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U.S. Inter-Dependence Day

How might the U.S. debate about the pledge of allegiance be perceived in the Middle East?

July 4, 2002

How might the U.S. debate about the pledge of allegiance be perceived in the Middle East?

Some 80 Senators gathered in the U.S. Capitol and dutifully recited the pledge of allegiance the very morning after the news of the court ruling was known.

President George W. Bush called the ruling "ridiculous" — and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle simply called it "nuts." The nation is outraged — and fierce debate is to be expected. For non-Americans, here is the bone of contention:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

For generations, millions of U.S. school children have recited these words every morning in school. Changing the words is one thing. Striking out "under God" would be quite another.

This is, after all, the land of TV preachers, where every major Presidential address ends with the words: "God bless America", where the $1 note states "In God We Trust" — and where a whole region of primarily southern states has been dubbed the "Bible Belt".

Yet, all the religious and constitutional pros and cons about pledging allegiance aside, the United States should not mistake the wording of the pledge as a wholly domestic matter — at least as far as its image is concerned.

In the age of CNN and Al-Jazeera, images whip around the world instantaneously.

The image of U.S. legislators pledging allegiance — with added emphasis on the “under God” part — in the Senate chamber will be seen in many countries, friend and foe alike. For this reason, Americans should be cognizant of the image they project.

For example, how does an audience in the Middle East view the spectacle of the U.S. political elite gathering on Capitol Hill to give a special performance of the pledge of allegiance?

To put things in perspective, Western audiences should think about how images of U.S. flag burnings and Arab mobs chanting "Allah'u Akbar" ("God is Great") send chills down their collective spines.

Ever since the 1979 revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis, the pictures of such street demonstrations have had a significant impact on the way Islam is perceived in the West. Now, it seems that U.S. legislators are returning the compliment.

Granted, the pledge of allegiance does not call for U.S. citizens to take up arms or incite hatred — nor did any of the senators burn flags of foreign countries.

Yet, the same goes for most Muslims in Middle East countries. They might not agree with some U.S. policies. But that does not mean that they hate the United States.

The mere fact that some extremist mullahs stir up gangs of fierce looking individuals after the Friday prayers, however, is always a good show for Western TV news.

The same holds true for the pictures of U.S. legislators fiercely and self-righteously pledging allegiance to the flag.

The broadcast of this show of religious patriotism to the Middle East will most likely produce some uneasy feelings that there is a double standard involved.

And as the Europeans would point out to their U.S. allies, in today's world — where ideology and religion play an increasingly divisive role — is it really necessary to step up the religious rhetoric at home?

All these years, the United States fussed about too much "Allah'u akbar" in Iran and other Mideast countries. Now, members of the highest U.S. legislature are chanting "One nation under God."

These were not just some stray U.S. students but the elected representatives of the American people. Also, they were not incited by some fierce clerics — even though the presence of countless TV cameras have had something to do with it.

Another case in point is the Western concern about religious schools. Recently, the madrassahs in Pakistan have been under scrutiny in the West — not to mention those of another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia.

Almost every school headed by a Muslim cleric in Pakistan or anywhere in the Middle East is presented by the media as a hotbed of global terrorism.

True, there are madrassahs which, rather than providing education, trained their students in the use of weapons. Truth also is that the vast majority of these schools do not preach terrorism — but provide affordable education for children whose parents cannot afford any other kind of schooling.

Given the frequent U.S. criticism of these religious schools, imagine how it must then look to the Middle East when suddenly the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of school vouchers. These vouchers allow parents to apply for federal funds to send their children to private schools.

In some U.S. school districts, well over 80% of private schools are affiliated with churches. For the most part, it is these religious schools that will benefit from the Supreme Court's voucher ruling.

Opponents believe this smacks of government sponsorship of religion, which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids.

In the Middle Eastern media, it will ultimately be portrayed as "state funding for U.S. religious schools." It is not an entirely accurate assessment — but no worse than much of the U.S. reporting on similar issues in the Middle East.

Quite justifiably, the famous Arab street may wonder why religious schools in the United States are worth state funding — and why, in turn, every madrassah in its region should be closed down.

In other words, Americans — from senators to every day citizens — need to think about how images can be abused to whip up anti-American fervor in today’s inter-dependent world.

Why does the United States worry about Arab street protests invoking Allah's name when almost the entire U.S. Senate spontaneously professes its allegiance to their "nation under God?"

This time, it is the United States where religiously motivated pressure groups find themselves out in the street — not the Middle East.