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Beneath the Surface (washingtonpost.com, April 2)
War in Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Discussion Transcripts
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Live Online Transcripts

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War in Iraq
With Fawaz Gerges
Author and Sarah Lawrence College Professor

Thursday, April 3, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Will the U.S.-led war in Iraq help make the United States safer from terrorist threats such as al Qaeda? How does the Arab word view the toppling of Saddam Hussein by coalition forces? How will the United States' post-war reconstruction efforts affect the Arab and Muslim opposition?

Fawaz Gerges, Chair of Middle Eastern Studies and Arab Affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, was online to discuss his book "America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?" and the war in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Fawaz Gerges: I would like to say a few words on how the American invasion of Iraq has alienated or appeared to have alienated most of the important moderates as opposed to radical secular and religious forces in the Arab world. I see a new realignment encompassing a broad spectrum of political opinion is crystallizing against American foreign policy in the world of Islam. Moderates and radicals alike are now united in a position to what the United States is doing in Iraq. These moderate voices remain the only hope for the U.S. in its effort to help Middle Eastern societies reform their autocratic structures and develop democratic political systems. The invasion is radicalizing Arab and Muslim politics further and empowering reactionary elements who stand to benefit the most from this crisis.

Washington, D.C.: The only results I foresee happening because of this war are more instability and terrorism. I think it will have the opposite effect than what the U.S. administration intends.

Are there any positive reconstruction scenarios that can create a better relationship between Muslims and the U.S.?

Fawaz Gerges: The wisdom in Washington was that the war would bring democracy into Iraq, democratize and transform the Muslim Middle East and empower those liberal voices who look to the U.S. We were also told that the war would strike at the roots of militancy and terrorism in the Muslim Middle East. But far from empowering the liberal voices the war is already radicalizing Arab politics and providing ammunition to anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-reformist voices. By deepening the sense of the humiliation and defeat felt by Arab youth a constituency that presents more than 55 percent of the Arab population, the war will likely make this constituency a fertile recruiting ground for militant causes like that of al-Qaeda. Regardless of the outcome of the American invasion of Iraq the war is likely to exacerbate the crisis of political legitimacy of the pro-western states and undermine regional stability. The political reverberations of this crisis will not only effect the destiny of Iraq but will also lead to the intensification of political repression in the Arab world and further polarization of American relations with Muslim societies. Although it is quite early to speculate on the nature and structure of the war's effects on America's relations with the Muslim world there is no doubt that the US is entering a highly volatile and dangerous phase in its relations with Middle Eastern societies.

Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Gerges -- I saw you last night on cable -- I think it was CNN with Paula Zahn. Can you believe the question she asked you about whether the Palestinian issue was just a "gimmick" that Arabs are using to be angry at the U.S. You handled that ludicrous question very well.

Americans must realize that the Israel/Palestine conflict is THE problem for most Arabs, and that our homeland security would almost be assured if we poured our energy into finding peace between Israelis & Palestinians, rather that fighting a war in Iraq. Am I cynical to think that, if the U.S. had the political will, we could force Israel and tempt Palestinians into any reasonable compromise using money as the leverage point? What do you think?

Fawaz Gerges: I think you are absolutely correct. The Palestinian conflict is one of the most important issues in how Arabs perceive their relationship with the US. I am referring here to identity politics not to official politics. I think most of us who study the Middle East appreciate the centrality of the Palestinian issue to how Arabs and Muslims define their relationship with the West - particularly the United States. Unfortunately, although the Bush administration says that it is committed to helping Palestinian and Israelis reach a genuine and just settlement, it has not invested the necessary or the needed political capital in order to nudge the Israelis and Palestinian back to the negotiating table. This administration, or at least the hardliners within the administration, do not seem to be willing to stand their political capital trying to help resolve the festering Palestinian/Israeli tragedy. In fact the hardliners believe that the road to a Palestinian/Israeli settlement goes through Baghdad and this fact explains their obsession with Iraq and complacency toward the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It remains to be seen if the administration will double its efforts after the Iraq war is over to try to assist the Palestinians and Israelis in reaching a peace settlement.

Arlington, Va.: One of the Administration's standard responses to the uniform rejection that has met our Iraq policy in the MidEast is that many of the "moderates" you allude to say one thing behind closed doors (i.e., get rid of Saddam any way you can), and another for public consumption.

How much truth do you think there is to this?

