“… they came to a certain point and the mufti said, ‘Well, now I’m going to pray.’ And he was silent. And the pope clasped his hands sort of at his waist, and bowed his head, and even seemed to be moving his lips.
“… And later, I watched it on Turkish television, and the announcer said they prayed to the same God. Now, that may not be true; that is probably not true, except in a very cosmic sense. But it shows what impact the pope’s gestures have had here apparently on Turkish public opinion.”—Margaret Warner, PBS
When the Lehrer NewsHour’s correspondent Margaret Warner reported from Istanbul in November 2006 during the pope’s visit, she casually dismissed centuries of understanding about Abrahamic monotheism by suggesting that the pope was praying to a different God than was the grand mufti.
Such insensitivity to matters Islamic or Arab is not uncommon, whether at PBS or in a wider American press. In the wake of 9/11, America had a choice: either demonize and attempt to disenfranchise from the global community one-sixth of humanity known as Muslims, or respond, engage, educate and forge partnerships with peace-loving peoples in order to isolate, delegitimize and destroy the criminals that executed such violent acts.
The Bush administration chose the first path, and most Arabs and Muslims, like those Iranians who spontaneously held candlelit vigils in Tehran on 9/11 in sympathy with America’s pain, were immediately marginalized, and battle lines were drawn.
The Fourth Estate followed. Succumbing to its own fears, intimidated by prewar rhetoric and patriotic spirit, and handicapped by its ignorance, the American press became nearly impotent. It took years to summon courage enough to challenge the reasons why the United States invaded Iraq, and momentum grew as deceit was exposed. Whether their watchdog reporting was motivated by “gotcha” journalism, or outrage over the deceptions, or by a combination of the two, is unknown, but the ignorance persists.
What the press has yet to challenge, however, is the intellectual and academic basis for the declared “war on terror” and the concomitant prejudiced attacks on Islam, Muslims and Arabs. In April 2007, as news of the shooting at Virginia Tech spread, I prayed, “Please God, don’t let the shooter be a Muslim or Arab.” Surrounded by hate speech, xenophobic politicians, prejudice, bias and an incurious press, many American Muslims and Arabs feel isolated and vulnerable.
This isolation was recently spotlighted in the $20 million PBS series “America at a Crossroads.” A magnificent Orientalist production conceived by Michael Pack, who had come to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to bring RELATED WEB LINK
America at a Crossroads
– pbs.orgconservative voices to PBS, this 11-part series of documentaries purported to be a balanced examination of America in the years after 9/11. Hosted by éminence grise Robert MacNeil, seen strolling through a mosque, its vision of post-trauma America highlighted Western truths, Bush’s truths, neocon truths, but few insights. Its set-up had perfect bookends—to start, there was “Jihad: The Men and Ideas Behind al-Qaeda,” and to end, “The Brotherhood,” with a headline on its Web page posing the question: “Spreading fundamentalist Islam—but does the Muslim Brotherhood also support terrorism?” Implied, yes, but like much of the rest of the series it was an exploration short of facts and long on speculation.
From Fear to Terror
Tucked between these two programs were tales of valiant warriors, unrepentant neocons, and a schizophrenic episode on Indonesia. Its message: see, they have transvestites, so there must be some enlightened Muslims on this globe. By the end of this series, it is likely that most viewers found themselves entertained but still singularly uninformed, with prejudices intact. After all, who could have imagined a scenario in which one of the architects of war, Richard Perle, gets to star in a self-serving piece justifying the war? Or another in which Irshad Manji, the author of “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith,” becomes the voice of Islam?
In American eyes, moderates are the ones most like us. Those who are not are the enemy.
Paul Wolfowitz, in an interview with Vanity Fair, perhaps inadvertently came closest to identifying the myopia that afflicts both the government and the press in its approach to the Middle East when he said, “I think the greatest mistake is assuming that people will behave, well it’s a version of mirror imaging, I guess. People will be rational according to our definition of what is rational.”
