Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Middle East: Reporting an Enigma

By Alan Caruba
When President Obama delivers a speech on why he is going to send more thousands of U.S. troops and spend more billions on the eight-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, it would be a good idea to better understand why so much of what is reported from the Middle East suffers a great disconnect from the truth.

In 1998, Joris Luyendijk , a Dutch student who had studied Arabic at Cairo University for a year, was offered a job as a Middle East correspondent for a Dutch news agency despite having no experience as a reporter. What followed was his real education about the Middle East and the way it is presented to the West by the news media.

His book about that experience, “People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East” was initially published in the Netherlands in 2006 and has since then it has been translated and published in Hungary, Italy, Denmark and Germany. In October an English edition was published by Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint, a Berkeley, California publisher.

Having begun my career as a journalist, I was interested to learn what Luyendijk had taken from his years hopping around the Middle East before and after 9/11 and during the two Iraq wars waged by the U.S. to resolve a problem called Saddam Hussein.

For anyone digesting the news from his morning newspaper or watching it on television, suspecting that it might be biased or wrong, this book that focuses on reporting from the Middle East is a revelation because Luyendijk strives mightily to expose the way the news is manipulated by all the parties involved.

Covering his experiences from 1998 to 2003, the author is refreshingly candid, admitting that, despite his student year in Cairo, he had little or no real understanding of Egypt or the rest of the Middle East.

There is, however, one thing that anyone can understand. The Middle East is composed of dictatorships and the sole purpose of each one is to survive. To do that, their people must be constantly indoctrinated and fearful. That is made possible by rendering them, individually and as a group, powerless. There simply is no such thing as justice or the opportunity to express an opinion in opposition to the leader.

Significantly, those living in the Middle East cannot make an informed judgment of what is occurring around them because they operate two points of view that are very real to them. First is a widely accepted sense of victimhood, and, second, they believe that Israel, ultimately, is manipulating the entire world!

Conversely, Americans who have no contact with the Middle East beyond the headlines and snapshots of bloodshed and warfare are comparably unable to make informed judgments about a people who differ among themselves in many ways.

The Middle East is very different from the West and Luyendijk believes that few in the West are even vaguely aware that those who live there live in a parallel universe; one that functions by the rules of ruthless dictatorships, by tribes, and by a religion that is hostile to all others.

Democracy is not likely to take root in the Middle East and this can be traced to the prevailing religion of the region, Islam. The only reason democracy occurred in Turkey is because the founder of the modern state, Ataturk, isolated Islam from the conduct of governance and that has been backed up by an army that has, thus far, ensured the separation.

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