Fawaz Gerges: The moderates I referred to are not the ruling classes in the Arab world. The moderates I referred to are the leading secular and religious leaders. People like Sheik Muhammad Tantawi, Sheik Youssef Qaradawi and many others represent the mainstream Muslim establishment. Those leaders are very consistent in their position to war. If you read carefully the social and political scene in the Muslim and Arab world the dissent and opposition to the war is almost unanimous. No equivocation, no ambivalence, no double talk. Civil society, both secular and religious, both moderate and radical, tends to be opposed to the American invasion in Iraq. What I meant when I said that the American invasion appears to have alienated most of the important moderate as opposed to radical forces is civil society leaders, opinion makers, and renowned scholars. I did not refer to the official position of Arab and Muslim governments. But even most of the Arab states who are providing logistical support to the Unites States in its war against Iraq were and are opposed to the war. Americas overwhelming pressure forced them to tow the line. Unfortunately the gap is becoming wider and wider between the official position of Arab governments and their civil societies. In the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims their governments have shown themselves not only to be impotent in trying to help a fellow Arab state but also subservient to their patron the United States. This is why regardless of the outcome of this invasion the war is likely to exacerbate the crisis of political legitimacy of the pro-western order in the region.

Springfield, Mo.: What effect will the newly released fatwah have on Islamic public opinion toward Iraq?

Fawaz Gerges: Very good question. One point must be made very clear, this is more of a nationalist geo-strategic conflict than a religious one. Yet in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims President Bush's use of religious symbolism imposed a layer of religion on an essentially nationalist struggle. The calls for jihad serve as a rallying point for young Arab men to support their Iraqi counterparts in resisting the American invasion. Many young Arab men are outraged by the images of death and destruction they see on their television sets. They are also responding to calls by moderate Muslim clerics to help their Iraqi counterparts. Most of these young men do not care for or about Saddam Hussein but they are motivated by other nationalist or religious sentiments or a combination of both. They view the American invasion as an attack on the Arab nation and Islam. In the end however one should not exaggerate the operational value of the new calls for jihad. The conflict is an essentially nationalist one.

Laramie, Wy.: Professor Gerges,

Thank you for being online today. I understand and sympathize with many of the international community that worry about American unilateralism and inconsistency in international policy. But I don't understand why many in the Arab world view the war in Iraq as an attack on Islam. I think even the most cynical American wouldn't think that George Bush has a desire to wipe out Muslims.

Can you please explain? Also, how was the NATO defense of Kosovo viewed in the Arab world?


Fawaz Gerges: Many Arabs and Muslims agree that Iraq and the region would be a better place without Saddam's tyranny. What they object to is the overwhelming use of force by the United States. They expect the U.S. of having a hidden agenda to dominate the region and control its resources - mainly oil. We need to understand from the point of view of many Arabs and Muslims - they see and sister country being attacked, shocking images of civilian casualties -- particularly children and women - and inflame public anger and rage. Thus they don't buy the American narrative that this war is meant to liberate Iraqis and bring in democracy and an open society. They see death, destruction and suffering. Yes, many Arabs and Muslims are grateful for what the US did in Bosnia, even though belatedly, to reduce the suffering of Bosnian Muslims. But at least in Bosnia there was an international consensus that something has to be done to stop the war and the brutal targeting of Muslims. In Iraq the situation is perceived differently. The war is seen to be unprovoked, unjust and unnecessary. The American narrative that Iraq presents a mortal threat either to its neighbors or the United States finds few buyers, not only in the world of Islam but in the world at large. So does the claim that there was a direct link between the Iraqi regime and the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.

Philadelphia, Pa.: What role do Arab-Americans play in forming attitudes about America back in the Middle East?

Fawaz Gerges: That is a very difficult question to answer because Arab and Muslim Americans tend to be deeply divided and torn on the fundamental issues of the day. I think the perceived crackdown and disrespect for the civil rights of many Arabs and Muslims in the United States after 9/11 have done a great deal of damage to America's image and credibility in that part of the world. Theoretically the Arab-American and Muslim-American community are well positioned to play an important role in rebuilding the bridges of trust between the US and their communities overseas. But unfortunately the inflammatory rhetoric in certain circles in the United States, along with the extension of the war against terrorism beyond its original mandate, has not helped matters. Many Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans find themselves in a terrible bind. There loyalty questioned at home here in the US and they are not taken seriously by their communities overseas because they tend to be seen as victims not as independent social agents who can influence the American political process from within.

Fawaz Gerges: At this stage the challenge is how to limit the damage, minimize the costs and isolate the reverberations of the Iraqi earthquake. Short term, civilian casualties must be avoided at all costs. The longer the war continues the angrier public backlash will be. Long term, American policy makers must endeavor to empower Iraqis themselves to govern themselves and help them rebuild the state and society as quickly as possible. American policy makers must double their efforts to resolve the festering Israeli/Palestinian tragedy and there is a great need for a consistent and convincing American foreign policy towards human rights and democracy. Democracy should not be used as a stick to punish enemies, while shutting ones eyes and ears to human rights violations by local allies. This inconsistency breeds cynicism and deepens anti-American sentiments in the world of Islam.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company