First Among Satans

Why is America hated more than Russia and China in the Middle East?

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First Among Satans
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin addresses Russian forces at the Russian Hmeimim air base in 2017/Mikhail Klimentyev/Tass via Getty Images

One of the most enduring images of my teenage years is that of Mohammad al-Durrah.

Mohammad was a fifth grader, three years younger than me, when he was gunned down two days after the beginning of the Second Intifada. Caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian security forces, the grainy footage that was aired over and over on every Arabic television station showed the boy sheltering with his father behind a concrete slab. The father, Jamal, tries to shield him as a hail of bullets relentlessly pounds the wall and pavement.

The final seconds of the video show Mohammad draped over his father’s lap. The father himself appears on the verge of death, swaying, lost to a dream world where perhaps his son still lives. In Islamic tradition, the moments before life is extinguished are marked by the sakarat of dying, a word whose root means drunkenness. It is a state of being that I subsequently saw often among those who lost loved ones, particularly children, in war.

The atrocities that were visited upon the Palestinians in those early months of the Second Intifada were on television constantly. Mohammad al-Durrah was a household name, the impact of his death reverberating around the world, a signifier of the brutality of the occupation. A bevy of Arab music stars had two years earlier performed a saccharine rendition called “The Arab dream,” initially meant as an ode to Arab unity, and it became a popular anthem of solidarity with Palestine. It unironically hailed “generation after generation that will live on our dream,” apparently conceding that neither Arab unity nor a Palestinian state were ever likely to materialize.

The personification of the devil was naturally Ariel Sharon, a man who, even before then, possessed an impressive rap sheet of war crimes across multiple battlefields and refugee camps in the Middle East. But the subtext of all the condemnation and coverage was that his crimes were abetted and encouraged by America. If it weren’t for America’s backing of Israel’s war machine, Mohammad al-Durrah would have been alive.

Ordinarily, no amount of hypocrisy or expediency is capable of shocking me after growing up in, and then reporting from, the Middle East, but the practiced disdain that has replaced outrage as an emotional response was tested like never before in late 2020 during the absurd, revived controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A French teacher, Samuel Paty, had shown some of the cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in his class and was punished by being beheaded by a Muslim man who had apparently decided the honor of a faith with over a billion followers that has endured for 15 centuries was irreparably besmirched by the act.

During my religious education, I learned the story of how a Meccan man had gone up to the prophet as he was kneeling in prayer at the Kaaba and heaped animal intestines on him. The prophet remained kneeling until his daughter arrived and removed the filth from his back, before he resumed his prayers. This was a time when adherents of the faith were few and weak. How we went from that to burning down embassies in anger over cartoon images is a thought experiment for another time.

The horrific murder of Paty and the vacuous declarations of solidarity with the prophet (social media was flooded with the hashtag “anyone but the Messenger of God”) appeared to me a puzzling distraction from a far more serious affair – the incarceration in “reeducation camps” of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese state, with the express purpose of eradicating the faith and culture of an entire ethnic community.

Arab and Muslim states and their loyalist media had not just ignored the Uyghurs’ plight; they even went so far as to actively condone China’s actions as counter-terrorism or shield it from criticism at the United Nations. We only know about Beijing’s crimes against the Uyghurs because of Western media, not because any of the Muslim regional powers that claim the mantle of the faith’s vanguard, be they kings, ayatollahs, or sultans, stood up for them. A few cartoons are a greater threat than an industrial machine of oppression directly aimed at Islam’s adherents. At a satirical news site I write for, we drafted a headline that went viral, largely because a lot of readers assumed it was real: “Muslims ignore Uyghur plight as China may have killed a thousand Muhammads but has yet to draw one.”

Or take Russia. Its regime intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015, deploying Sukhoi and MiG fighter jets that dropped a variety of bombs on Syria’s long-suffering civilians, destroying hospitals and entire neighborhoods with missiles, bunker-busters, and vacuum bombs, killing thousands of people, and accelerating the exodus of refugees out of the country. The Kremlin shielded Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime from every form of international accountability and scrutiny, vetoing one resolution after another demanding international investigations into war crimes and calling for the opening of humanitarian corridors to provide food, medical supplies, and baby formula to starving civilians. Those vetoes mirrored those the Americans often deployed to protect Israel from global rebuke.

So why do Russia and China get away with it? Why are they not subject to the reflexive anti-Americanism that spawned the so-called resistance axis, where every imperialism is welcome except America’s?

America features heavily in the conspiratorial imagination, largely because it has participated in its own fair share of conspiracies, though the conspiracies of yore were somewhat less imbecilic than more modern iterations like QAnon. In the Middle East, these included the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953; backing Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War while facilitating the sale of arms to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime via the Iran-Contra arrangement; backing the Afghan mujahedeen, who would later form the nucleus of al Qaeda, against the Soviets; and propping up every amenable Arab dictator along with Israel.

Recent conspiracy theories include, but are not limited to, America being behind every Arab revolution, coup, and counter-coup in recent years, the CIA creating the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and former U.S. President Barack Obama elevating the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the COVID-19 vaccines are suspect in the eyes of Hezbollah and Khameini. Before that, America was responsible for 9/11, which was an inside job pinned on al Qaeda in order to provide an excuse to invade the region (al Qaeda’s claims of responsibility notwithstanding). There was also the theory that America was hell-bent on preventing the emergence of a powerful leader of the world’s Sunnis (to what end?), which explained its invasion of Iraq and testy relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, and of course it wants all the oil (its strategic reserves notwithstanding). Great Satan indeed.

