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U.S. hasn’t won hearts and minds of Arab-Muslim world

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — On the way back from Kabul, I passed through Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, London and Belgium, where I had a variety of talks with Arab and Muslim journalists and business people and Muslim community leaders in Europe. All of them were educated, intelligent and thoughtful — and virtually none of them believed that Osama bin Laden was guilty.

Let's see, there was the serious Arab journalist in Bahrain who said that Arabs could never have pulled off something as complex as Sept. 11; there was the Euro-Muslim woman in Brussels who looked at me as if I was a fool when I said that the bin Laden tape in which he boasted of the World Trade Center attack was surely authentic and had not been doctored by the Pentagon; there was the American-educated Arab student who insisted that somehow the CIA or Mossad must have known about Sept. 11 in advance, so why didn't they stop it? There was the Saudi businessman who declared that there was a plot in the U.S. media to smear Saudi Arabia, for absolutely no reason. And there was the Pakistani who confided that his kids' entire elementary school class believed the canard that 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were warned not to go to the office on Sept. 11.

Frankly, these views have been present across the Arab-Muslim world ever since Sept. 11, but I somehow hoped that after the fall of the Taliban, or bin Laden's confessional tapes, they would have melted away. But they have not. Indeed, they have congealed into an iron curtain of misunderstanding separating America and the Arab-Muslim world and are now as deeply held as they were on Sept. 11 — even if people are slightly more reticent about airing them.

And they add up to a simple point: that while America has won the war in Afghanistan, it has not won the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world. The cultural-political-psychological chasm between us is wider than ever. And if you don't believe that, ask any U.S. ambassador from Morocco to Islamabad — any one of them. They will share with you cocktail party chatter about the "American conspiracy" against the Muslim world that will curl your ears.

Yes, there are exceptions in every country. When I sat with Bahraini friends in Manama last week, I found many of them deeply introspective and ready to look reality in the eye. But these are not the rule. Why? What produced this iron curtain of mistrust and misunderstanding?

There are many rivets in it. One is our own failure over the past two decades to really explain ourselves in Arabic and to puncture canards about U.S. policy with hard facts. The Bush team has yet to provide a dossier, in Arabic, detailing all the evidence against bin Laden. It is not too late for that, although facts alone will not be enough.

There is enormous cultural resistance to believing anything good about America. Some of this is deliberately fanned by the state-run press in certain Arab countries to deflect criticism from the regime. Some is revenge for America's support for Israel, particularly at this time when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned into such a human meat grinder, aired every night on Arab TV. Not acknowledging America's version of reality, or undercutting its sense of victory in Afghanistan, is a way for Arabs and Muslims to get revenge for America's support for Israel, which they feel so powerless to affect.

At the same time, there does seem to be a certain strain of self-loathing at work in parts of the Arab-Muslim world today. What else can one think when someone tells you that Arabs or Muslims could never have been clever enough to pull off Sept. 11 — only the Mossad or CIA? It is a sad fact that Arab self-esteem is very low these days, because of the lagging state of Arab political systems and economies, and that feeds the free-floating anger that bin Laden has been surfing on.

Finally, we have to admit that bin Laden touches something deep in the Arab-Muslim soul, even among those who condemn his murders. They still root for him as the one man who was not intimidated by America's overweening power, as the one man who dared to tell certain Arab rulers that they had no clothes, and as the one man who did something about it.

Quietly today, many in the Arab-Muslim world are rooting for bin Laden to get away. They are whispering in their hearts, "Run, Osama, run!" That's what's really going on out there. I just wish we knew how to change it.

New York Times News Service