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?

Following the recent beheadings of Americans and other foreigners in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. press turned to various experts to identify a precedent in the Quran or Islamic history for this kind of gory murder. "Beheadings are not mentioned in the Koran at all," Imam Muhammad Adam El-Sheikh, co-founder and chief cleric at the Dar Al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., toldUSA Today. Yvonne Haddad, a professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University agreed, tellingNew York Newsday,"There is absolutely nothing in Islam that justifies cutting off a person's head."

If reporters bothered to open up a copy of the Quran, say, N.J. Dawood's Penguin Classics translation, they'd find at least two relevant passages:

God revealed His will to the angels, saying: "I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers." (Sura 8, Verse 12)

"When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads." (Sura 47, Verse 4)

For anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who wants to put some distance between contemporary jihadist practice and the beliefs of ordinary Muslims, there are a range of arguments that might attenuate the force of these passages. For instance, it could be argued that these excerpts need to be put into context; they don't literally mean what they seem to say; or that they're the product of a particular historical moment, now passed. What's more, some might say that beheading is not really Islamic at all but is in fact an unfortunate holdover from pre-Islamic times, when the warring tribes on the Arabian peninsula decapitated their rivals and left them unburied in the field for predators to devour.

Some commentators claim that centuries ago beheading was simply the easiest way to kill people. That's not quite accurate. Even the old Arabs knew it was a spectacularly vicious way to send people to their deaths, so savage that sometimes the executioner would pay the consequences for his murderous zeal. In fact, there's a famous story in pre-Islamic literature about a decapitated head having its revenge. Shanfara was a great warrior who boasted that he would slay 100 of his enemies. After he had killed 99, he was struck down in battle, decapitated, and his head tossed away. When one of Shanfara's enemies passed by and kicked his skull, the man injured himself and eventually died from the wound. So, even in death, Shanfara had his hundred.

Now, instead of many warring Arab tribes, there are just the infidels and the Muslim faithful, and it seems that there aren't many of the latter willing to break ranks by admitting that beheading is in the Quran. As I noted earlier, there are a number of arguments that might contextualize decapitation and distinguish it from the mainstream beliefs of contemporary Islam, but it is simply wrong to say that the Quran does not mention beheadings or that there is absolutely nothing in Islam that justifies decapitation. Islamic history is giddy with heads separated from their bodies, a tradition detailed in news outlets that are generally considered right-wing and on conservative Web sites, but apparently whitewashed in the mainstream press.

Why? It can't be that decapitation is too unbearably horrifying, since the image—from the head of John the Baptist to the grisly end of Gwyneth Paltrow's character in the movie Seven—is familiar enough in Western culture. No, the press' sensitivity seems to be triggered by the combination of Islam and beheading. Why? Do newspaper editors and TV producers worry that their audiences could turn into genocidal mobs ready to murder their American Muslim neighbors if they knew that Allah encourages beheading in the Quran?

If the press recognizes that most Muslims don't want to behead infidels, then infidels should be given the benefit of the doubt as well. Of course we won't kill our Muslim friends and neighbors, but we really wish the Muslims who are lending their expertise to our infidel press would tell the truth. Otherwise, this conversation between cultures isn't going to work. We are surely destined for a very violent clash of civilizations if one dialogue partner will lie about something that is written down for anyone—even American journalists if they make the effort—to read.

As Bernard Lewis describes in an essay from his new collection From Babel to Dragomans, there is a long history of the West receiving bad information about the Muslim world. Once European nations started establishing embassies in Istanbul in the 17th century, they needed people to translate to and from Turkish. In time, both the Europeans and the Ottomans found that their intermediaries, or dragomans (a derivation of an Assyrian word meaning "to translate"), were not serving their employers very well. Since the dragomans were marginal figures in Ottoman society, they were either "too scared of the Turkish authorities to deliver any unpalatable message honestly," or they were too busy looking out only for themselves. "Most of the European powers decided," Lewis writes, "that they could no longer rely on [the dragomans], and that the only real answer was to train people of their own."

In time, Europe produced talented students of Oriental languages and cultures, some of whom worked for European governments while others devoted their skills to scholarly research. While there is obviously a difference between the two enterprises—though some Westerners like T.E. Lawrence pursued both—it became a standard Islamist belief that research of any sort went hand in hand with injurious colonial policy. By exposing Islamic texts and cultures to the Western gaze, Orientalist scholars had assisted the imperial powers in subjugating the Muslim world. The late Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism was essentially a restatement of this idea, which had been circulating in the Muslim world for over a century, for Western audiences.

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.

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.