The dehumanizing media

Apologies for the delay in posting this article, from the February issue of the recently-launched Syrian magazine FW:, but the text can be found below. The article strongly endorses a non-sectarian approach to Middle Eastern politics, which in my opinion is the only hope for making progress and achieving reform in the region.
The magazine, shepherded by Syrian journalist/historian Sami Moubayed, who runs and is also regularly featured on Washington Post Global, will have its full online launch shortly.
The dehumanizing media
by George Ajjan

Israel's summer invasion of its northern neighbor once again put the Middle East front and center for Americans, especially since more than 25,000 US citizens were stuck in Lebanon during the bombardment. The media's coverage therefore exhibited, in many cases, a local flavor telling the story of area residents anxiously awaiting the safe return of family members evacuated by the US military. Because so many Americans had friends and neighbors stuck under siege, and because the newspapers and local TV reports were filled with such personal anecdotes, Americans viewed Lebanon's tragedy with sympathetic eyes. (continued...)

But the positive aspects end there. Unfortunately, like the already in-depth treatment of the Iraq War, the mainstream media's coverage of the Summer War continued to exhibit the latest trend for reporters and pundits commenting on the Middle East, namely a very shallow sectarian one, in which decision makers and their subjects are evaluated first and foremost on the basis of religious sect. This approach has severe flaws. Aside from being misleading, the sectarian view ultimately contains a dehumanizing component with disturbing overtones. Examples of this sectarian style abound in routine press coverage. For instance, writers on the Middle East frequently collect anecdotal evidence to support their amateur assessments of public opinion, and identify their sources by sect. Articles often contain quotations that begin; "My taxi driver, Ali, a Shiite, remarked..." or "A Sunni shopkeeper named Omar said that..."

While this is disgusting and irresponsible on its own, there additionally seems to be no shortage of political commentators who analyze regional dynamics with incomplete and factually unsustainable sectarian theories. As one very prominent example, those looking for a simple solution to the ongoing civil war in Iraq often assert with confidence that "Iraq should be split into three independent countries, because it really consists of three separate nations for three separate peoples: the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds." Of course one cannot ignore the diversity of Iraq in terms of the ethnicity and religion of its inhabitants. But oversimplifying the historic conflicts that may exist below the surface and essentially ignoring the Arab character of Iraq is a thoroughly invalid approach.

Azmi Bishara, the Arab deputy in the Israeli parliament, remarked upon this fallacy, when he addressed the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's annual convention in 2004. He discussed the design of a new Iraqi flag that had been proposed after the US invasion, which dispensed with the traditional Arab colors of red, white, green, and black, and consisted instead of two blue stripes (symbolizing the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), and a crescent moon (symbolizing Islam), which was tinted yellow (a Kurdish color). Bishara rightfully blasted the design and its backers, saying that they had a phony view that did not account for Arabism, but saw Iraq as containing merely "2 rivers, religion, and Kurds."

Unfortunately, Bishara's view, however accurate and wise, is unpalatable to many decision makers, who may be equally unwilling to delve deeper and comprehend the complex forces driving Middle Eastern politics. Thus, they will often choose to rely upon the shallow conclusions suggested by cocktail party sectarian sound bytes. Perhaps the journalists concocting these superficial analyses fancy their familiarity with regional demographic statistics and sectarian vocabulary. Or perhaps, in their academic lethargy, they find it easier to explain Middle Eastern politics by placing people in neat little sectarian boxes, as one-dimensional groups who compete with each other like teams in a death sport. The trouble is, when the mainstream media conditions its audience, as it has especially for the past several years, to view the Middle East in such terms, observers become less likely to assess the people involved (be they leaders or followers), as complex human beings. Instead, they tend to see the Middle East as a region full of mindless sectarian robots, incapable of iterative thought processes or decision-making based upon individual principles, personal agendas, or secular values. In other words, "Ali the taxi driver" only acts in "Shiite" interests, whatever the media's reporters and editors might assess those to be. He only takes decisions as a function of his religious sect by birth, not because he is a citizen of his country, an inhabitant of his town, a speaker of his language, a practitioner of his profession, or a father of his children.

One possibility is that the unsophisticated sectarian coverage dominating the media reflects the American public's desire for closure. Despite decades of considerable diplomatic, political, and military investment in the Middle East, the United States has not resolved the conflicts and its citizens are constantly bombarded with images of war in the region. So perhaps as long as spectators can convince themselves that "there will never be peace over there," having been conditioned to believe that people's sectarian identities program them to kill one another no matter what outside influence exerts itself, they can sleep easy as night.

That is the disturbing part. Beyond aspiring merely to onlookers' peace of mind, policies might ultimately be more effective if constituents were challenged, by the media that shapes their views, to develop a better understanding of the opportunities for peace in a region that will continue to impact the world at large.

George Ajjan, a Republican activist of Syrian origin, is a member of the Arab American Institute's National Policy Council.

O --- This article first appeared in the English-language Syrian magazine "FW:" in the February, 2007 issue.