Even before al-Qaeda was a household name, reporters were calling Edward Said to pin the Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims. The reporters assumed it was an Islamic terrorist attack and were ready to write about the "dangers" of Islam. "The media had assaulted me, in short, and Islam," wrote Said.
According to Said, a famous Palestinian writer, activist, and scholar, Islam is characterized in the media as a highly exaggerated and belligerent hostility. He criticizes so-called experts on Islam that routinely appear on talk shows and give newspaper interviews as fanatics that don't truly understand the Islamic world.
Said characterizes Islam as "the last acceptable form of denigration of foreign culture in the West." He believes the media unfairly targets Muslims as a source of the world's problems.
He concedes the reasons for this perception: Terror attacks in Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, Palestine, and others have made an impression on the West. People are afraid and associated Islamic fundamentalism as the religion's only form. The Palestinian Hamas are one of the most extreme groups, but it is also the most reported on, further skewing the West's view of Islam. This book was written before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
In March 1996, many of the world's leaders, including Bill Clinton, gathered in Egypt to discuss terrorism. The conclusion, as Said saw it, was that Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran were to blame. Even today, Iran has been accused of funding terrorist groups in Iraq - to which there is little evidence.
It is this intense pressure from the media to unfairly criticize Islam that, according to Said, has postponed the chance for dialog between East and West.
It is fundamentalism, on both sides, that Said fears most. "Fundamentalism equals Islam equals everything-we-must-now-fight-against, as we did with communism during the Cold War," he wrote. He uses a New York Times article, "The Red Menace is Gone. But Here's Islam", to illustrate his point. The West now views this peaceful religion as a threat, and that is bad news for everybody.
Said doesn’t just point out problems in the media, but provides an analysis of common Western attitudes towards Islam. “The Islamic world by its very adjacency evoked memories of its encroachments on Europe,” said Said about a long held fear of the Muslim world throughout out Europe’s most powerful countries. He even points a finger at the Western entertainment industry by criticizing Western movies that “exaggerate and inflate” Muslim extremism. He criticizes scholars and intellectuals for ignoring Palestine and writing anything that might be useful for the Middle East.
He believes the focal point of this Western fear is Iran. “Iran…and along with it Islam, has come to represent America’s major foreign devil,” wrote Said. Ayatollah Khomeini’s photo was constantly used whenever a newspaper wrote a story about extremism, foreign oil, or, in-general, anti-American sentiment.
A New York Post reporter, George Carpozi jr., once wrote, “Like Adolph Hitler in another time, Ayatollah Khomeini is a tyrant, a hater, a baiter, a threat to world order and peace. The principal difference between the author of Mein Kampf and the compiler of the vapid Islamic Government is that one was an atheist while the other pretends to be a man of God.” It is hard to imagine the article published about Khomeini that led to the killings in Qom being much worse.
It is this fear and bias in the media that has led journalists to equate the Oklahoma bombing and almost any plane jacking as Islamic as a knee-jerk reaction. “What is it about Islam that provokes so quick and unrestrained a response?” wrote Said.
In addition, he spends a great deal of time criticizing journalists and professors, like Bernard Lewis (Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs) and Judith Miller (The New York Times).
Said has expertise in Middle Eastern and Islamic governments, but he lacks a fundamental understanding of the media he criticizes. He mercilessly attacks Miller for pages because of a book she wrote called “God Has Ninety-Nine Names: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Militant Middle East”, which he calls “five hundred pages too long for what it ends up saying.”
It is true the “disgraced former journalist”(as my Professor Bill Serrin likes to call her) makes broad generalizations of the countries she visits without any interviews from the population, and does a really horrible job reporting what is actually happening, but Said does the same thing throughout the book. Here is one example:
“I would say most Arab Muslims today are too discouraged and humiliated, and also too anesthetized by uncertainty and their incompetent and crude dictatorships, to support anything like a vast Islamic campaign against the West.”
This is, most likely, completely true but Said gives no facts, no interviews, and no examples to back his claim up.
Another example from him, this one from the Iran Hostage crises, does more of the same:
“Thus, when Iranians seized the United States Embassy in Tehran they were responding, not just to the former shah’s entry into the United States, but to what they perceived as a long history of humiliation inflicted on them by superior American power.”
Once again, he fails to back up this statement. There are no interviews with the students that led the Hostage Crisis. There are no other experts quoted other than him. The best he gives the reader is the alleged meeting of a French lawyer who told Carter why Iranians hate Americans. Still, even he says he doesn’t know if the conversation actually took place.
