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Lebanese protesters demonstrate at a Starbucks in Beirut


Tempest in a Coffee Cup

By Christopher Dickey
26 June 2002

The Arab boycott of American products won’t do much economic harm. But it is a powerful symbol of new grass-roots activism in the Middle East


It took a couple of minutes for the Saudi newspaper editor to notice that his 21-year-old daughter was standing outside the Starbucks window. Veiled, as most women are on the street in Jeddah, she was gesturing furiously for him to come talk.

He excused himself from his majlis, as he calls his morning coffee klatsch with friends. “How could you?” his American-educated daughter demanded. The editor was a little puzzled. “Don’t you know,” she scolded, “that the CEO of Starbucks is a terrible Zionist?” Actually, the editor hadn’t given it much thought. “Promise me,” said his daughter, “you’ll never drink coffee here again.” And so, since April, the editor has been finding his cappuccinos elsewhere—though he admits he still misses Starbucks.

These days, such scenes are common throughout the Arab and Islamic world, and Starbucks is only one of the targets. Since last spring, any product identified with the United States—and therefore with American support for Israel—may suddenly find itself unwanted by consumers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Indonesia and Lebanon. Arabs have long seen themselves as Marlboro men. No longer. McDonald’s and KFC also have taken hits. “In the supermarket, all you hear people talking about is what’s made in America, and not to buy it,” says one Saudi housewife.

The boycott of U.S. goods, at once trivial and massive, populist and postmodern, is unlike any other grass-roots political movement the Muslim world has ever seen. And it’s a reminder—even as President Bush calls for democratic elections as a condition for a Palestinian state—that when people really learn to speak out, they may not say what the United States and its friends want to hear.

A veteran U.S. official in the region recently drafted an extraordinary memo that tried to put the phenomenon in perspective for American businessmen as well as his superiors in Washington. “For the first time (maybe ever) the least-enfranchised elements of a harshly repressed society feel that they as individuals can make a difference,” says the memo, privately e-mailed to executives and diplomats with interests in the Middle East and obtained by NEWSWEEK. “They feel that even a 5-year-old child has an opportunity to do something meaningful, and can influence domestic and international events.”

Details about which American products to boycott are spread with lists posted on the doors of mosques, to be sure, but also on Web sites and even through the little digital text messages that teenage boys and girls send each other from mobile phones. “Everyone is wired now,” as the U.S. official puts it. Popular sentiment for the boycotts is built in the media, with Arab satellite television stations showing graphic footage of Israeli violence in the occupied territories. The images inflame the commonly held opinion that poorly armed Muslims are under ferocious attack by an enemy using American guns, American helicopters, American jet fighters. The effect is “an emotional and visual conflict reaching to the heart of the identity of every citizen as an Arab or a Muslim,” says the memo.

Yet the anti-everything-made-in-America sentiment on the ground in the Arab world is distinct from organized efforts by Muslims in the United States to focus the issue on Starbucks, even if the diatribes of one sometimes feed the other. On the American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice Web site, for instance, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz’s support for various Jewish charitable organizations and his warnings about rising anti-Semitism around the world are denounced as “fueling an already tense situation by using inciteful [sic] language to ‘legitimize’ Israel’s actions.”

Schultz’s spokespeople emphasize his interest in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. “Starbucks is deeply saddened by the current events in the Middle East,” says Peter Maslen, president of Starbucks Coffee International. “With business partners worldwide, Starbucks believes it is important to embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business and treat each other with respect and dignity.” Other Schultz defenders claim to detect a more prosaic motive behind the American boycott. One Starbucks competitor, Caribou Coffee, with 185 outlets in the United States, sold 87.8 per cent of its capital to Bahrain’s First Islamic Investment Bank in December 2000.

The Bahrain bank lists among its guiding principles: “Above all, ensuring that all activities conform to Islamic Shariah [religious law],” which means, in the financial context, not paying or receiving interest, and not investing in companies that manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages. Conservative syndicated columnist Debbie Schlussel notes in the New York Post that among members of the bank’s religious advisory board is the controversial cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who defends “our brothers and children in Al-Aqsa and the blessed land of Palestine generously sacrificing their blood, giving their souls willingly in the way of Allah.” Schlussel claims that “in the war on terrorism, choice of coffee may be definitive.” (Schlussel, whose online biography describes her as having “unique expertise on radical Islam, professional sports and a host of other political, social and pop culture topics,” fails to note that Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa, or religious edict, approving the American war in Afghanistan. He’s often been cited by the Bush administration as a supporter of the war on terror.)

A representative of First Islamic in the United States says Al-Qaradawi is resigning from the advisory board in July. “We’re not a political institution, and we don’t believe political statements by an outside advisor should be attributed to us,” says David Crosland, executive director of the bank’s U.S. affiliate. Boycott promoter Raeed Tayeh of American Muslims for Global Peace, for his part, has said he never heard about the Caribou connection until Schlussel brought it up on a Fox News shoutfest.

This sort of talk-show tempest-in-a-coffee-cup misses the point, according to people in the Middle East. The boycott is about popular expression in societies where there’s been little or none. And questions of corporate ownership are not the issue, it’s the power of the symbols that counts. American consumerism is part of the Arab dream, or has been, even in places like Gaza. Hatred for the Israeli occupiers there is as intense as anywhere in the world. Yet until a few weeks ago, enormous billboards along the main highway in Palestinian-administered areas advertised cigarettes with THE BIG TASTE OF AMERICA. Now, even that dream is fading and many people would rather do without. Palestinian political scientist Marwan Bishara likens boycotting to fasting, “It’s like a soul-cleansing thing—’I won’t smoke Marlboros today’.”

The boycott’s economic impact on the multinationals is slight, and the effect on the U.S. economy is negligible, at least so far. According to Charley Kestenbaum, commercial counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, American exports to Saudi Arabia may decline from $6 billion to $4 billion in 2002, but that has at least as much to do with slumping oil prices and slowing growth as with the boycott. A typical franchise fee to the parent companies of fast-food outlets is about 4 percent of revenues. The merchants who get hurt are local suppliers of beef for McDonald’s, or cream for Starbucks coffee—and the local people who used to work behind the counters. Nor are the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likely to be swayed by Kuwaitis foregoing their KFC. But in a political culture where individuals feel helpless, this new collective action is reassuring. “I believe in any form of passive resistance,” says Samar Fatany, a radio journalist in Saudi Arabia and mother of five. “We have to put the message across that we are angry.”

The boycott “has taken on a sociopolitical momentum and importance way beyond the issue of supporting Palestine itself,” says the memo by the U.S. official. “The regimes have tolerated this grass-roots boycott as an alternative to resorting to violence or civil disobedience. I wonder what this will lead to for future domestic or foreign-policy issues when the people disagree with their political leaderships—the Pandora’s box of civil, political activity has been opened irrevocably.”

“U.S. critics of the Saudis and the Arab world have focused on the religious intolerance and the lack of democracy,” the memo concludes. “Few things are more democratic than popular actions of nonviolent political expression through economic activity. We should be standing back and applauding the obvious long-term positive implications of the emergence of a social activism unthinkable only a few years ago in this region. That it exists at all is where we want these societies to go. That it is directed at the U.S.A. is our problem.”