Islamophobic Gibberish Taints U.S. Media Discourse on Middle East
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My travels around the United States for the past two weeks, during an intense political moment leading up to two crucial presidential primaries Tuesday, have reinforced my sense of a dark hole in public political life of this country.
At a time when the United States is deeply involved militarily in the Arab-Islamic region of the world, serious, balanced and in-depth analysis or coverage of this region and its people remain elusive.
Other issues that are important for America's well-being, such as climate change, education reform, or immigration, are covered with much more depth, accuracy and balance.
The political campaigns, especially among conservative Republicans, have aggravated an already grim situation. Republican front-runner John McCain in particular wastes no opportunity to rally his supporters with emotional commitments to use every ounce of energy in his body to fight "radical Islamic militants." He'll chase them to the "gates of hell," he thunders. And the happy crowd roars approval -- not quite sure who the radical Islamic militants are, or why the combined powers of the world's mightiest democracies and allied Third World tyrannies have not even chased the rascals out of the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, or suburban London, let alone to hell itself.
The crescendo of McCain's simplistic appeal is always that "I'll never surrender!" and the happy crowd roars again, secure in the knowledge that surrender is not an option -- though still blissfully confused about whom exactly one might surrender to if surrender were ever an option.
Other intellectual hooligans and cultural skinheads -- like Glenn Beck on CNN every night -- reflect a widespread tendency among conservative media commentators and hosts to replace sensibility with emotion, to act tough when that is easier than being smart and realistic.
Fox News panders to similar sentiments, simultaneously affirming a determination to fight bad Muslims and terrorists who threaten the United States, while proudly waving the American flag as an emotional symbol of one's commitment to something -- though what that something is remains unclear.
I suspect that the emotional patriotism and macho militarism that increasingly define the conservative side of the United States -- half the country, probably -- have increasingly come to serve as a substitute for consistent ideology and sound foreign policy. Many scholars, religious leaders, businessmen and -women, and civil society groups increasingly reflect the best of American traditions, by making the effort to grasp that a few criminal Arab-Muslims in the world are dwarfed by the billion-plus law-abiding Muslims and 300 million-plus Arabs who share most American values.
The political and media public space, however, is dominated by images, words and innuendo that overwhelmingly portray Arab-Muslims who are violent, extremist, religiously fanatic and generally alien, and therefore dangerous.
In the past two weeks in the United States, I have kept my eyes and ears open for signs of news media reports about Arab-Muslims that portray them as they really are -- normal people, usually politically placid, occasionally angry and very occasionally violent. Those images and reports are extremely rare, in a way that they are not rare in coverage of other population groups around the world or within the United States.
Sadly, more than six years after 9/11 and five years after the American-led attack on Iraq, the public debate on these issues in the United States -- with only a few exceptions -- remains mired in intellectual mediocrity, factual inaccuracy, analytical selectivity, cultural insensitivity and political values more worthy of a horse barn than a powerful and otherwise decent nation.
Politicians play on the ignorance and fear of their fellow citizens to rouse emotional responses in a desperate quest for votes; commercial media personalities do the same thing in pursuit of larger audience shares, in order to sell more advertising. Both appear irresponsible and uncaring that their simplistic emotionalist and reactionary chauvinism fosters a fresh form of racism that can only generate new tensions and greater conflicts down the road.
There is much to admire this season in the American political system. But we also clearly see much that is repugnant -- where the dark sides of American racism and xenophobia is hideously promoted in speeches -- and this repulsiveness shamelessly hidden by wrapping it in the flag.
We should not fall into the same moral morass that these few racists and hucksters have adopted as their home: This sort of deliberate exploitation of racist fears and ignorance is the sickness of a small minority of Americans living in a strange and desperate world of media and political competitiveness.
We should not brand all Americans as ugly and stupid because a small minority of them choose to be so, just as Americans should not see all Arabs and Muslims as dangerous fanatics because a small minority of them choose to be so.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of the Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.