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War Fans Young Arabs' Anger

TV images of bloodied civilians and destroyed buildings help fuel anti-U.S. attitude.

April 16, 2003|Alissa Rubin | Times Staff Writer

AS SUWAYDA, Syria — In the waning days of war in Iraq, extensive interviews in this largely secular country suggest that the virulently anti-American attitudes known to flourish in some Islamic schools have become conventional wisdom among a broad cross section of youths, whether religious or secular, Muslim or Christian.

If Syria is any indication, young Arabs -- who make up a large portion of the Middle East's burgeoning population -- have become further radicalized and embittered toward the United States as they have watched the round-the-clock war coverage on Arab TV channels.

Those attitudes prompted hundreds of them early in the conflict to board buses bound for the fight against U.S. forces in Iraq, and encouraged the view that suicide bombings against American soldiers were a legitimate response to the troops' presence on Arab soil.

These trends have serious implications for the stated U.S. goal of moving the region toward greater democracy and more moderate views of the West.

Ayman Sharif, who attends an Islamic law school in Damascus, this nation's capital, has a gentle manner and speaks in a soft voice. But he has a steely message about the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"Before the war I would have said that if Osama [bin Laden] was responsible for the two towers, we would not be proud of it. But if he did it now, we would be proud of him," said the bearded 21-year-old, whose ambition is to be a moujahed, a holy warrior.

Here in the agrarian town of As Suwayda, where the highways follow the ancient Roman roads, Dima Mulhem, 22, is just as uncompromising, though she and her family are Druse, a religion that combines elements of Islam and Christianity, and live a secular life.

"Do you think that the Americans love the Arab people enough to come and solve their problems?" she asked, her eyes flashing, her voice cold although she politely offered an American visitor a hat to ward off the sun. "What they are doing is worse than what Saddam [Hussein] has done."

Images Etched in Minds

As the television images of bloodied civilians and demolished buildings become less frequent, some of the most vitriolic feelings may fade. But for many young Arabs, say scholars, the conflict will linger as a major experience of their lives, indelibly limned into their consciousness.

"Images like those will be stuck in their minds," said Walid Sarhan, a psychiatrist in Jordan, who has done research throughout the region.

"It's a big project for the American government to work on in the next 10 years to change those images."

It is the support of the younger generation that the U.S. needs most if it is to see the moves toward democracy in this region that American officials profess to want.

"The younger you are, the more likely you are to describe yourself as religious, to be critical of the West and to be more supportive of religious political movements," said Husain Haqqani, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, referring to polling and survey data on Arab opinion.

Even if young people in the Middle East did not seem more intensely angered by the Iraq war than their parents, their reactions would have a heightened effect on the future U.S. role in the region because of their sheer numbers.

More than half the population is younger than 25, a far higher proportion than in Western Europe and the United States. The percentage of youths is even higher in such key nations as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

"What we're seeing now is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle," said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "What these young people are watching on Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV is reinforcing a message about the United States that has already taken root and that they have been socialized to accept as truth: that America supports and is run by Zionists; that it's anti-Arab, anti-Muslim."

"The big problem that I see here," he added, "is that the rapprochement between the United States and the Arab world is going to be much more difficult because of the messages being hammered home."

The war's effect on young people has been amplified in part by the weak economies in most Arab countries. Unemployment is high, even among the well-educated, and there is deep resentment over the inability of many Arab regimes to improve their people's lot.

The highly politicized environment on the Arab street also comes into play. More than sports or culture, politics is a constant subject. In the slums of Damascus, young men walk with transistor radios to their ears, listening to news; people gather at storefronts to watch televisions day and night and are as acquainted as many Americans with the names of Pentagon officials constantly on the air.

Here the most violent images of the war -- rarely balanced by pictures of American or British soldiers helping Iraqis -- have made an impression.

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