“This young female art student was sitting in the central park of the Iranian city of Isfahan. She was working intensely. Nobody could interrupt her. Women in Iran live in two worlds: In public, due to the strict Islamic rules, they have to wear the shador, a headscarf or a long coat. At home, they look like many other young women throughout the world—with modern clothes, makeup, no scarf—no different than Europe or the United States.”—Katharina Eglau. Photo by Katharina Eglau.©
Through eight years as a correspondent in the Islamic world for The Guardian and other publications, my aim was to tap into the untouched universe of Muslim sources. I conducted interviews with militants in Algeria determined to kill foreigners; a progressive Iranian cleric under house arrest who is considered one of the greatest threats to the Islamic republic; his hard-line nemesis, believed to be responsible for the murders of Iranian intellectuals; and hundreds of Islamic moderates in Egypt under round-the-clock surveillance by the intelligence apparatus propping up President Hosni Mubarak’s government.
The militants were men who loathed the Western world, were unlikely to meet a foreigner, and even less likely to be interviewed by a female foreign correspondent. Some agreed to one interview and others to many more after I convinced them I wanted to hear their opinions and give them a voice in a world otherwise closed to them. When I wrote stories based on the interviews, I reported their views in much the same way I would have if they were coming from the U.S. Secretary of State, not from advocates of creating an Islamic state based on principles the Western world finds abhorrent. In other words, I sought to reflect their views and comments with accuracy, providing the reader with the context needed to understand the world through an Islamic perspective.
Since September 11, much discussion has focused upon appropriate methods for reporting on the views and statements of Islamists who are either involved in the war or in the reporting of it. Should U.S. television networks refuse to report statements made by the Al Qeada network? Should the U.S. government pressure Qatar to place restrictions on reporting on Al-Jazeera, the Arab world’s CNN, which has served as Osama bin Laden’s microphone from his cave to the outside world? Should CNN submit questions through an intermediary to Osama bin Laden, then air his views?
In more ordinary times, campaigners for free expression would have launched protests over such overt suggestions of censorship. But even before September 11, conventional rules of journalism were often suspended when covering Islamic societies. Islamic sources were considered less credible because their views stem from a different philosophy, not only about politics and religion, but life itself. As a result, the American media, particularly television, often relied on the usual suspects—the 20 or so sources in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Algeria and Iran who were Westernized—and often English speaking—and who were found to be much more acceptable than the average Islamic activist. These sources are, in fact, often local journalists with ties to their respective governments. Reporters overlooked the fact that they generally have a political agenda and are rarely objective analysts.
A foreign correspondent in Tehran who worked for an international news agency boasted that in eight years on the job he had never traveled 100 miles from the Iranian capital to interview clerics in Qom, Iran’s religious center. Many theologians in Qom are directly involved in policymaking, but rarely come to the Iranian capital. Even in cases when journalists tried to interview major players in the Islamic world, their lack of knowledge and preparation produced less than enlightening reports. This lack of understanding of the material, in turn, discouraged other Islamists from cooperating and contributed to the Western press’s pariah status in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria and Syria.
The progressive cleric in Iran under house arrest, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, had denied interview requests to nearly every major American newspaper for two decades, including The New York Times. After I submitted my questions to him by fax in December 1999, he responded one month later in an 8,000-word treatise.
The story I wrote in The Guardian, based on his response, was read aloud on the BBC, and its contents were reported widely across Europe. The story was also broadcast on the BBC Farsi Service, allowing thousands of Iranian listeners to hear his views. Although the scoop drew harsh attacks against me within the regime, it allowed Ayatollah Montazeri to speak out for the first time in many years.
Later, I asked his son why he had chosen me to be his messenger. “Because you posed questions he was interested in answering. You asked questions about his theories, not whether he was plotting to overthrow the regime or what he ate for breakfast.”
American journalists, unlike their European counterparts, are discouraged from becoming “experts” on politics in areas of the globe they might end up covering. To know too much is considered a liability. If experts are hired, the theory goes, their stories will be too sophisticated for average readers. In addition, learning foreign languages has never been a priority in most newsrooms. Only The New York Times and a handful of other publications offer systematic language instruction to foreign correspondents. In large measure, there is an ingrained sense among U.S. editors and publishers that domestic and foreign reporting are interchangeable enterprises.
Occasionally, this view risks slipping into the absurd. In one well-known case, a star tennis writer was sent to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I worked in American newsrooms in the 1980’s, editors often bragged that it was the versatility of American journalists that made them great. “If a reporter can’t produce a topnotch story on the city’s worst fire, how is he going to cover the Middle East peace process?” they argued. “The same reporter who is brilliant in Moscow should be just as brilliant three years later in Beijing and then six years later in Jerusalem,” they said.
The most frequent result is superficial coverage and a tendency to focus on the familiar, or on certain hot button issues that play well with editors and readers back home but do little to capture realities on the ground. In the Islamic world, this latter phenomenon is best represented by the coverage of women and women’s rights. Thus, the shifting length of the veils on the streets of Tehran, or a sighting of forbidden lipstick in the city’s more affluent northern suburbs, are taken as emblematic of a universal struggle against Muslim prescriptions of “modest dress.” Yet spend time talking with the majority of Muslim women and the picture that emerges is very different; few are demanding a Western-style feminism that they see as failed and incompatible with their religious and personal values or a change in their attire.
When I attended a diplomatic tea one afternoon in Tehran in 1998, an American correspondent known for her long-time reporting in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979 criticized me for wearing a chador, a black shroud considered the most conservative form of veiling, which is preferred by the Iranian regime. She later charged that I was a traitor to the Western feminist cause. A week later, this same correspondent asked my husband at a government press conference to shake her hand, a violation of Iranian custom, which frowns on such a public greeting between a man and woman. “Let’s show them how we do things in America,” she said. He wisely demurred.
At first glance, such anecdotes might seem trivial. Yet they reveal a profound lack of respect for social, religious and personal mores on the part of American correspondents, slights that would be unthinkable while covering Western societies that are seen as more acceptable and familiar. They also reveal an intellectual laziness and a general unwillingness to cover the Muslim world in a way that allows readers to view it on its own terms without moral judgment, which is, after all, the way in which understanding is deepened.
Since September 11, U.S. officials have repeatedly told Americans that Islam is a religion of tolerance, and they have gone to great lengths to distinguish the militant fringe from the millions of peaceful Muslims. Meanwhile, American journalists now roaming the streets of Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are trying to answer the simple question baffling their readers and listeners: “Why do they hate us?”
The painful reality is that America’s newly realized “understanding” of Islam has come about 30 years too late.
Geneive Abdo, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, was Tehran correspondent for The Guardian. She is also the author of “No God But God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2000).