Said is an academic, who only relies on other academics to edit his work, fails to beat journalists at their own game. He makes a very valid, and strong argument, against the medias villinization of Islam for the average reader. But, for an actual member of the media, it sometimes comes off as a ranting professor.
Further examples of his lack of understanding of real journalism are in his editorializing. People that, albeit unfairly, misrepresent Muslims are called “anti-human.” But, people Said likes are editorialized to seem like heroes. An example is listed below:
“As the perceptive scholar As’ad Abu Khalil notes…”
When Said actually stops criticizing sizing the media, and provides many of his own analyses, he really shines. His impression of the hatred directed towards Iran was like nothing I had ever heard, or thought, and left me with a strong impression. He says the Iranian revolution was proof that Muslim societies could not fall into traditional categories:
“The Iranian Revolution [was] neither procommunist nor promodernization, the people who overthrew the shah were simply not explainable according to the canons of behavior presupposed by modernization theory.”
Said not only describes the Iranians’ hatred of Americans, but the Americans’ hatred of them. Said says the “deeply insulting and unlawful seizure of the Teheran embassy” was what drove many Americans to hate Iran. He estimates that 90 percent (a journalist would wonder how he came to that exact number) of what Americans know about Iran has come through radio, television, and newspapers.
The students in the embassy knew the power of the media, but also failed to see the way they would be perceived by the American public. They frequently would schedule “events” to meet satellite deadlines and nightly news broadcasts in the United States.
The frantically written articles by American newspapers about the Hostage Crisis during the rush to meet deadline were inaccurate, and at times, comical. They followed a similar formula: Prove Islam was an unchanging thing that could be grasped across all history, cultures, geography, and culture. “It did not seem to matter that the normal rules had been suspended,” Said wrote.
The initial understanding to the Crisis was horribly inaccurate:
• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 8 said the Palestine Liberation Organization was behind the embassy takeover.
• The Washington Post on Dec. 9 said, “There is some basis to believe that the whole operation is being orchestrated by well-trained Marxists.”
• CBS Nightly News on Dec. 12 said “diplomatic and intelligence sources” had affirmed that the PLO, Islamic fundamentalists, and the Soviet Union had worked together to take the embassy.
Said takes pains to list the horrible pronunciations by journalists, like Walter Cronkite, of many Iranian names. I will hopefully avoid pronunciations because I want to only be a print journalist, but for my own well being, will work hard to learn the correct way to say them.
Said is incorrect in one aspect of The New York Times. He wrote the Times was influenced by “its Catholicity.” After reading the extremely long biography of the Times, “The Kingdom and the Power”, I can say with confidence the majority of writers and editors were Jewish. Besides that, he is correct in pointing out their failings. The highest paper in the U.S. routinely portrayed Khomeini as a fanatic and routinely offended Muslim people. Compared to other papers, they were much better, trying to actually interview Muslims and Iranians.
The Chicago Tribune wrote this on Nov. 25:
“People who consider dying to be an honor are, by definition, fanatics.”
I wish an editor at the Tribune had said, “So you are saying that Husayn, one of the holist figures in Islam, is a fanatic?”
I believe the way mainstream media has portrayed Islam is wrong. They tend to lump Muslims and terrorists together, lack a historical knowledge of the area they are covering, and are too quick to blame all forms of terrorism on Muslims. I hoped this book would give me a clearer picture of that, and in the specific examples Said uses from Iran, it actually tended to do that. But, for the most part, Said’s lack of understanding of the industry he criticizes makes the book a hard one to finish.
As a working journalist, I will think twice before what I write about any Muslim or Arab country. Said has only reinforced my mission, but I would only recommend this book to people who feel Islam has been fairly written on. If you already are aware of the media’s bias in Middle Eastern reporting than leave the book on the shelf. It won’t tell you anything you don’t already know.
For the average reader, I would suggest skipping the two introductions and the final chapter, “Knowledge and Power.” The two introductions, which are more than 50 pages, are Said going on a rant about why certain newspapers and journalists are wrong. It might be good to read the first few pages, but after that, he tends to constantly repeat himself and loose track of his point. The “Knowledge and Power” chapter is too abstract; It is about why humans interpret certain events the way they do and how experiences of writers shape their understanding.
The first chapter, “Islam as News”, and the second, “The Iran Story”, are where Said really shines. His brilliant analysis of Islam, the Middle East, and Iran are what made him such a celebrated academic.