A CIA job advertisement currently posted on the agency’s web site is offering up to $55,000 a year for “qualified and motivated Language Instructors of Arabic, Chinese, Dari/Pashto,” to work in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
And for “qualified individuals who are able to read and translate Arabic, Dari and/or Pashto into English to serve the CIA as Middle Eastern Language Specialists in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, with limited opportunities in other areas,” the pay is even more interesting; up to $70,000 a year. For those Lebanese who fancy quadrupling their salary, there are basic qualification criteria: for a start you must be a US citizen. Furthermore, the vetting process is strict. Candidates must pass background security checks, a polygraph (lie detector) test, and so on. Even though in 2002, the FBI, reportedly had only 25 Arabic speakers, of the 73,000 resumes received by the NSA since 9/11, only a few have been selected.
Yes indeed. Despite the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim bias that may have surfaced in the United States after 9/11, demand for Arabic speakers in various levels of government – from the US military, to the FBI and the CIA – are at an all-time high (even the British MI5 have put out the call for Arabists). It would seem that the Bush administration is heeding the advice of Chairman Mao Zedung, who wrote in his little Red Book that “the first step towards defeating your enemy is to get to know him.”
But it wasn’t always thus. When George W Bush first came to the White House in January 2000, he tried, by and large, to ignore the Arabs, Islam, the Middle East and all its confusing troubles. In fact, his critics would accuse him of turning away from most anything that was related to international affairs. The new president wanted to diverge from his predecessor’s policies and disengage the United States from foreign interference. His aim was to focus on domestic policies, first and foremost. Ironically, today it’s the domestic economic situation in the United States that is Bush’s weakest link and the one that could lose him the 2004 election.
But as we know, the September 11 attacks forever altered the way Bush, America and Americans look at foreign policy, and particularly, at the Middle East. Since then, hardly a day has gone by without some Middle East-related news item hitting the pages of the American press or airing on national television. For the most part these reports are negative, portraying the majority of Muslims and Arabs as tainted by terrorism or hating America. But every so often, there will be one item that sheds a more positive light on the issue.
As the presidential electoral storm begins to gather momentum in Washington and the rest of the country, the Muslim/Arab vote – estimated to hover around the three million mark – is beginning to emerge as something both Democrats and Republicans would like to court. Particularly in light of how close these next election results are predicted to be. Understandably, the Muslim/Arab community is starting to realize its full potential as an electoral block and one that should be reckoned with.
Some US Muslims groups have undertaken a campaign to try and register up to 85% of the estimated three million potential Muslim voters in an effort to get them to vote in the upcoming November elections. And in the process, of course, let the political landscape in America become aware of the influence this group may hold. There are an estimated seven million Muslims in the US, of which some are expected to play an increasingly effective role in electoral politics.
Some Muslim organizations put the number of currently registered Muslim voters in the US at 1.8 million. There are predictions that those numbers will significantly increase as a new generation of young Muslim Americans comes of voting age.
But the Muslims in the US are far from voting as a unified block; they are divided between Democrats and Republicans. Traditionally, being more conservative in nature, Muslims tend to vote more Republican. “Many Muslims also voted for the Republican Party because they felt more comfortable with the party’s family-oriented, conservative values and with their stand on issues like gay marriages. Like the Republicans, many Muslims have a very conservative approach to these issues,” said Naushaba Ali, a Virginia resident and female activist who voted against Bush in the 2000 elections.
Afraid of losing its solid Jewish base, the Democratic Party has avoided flirting with the Muslim-Arab constituency. The Democrats’ historic alliance with Israel and the tendency of American Jews to vote Democrat has, in the past, made the Republican Party more appealing to Arab Americans. But that was until September 11 and the drastic changes that overtook the course of events and Arab-American relations.
The clampdown by John Ashcroft, the Attorney General, on Arab and Muslim groups that followed the September terrorist attacks; the arrests and detention of hundreds of Arabs and Muslims in the US, often without warrant or viable reason; additional harsh restrictions imposed at American points of entry, and the war in Iraq, has greatly stressed relations between Bush’s Republicans and the Arab-American community.
Many Arabs and Muslims in the US feel they have become unfairly targeted and unjustly discriminated against. They like to point out that the extremist fringe in Islam represents a very small percentage of the world’s more than 1.4 billion Muslims.
That feeling is not reserved exclusively to Arabs living in the US and is even echoed by a number of Americans. “US policy [in the Middle East] is viewed as anti-Muslim, a crusade against the ‘axis of evil’ and unfair, due to practices that favor Israel over the Arabs.” Those words come from a February 2003 study by the Institute for National Security Studies of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado titled, “View from the East: Arab Perception of United States Presence and Policy.”
The study states, in part, that Arab populations have become alienated from their governments and therefore tend to turn to Islam as their only solution. Usually, the study finds, that it is radical Islam that these populations usually turn to. This explains, in part, Bush’s incentive to impose rapid change on the Middle East. But the changes, needed as they may well be, can only come with the participation of the people involved. Many Arab leaders are beginning to realize, and admit, that the area is indeed in dire need of radical change. But as is often repeated by the Arab world’s leadership and outside observers familiar with the area, these changes must come in concordance with the people of the region. This change cannot be unilaterally imposed, as the Bush administration seems to believe it can.
In a March 12, Washington Post column, David Ignatius quoted Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Hizbullah’s spiritual leader as admitting that Arab leaders were delaying their move towards democracy, largely using the “excuse” that Israel stands in their way. In other words, as long as the standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be resolved, neither would the issue of Arab lack of democracy.
Every Arab official one talks to will reiterate that fact; solve the underlying problem troubling the Middle East first. Otherwise, addressing other Middle East issues ahead of the Palestinian question, such as introducing democracy in the area, becomes similar to trying to scratch your left ear with your right hand by placing it over your head. Why make life more difficult?
Al-Qaeda’s pet grievance – whether accurate or not – is the Palestinian issue. The same holds true in other non-Arab Islamic countries. Yet, the issue President Bush had promised to address head-on following the Iraq war (via the Middle East Road Map) remains on the back burners of US foreign policy makers.
Realistically however, while solving the Palestinian issue is by no means going to be equivalent to waving a magic wand over the Middle East and making all its problems disappear overnight, it will, nevertheless, accomplish two very important things. First, it will remove the primary reason of discontent and source of animosity currently existing between the Arab-Islamic street and the West, (primarily the US). Second, it will remove the “excuse” mentioned by Sheikh Fadlallah from the Arab/Islamic leaders to keep stepping on the brakes of the region’s natural march towards greater democracy.
In June, Bush will present his New Middle East Initiative, when he convenes with other world leaders in Europe. The details of the plan are still unknown, but already the proposal has become the target of harsh criticism from people and leaders in the concerned area, the reason being that they were not consulted. Maybe what the president needs to better understand the Middle East is more than a handful of linguistic experts?
Claude Salhani is a foreign editor and political analyst at United Press International in Washington, DC.