Perception and reality still at conflict in Arab world

Yalla peace: Female beauty in West is considered important factor, while in Islamic world has been considered haram, a sin.

There has always been a battle over the issue of beauty pageants involving Arabs and Muslims, representing the clash between modern Westernization and the growing influence of extremism among the religious. It has even become a battleground between Arabs and supporters of Israel, especially among those pro-Israel extremists who turn every Arab positive into a terrorism-related negative. Female beauty in the West is considered an important factor, while female beauty in the Islamic world has been considered haram, a sin. The battle over beauty pageants illustrates how the Arab and Islamic world have failed to understand issues of public relations, perception, stereotypes and the power of communications. The Arab and Islamic worlds put the emphasis in a debate on the issue of facts, while in the West, public understanding of Middle East issues is defined not by facts or reality but rather by fears, perceptions and issues related to familiarity, and also beauty. In the Western media, it is not about what you say but how you say it. In the West, you don’t win the argument, you battle to win the audience. Whoever “wins” the audience, ends up winning the argument. It’s one reason why so many in the West have turned their backs on the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to blindly support Israel.

A movie called Exodus sealed the fate of that argument in 1960 in the United States, defining Israel as the victim and the Arabs as the forever-sinister terrorist hordes. Hollywood has churned out hundreds of movies that distort and twist the facts of Middle East history and factually misrepresent Arabs as the region’s only terrorists. This year, Israel-supporter Sacha Baron-Cohen has produced a movie that goes to the jugular of this debate, using humor and Arab characteristics to present a dictator who symbolizes everything that is wrong with the Arab World. Though The Dictator is intended to be funny, it reinforces the hatred that the West has nurtured against Arabs in this battle over perception. Western audiences base much of their understanding on familiarity and comfort. If they feel familiar and thereby comfortable with you, they are more likely to embrace your arguments. Human nature is such that you will sympathize more with someone you know than with someone you don’t. Beauty pageants are much like books and movies in that they convey feelings of familiarity to massive audiences in the West. Millions of people in the West have watched international beauty pageants and continue to do so.

And even though by itself winning a beauty pageant will not change Western minds over issues like the Arab-Israeli conflict, they create a foundation for change that once started is impossible to stop. Arabs and Muslims have been AWOL over the years in the engagement of these fundamental principles of public perception and media relations. Arabs and Muslims have been absent from the Western media, from Hollywood movie production, from the writing of novels like Exodus and from participating in beauty pageants. That absence has allowed the negative perceptions of the Arab and Muslim to be reinforced, especially in the West. Despite the resistance to changing the Arab image in the West, groups and even countries continue to try. Lebanon is one of the most Westernized countries in the Arab World.

This year, Lebanon has begun hosting competitions in 35 other countries to identify the most beautiful Lebanese emigrant, pageants it began in 1950. Last week, Pascal Abi-Samra, a Lebanese American living in Texas, was crowned the winner of the 2012 American pageant, held in Dearborn, Michigan. Abi-Samra will compete with pageant winners from 35 other countries August 11 at Castle Assouf in Dhour Shweir. American Rima Fakih won the Lebanon Emigrants Beauty Pageant in Dearborn, Michigan, in 2008 and she went on to be named Miss USA in 2010. Fakih did not win the Miss Universe Contest, though.

Only one Arab has ever won the Miss Universe Contest, and that was Georgina Rizk, who won in 1972. Rizk was present in Dearborn where Abi- Samra was crowned before a gathering of more than 600 American Arabs organized by Lebanese American attorney Joumana Kayrouz. Kayrouz, who has conferred with President Barack Obama, understands the power of public relations and media perceptions. Kayrouz is by far the first Arab you will meet when you enter Dearborn. She has promoted her law firms’ successes on dozens of billboards that also include her photograph. Conservatives, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, will continue to frown on beauty pageants, arguing that women should submit to “modesty” and refrain from showing off their natural, physical beauty. But that same imprisonment of freedom by these radicals is exactly what has undermined the ability of Arabs and Muslims to argue their case in the “court of public opinion.”

If we had more beauty pageants and better communications in books and films and even in our activism, and less terrorism and violence, Arabs wouldn’t be wondering why the West doesn’t understand their claims to Palestine or their battles for justice. The writer is an award-winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. By RAY HANANIA


The Best Foreign Policy Saudi Money Can Buy

Let’s say that there are three Muslim countries in the Middle East, which, facing a domestic insurgency, use ruthless tactics to suppress it. Which one gets a pass?

The answer is easy. The Saudi ally gets the pass; the others get invaded. But “pass” is too mild a word, because after bombing Libya into submission, while preparing to do the same thing to Syria, the Obama administration has actually resumed arms sales to Bahrain. And the only real reason those arms sales were originally halted, was because of objections from Congress.

