By Edward P. Joseph

Published January 2008

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Mohsin Hamid is an unlikely point of entry into the flawed assumptions of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. 1 After all, Hamid, a British citizen born in Pakistan, is the author of an acclaimed novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which tells the story of a Pakistani domiciled in the United States who becomes so disillusioned in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities that he returns to Pakistan.

Yet Hamid, in an October 2007 interview with the New York Times, nailed down a crucial facet of America that Mearsheimer and Walt, and their many admirers in Europe, have ignored. “Americans,” Hamid said, “are more inclined to think (whether you are a Muslim or not) if you speak with an American accent, you’re an American. In Europe, it’s more a ques- tion of tribe. In Europe you can be a second- or third-generation Turkish- German, and there is still a question of whether you are European.”2

This relative openness on the part of the United States helps explain why American Muslims feel so much more integrated, less alienated and more engaged as citizens than their European counterparts. As a direct conse- quence, minorities in America have fewer qualms about turning to the political process in order to achieve their goals—even when it comes to delicate matters like defining what counts as the “national interest” in foreign policy.

American Exceptionalism

Hamid’s observation about the difference in Muslim at- titudes on either side of the Atlantic is backed up by compre- hensive public opinion research. In a groundbreaking May 2007 survey, Pew Research found that Muslim Americans are “assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate with respect to many of the issues that have divided Muslims and Westerners around the world…. [Muslim Americans] are decidedly American in their outlook, values, and attitudes.”3 These attitudes in America “stand in contrast with those of Muslim minorities of Western Europe [based on] Pew Global Attitudes surveys conducted in 2006 in Great Britain, France, Germany and Spain…. Nearly half of Muslims in the U.S. (47%) say they think of themselves first as a Muslim, rather than as an American. But far more Muslims in three of the four Western European nations surveyed said they considered themselves first as Muslims, rather than citizens of their countries.”4

Remarkably, on the decisive issue of Israel, Pew found that “Muslim Americans are far more likely than Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere to say that a way can be found for the state of Israel to exist so that the rights of the Palestinians are addressed. In this re- gard, the views of Muslim Americans resemble those of the general public in the United States” (emphasis added.).5
Put together, the views of Hamid and his fellow Muslims in America mean that something is seri-
ously awry. They are apparently rather satisfied in a country that Mearsheimer and Walt insist is in the grips of “The Israel Lobby”—a lobby whose impact, they maintain, has gravely worsened America’s standing among Muslims inside and outside the Islamic world.

In Europe in particular, Mearsheimer and Walt have been hailed6 for their “courage” in standing up against the perceived taboo of discussing Jewish influence on US foreign policy.7 Yet few voices in Europe or the US have noted this glaring paradox: how can it be that in America, where foreign policy has supposedly been hijacked by groups pushing Israel’s interests over all others, Muslim citizens have far more affinity with their adopted coun- try than do their counterparts in Europe? Indeed, how can it be that Muslim Americans have such affinity with their fellow Americans—including on the signature topic of Israel—than their alienated counterparts in Europe, where foreign policy has traditionally been much more oriented towards the Arab side in the conflict?

Engaging in the Political Process

One British academic, Christopher Hill of Cambridge University, has gamely tried to tackle the subject. Hill’s article “Bringing War Home,” in the September 2007 issue of International Relations, examines how foreign policy and Muslim attitudes intersect in the UK, the US and France. Hill acknowledges “generalized Muslim alienation” in the UK and links this to British foreign policy which, despite being more “balanced” on the Palestinian issue, has followed the US into Iraq and Afghanistan.8

What Hill cannot explain is why America’s decidedly pro-Israel foreign policy does not alienate its own Muslim communities. Hill’s view of America, common to many European intellectuals, is one in which Jewish influence not only dominates the power structure, but intimidates the Muslim and Arab American polities. In a passage redolent of European misconceptions about the US, Hill asserts— without support—that “(A)ny Arab, Iranian or other form of Islamic group [in the US] which does not accept the param- eters of the neo-conservative orthodoxy will not only not get a hearing, but it is likely to be the focus of suspicion.”9

