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Winning the peace

By Mark Leonard. Source: Observer, 2 March 2003

Western governments will not overcome Middle East hostility unless they are ready to change their policies and tackle fears that Islamophobia is rife in the west

Will a war in Iraq set the Middle East and Muslims around the world on fire? That is the question which leaders of the Arab League are asking as they assemble in Egypt this weekend. The fear is that the results of a botched invasion could "open the gates of hell", as the Secretary General of the Arab League put it, and reverberate across the world - from the streets of Cairo to Bradford.

Much British and American disquiet might be dampened by a second resolution from the United Nations but George Bush and Tony Blair will have their work cut out to reach out to what foreign policy anlaysts are calling the "Arab Street". The eyes of the world will be on Baghdad - trying to see if any of the talk of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the importance of international institutions is borne out in the postwar settlement. Western governments will, no doubt, launch a multi-million dollar communications strategy - including the establishment of more Arab language TV and Radio stations - to promote the benefits for post-war Iraq. But, as Conrad Smewing and I argue in a new report published this week, this effort will fall upon deaf ears if it is not matched by a new approach to the Middle East. This will require both a change in policy to help with the human development of the region, and an ambitious attempt to build relationships for mutual change.

First western policy needs to change. The reconstruction of Iraq will need to be placed into a broader context of progress on the Middle East, especially work towards a settlement on Israel/Palestine and an attempt to move beyond double standards on democracy and human rights. Of course moves towards a two-state settlement will never satisfy those who refuse to accept the existence of the Israeli State, but it will show that the West recognises genuine Arab grievances.

To make real progress, however, Bush and Blair will have to go further and call time on the stereotypes that have driven policy in the region. First to go must be the myth of the Islamic world as a single polity: the easy cliche of the Arabists that the allegiance of "the Arab" is first to first tribe and second to the Umma, and never to the nation state. This is one of the things that has driven the Faustian bargain of political and military support for autocratic regimes in exchange for free access to oil. One of the encouraging signs of the debate after September 11 is the growing number of policy-makers who argue that what was once seen as a bolster to regional stability is now clearly a source of hostility and terror. It has not escaped the more intelligent Middle Eastern governments that they need to change either.

Western governments must define a new approach to Arab governments which offers security guarantees and know-how in exchange for economic and political change. One reason why hostility toward the West is so strong is that people living in conditions of poverty, high unemployment and political repression do not have the freedom to protest about problems which are closer to home. Discontent is therefore deflected toward the West.

It has been suggested that a 'new Marshall Plan' to transform the Middle East is required. But the experiences of world war two do not provide a very good model for the region. The injection of American capital into post-war Europe was so dramatically successful because is catalysed the human capital that was already there. Europe had skilled workers and managers, strong educational, political and judicial institutions, but it did not have the factories and infrastructure to utilise them. According to the UN Development Programme's Arab Human Development report the required catalyst in the Middle East is not cash - the region is already, as the UNDP put it, "more rich than developed". The pressing need is for the institutional and educational reform needed to build and deploy the region's human capital. So what is needed is, in fact, a kind of 'mirror of the Marshall Plan'. Linking people and institutions with potential reformers in the region - the work at which organisations such as the British Council excel - would not only allow the region to progress along its own path but is also the best antidote to mistrust and suspicion of western motives.

But even if Western policies do change, few will believe it unless policy makers deal first with the pervasive sense that Western policy is motivated by a hatred or fear of Muslims. This will mean adopting a very different approach from the past when the assumption was too often that the problem was a lack of information "over there". George Bush, when asked about hostility in the Arab world, declared "I just can't believe it. I know how good we are, and we've got to do a better job of making our case". This analysis led the State Department to fund an advertising campaign during Ramadan which showed Muslims living in the United States. But people's responses to America and other Western countries are much more subtle. Most already know a lot about America, and many want to live there: the UN's development programme reported that fifty-one per cent of young Arabs want to emigrate to the West.

Much of the fear and suspicion towards the west arises because Arabs believe that western policy is Islamophobic. And they can find plenty of evidence to support this case. To many muslims, the attempted link between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein reads implies that we cannot distinguish between Arabs - and that we see them all as terrorists. Polling by Gallup in the US and muslim countries showed that people in Iran, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Turkey are all more positive about US citizens, than the Americans are about them. And there is no shortage of material in the Arab media about western insensitivity to Islam - whether it's a RAND report describing Saudi Arabia as a "kernel of evil", televangelists like Jerry Falwell describing the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, or the British columnist Melanie Phillips warning of a "fifth column" amongst British Muslims. Western Governments would do well to dealing with the sources of misperceptions of Islam. They could work together with Arab governments and intellectuals to examine the ways that the links between our societies and religions are represented in school textbooks and the media.

But they must careful about how they do this. Though western Governments attack the idea of a "clash of civilisations", they are sometimes in danger of talking one into existence by adopting public diplomacy tactics which betray an "us" and "them" mentality. Official speeches talk about Islam as a religion of peace and Foreign Ministers work on plans for "civilisational dialogue".

Instead of broadcasting adverts about how nice the "West" is to Muslims, the UK and US governments must work to broadcast debates which demonstrate that those categories aren't meaningful. Information about divisions in western policy towards Iraq, and debates about the presence of Muslims in the "west" can all help to challenge the insidious logic of a clash between two monolithic civilisations.

Of course, the legacy of mistrust of the west is deep-rooted. Western governments' long engagement with despots from Shah of Iran to Saddam himself, means that any change in policy will not be readily believed. But there are some reasons for hope too. First, the opening up of the Arab media with regional satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera signals a real challenge to the political stasis of the past. Secondly, demographic and economic pressures are forcing governments in the region to embrace reform.

And finally the shock of September 11 means that Western governments can see that the price of simmering resentment on the streets of the region is no longer sustainable. These trends are set against the biggest short-term crisis in the region for over a decade but this makes it even more important that western leaders lift their eyes to beyond the short-term, and ensure thet attempt to rebuild the relationships that will be shattered by a war which the vast majority in the region fear.

· Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre (www.fpc.org.uk ) and writes a regular online commentary for Observer Worldview. He is author, with Conrad Smewing, of Public Diplomacy and the Middle East (£19.95) which was commissioned by The British Council