Arab world's leaders walking a tightrope
By MARK MACKINNON, The Globe and Mail
With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press
Saturday, September 15, 2001
AMMAN -- The Arab world nervously went to Friday prayers yesterday, fearful that it might soon be targeted for retribution by the United States and somewhat divided in how it feels about this week's terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the region's political leaders were trying to walk a tightrope between expressing sympathy for the U.S. and appeasing domestic hard-liners who believe Americans brought the attack upon themselves with their policies in the Middle East.
"I think the fear is that America will just lash out at the Arab world," said an airline executive from the United Arab Emirates who asked that he not be named.
He said his own government's plight illustrates the jam many Arab nations are in. UAE President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nayan was one of the first Arab leaders to express support for U.S. attempts to hunt down the perpetrators.
Fearing a backlash, however, the government trotted out a top cabinet minister the next day to condemn Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and U.S. support for Israel.
Almost every Arab nation has condemned the attacks, including traditional U.S. enemies Libya and Iran (but, pointedly, not Iraq). However, several have balanced the remarks by suggesting that Washington re-examine the policies that may have given rise to such hate.
Amman's English-language daily newspaper, The Jordan Times, captured the regional mood, saying that while the attacks were reprehensible, Washington's support for Israel is responsible for "breeding the deepest sentiments of hopelessness, defeatism and hence hatred and violence."
Religious leaders were similarly split in describing the attacks.
"This heartbreaking event is worrisome to all humanity. How could one be indifferent to the fate of these defenceless men, women and children," Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani asked Muslim worshippers at prayers in Tehran yesterday. He and other clerics said the terrorism was anti-Islamic.
The Iranian response, including an unexpected message of condolence from reformist President Mohammed Khatami, has surprised many, considering the country once considered the United States to be the "Great Satan."
In Kuwait, local newspapers reported that 20 Palestinian expatriates were arrested after staging a public celebration of the attacks.
However, in some parts of the region, the hatred of all things American is too deeply ingrained to be tempered by pity.
"Have you heard about the hypocrites and the dissemblers who are shedding tears over the tyrants whose hands are stained with the blood of our people, women and children?" asked the preacher at a Baghdad mosque during a sermon that was broadcast on national television.
On the streets of Amman the initial wave of sympathy looked set to harden as U.S. investigators seemed to be building a case focusing on Arab groups as suspects.
All 19 suspects named yesterday by U.S. investigators had Arab surnames, and many believe it's only a matter of time before Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden is named as the mastermind, perhaps along with leaders of Hezbollah and other militant Islamic groups.
"America wants to blame the Arabs, but I can tell you there's no way a Palestinian or any Arab did this," said Mohammed Izwaid, a cab driver in Jordan's capital. "Arabs are poor. They don't have the money to do this."