This caricature of an invisible, intimidated Arab com- munity stacked against an omnipotent, insidious Israel lobby is similar to that purveyed by Mearsheimer and Walt. On the one hand, Mearsheimer and Walt “repeat- edly emphasize” that “lobbying on Israel’s behalf is wholly legitimate” and is “simply part of the normal rough-and- tumble that is the essence of democratic politics.” On the other hand, they lament the “illegitimate extremes” that “some (emphasis added) pro-Israel groups” have taken, for example, attempting to silence individuals “who hold views they dislike” and intimidating and smearing crit- ics. In the same paragraph, however, this “some” morphs back into the Israel lobby as a whole. The authors conclude that “the lobby” (not “some” exceptional elements within the lobby) uses “strong arm tactics” and other methods that “have no place in a democratic society” effectively shutting out Arab voices and their sympathizers.10 In this rough and tumble of democratic politics in the US, dissenting, pro-Arab viewpoints are nowhere to be found, according to Mearsheimer and Walt. Indeed, they put the term, “Arab lobby” in quotes (unlike the Israel Lobby, which is emblazoned as the title of their book), suggesting it does not even exist. They dismiss significant defeats for Israel in the American arena, notably the Reagan Administration’s 1982 sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, as having no import or consequence. Their explanation for the weakness of “the Arab lobby” is that, unlike the Israel lobby—which does not require “…Muslim and Arab-American groupings bear a significant resemblance in diversity to the Jewish organizations which comprise the core of Mearsheimer and Walt’s ‘Israel Lobby’” quotation marks—it lacks “an indigenous base of sup- port in the United States.” Arab states like Saudi Arabia, unlike Israel, “must hire foreign agents to do their bid- ding. Their support is not rooted in American soil.”11

Another harsh critic of the “Zionist lobby,” Janice J. Terry, takes a different view. Terry is as frustrated as Mearsheimer and Walt with the outsized influence of Israel’s supporters, yet she acknowledges that there is a cast of pro-Arab lobbyists and interest groups that are also active in advancing an alternative viewpoint. Unlike Mearsheimer and Walt, Terry believes that the weakness of Arab interest groups doesn’t stem from the fact that they are not grounded in the US, but rather that they are “small and under-financed” and “plagued by divisive- ness.”12 Terry goes into impressive detail into the origins and composition of various pro-Arab and pro-Israel groups, lamenting the weakness of the former and the strength of the latter, but not hesitating to confirm that Arab Americans do have a voice in the United States.

Whatever the explanation for the relative ineffective- ness of a counterweight lobby to Israel’s supporters in the US, it is noteworthy that this has not translated into the scenes of Muslim rage and alienation increasingly common in Europe. The Pew survey states, “overwhelm- ingly, Muslim Americans believe that hard work pays off in this society.”13 And that hard work, Muslims seem to acknowledge, extends to lobbying as well.

Rather than whine about the the Israel lobby, noted Muslim authors and organizers Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Daisy Khan argue that “[we] American Muslims need to face up to some tough challenges. First, we need to establish credibility by making clear our concerns over U.S. foreign policy and its impact on Muslims around the world.”14 Similarly, Fawaz A. Gerges of Sarah Lawrence University asserts calmly that “it has taken the Israeli lobby half a cen- tury to arrive at this historical juncture. It will likely take the Muslim community as long, if and when the community decides to organize itself politically and institutionally. The key word is institutional building, which is in its infancy.” 15 Like Abdul Rauf and Khan, Gerges believes that community mobilization, not bitterness and retreat, is the way forward.

All the indications are that Muslim Americans have heeded this advice. It might even be said, when it comes to both the profusion of groups and the range of politi- cal and religious views held, that the Muslim and Arab American groupings bear a significant resemblance in diversity to the Jewish organizations which comprise the core of Mearsheimer and Walt’s “Israel Lobby.”

Perhaps the most vocal Muslim American organiza- tion is the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)—often criticized for what its detractors charge is a sympathetic attitude towards Hamas and Hezbollah16— but it is not the only one. Nor is there a standard set of issues which all Muslim American organizations work on. For example, the American Islamic Congress (AIC), led by an Iraqi woman, Zainab al Suwaiji17, emphasizes the importance of Muslim Americans leading the charge against anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world.

Yet all these groups, whether progressive or conservative, proudly engage in the political process. Indeed, CAIR’s endorsement of Mearsheimer and Walt sits awkwardly with the impressive roster of elected officials on its own website, beginning with President Bush, who have spo- ken warmly of the Muslim contribution to America.

CAIR’s website provides prominent, thorough instruc- tions on how members should engage Congress, register voters, contact the media and advance issues. Contrary to the message from Israel lobby critics (that pro-Arab and Muslim groups are dejected and demoralized against the titanic power of Israel’s friends), the dominant message, shared by other groups like the AIC, stresses empowerment, not impotence. The theme is clearly to encourage American Muslims to speak out, not fulminate at being shut out.

