Who you calling "Arab"?

Media criticism.
Feb. 17 2004 5:06 PM

Who You Calling "Arab"?

Considering today's New York Times story about Arabs. I mean, Muslims. No, brownish people from the Middle East. Or possibly South Asia.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The headline on today's Page One, above-the-fold New York Times story, "Arabs in U.S. Raising Money To Back Bush," sets the table for a promising meal. You assume that reporter Leslie Wayne is about to serve a dish about how the war in Iraq and aggressive Republican Party outreach have paid dividends to Bush campaign coffers in the form of Arab-American donations.

But the uncoiling lede sells a more expansive story than the hed: It's not just "wealthy Arab-Americans" but also "foreign-born Muslims" who are raising big chunks of money for the president.

In today's sensitive times, even schoolchildren know that the terms Arab and Muslim aren't interchangeable. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. So the generous reader reads on, thinking that maybe the headline writer made an innocent goof and the hed should have read "Muslims in U.S. Raising Money To Back Bush."

But no. The next two paragraphs of the story—the "billboard" promising what is to follow—are all about Arab-Americans and their support of Bush; their opposition to Bush; their criticisms of Bush; and their eagerness to buy seats at the political table by making campaign donations and thereby winning invitations to the Texas White House. OK, the reader assures himself, the story is really about Arab-Americans, and the single Muslim reference in the lede was a bit of a mistake.

But then the fourth paragraph rekindles the confusion! It introduces Mori Hosseini, an Iranian-born businessman who loves Bush so much he raised $200,000 for him. Though a small number of Iranians are Arab, the majority are Persian. And not all Iranians are Muslims! It's not surprising that an Iranian-American—presumably a refugee from a theocratic state—might love the sword-rattling Bush. The article doesn't say Hosseini is a Muslim, but being charitable readers, let's assume so. That returns us to our starting point—the story really should be titled "Muslims in U.S. Raising Money To Back Bush."

Not so quickly. Paragraphs seven and eight do that mix-and-match thing again, with Hosseini's "enthusiasm" standing as a counterexample to the drop in Bush's popularity among Arab-Americans. Even if Hosseini is Iranian-Arab-American, he's such an ethnic outlier that his enthusiasm can't be read as an important data point in a discussion of Bush's popularity among Arab-Americans. His story matters only if this piece is about Muslims and Bush. But paragraph eight is all about Arab-Americans' No. 1 issue, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Muslims? Arab-Americans? Muslims? Arab-Americans?

Paragraph 12 attempts to rein in the confusion, noting that "Arab-Americans are not a monolithic group." Yes, that's something we can all agree on. But then Wayne goes wild, writing, "The term [Arab] is used generally to refer to people from Arab countries, but they may have diverse religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, like Lebanese and other Arab Christians or Muslims from Egypt and Pakistan."

Pakistan? Since when are Pakistanis Arabs, either in specific or general? Having added Pakistanis to the Arab mix, Wayne complicates this soup by introducing Arab Christians—who could be Arab-Americans but obviously not Muslims. And so the yo-yo go-gos: We meet another Iranian donor, then an Arab-American Institute leader, George Salem (religion not noted), then a Lebanese Christian, and then a first-generation Palestinian-American (religion not noted, either), and then we're introduced to a Pakistani who is very much a Muslim.

In the Venn diagram traced by the story, Wayne never overtly introduces the reader to a single Arab-American Muslim who has given to Bush. The story ends at the 1,300-word mark, for which we should be grateful. Had it run any longer, I'm sure that Wayne would have classified a black Nigerian Muslim Bush donor living in Terre Haute, Ind., as an Arab-American.

Addendum, Wednesday, Feb. 18: Without offering any explanation of what its story was truly about—Arab-Americans, Muslims, Arab-Christians, Iranians, Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, or South Asians—the New York Times published a correction this morning to its "Arabs in U.S. Raising Money To Back Bush" piece. The correction reads:

A headline yesterday on a front-page article about fund-raising for President Bush's re-election referred imprecisely to donors described in the article. Not all are Arab-Americans; they include Pakistani and Iranian-born donors.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.