BEIRUT, Lebanon — September 11th is a date that resonates in several ways for the Arab world.
It is marked with pride and celebration by al-Qaida leaders and operatives; it is mourned by the families of hundreds of Muslim victims who died in the terrorist attacks five years ago. And, for many ordinary Arabs, from Cairo, to Riyadh, to Beirut, it evokes fear — and the prospect of further pain.
“9/11 was a turning point,” explained Makram Rabah, a law major and one of several graduate students I spoke to at the American University of Beirut campus this week. ''This is a new world war, basically, that will change everything. It has changed our lives from bad to worse,” he said.
Five years after that fateful day and the subsequent launching of the Bush administration's “War on Terror,” Arab-affairs analysts and media professionals say that Arab public opinion — the so-called “Arab street” — is even angrier against America and U.S. policies today than it was then.
Indeed, most of these experts agree that the positive, sympathetic feelings that emerged, across the Arab world immediately following the 9/11 attacks were quickly squandered. ''People perceive it as a kind of victimization of the Arab world,'' said Dr. Gamal Abdul Gawad, professor of international relations at the University of Cairo. ''The American invasion of Iraq had a huge negative effect, so did America's perceived disregard for Palestine and, recently, the war in Lebanon.”
Insults continue to mount
At the American University of Beirut campus, the students ticked off the same litany of grievances. ''The way America always supports Israel is fueling the anger,'' said Ali Kamakhi, a Saudi geology major. “So even if many Arabs don't believe in what Osama bin Laden believes, they just want to hurt the Americans in some way or another.''
Many students pointed to tens of thousands of Muslim civilians have been killed or wounded in various U.S. or Israeli offensives, from Baghdad to Gaza.
''The harm that was done to America happened in one day, 9/11,'' said political science grad Basma Nabulsi, a Jordanian, ''but the harm that has happened in this region is continuous.''
Similar views are also held by Arabs who have studied or trained in the U.S. and who appreciate American freedoms. ''We love your institutions, '' said Rabah. ''We just hate your policies.''
Even mainstream Arab professionals, like Jamil M'roue, who publishes and edits Beirut's English-language newspaper, the Daily Star, finds himself caught up in the contradiction of both being appalled by the terror of 9/11 and of applauding al-Qaida when, as he puts it, it gets to the “rabid tiger” that America has become.
M'roue, a former Neiman Fellow who says he is keeping a copy of the September 11, 2001, edition of the Daily Star by his desk until the day bin Laden is killed or captured, does not mince his criticism of U.S. strategy in the Middle East. ''America is not winning at all, America is not even in the game,'' he said. ''America has forfeited the race… . We've got a real problem — it's the world versus the Beltway.''
Losing battle for hearts and minds
M'roue's is a stark indictment of Washington's recent attempt to win Arab hearts and minds. Launched with great fanfare in 2004, pro-U.S., Washington-sponsored media outlets like al-Hurrah TV, Radio Sawa and 'Hi' magazine were supposed to give the Arab world a tantalizing smorgasbord of American soaps, talk shows, pop tunes and news — in Arabic — all intended to counter the Islamic fundamentalists' dark message. But, according to a recent Zogby poll, only about one percent of Arab viewers or listeners are tuning in.
''These programs are misleading Arabs,'' said M'roue. ''How is it that you ask through this medium for democracy and fair play, and you don't exercise it yourself?''
The Beirut students also felt generally insulted by the media blitz. ''We're not impressed by a new Lawrence of Arabia,” said Rabah, laughing. ''We read English-language media. We can look at a magazine and see that is so full of propaganda that, in the States, it would be [open for legal attack].''
How to turn things around?
So, what would the Arabs advise the Bush adminstration to do to turn the “War on Terror” around.?
For some, like Basma Nabulsi, it would mean ending America's “double standard” of preaching democracy while unquestioningly supporting Israel and repressive Arab regimes. For Mario Chamoun, a Lebanese civil engineering grad, the U.S. needs to talk, directly, to the Arab people, and not just with Arab governments.
For M'roue, like many others, America must pressure Israel into complying with U.N. resolutions on Palestine, just as it pressured Israel to accept Resolution 1701, ending the war in Lebanon. ''If America starts changing its behavior in Washington from a paradigm of security to a paradigm of justice … we can build a 'new Middle East,' as Condoleezza Rice described it,'” said M'roue.
Increasingly, Arabs say they find themselves caught in the crosshairs of a global duel between bin Laden and Bush. ''This is the irony,'' said Gawad, the University of Cairo professor. ''You see the Arab mainstream turning against both al-Qaida and the U.S. at the same time.''
But, if, as Gawad suggests, the “War on Terror” so far is only a draw, there are “winners” emerging: Islamist militant groups that have entered the political process, such as Hezbollah or Hamas, which are gaining enormous popularity as Muslims seek to vent their anger against the U.S., but at the same time reject al-Qaida's goals.
And, Arab analysts say, it is how America, Israel and the West engage those forces that will likely frame the next five years in the “War on Terror” — marked either by truce and dialogue, or increased bloodshed.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Beirut. He has covered the Middle East since 1978.