Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Media give Western extremism a free pass

The other night I was sitting at home minding my own business when I came across Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Iraq” program online. There for the world to see was an American describing Arabs as “barbarians” and Islam a “crazy ideology”. President Bush, he said, courageously “planted some flowers” of democracy in the Middle East when U.S. troops invaded Iraq.

I quickly looked at the time stamp on the program thinking I found something from the 2004 archives of Al Jazeera. No. Jack Burkman, a Republican strategist who does spin control for disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and toes the Republican Party line on foreign policy, was speaking in the here and now. Burkman told his disbelieving host and fellow guests -- British journalist Robert Fisk and Iraqi analyst Anas Altikriti -- that the Middle East needs to be cleaned up of dictators. He also said that oil, not weapons of mass destruction, was the true motive behind the invasion. Nobody in the U.S. government, he said, cares about Egypt or Syria because those countries have nothing to offer.

Okay, so Burkman articulates what Arabs have known all along. But the curious thing about this second-string Beltway insider is that Al Jazeera would put this guy on the air in the first place. Al Jazeera has fallen into the same trap as the American media by booking individuals with extreme viewpoints, taking off the gloves and allowing the blood to spill.

The unintended consequence of booking people with questionable credentials and outrageous opinions to draw viewers is that Western extremism is legitimized. If on American television we took the polar opposite of a Muslim extremist's point of view, say, that car bombings are a legitimate form of warfare to repel foreign invaders from Muslim lands, a media firestorm would ensue and the hapless Islamic extremist would disappear into a black hole.

Mainstream book publishers with a long record of publishing thought-provoking analysis on world events in general and American foreign policy in particular now recognize that Western extremism can be profitable.

Simon & Schuster has published commendable biographies and autobiographies of Barack and Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Afgan women’s activist Malalai Joya and Clara Rojas, who was held captive for more than 2,000 days by Colombian terrorists. But the publisher now includes Muslim haters Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, American advocates of the extinction of Islam, in their roster of authors. Simon & Schuster apparently believes Geller and Spencer’s argument that Obama is waging war on his own country.

Spencer, in fact, purports to be an Islamic scholar although he has no formal education in the field. He enjoys U.S. government tax breaks as a non-profit organization dedicated to Islamic scholarship. Yet his website and public speeches are screeds against Islam much in the same vein as Burkman’s view that Islam is a “crazy ideology” anchored hopelessly anchored in the 6th century.

Spencer’s promotion of “Draw Muhammad (peace be upon him) Day” further solidifies Western extremism directed toward Muslims. “Draw Muhammad Day” was promoted on Facebook last month in reaction to Comedy Central deciding not to air a “South Park” cartoon parody of the prophet following a threat from a fringe Islamic website. Billed as championing free speech and standing up to the excesses of Islamic extremists, artists were invited to submit artwork of the prophet to Facebook.

Scores of entries were submitted with every single one depicting hateful images. Freedom of speech to the organizers and artists was simply an excuse to vent anti-Muslim sentiments. Not one image portrayed the prophet in a positive or neutral light, or even attempted to emulate the well-known 16th century Turkish Islamic artwork.

Muslim extremists and their unhinged followers should assume some responsibility for fostering the rise of Western extremism (although Muslim extremists don’t enjoy the same benefits of being published by Simon & Schuster et al). Westerners have learned a few lessons from Al Qaeda, which virtually pioneered the use of the Internet to further their cause through terrorism Spencer, for example, often adopts the language of Al Qaeda when advocating the elmination of Islam. Yet long before Al Qaeda came about, extremism was alive and well in the U.S. It’s woven into the fabric of American history.

The Ku Klux Klan, the original American terrorist organization, virtually legalized murder, kept racial segregation alive for decades and spawned neo-Nazism. Anti-Semite Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, had his radio show in the 1930s. Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined lives simply by hinting that individuals may be communists. Today, the Internet has created thousands of new Klansmen, Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthys. The difference, however, is they get book deals and are interviewed by Wolf Blitzer to spread their hate.

All of these folks have a voice and all have been legitimized by mainstream television news. And yes, that includes Al Jazeera.


sarah said...

I think your comments are spot on. Unfortunately this is not a new phenomenon and has been going on for years.

In the UK, prior to 9/11, if they wanted to have a 'spokesperson' for Islam they always picked the preachers with obscure views whom they knew would say something controversial. Post 9/11 they have stopped asking them to be spokes people but have reported on them as representatives of Islam.

