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"Is the West Racist Toward Muslims and Arabs?"

The US should hold Arabs and Muslims to a universal standard

by Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.

August 31, 2006

Is the West racist toward Arabs and Muslims? In the United States, the answer is both no and yes. The United States is about the best place any Muslim, Christian or Jew can live. They can speak freely and worship freely. Despite the rhetoric of some groups that claim to represent American Muslims, there is very little discrimination. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's hate crimes report, in 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 1,374 religious hate crimes. Of these, 954 were anti-Jewish, 95 anti-Christian and 156 anti-Muslim. All of these are still too many but, in a country of almost 300 million people, such figures underscore the safety of American society and the tolerance of the American public.

Whether Muslims are born in the United States or immigrate to it, there is little impediment to their full participation in society. Indeed, Muslims in the United States are more affluent than the average American. They enter the best schools, build successful businesses or practices and experience little if any glass ceiling.

Why, then, can the United States be considered racist toward Arabs and Muslims? Simply put, because Washington policymakers and the foreign policy elite do not hold Arab and Muslim governments to the same standards to which they hold countries like Denmark and Sweden. Why should US or European policymakers react any differently to the Iranian government's abuses against striking Vahed bus drivers than we would to striking Gdansk shipyard workers? Are Iranian laborers any less deserving of justice than European workers? Are Tunisians any less deserving of free speech than Frenchmen?

This hypocrisy is most often apparent in western policy toward the Arab world. To summarize what eminent historian Bernard Lewis said regarding the question of democracy in the Arab world, there are two points of view, one of which holds that "Arabs are incapable of democratic government.... Arabs are different from us and we must be more, shall we say, reasonable both in what we expect from them and in what they may expect from us. Whatever we do, these countries will be ruled by corrupt tyrants. The aim of foreign policy, therefore, should be to make sure that they are friendly tyrants." This, he said, is the traditional "pro-Arab" view. In an Orwellian reversal of logic, those who demand that Arabs and other Muslims be held to the same standards of human rights are often labeled anti-Arab.

Many pundits argue that the US government cannot impose democracy upon the Middle East. True. Democracy is not possible without civil society, political accountability and the buy-in of local citizens. This does not mean that democracy cannot take root. According to The Guardian, a paper seldom accused of sympathy to US foreign policy, more than one-in-six Iraqis fled their country during the rule of Saddam Hussein. When they settled in the West, they experienced no cultural impediments to democracy. This suggests that the problem in much of the Middle East is not democracy, but rather rule-of-law. That many professional diplomats and elite commentators belittle even the concept of democracy taking root in the Arab world and majority Muslim nations is a sign of the condescension and contempt with which so many treat Arabs. These officials would let terrorists win by excusing their atrocities or, worse yet, forcing compromises upon those suffering from but resisting terrorist violence.

Some put a scholarly patina on their condescension. They try to differentiate between democracy and Islamic democracy, or human rights and Islamic human rights. They equivocate about the importance of religious freedom. But qualification of such concepts as democracy, justice, or human rights with an adjective never expands rights; it only restricts them.

Within policymaking circles, fear of stigma becomes an excuse to hold Arabs, Iranians and Muslims to a lower standard. Too often, policymakers and academics argue that to fund civil society, assist organized labor or speak out on behalf of dissidents could undercut reform. Most recently, many have condemned the allocation of $75 million to support democracy and civil society in Iran. True, the Iranian government may still brand civil society activists traitors. And many oppositionists are charlatans, eager to defraud Uncle Sam of a buck. But that is what quality control is for. The US should not judge what is in the best interests of dissidents or activists bold enough to ignore such stigma. Arabs, Iranians, and other Muslim civil society activists are perfectly capable of deciding what is in their best interest; the State Department should not presuppose to do it for them.

The United States may still be a multicultural haven of equality. It is too bad, then, that US policymakers still embrace a doctrine of condescension and inequality when it comes to demanding the same human rights standards for Arabs and Muslims and behavior from their governments that they do for European, Latin American and many Asian nations.

This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at

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