In the post 9/11 world, American and Middle Eastern governments do not share brotherly relations. Entitled, ignorant, ill-mannered and narcissistic are words of choice when describing the Americans. Meanwhile many Americans consider the Middle East backward, fundamentalist, anti-Zionist, and anti-American. Both frames depict a narrative of animosity and ignorance that continues to simmer rather than cool. These perceptions are rooted in oversimplification and neo-colonialism.
The issue of our continued misunderstanding of the Middle East arises from two places: the geography of the area and ignoring the consequences of our intervention abroad — particularly due to the War on Terror.
The conglomerate of the Middle East is too geographically vast to condense into a singular body or condemn as the dastardly nemesis to democracy and propagator of global terror, although large, reactionary media outlets still try.
The American discourses of the Middle East are generally limited to the War on Terror or, more appropriately, the War on ISIS. Iraq, Iran, and Syria often come up often in the discussion; the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is also a huge topic of interest; and the outlying West Bank areas, Egypt and Jordan, are discussed in passing. These issues are of grave importance in the scope of global unification, however it is important to recognize that this is often where the conversation ends.
Generally speaking, the affairs of countries like Oman, Bahrain, or Qatar are completely unknown. These countries are rarely seen through the eyes of our media. With those eyes being the main lens in which Americans see the world around them, such smaller countries are entirely blind to the American population.
The same is true for social reform. In a 2004 article for ssrc.org, Rami Khouri states “civil societies are at very different stages of development, as is witnessed perhaps most clearly in the very broad range of conditions and opportunities that define women and youth throughout the area.”
We don’t often see Islamic feminism abroad. We don’t know anything about the public education system in each country, new job creation, or unionizing movements. The only time we know of the economic and political disparities between nations is when militants take up arms in outrage. We see violence and—despite statements on the contrary, our intervention is not putting an end to the violence. We’re only making matters more confusing.
Khouri states “the important point to keep in mind is that the rising anti-Americanism is driven almost exclusively by cumulative frustration with the substance and style of American foreign policy in the area…it uses countries when it needs them and then precipitously abandons them to their own fates…it only musters a global armada against terror when Americans are traumatized, but not when others around the world die in much larger numbers from the same evil; it happily supports dictatorial regimes while routinely preaching the value of democracy…”
Khouri has a lot to say about the failures of America’s foreign policy, especially the militaristic side, and his criticism is spot on. This, beyond all other reasons, is why America’s reputation is tarnished for other countries, particularly in the Middle East.
We are a nation of hypocrites most comfortable when we have our blinders on. Our aid comes in retaliation to a direct assault on us and, oftentimes, offers nothing substantial in post-war recovery, save another military base.
Americans have a knack for praising themselves when we achieve certain success; especially in athletics and war. I can recall, during the early stages of the War on Terror, a Toby Keith song on the radio warning all terrorists that “we’ll stick a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” But when that boot gets stuck in that ass it has to come out sometime, and if it’s one thing Americans can’t do, it’s recognize the mess that remains.
It’s understandable why America has the international reputation that it does. The majority of Americans laugh at Islamophobia as a concept, and have no interest in matters that may help or harm domestic and foreign relations between distant countries. After all’s said and done, the lingering question is what is the root of all this national narcissism; a question to which no one has a good answer.