I also notice how much bigotry and hatred there is towards Islam in newspapers, etc on the comments pages.

Apparently, freedom of speech means you can hurt the sentiments of anyone and do not have to respect their feelings. Rationa debate and rejection of views based on logical argument is all fine but deliberately attacking the sentiments of others in order to cause pain (as in the draw Muhammad day) shows injustice whomever it is directed towards.

I believe the British Common Law on freedom of speech states something along these lines.

Anonymous said...

it is precisely this type of rhectoric that allowed the U.S courts to grant custody of my husband's daughter to the Pastor of a Mennonite church after her mother recently died.They had joint custody but the courts took it away and now he has to fight for her and they haven't even given him a reason. The opinion of some off those involved in the case ius that he will NEVER get her because he teaches English in Saudi and Saudi oppresses women! This is in complete violation of his constitutional rights.

I blogged all about it if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

"To kill a mocking bird.", trial by prejudice.

Perhaps we should stop labeling and catagorizing people and start looking as people who take responcibility for their actions and word as individuals.

The opinion of Burkman is his opinion and in my view the opinion of an idiot. Yet, I would still like him to be entitled to have the right to proclaim his idiotism to the world. The problem arise when his opinion, becomes the opinion of "western extremeism". He does not speak for westerners and does not represent westeners in any way. Thus he should be labeled as such. An Idiot.....

Nietsche said:"He who fights with monsters, must be woefull that he himself doesn't become a monster..."

Anonymous said...

Hi Sabria, thanks for taking the time to write your blog. Towards the end of this post you brought up some examples of hate in America that unfortunately are true. You also spoke of the American publishing industry. Below is a link that goes into depth about some of the things that are published in Saudi Arabia. I would love to hear your opinion on this.

Thanks again for writing your interesting blog,


Sabria Jawhar said...

Charles, here is my response:

My regular readers are well aware that I condemn extremism, whether it comes from the West or from Islam. The column that you are commenting on also mentions my disgust with Islamic extremists.

As for the report that you have linked:

I would take a report on Saudi hate literature more seriously if the research was conducted by an academic or scholarly institution and not the Freedom House, a neo-conservative organization with a lengthy record of attacks on Saudi Arabia and Islam and which has no record of objective third-party research.

The methodology of the report is suspect since Freedom House acknowledges that 90 percent of the books it obtained were not written in English, but in Arabic. Although Freedom House states that these books have been examined by two independent translators, it does not state who examined them or whether the examiners are qualified to translate the books from Arabic into English. It also appears that none of the examiners are schooled in Islam because it would have been stated in the methodology.

Most of the sources cited in the report are non-Arab/non-Saudi/non-Muslim publications. In fact, many sources cited in the report are from conservative publications with a lengthy anti-Saudi history, such as The Weekly Standard and MEMRI.

All references to Wahhabism are sourced from the West, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. My position is, and has always been, that Wahhabism is an invention of the West. There are no Saudi, academic, or Islamic scholarly citations of Wahhabism exported from Saudi Arabia to the West.

It’s also curious that virtually all of the books retrieved from the mosques were written in the 1990s with many published in the 1980s. So Freedom House is relying on 20-year-old texts for its report. Of the thousands of mosques in North America, 57 books were retrieved from 15 mosques.

I’m not an expert on survey sampling, but I wonder if this is truly an adequate representation of Saudi exportation of hate literature.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that such literature doesn’t exist, but you asked what my comments are on this report. My evaluation is that it is not objective, nor sourced using recognized scholarly methodology. It has no credibility. You also will notice the report is generally cited by conservative Western media, but no academic institutions or institutions that conduct objective religious scholarship.


Anonymous said...

Hi Sabria,

Thanks for responding! According to my fifteen minutes of research (which I should have completed before I wrote you..sorry) I would have to agree with your analysis of the Freedom House article. This article pretty much confirms what you said: My fifteen minutes also led me to other articles which of course stated that Saudi Arabia was exporting anti-anyone but Muslim ideology. It really makes a person wonder what is the truth. I really do appreciate your taking the time to educate me on this issue. Your assertion that Wahhabism is a creation of the west also piques my curiosity. Thanks again for writing this blog and for responding, Charles

Chiara said...

Sabria--Thanks for a very informative rundown of the biases of Freedom House and the Western creation of "wahhabism".