What’s the difference between Libya, Syria and Bahrain? Not all that much. All three had rulers widely hated by the people for being unrepresentative tyrants. All three responded to domestic protests with armed force. In Syria, there is a Sunni majority being ruled over by a Shiite splinter group minority, while in Bahrain, there is a Shiite majority being ruled over by a Sunni minority. Why pick one over the other? Because Saudi Arabia is the big brother of the Bahraini monarchy, and so a Sunni tyranny over a Shiite population is legitimized, while a Shiite tyranny over a Sunni population is delegitimized.

While the Obama administration is dancing around the edges of arming the Syrian rebels, it is also arming the Bahraini government. While the United States participates in the Friends of Syria group, whose goal is to overthrow the Syrian government and replace it with the Muslim Brotherhood, it has renewed security cooperation with Bahrain. While Syrian diplomats were being expelled from Washington, the Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa came to Washington and met with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta—nearly every important foreign policy figure in the administration with the exception of Obama.

The optics of having Obama shake hands with a tyrant while handing out Medals of Freedom might have come off as a little tacky, even from an administration that jumps when the House of Saud tells it to, without asking how high. But while the Crown Prince may not have left with Obama’s fingerprints on his palm, he is leaving with Seahawk helicopters, AMRAAM missiles, F-16 parts, a frigate and an option on some armored personnel carriers, for the next time things get hot down in Manama.

What’s even more extraordinary is that the State Department’s press statement on the renewal of arms sales to Bahrain appeared to blame both protesters and Bahraini authorities for the violence, and even teetered on the brink of placing the weight of the blame on the protesters.

“We are concerned about excessive use of force and tear gas by police. At the same time, we are concerned by the almost daily use of violence by some protestors,” the statement reads. “We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protestors or on the Bahraini police.”

The statement could hardly have had more wriggle room or a softer condemnation of the regime, if it had actually been written by the Crown Prince or one of his flunkies. It is all the more startling to compare this to State Department bulletins on Libya and Syria, which lack any such moral ambiguity or strained refusal to take sides in the conflict between government and anti-government forces.

The deciding factor isn’t Bahrain’s reliability as a regional ally or base space. If that was the issue then Mubarak wouldn’t have been sold out to the Muslim Brotherhood and Yemen’s President Ali Saleh would have enjoyed the same backing as the Crown Prince of Bahrain. Not to mention lesser allies like Tunisia’s President Ben Ali, whom the Obama administration triumphantly jeered to the exit only to see him replaced by Islamist Al-Nahda terrorists. It’s not about how good an ally of America a given country is, but how good an ally of Saudi Arabia it is.

The only Arab Spring resister to earn a shrug from the Obama administration was Bahrain. When Saudi tanks rolled into Manama, there were a few uncomfortable shrugs in Washington D.C., but no fiery speeches or demands for action. Obama did not take to the airwaves to announce that he would be violating the War Powers Act, with a sustained bombardment of the Saudi Peninsula Shield Force, which was doing the killing. It would have been far easier for Obama to force the Saudis to take their tanks and go home, than it was to bring down Gaddafi or than it will be to bring down Assad. And the fact that it was not done reveals who really pulls the strings on foreign policy in the White House.

The limited suspension of arms shipments to Bahrain was not met with an equivalent suspension of arms shipments to Saudi Arabia, because the United States is not allowed to tell the Saudis what to do. Instead it’s the Saudis who slapped Uncle Sam around by suspending their arms purchases as a sign of displeasure. The myth that Saudi weapons are defensive is used to give the regime a blank check in Washington D.C., but it’s so much nonsense. Saudi Arabia’s military is there to expand its territory, whether in Bahrain or Yemen, with timely interventions from a military machine supplied and trained by the United States. The House of Saud has always been imperialistic and it has never had a problem with killing civilians.

Bahrain is the first country on the menu for inclusion into a Saudi super-state. The tanks in Manama were the leverage to push Bahrain into that union. A union that is the dawn of a planned Caliphate, carried out with American weaponry. The United States has counted on the Saudis to secure the region, but the House of Saud is only interested in securing the region for itself. It has always been imperialistic, but its most reliable tool of empire building has not been military, but political. The local monarchies have ably bought or co-opted a sizable percentage of Western political, diplomatic and military elites into building their empire for them.

The Arab League, Saudi Arabia’s puppet, backed the invasion of Libya and is championing regime change in Syria. If the Obama administration goes along with this latest war cooked up in Riyadh, that will be the fourth war that the United States has fought for Saudi interests. And the wars never seem to end. While the great hypocritical cry of the humanitarian interventionists in Washington and London goes up over Syria, no sanctions are leveled against the Saudis, and no matter how many people end up under the treads of Saudi tanks, no arms shipments are interrupted.

Truly the Obama administration has the best foreign policy… that Saudi money can buy.By Daniel Greenfield

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