Lebanese protesters demonstrate at a Starbucks in
in a Coffee Cup
By Christopher Dickey
26 June 2002
The Arab boycott of American products wont
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. Dont
you know, she scolded, that the CEO of Starbucks is
a terrible Zionist? Actually, the editor hadnt given
it much thought. Promise me, said his daughter, youll
never drink coffee here again. And so, since April, the editor
has been finding his cappuccinos elsewherethough 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 Statesand therefore
with American support for Israelmay suddenly find itself unwanted
by consumers in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Indonesia and Lebanon. Arabs
have long seen themselves as Marlboro men. No longer. McDonalds
and KFC also have taken hits. In the supermarket, all you
hear people talking about is whats 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 its a remindereven
as President Bush calls for democratic elections as a condition
for a Palestinian statethat when people really learn to speak
out, they may not say what the United States and its friends want
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
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 Schultzs 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 Israels
Schultzs 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 Bahrains
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 banks
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 Townhall.com 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. Hes 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. Were not
a political institution, and we dont believe political statements
by an outside advisor should be attributed to us, says David
Crosland, executive director of the banks 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 theres been little or none.
And questions of corporate ownership are not the issue, its
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, Its like
a soul-cleansing thingI wont smoke Marlboros today.
The boycotts 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 McDonalds, or cream for Starbucks
coffeeand 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 leadershipsthe Pandoras 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.