In that sense, European supporters of Mearsheimer and Walt would do well to study how the American systems’ openness works for the cause of integration of diverse groups. Yossi Shain, an academic at Georgetown University, argues with prodigious evidence that, precisely through po- litical participation and lobbying, Muslims in America trade European-style isolation for American-style integration and respect for democratic values. Shain cites examples such as the 1994 election of Spencer Abraham, an Arab American, to the United States Senate as pulling even de- vout Muslims into group-oriented political activism.18 Like Jews, Armenians and other ethnic lobbies, Arab Americans, many of whom are Christian, generally advance their cause in the name of the national interest and in the vocabulary of democratic values, further reinforcing the compat- ibility of both group identity and affinity as Americans.19

An article written during the riots in rundown, largely Muslim suburbs in France in the fall of 2005, by Niraj Warikoo of the Detroit Free Press, suggests that Yossi Shain’s thesis has its adherents among Arab Americans as well. Warikoo chronicled the stark contrast in Arab- and Muslim-American attitudes in Michigan. One im- migrant, Ahmed Hammoud, told Warikoo that despite graduating from a top university, “in France, you’re never considered French if you’re of Arab descent. It’s easier here [in America], people are more open.”20 Hammoud linked this openness to the ability to organize on po- litical issues, helping found Dearborn’s Arab American Political Action Committee. At a crowded event to mobilize the community to support selected candidates, a Palestinian American, Nasser Abunab, was moved to declare, “this is an example of how open America is, we don’t sweep things under the rug like Europeans.”

This freedom—and societal encouragement—to assemble is central to America’s superior ability to inte- grate Muslim communities at time of fear over Islamist terrorism. Both Europe and America frequently struggle when Muslims wish to build a neighborhood mosque.

But as The Economist observed, “[America’s approach] is fairer to Muslims…Although America has plenty of Islam-
bashers ready to play on people’s fears, it offers better protection to the mosque builders [than Europe does.] In particular, its constitution, legal system and political culture all generally take the side of religious liberty.”21

Anyone Can Do It

It is no coincidence that a system that favors religious freedom also is open to ethno-religious communities that mobilize. Tony Smith, another fierce Israel lobby critic, acknowledges that “it is the structure of American democracy that allows ethnic communities … access to policy-making.”22 Smith adds that “the chief feature of American politics is that relative to other democracies … the American state is comparatively lacking in autonomy because it is highly penetrated by interest groups that are capable of making their agenda that of the govern- ment.” In fact, these limits on state and executive power had their origin in part on religious grounds. Far from requiring enormous finances and resources, the American system—founded on circumscribing the role of the state— is distinctively receptive, particularly in Congress, to the demands of citizens and groups.” Though many “believe that it takes hundreds of thousands of people to influence foreign policy,” Janice Terry states that, “only 5,000 to 10,000 committed activists can have a substantial impact.”

There are vivid examples ripped from the headlines of small ethnic lobbying groups wielding substantial influ- ence. On 10 October 2007, Armenian Americans, who num- ber but 1.5 million (in other words, barely half-a-percent)
of the US population, convinced the House International Relations Committee to pass a resolution recognizing the genocide of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey. On 14 October, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, defying ap- peals from the Administration, vowed to take the measure to the floor of the House for a full vote.23 By the own accounts of senior members of the Armenian American community, this tiny group managed to pull off a sub- stantial Congressional foreign policy victory not through money, but through sheer persistence and group cohesion.24 Despite substantial internal differences in policy on other issues (mirroring the wide disparity of views within the Jewish American, Arab American and Muslim American communities), Armenians are united in their demand that their shared national tragedy be recognized (again, mirror- ing Jewish cohesiveness on issues related to the Holocaust.)

Focused, persistent and organized, the Armenians pre- vailed at a time when many in the Administration were seized of the resolution’s potential to aggravate Turkey.

After the victory in committee, the Turkish lobby swung into action, helped by a consortium of Turkish officials
and Turkish-American organizations aided by a former Congressman.25 As the message from the Turkish lobby intensified, and as tensions mounted in Turkey and neigh- boring Iraqi Kurdistan, the Armenian genocide resolution was shelved. Indeed, Turkish experts now state that follow- ing its initial fury at the US over the Committee resolution on genocide, Ankara sees the fact that the resolution has stalled as an “amicable gesture.”26 The Armenian-Turkish tussle suggests that the solution to “factions” proposed by James Madison—competition – is indeed the remedy to the age-old anxiety that democracy will be hijacked by particular interests. It is also a reminder that the Executive, which steadfastly opposed the Armenian cause, is far
less vulnerable to ethnic lobbying than is Congress.

