American Media Bias
in the United States when an Egyptian national popular uprising forced Hosni
Mubarak to quit his presidency, and I was in the United States again when
Mohammed Morsi was elected as the new Egyptian president. Now, as then,
Americans remain unsure about how to react to the popular revolutions that have
felled their long-time autocratic Arab allies, who in most cases were replaced
by more legitimate, Islamist-led governments.
same time though, Americans—who helped define the modern revolutionary and
democratic era in the twentieth century—instinctively tend to support national
populist revolutions that create government systems based on the consent of the
governed and democratic electoral pluralism. When it is Arabs who carry out
these revolutionary and democratic endeavors, however, American society reacts
with obvious hesitancy alongside the flashes of enthusiasm. It is important for
Americans and Arabs alike to understand this phenomenon, because it reflects
much deeper perceptions, sentiments, and biases that will continue to haunt
relations between Arabs and Americans and prevent them from ever fully
embracing one another—or even from developing normal relations.
sense is that two main underlying problems are to blame: the intrusion of the
Arab-Israeli conflict and Washington’s deep pro-Israel bias into American-Arab
relations, and the lingering consequences of several unpleasant encounters
between the United States and various Arab, Iranian, or South Asian parties
that defined themselves in Islamist terms (Iran, Hizbollah, Al-Qaeda, and
was evident when I read through some ‘quality’ American press coverage of the
Mohammed Morsi election victory (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle). One
story in the Wall Street Journal’s coverage on June 25, 2012, was a textbook case of the bias and
confusion that regularly recur in American reactions to the current
transformational events in the Arab world. And one sentence in particular
captured this phenomenon succinctly: a front page story on the Morsi victory
noted that “Many secular Egyptians watched uneasily, wondering what Islamist
rule will mean for a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate,
and pro-American governance.”
things are wrong with this sentence and the perceptions that underpin it.
a “secular Egyptian”? These phrases are used too easily to have much meaning,
because they do not capture the reality that most Egyptians (according to
recent polls) are very religious and want their public life and governance to
reflect the best of their religious values. But they do not want religious figures to run the government.
The Arab Middle East is defined by populations who respect religious values but
also want secular governments run by competent managers, who are themselves
simultaneously secular and religious.
the world is “Islamist rule”? This is another term that American and other
media throw around without either defining it clearly or validating it within
the political realities of the countries they are talking about. Morsi and his
colleagues have explained how they will run the presidency as an institution
that reflects all Egyptians. They do not speak of ‘Islamic rule,’ and nor do
many decades as “a country that has long been a bulwark of secular, moderate,
and pro-American governance,” more or less explain why the anti-Mubarak
revolution took place. The American media and political culture regularly use
such facile and even hollow phrases to describe Egypt and other ‘moderate’ Arab
countries that are soft on Israel and carry out American directives and
preferences in the region, especially in the security and economic arenas.
Moderate? Egypt has been deeply immoderate and extremist in running a security
state that so badly demeaned and disfigured its own people for over half a
century that they finally rose up in revolt.
same article also quotes American, Israeli, and Arab officials as being
concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood victory could be “a complication to
efforts at Arab-Israeli peace talks.” If any Wall Street Journal correspondents
or editors believe there are serious Arab-Israeli peace efforts underway, they
are professionally obligated either to document and verify that fact (which
they cannot do because there are no such serious efforts) or come clean and
stop living in the world of childish, hallucinatory, and propagandistic
illusions that have come to define Middle East policy in Washington and Israel.
few examples are from just one news story, plucked from a vast American media
and political universe. This widespread tendency in the United States to view
the Arab world through such a distorted lens makes doubt, hesitancy, mistrust,
and skepticism the most common reactions to our political transformations.
The Arab world is changing in dramatic ways. And it
is time that Americans—and others who deal with the Arabs—also change
commensurately, if accuracy and honesty are in fact part of their own world.
Rami G. Khouri is
Editor-at-large of The Daily Star,
and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International
Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.