Media Incitement Inflames The Middle East
DOHA, QATAR February 5: World be warned: the modern centurions in the Pentagon have finally surfaced their plans for "long war," a "defense" posture designed to put the United States on a permanent global war without end footing. The announcement was greeted in the Arab World-where I have just spent a week-- with a "ho-hum" response as if to say 'so what's new?"
Memories in this part of the world are long and go back to the brutality of the crusades and more recent Western colonization. A protest by Muslims in Britain against those cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammad renamed the BBC, The "British Broadcasting Crusaders." Some factions in Palestinian refugee camps called on Osama bin Laden for revenge even as more sober leaders, including those from Hamas, counseled restraint.
Many Arabs believe they are in a long war with the west already, culturally denigrated in our press, under physical bombardment in Iraq, and new threats in Iran. Many feel treated as by the west as children who must be lectured or spanked constantly. They are applauded for going to the polls but then have foreign assistance yanked for voting wrongly.
A Danish media exercise in free speech last September that many in the West dismiss as no big thing, has been followed by pro-forma calls on Arabs who protest to become more thick-skinned and "get over it." After all, it is argued, it's only an illustration by one man
There has been in some quarters a sanctimonious insistence that uncensored freedom of the press is absolute without much awareness that the cultures in an uproar are not societies with traditions of tolerance. (Would the reaction have been any different if the cartons were crudely racist or anti-semitic?)
A fierce debate is now raging as Danish Embassies are attacked by people using the issue to score points who make as few distinctions about people in the West as the cartoonist did about the Prophet Mohammad. Many Arabs are challenging their own culture too. Sheik Hamza Yusuf gave a lecture in Doha saying one man made a stupid cartoon, to blame a whole nation is disproportionate and unislamic. According to a blogger who was there, he also remarked, "We Muslims should ask ourselves what have we done to encourage people to draw a cartoon of the Prophet like that, and more in a similar vein."
In an editorial, England's Guardian made some sensible distinctions: "The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression but not in any duty to gratuitously offend. It would be senselessly provocative to reproduce a set of images of no intrinsic value which pander to the worst prejudices about Muslims." (As media platform, Mediachannel reprinted the cartoons to inform a deeper discussion, a decision I am not comfortable with.)
The cartoons themselves touched a nerve that was already raw and are symbolic of a great gap in perceptions that is getting wider.
Perhaps that's why the Al Jazeera Media forum I attended here in Qatar began with a debate about what role the media should play. Should we in the media try to bridge the divides that lead to hate and conflict or should we just report them? Should media outlets intentionally or unintentionally incite confrontations? Can media irresponsibility be defended in the name of press freedom?
Is there another way?
Behind the veils of the women and beyond the anger of the men in the Arab world is a worldview reflected in their media but missing in ours. As a result, their frame on the news is as different as their feelings about what's behind all the mistrust. Bear in mind also that Arab societies are far more politicized then our own.
Writing this week in Beirut's Daily Star, the respected columnist Rami C. Khouri cited a University of Maryland study of attitudes in the Arab world showing that hatred towards US policies is growing even in countries nominally allied with the US.
"One of the significant findings," he writes. 'Is that Arab citizens by a margin of 75% did not believe that democracy was the real objective of American efforts to promote reform and change in the Arab worldâ€¦. Very large majorities of Arabs believed that the main motives of American policies in the Middle East 'were oil, protecting Israel, dominating the region, and weakening the Muslim World."
For many, the litmus test of Washington's professions is how it deals with Hamas which swept a Parliamentary election in Palestine. Already the US is, in effect, collectively punishing a whole people who voted for a party that ran on a "change and reform" program. One Al Jazeera reporter quipped to me, "I thought Bush supported faith-based politics."
In an essay titled "Yes to a Just Peace" in Dubai's Khaleej Times, Khaled Mishaal, head of the political bureau of Hamas, lashes out at governments which "failed the test of democracy" by their refusal to accept the will of Palestinian voters by cutting off aid. He says Hamas is willing to seek peace "based on justice." He insists they do not hate Jews as Jews but rather oppose Israeli policies and practices. "Our conflict with you is not religious," he says, "but political." This approach has many adherents in the region even among those that do not support terrorism of any kind by any party to the conflict."
Here we go again, as tensions mount once again, with Palestine once again at the center of it. Pouring oil on the fire are provocative and offensive cartoons uniting Muslims who are divided on many political issues but feel a duty to defend their religion from disrespect. Isn't it time for more real balance and diversity of perspective in our media? Instead of responding to insults with more insults, we should demand more in-depth nuanced coverage and less stereotyping.
I was struck by many Arab voices at the Al Jazeera Forum who noted that there is less media freedom and room for the expression of all views in the US in most of our media outlets than they have in their societies. They see our media as keeping Americans uninformed almost by design.
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman's denunciation of the embedded war reporting were applauded as were remarks by South Africa's Allister Sparks that the American media has hit a new low when it comes to timely coverage of the world.
As fresh revelations emerge about President Bush's deliberate deceptions in collusion with Tony Blair in warring on Iraq, key information never reported at the time, the reality of our "failed press" is becoming more and more evident.
Many "news" outlets should be renamed "the olds"
"News Dissector" Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His latest books are "When News Lies" and "The Death of the Media." See newsdissector.org/store.htm. Comments to email@example.com