More on Arab public opinion

Marc Lynch discusses the implications of the Guantanamo Bay policy for  relations with the Arab world.  He believes that the decision will be critical because of the common criticism that Obama has not kept his promises.  Lynch includes this description of the mainstream of Arab public opinion:

Who is the relevant public? The broad mainstream of Arabs and Muslims, who are generally hostile to U.S. foreign policy and suspicious of American motives, but are tentatively hopeful that Obama will change it in a positive direction. This broad middle has little sympathy with Al-Qaeda’s salafi-jihadist agenda, but shares much of its critique of U.S. foreign policy. It tends to watch al-Jazeera and to identify with its framing of core Arab issues (especially during moments of crisis), supports the idea of resistance (muqawima) but is outraged about terrorism (especially where there are Muslim victims), backed Hezbollah in 2006, suffered over Gaza in 2009, and came to be convinced during the Bush years that the U.S. was waging a war with Islam.

Guantanamo has for many long years been a key symbolic node in that shared narrative. While the U.S. debate usually focuses on the “worst of the worst”, the Arab discourse generally focuses on people viewed as innocent and unjustly detained — such as the al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Hajj. This epitomized in their eyes all that was wrong with Bush’s war on terror. It helps that Guantanamo can now be portrayed as the stuff of the past, a sin to be redeemed. But this in turn plays into one of the most prominent themes in current Arab political discourse: that Obama’s attractive words have not yet been matched by deeds, and that he hasn’t really changed anything significant about U.S. policy.

This characterization agrees with most of the information that I’ve encountered so far, although I would like to see hard data and more in-depth discussion to back it up.  I imagine that his assertions are based on his other work, and he may discuss them in his book as well.

The second question is how much the U.S. can or should do to adapt to, engage, or change Arab public opinion.  That’s a complex question that’s way out of my league for now.


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