Rather than fostering traditional stereotypes about Jewish power, those who want to see a change in US foreign policy in the Middle East should follow the Armenian ex- ample and do the hard work of making their case. One group which happens to consist of mainly Muslims, and which has embraced this lesson, is the Kurdish community. Many Kurdish Americans recently demonstrated in several US cit- ies including Washington on the eve of a crucial meeting be- tween President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Unlike their counterparts in Europe (be they Turkish or Kurdish), these Muslim Kurds see their participation in the lobbying process as part of their American identity.

One demonstrator justified the action precisely through her American identity, stating proudly to a reporter, “we
are Kurds, yes—but we are also Kurdish Americans!”27

The National Interest: Who Decides

Palestinian sympathizers who cheer Mearsheimer and Walt’s depiction of the Israel lobby as, effectively, a subver- sive movement, are missing the core irony of their message. While the authors have trained their eyes on Israel and
its supporters their book has direct implications for any minority influence over “the national interest.” It is no coin- cidence that Mearsheimer and Walt offer effusive praise in their introduction to the eminent political scientist, Samuel Huntington.28 Assailing the advent of multiculturalism, Huntington has warned that ethnic demands subordinate the “national interest” to foreign interests.29 Israel lobby critic Tony Smith worries that ethnic lobbies contribute to the “Balkanization of the United States” while damaging “the national interest” by fostering an “incoherent foreign policy.”30 Concerns about the ability of ethnic groups to “(Mearsheimer and Walt’s) conceit is that an amorphous foreign policy elite, presumably white and non-ethnic, knows better than do minority groups what the true national interest is”influence foreign policy go back to the era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Mearsheimer and Walt reflect this tradition; their true preoccupation is a system that permits a highly organized minority, be it Jewish or Armenian or other, to subvert the “true” national interest.

Of course, none of these prominent academics an- swers the eternal question: just who gets to determine
“the national interest,” if not competing ethnic groups and power centers? Just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about obscenity, these academic gray beards apparently know the national interest when they see it. And they know with certainty that US “unconditional” support for Israel isn’t in the national interest.31 Instead of fostering a reasonable debate about how to balance par- ticular ethnic interests with wider interests, Mearsheimer, Walt, Huntington and Smith would like to restrict debate. Their conceit is that an amorphous foreign policy elite, presumably white and non-ethnic, knows better than do minority groups what the true national interest is. In fact, their perspective is just as parochial as those of the minor- ity groups, most obviously American Jews, whose influence they assail. It isn’t “the national interest” that is at stake when the “Israel lobby” or “the Armenian lobby” rises to grab the ear—and voice—of the country; rather, it is their conception of the national interest that is put in jeopardy.

Those who believe passionately in support for Taiwan, Kosovo, or indeed even Palestine should take care before embracing the hidden elitism of Mearsheimer, Walt or oth- ers in the anti-Israel lobby.32 Today, their main preoccupa- tion is policy on Israel, tomorrow it could be any other inter- est of particular concern to a mobilized group, exercising its

“legitimate rights” but working against “the national inter- est.” The broader message from these Israel lobby critics is that foreign policy in American democracy is too important to be left to the people’s various ethnic lobbies. And that is a position that is both undemocratic and un-American.

“Rather than disparage the American system…Europeans more than anyone
need to study how the American system’s openness works for the integration of diverse groups”

What’s more, at a time when integration of Muslim populations is at a premium for national security, it is most certainly against the national interest. If America is to avoid not just another 9/11, but the 7/7 experienced in the United Kingdom (terrorist attacks produced by homegrown, disaffected and alienated Islamists), it needs to embrace, not oppose, its openness to citizen influence from Muslims and others. Those worried that American policy on the Middle East is dangerously skewed towards Israel need to learn how to make their case—on the merits—not through stigmatizing Israel’s sympathizers. Rather than disparage the American system, which permits the “Israel lobby” and other ethnic lobbies to operate, Europeans more than anyone need to study how the American system’s openness works for the integration of diverse groups. For as long as America remains open to ethnic lobbying that reflects American values—and does not reward the decidedly un-American stigmatization espoused by Mearsheimer and Walt—Jews, Muslims and the national interest all benefit.

Finally, pro-Israel groups benefit as well from embrac- ing America’s openness to a diversity of viewpoints and influences, including those that differ on Israel-Palestine policy. The small minority who might be tempted them- selves to resort to the “smear tactics” that Mearsheimer and Walt allege should reflect carefully. There is no reason to emulate these authors, whose tract amounts to an indictment of an ethno-religious group and its supporters. Speaking out on behalf of one’s issues, without stereotyp- ing or stigmatizing the other side, is part of what makes America so great—and Mearsheimer and Walt so wrong.