Biden’ Gaza Policy Alienates Muslim Liberals

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Since the beginning of Israel’s catastrophic war in Gaza, triggered by the gruesome Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, 2023, policymakers in Washington have worried about containing the conflict. The military escalations—stretching from Lebanon through Syria, Iraq, and down to Jordan and Yemen—suggest that they may not have been very successful at that.

But there is another problem they may not be even fully aware of: Across the Middle East and even the broader Muslim world, there is an unprecedented level of outrage against the United States and its Western allies, which may have long-lasting consequences. It could be much worse than the impact of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003—the example that some have in mind these days—because the carnage that Israel has inflicted in Gaza seems much worse than anything that happened during U.S. military interventions in the Middle East.

Any close observer of the region can see this. Among them is Fawaz Gerges, a renowned expert on Middle East politics, who warned in December: “I have never seen the region as implosive, as boiling. There is so much rage and anger, not only against Israel but against the United States.”

As Pakistani journalist Umer Farooq observed, “The War In Gaza Is Changing The Muslim World”—and not in a good way. There is a widespread anger, he argues, that “will boost fundamentalist tendencies in Muslim societies,” and perhaps incubate new terrorist groups.

Why this outrage? Because millions of people are watching the horrific scenes from Gaza every single day—often on live television. Whole neighborhoods are bombed, with the dead bodies of babies and children protruding from the rubble. Innocent civilians are shot to death, even in the relatively calmer West Bank. Local health authorities report that more than 28,000 Palestinians have been killed so far, most of them women and children; 90 percent of Gazans have been displaced from their homes, and they are at the brink of starvation and disease.

Many Muslims then look at what Western leaders, such as U.S. President Joe Biden, are saying about all this. All that they hear is about Israel’s right to defend itself. All they see are more U.S. dollars and weapons being granted to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government to continue the campaign.

Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself, as any fair-minded observer would accept. Any country has that right against terrorists that target its innocent civilians. But why would a so-called war on terror that kills dozens of times more innocent civilians than terrorism itself be legitimate? How can a horrific death rate, worse any other conflict in recent history, along with the widespread deprivation of food, water, and medicine, be excused as collateral damage? The brutal battle to dislodge the Islamic State from Mosul, Iraq—another densely populated city—killed far fewer civilians.

To many people, especially in the Muslim world, the answer seems to be that Israeli lives matter more, much more, than Palestinian lives.

And that comes across as a historic denial of the liberal values that Western governments have championed since the end of World War II: universal human rights and the inherent dignity of all human life. Some would say that these lofty ideals were never fully pursued, as national interests, alliances, and hypocrisy often led to double standards.

But past examples—such as U.S. support for friendly Arab dictators, or CIA-backed coups in Iran or elsewhere—were hardly ever this blatant or so in-your-face.

The loss of faith in Western norms is not just affecting those already inclined to be anti-American or critical of the Western-led order. Among them are liberal-leaning Muslims who have long admired the political values of the West and often pointed to them, but now feel that the standard-bearer has betrayed its own principles. One of them is Turkish journalist Nihal Bengisu Karaca, who wrote a sad piece on “the suicide of the West.”

“From now on, on this side of the world,” she asked, “Who can refer to ‘global values,’ ‘Western liberal democracies’… Who would listen to them?”

Another liberal Muslim lamenting “the West’s credibility crisis” is Pakistani diplomat Hina Rabbani Khar, who was hailed globally in 2011 as the nation’s first female foreign affairs minister. “I believe that the West has much to celebrate in its human rights and development records,” she wrote in Al Jazeera in January, only to add: “But I also know that the West has shown glaring disregard for these principles outside of its own geography.” She then issued a warning: “Washington’s stance today would not only undermine efforts to promote it as the only reliable world power, but would also sabotage its ability to play the role of a peace builder in the future.”

Others are even more repelled by the West, renouncing it categorically. A dramatic example was a message posted by a Mauritanian professor of philosophy, Al-Mustafa ould Klaib, which reportedly went viral on Arab social media. “I have become ashamed before my students whom I have taught, over decades, the Enlightenment and modern Western philosophies,” the professor wrote. He apologized for “glorifying” Western notions like “humanism,” “progress,” and “liberty,” only to add: “The West is the biggest lie history has known.”

