Why is the U.S. press so gullible?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 1 2004 5:10 PM

Question Authority

The Quran mentions beheading. Why does the U.S. press claim otherwise?

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Orientalism affected the way both journalists and academics wrote about the Muslim world as it—correctly—made them more aware of the uses their work might be put to. However, another lesson, one Said probably did not intend, was lost on many Western writers. Since Islamists have typically understood Western writers and researchers to be in league with the enemy, it is logical to assume that Islamists will generally not cooperate with them unless it is to their own advantage. In fact, Islamists and others will often use Western journalists and academics to carry their message.

For example, a group of American journalists has just returned from a trip to Syria and Lebanon, where they met with Syria's president, Bashar Assad, and the one-time spiritual guide of Hezbollah, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah. What are these Americans reporting from their travels? That Arabs like Americans but not U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Is this true? Well, it is surely in the interests of an Arab dictator and a Muslim cleric who wrote fatwas permitting suicide bombings against Israeli civilians to say it is true. If U.S. journalists are going to serve as dragomans for various sponsors and theorists of terrorism to the American public, at least they could push their interview subjects a little harder.

And then there's the case of Montasser al-Zayat, a source who has been tapped by virtually every Western journalist who has gone through Cairo in the last decade. He is a lawyer who specializes in defending Islamists, mostly members of al-Gama'a al-Islameya, and he serves as unofficial spokesman for the group. He's a genial fellow, or, as one Egyptian reporter described him, everyone's favorite Islamist. When I met him, he told me, as he has told many others, that the Egyptian government made the Islamist groups violent. Of course, that's not true. At the very beginning, the groups formed military wings to carry out assassinations and other terrorist operations, but Zayat has told his story to so many Western journalists, who have reported it in books, magazines, and newspapers, that it is perhaps fair to credit him as the man responsible for spreading the idea that the Egyptian government made the Islamists violent.

One common complaint about Americans, including our press, is that we know very little about the Middle East. That may be true, but as complex as the subject is, knowledge of the Middle East is hardly gnostic wisdom available only to a few initiates. Thanks largely to the efforts of the oft-despised Orientalists, much of the history and literature of those cultures is accessible to anyone who is interested (a service, as this Muslim scholar explains, rendered to both the West and Islam). Much of it is even on the Internet. Certainly the press, when reporting on the Middle East and Islam, should question its sources at least as rigorously as it interrogates athletes suspected of steroid use, be more inclined to doubt than belief, and report fact rather than serve agendas. That is to say, whether or not beheading actually appears in the Quran is a matter of verifiable fact and not subject to the opinion of imams and professors who are apparently interested in advancing a message.

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If Americans have to start sorting through their news in the way that consumers of Arab media must, wondering which piece of information serves whose interests, we are inviting what would be a very ugly result of our current engagements in the Middle East: the Al-Jazeera-fication of the U.S. press.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.