arabs and Muslims, but it is acting in the dark. The campaign it has launched through Arab media, showing Arabs and Muslims some examples of their kinspeople who have made it in the U.S., is preaching to the converted. Arabs know that the American system is extremely accommodating for all nationalities, that Americans are nice people and that thousands of Arabs have made it in the U.S. The core issue that stands in the way of real communication and understanding between Arabs and Muslims on the one hand and Americans on the other is the American stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel has occupied Arab territories since 1967, and Arabs have expressed time and again their desire to live in peace with Israel. Yet after Ariel Sharon became prime minister in Israel, he abrogated existing peace agreements with the Palestinians and annihilated all horizons for peace with Syria and Lebanon.

The Arabs expected the U.S. to stand firmly in support of the peace process rather than to provide Sharon with money and armaments to continue the policy that he started as defense minister in 1982. Sharon is credited with masterminding the invasion of Lebanon and blamed for the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps there.

Sharon and members of his government have announced many times that they will beat the Palestinians into capitulation. This policy is not going to lead anyone anywhere.

What is truly needed now is for the U.S. to show great moral authority and reverse this bloody course by returning to the course of peace -- true peace that ends occupation and achieves for all peoples of the region their rights.

Any peace that is not fair is not going to endure. People in the Middle East believe that only the U.S. can stop the violence. It is useless to keep condemning the Palestinians whenever an Israeli is killed or to show solidarity with Israel every time it commits another massacre against Palestinians.

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The first step to break this logjam is to end the Israeli occupation of Arab territories and to design a peaceful and just settlement under which both people feel security and dignity. The humiliation that the Palestinian people have been subjected to for the last two years will fuel their struggle for generations to come.

Arab people never have reconciled themselves to occupation and colonization, no matter how long it may take them to achieve their independence. At this particular time, Iraq is only a diversion that may allow Sharon to flex his muscles and use his hundreds of tanks and missiles on unarmed Palestinians. This will cost both sides more lives but will not make the issue go away.

The U.S. needs to think of a new strategy that focuses on the rights of all peoples in the region to live in peace and prosperity. It should not be based on arming and supporting one side in order to kill and humiliate the other. Its starting point should be that people are equal in humanity; there is no superior and inferior simply because of military might or lack of it.

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Bouthaina Shaaban is director of foreign media for the Syrian Foreign Ministry.


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