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Behind the Arab Rage


CHARTOUM, Sudan It's a measure of the rage spreading across the Middle East that even in this dusty capital, almost at the edge of the world, several hundred thousand people have marched through the streets denouncing Israel and America and in some cases cheering Osama bin Laden.

Elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of Moroccans have taken to the streets to demonstrate, in their country's biggest protest ever. And four people have been killed in the huge protests that are shaking Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia and other countries.

This frenzy in the Arab world is fascinating, because while the Israeli brutality in the occupied territories is real, it is small potatoes by Arab standards.

Some 1,600 Palestinians have been killed since the latest round of violence erupted in the fall of 2000. In contrast, two million Sudanese have died in the ongoing civil war here, with barely anyone noticing.

Likewise, Syria blithely killed about 20,000 people in crushing an abortive uprising in the city of Hama in 1982. And Saddam Hussein, who has killed more Arabs than Ariel Sharon and all his Israeli predecessors put together, is somehow a hero for much of the Arab world.

What's going on here? After lots of soul-searching conversations with Arabs, I'm inclined toward a couple of conclusions:

First, there is a double standard; the Arab world is outraged in large part because it is Israel that is killing Arabs this time. Second, despite the double standard, the outrage is still sincere and deeply threatening to pro-American Arab governments; there is a tendency among Israel's supporters to assume that the rage must be feigned, but that's a fantasy.

In fairness, this kind of double standard is common around the globe. White-ruled South Africa provoked anger throughout the world, while worse abuses in Zaire, Zimbabwe and Nigeria were ignored. And many Chinese still despise all Japanese, even though Mao slaughtered far more Chinese than Japanese militarists ever managed to.

Michael C. Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University, offered several reasons that Arab outrage is going off the charts: The Palestinian problem is bigger than other concerns, for it has involved an entire society, several wars and the disruption of neighboring countries; it is older, having burdened the Arab consciousness since the end of World War I; it is more visible, emerging from television screens every moment; it is worse, at least in perception.

"Whether you measure it in deaths, eviction from home and homeland, destruction and loss of property, the ruination of lives in refugee camps, psychological damage to children, or the continual insults from the conquerors and their American patron this issue is an existential nightmare from which there seems no awakening," Professor Hudson said.

Another reason for the double standard in the Middle East is that Arab countries are shame-based societies, and Israeli repression of Arabs is seen not just as brutal, but also as humiliating.

When a group of Yemenis scolded me for American support of Israel, I retorted that America supports the Middle Eastern leader who gives his Arab citizens the greatest political freedom, and that's Ariel Sharon. There was a long pause. Then one replied that Israel is a colonial outpost and that as a result while Israeli Arabs may have ballots and free speech, they have no dignity. In other words, protesters are enraged not just because Israel kills Arabs, but also because it humiliates them.

"The Israeli occupation represents a total humiliation of all the Arab regimes," says Sami Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist in Florida. "It's a continuous reminder of the weakness of the Arabs as people, of their society and political system, as well as an indication of the impotence and corruption of their regimes."

Israelis should not feel reassured just because Arab protests reflect a double standard. In the mid-1980's I covered South African business leaders for a time, and anguished whites there constantly pointed out the double standard of the scrutiny and moral expectations on them. They had a point, but the world did not stop to listen and in the end it didn't matter that there were many far worse sinners.

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