Most Arab regimes, including devoutly pro-American ones, were slow to comment on the Anglo-American assault on Afghanistan, and very circumspect when they did. Some, such as Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority, have not done so at all -- a sign of how uneasy they are about it.
In his address to the Muslim world delivered Sunday through Qatar's al-Jazeera satellite television, Osama bin Laden astutely focused on the reason why: "Israeli tanks are wreaking havoc in Palestine -- in Jenin, Ramallah, Rafah and Beit Jala and other parts of the land of Islam, but no one raises his voice or bats an eyelid."
Judging by yesterday morning's Beirut press, the freest in the Arab world, the bin Laden appeal struck a sympathetic chord. "It is a shame," trumpeted al-Dyar, "that bin Laden had to go to a remote cave in Afghanistan . . . to proclaim that a crime has been committed by the West by giving Jews a homeland in Palestine at the expense of the Palestinian people."
For Mr. bin Laden, this is a clash of civilizations, "the decisive war between the faith and the global impiety." But, though his address was couched in the imagery of uncompromising Islamism, he did not belabour his doctrines and beliefs. Those beliefs have only a limited appeal to the Arab people. In fact -- as Mr. bin Laden knows -- a great many of them pine for those ideals of democracy and freedom that the U.S. stands for.
What Arab and Muslim people really object to is that, thanks to the repressive and corrupt regimes that Washington has supported, they have been deprived of them. They also object to the way in which, in their eyes, the U.S. tramples on the self-determination of peoples, especially when those people are Palestinian.
What will have appealed to his audience was not Mr. bin Laden's catechism of the Islam he claims to represent, but his enumeration of the injustices to which all Muslims feel they have been subjected at Western hands in modern times.
There is enormous potential embarrassment to Arab regimes. They know it, and that is why, during the buildup to the assault, they expressed such reservations about it. The most telling have been Saudi Arabia's. Riyadh may have broken off diplomatic relations with the Taliban, but that hardly counts for much compared to its rejection of the U.S. request to use the Prince Sultan air base to launch attacks on a fellow Muslim country.
The reason for caution by Arab leaders is the backlash they will face from their people, especially should this Anglo-American onslaught become a long and ugly one, and civilians die in large numbers. Arab politicians, commentators and religious leaders may have argued that nothing the U.S. did to the Arabs could justify the New York atrocity, but, in a climate of deepening anti-Americanism, many also said that the U.S. brought the terrible deed on its own head.
In Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, Mr. bin Laden commands a sneaking sympathy that extends beyond his own, ultra-orthodox Islamist constituency. What he says represents what many people there want to say and can't.
In the wider Arab domain, rulers fear their people will see the Afghan campaign as yet another flagrant expression of U.S. double standards at the expense of Arab and Muslim causes. Even the resolutely pro-American King Abdullah of Jordan told President Bush that he doubted New York would have happened had Washington addressed the Arab-Israel conflict in a more serious, less partisan, way.
That is why most regimes have made it clear that the degree of support they will extend to the "war on terror" depends on the extent to which, as it unfolds, the U.S. responds to their concerns. They want to be assured that the war will be limited to those who, by universally accepted criteria, can be classified as terrorists; that Saddam Hussein will not become the next target. They want Washington to repudiate Israel's contention that Hamas, Hezbollah and even Yasser Arafat are just bin Ladens in another guise.
There have been encouraging signs -- hints that Iraq is off the agenda for the time being, Mr. Bush's belated conversion to the idea of a Palestinian state, Washington's vacillation over how to classify Hamas and Hezbollah, the acceptance of Syria as a member of the UN Security Council. But it has not been enough for the Arab regimes to risk the wrath of their publics by throwing themselves behind what one Beirut newspaper calls the "war with no known end."
Without Arab support, this war risks turning into that clash of cultures that Osama bin Laden wants, but which most Arabs and Muslims, for all the resentments he is exploiting on their behalf, could still very well do without.
David Hirst, a former correspondent for The Guardian, is based in Beirut.