Manji’s program about Islam, “Faith Without Fear,” was particularly troubling. She is a Muslim, raised in the West and with few academic or intellectual credentials and no constituency within the Muslim community (even among “enlightened” Muslims). Yet she has parlayed her book—and its backlash—into a platform of visibility that led to her having a featured role in this documentary. She was likely chosen because she fits the Western notion of an unconventional, enlightened, liberated Muslim whom they would like to have as a neighbor. Her supporters are those Orientalists who would like her to be a poster child for Muslims, much like Ahmad Chalabi was an Iraqi poster boy for the neocons.
Absent from this discussion—or any other in this series—was the vigorous debate taking place within the ummah, the worldwide community of Islam, led by voices of women such as Ingrid Mattson, the first woman ever to lead a national Muslim organization, and Ithaca University professor Asma Barlas, author of “‘Believing Women’ in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an.” Where was long-time journalist Geneive Abdo, author of REFERRED ARTICLES
“When the News Media Focus on Islam’s Internal Struggles”
— Geneive Abdo
“Islam Today: The Need to Explore Its Complexities”
— Tariq Ramadan “Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America after 9/11”? And where were voices of influential Muslim men such as University of California at Los Angeles professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists” and “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,” and Tariq Ramadan, turned away from his teaching position at the University of Notre Dame by U.S. Homeland Security, whose grandfather founded the Muslim Brotherhood?
By limiting the range of experiences and scholarship, PBS limited the opportunity for a growth in insight and understanding. (I’ve heard enough by now of Fouad Ajami, Frank Gaffney, Jr., and Richard Perle telling us what is wrong about the Middle East.) If this is the kind of reporting public television offers us, is there little wonder that cable outlets like Fox News and talk show hosts like Glenn Beck (among his favorite guests: Irshad Manji) feel free to attack using language that would not be tolerated if said about any other ethnic, racial or religious group? A press that rightly took Don Imus to task for his racism and sexism gives a pass to hate speech when applied to the Middle East.
And it was an act of journalistic negligence to avoid facing the Palestinians, since the Palestine-Israel conflict is central to peace in the Middle East. Since 2000, thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis have died, the victims of terrorist attacks, intifada uprising, Israeli reprisals, and the Israel-Hizbullah war that destroyed Lebanon’s infrastructure.
Words Rise and Fall
Conflate all of this with the frenzy that greeted the John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt essay, “The Israel Lobby,” when the London Review of Books published it in March. Similar in their attempt to discredit the author were responses—often vicious, with anti-Semitic charges—to former President Jimmy Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Dissent on some issues seems not to be tolerated.
The extraordinary volume and content of the response to their article led the London Review of Books to hold a debate called “The Israel Lobby: Does it have too much influence on American foreign policy?” at Cooper Union in New York City in September 2006. Watch the debate online »
More recently, when three disparate voices wrote about Middle East policy—Robert Novak in The Washington Post, Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times, and George Soros in The New York Review of Books—their words were greeted with silence. Harder to attack these authors as anti-Semitic, their words sank to the bottom of the pond with barely a ripple. What could have engendered debate on issues critical to America’s role in the Middle East died a quick death. So, too, once the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group were dismissed by the Bush administration, a full examination by the press of their geostrategic value vanished, as well.
With regard to Palestine, journalists need to learn to parse history. For example, for more than 40 years the West dismissed Arab narratives surrounding the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 as propaganda. It was not until Israeli historians like Tom Segev, Benny Morris, and Avi Shlaim challenged the Israeli narrative that Arab claims carried credence. Thus, while it was independence for Israel, it was al Nakba, catastrophe, for Palestinians.
Arab identities, positions and challenges need to be seen within their cultural context, not simply in relation to Israelis’ interests and narratives. To acknowledge the humanity of Palestinian people—their struggles and pain—would not diminish Israel in any way but might serve to make rapprochement between the parties possible.
These evident patterns in coverage—of this region, its people, and its conveyors of the narrative—demonstrate the limits of commitment by much of the Western press to seeking the necessary knowledge. This leads to a constraint of what gets discussed in public arenas and jeopardizes the American public’s ability to make well-informed decisions about issues of national interest, policy and political leaders. In difficult times like ours, such constraint can be dangerous.
Robert Azzi, a 1977 Nieman Fellow, is a photojournalist who has covered the Middle East since 1968. He is working on a book of photographs of the Middle East.