Of course, America has had its own share of catastrophes in the region. Mossadegh’s overthrow traumatized Iran for a generation, such that the next time the Shah was overthrown he was replaced with the Islamic Republic. The Iraq-Iran War was one of the deadliest and most pointless conflicts in recent history and became the crucible that forged the next generation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps leaders. Washington’s relentless backing of Israel doomed any equitable solution for the Palestinians. The Iraq invasion unleashed immense sectarian horrors upon the Middle East, a monstrosity that metastasized into a hydra that spawns new terrors every time one of its heads is severed.

But America’s role is hardly one of unidirectional evil. In 1956, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Israel, France, and Britain launched the tripartite aggression that was aimed at annexing the Sinai Peninsula. Those efforts were largely thwarted by President Dwight Eisenhower, who threatened actual sanctions against Israel and a sell-off of sterling bonds that would have ruined the British economy and encouraged an oil embargo by allied and NATO governments, as well as leading a diplomatic effort at the United Nations to rebuke his World War II allies for their actions.

More recently, flush with its triumph at the end of history, America led a global alliance to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It also put a stop to the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Bosnia in 1995 through a brief, NATO-led intervention that resulted in the Dayton Accords.

At the very least, America does not deserve sole ownership of the Great Satan title. Why do Russia and China’s actions not spark similar outrage, a similar, simmering public consciousness that establishes them as foes to be thwarted in the broader culture?

My English language skills were decent in middle school but really flourished when I started watching “Friends” and reading Stephen King novels. I speak mostly in English with my 21-month-old son, a reflex I regret because I don’t want him to be overpowered like me by the internet – that is, American culture. Not because there’s anything wrong with American culture but because it isn’t, or wasn’t, who I am.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether the propensity to see America’s role as one akin to an omniscient arbiter is precisely because its judgment and aesthetic are inescapable and intolerably gauche for a polity that takes pride in its ancient history. One racist trope often deployed by Egyptian and Levantine Arabs toward Gulf Arabs takes the form of disdain that the latter have money and influence but cannot match the cultural and historical prowess of the millennia-old civilizations on the Mediterranean. And yet Egyptian and Levantine Arabs are the ones emigrating to the Gulf, not vice versa. My uneducated guess is that this dynamic is also at play with America, except more so; its cultural values are so inescapable that they subtly transform your own modes of thinking, in a way that is both disturbing and unique in that it is not applicable in the cases of Russia and China because, well, they are not really superpowers in that way.

Or perhaps it is a desire to find a culprit responsible for an overpowering sense of defeat. The Arab world has lurched from colonialism to the Nakba in 1948, from reformist movements to military dictatorships, from sectarian strife to destructive regional wars, from the dream of pan-Arabism to crushing defeats against Israel, from long-standing autocratic rule to thwarted revolutions. Even the military dictators of yore had more charisma, statesmanship, and subtlety than the bumbling sycophants that now rule.

Or maybe it is because America always promised more. Every time its politicians waxed poetic about the shining city on a hill that the peoples of the world looked to for inspiration and guidance as they pursued their dreams of democracy and self-determination, I was overwhelmed with cognitive dissonance and sense of existential triteness. What is this nation they speak of? Can they not hear how ridiculous they sound?

Or perhaps it is futile to contemplate such a complicated question in generalities. After all, I don’t know a lot of Arabs who emigrated to Russia and China, but I do know a lot who emigrated to America.

Mohammad al-Durrah’s image is forever etched in my mind, a wrong that can never be set right. That has not halted the inexorable march toward Arab-Israeli normalization in recent months under the tutelage of the now-defunct Trump administration. Its excesses have been met with impotent and muted protestations, an indication of how comprehensively Arab regimes have defeated their internal opponents over the past decade. The monumental insults that preceded the Abraham Accords included Washington’s recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights and the moving of the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, among others. But they elicited little in the way of protest, for they were not mere cartoons, and the defeats of the last 10 years robbed the sails of outrage of their winds.

Meanwhile, those who claim to uphold the banner of resistance to Israel and America have responded by continuing to torture and kill their own civilians and clamp down on dissent at home. The uprisings, revolutions, and counter-revolutions have left behind a dizzying array of new alliances and entanglements. One particularly vulgar Levantine expression captures it best. The gist of its translation, which is unfitting for polite society, is that nobody knows whose appendage is in whose orifice.

Perhaps one day our collective moral compass will catch up to the moral catastrophes of Syria and the Uyghurs, and we’ll have a better sense of proportion over cartoons, and we’ll mourn all victims of imperialism impotently, no matter the nationality of their tormentors.

But the irony of the past decade in the Arab world is that we kept raging at the dying of the light until the light actually died and we made it to the other side. In that darkened recess, our impotent rage transmogrified into disappointment and exasperation and then malaise. America remains the archenemy and prime mover in our imagination because we are too exhausted to contemplate a new foe. It is defeat and submission by default, whether to America, Russia, China, or whoever next emerges as a multipole.

Without a struggle, we acquiesce.

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