Among American Muslims, too, most of whom appreciate the liberties and opportunities they have enjoyed in the United States, the carnage in Gaza, with Washington’s backing, has created an unprecedented disappointment. The popular feeling was expressed by the prominent Imam Omar Suleiman, who, outraged by the images of children killed in Gaza, declared, “any semblance of international law or standard for humanity is dead.” To those who usually pontificate about them, he added: “Don’t ever lecture us on morality again. Your hearts are dead.”

As a Muslim who still believes in liberal ideals and even the qualities of the West, I disagree with those who are drawn to anti-Westernism. I would remind them that many of my co-religionists around the world are threatened more by the so-called East. They include Ukrainian and Balkan Muslims who are threatened by Russia and its allies and Uyghur Muslims who are ruthlessly persecuted by China. At least in the West, governments can still be criticized, human rights groups can speak out, peace activists get heard, and forever wars may be ended through popular pressure—because there is freedom of speech.

Yet, Gaza’s repercussions are threatening that core liberal value as well. In Europe, especially Germany, there is an unprecedented wave of censorship and crackdowns on criticism of Israel and any form of pro-Palestinian expression—even mere Palestinian flags and keffiyehs can be banned. In the United States, a politician as prominent as Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the House of Representatives can tie “cease-fire now” demonstrations to a foreign conspiracy by Russia—the same kind of allegation used in Russia itself, or Iran, to demonize anti-regime demonstrations.

All of this is rapidly discrediting the West—and its liberal narratives—in the eyes of the rest. For if human rights are not valid for all humans, and if freedom of speech is not valid for all voices, those principles don’t mean much. The world instead seems to run on the cynical principle defined by Carl Schmitt, the “crown jurist” of Germany’s Third Reich: Sovereign powers, at their will, can define the exceptions to their rules.

Such a blatantly post-liberal world would be a scary place for all of us. As Western democracies cast aside their principles, illiberal forces such as Russia, China, and Iran would gain more power and prestige. New militant groups could emerge in the Muslim world, even more ferocious than the ones we have seen, provoking even worse conflicts if not actual clashes of civilizations.

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Joe Biden wipes away a tear as he speaks after receiving an endorsement from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) on Feb. 26, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Joe Biden wipes away a tear as he speaks after receiving an endorsement from U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) on Feb. 26, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina.

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A man waring scrubs and holding a book walks through a damaged room at Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. A hole is seen in one wall and bedding, beds, and other equipment are tossed about the space.

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It will also undermine U.S. and European efforts to forge future alliances in times of war or drum up support for sanctions against their adversaries. As Foreign Policy deputy editor Sasha Polakow-Suransky warned in these pages, that could mark a significant geostrategic shift: “Most foreign leaders—and populations—outside of Europe and North America now simply don’t take U.S. or European appeals to support Ukraine on humanitarian grounds seriously,” he wrote, and future moral appeals—no matter how just the cause—are likely to fall on deaf ears.

What’s most frustrating is that the Western policy that has placed the world on this dangerous track, this uncritical support for a catastrophic war led by the most far-right government in Israel’s history, is not even good for Israel. The past four months have shown that large numbers of hostages can be rescued through diplomatic negotiations, not relentless onslaught. The ambitious goal of completely destroying Hamas is not realistic, as experts have been saying from the beginning. Instead, veteran Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy warns that, at the end, “Israel’s dignity will be damaged,” and “Hamas will be crowned winner.”

Such Israeli voices of moderation may not be heard enough, because the nation is understandably experiencing a moment of shock and vengeance after the horror of Oct. 7—like the United States after the 9/11 attacks. But that is precisely why friends of Israel should not give a blank check to some of its worst actors, including government officials making open calls for ethnic cleansing.

Sober Israeli voices with deep knowledge of the country’s security challenges also see a dead end in the long term. Among them is Ami Ayalon, the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, who wisely warns: “We Israelis will have security only when they, Palestinians, will have hope.” Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said that for “our own security, our own future,” Israel’s endgame should be “a Palestinian state.”

In short, those who are destroying Palestinian hopes are not only ruining Gaza’s present, but also risking Israel’s future. They are even risking the future of freedom and peace in our already turbulent world. Before it is too late, the Biden administration must change course—by pushing for an immediate cease-fire, urgent relief, and a clear path to peace.

Otherwise, whatever political wisdom or moral authority the West ever had may vanish in the eyes of the rest. China, Russia, Iran, and other autocracies may gain prestige and leverage that they don’t deserve. The Muslim world may become only more open to the forces of illiberalism, fundamentalism, and militancy.

And the “liberal world order,” which was perhaps an unfulfilled but still worthy aspiration, may be replaced with a more cynical, violent, and oppressive disorder.

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