Finding Ways to Bridge the Abyss of Misunderstanding
‘… to travel in ignorance when insight and understanding are possible is to drive a wedge between Islam and the West.’
I am perplexed by much Western writing about Arabs and the Islamic world, whether by 18th and 19th century Orientalists or by modern "experts" and pundits. Include coverage by journalists today, in print or on the air, and my puzzlement only increases. There have been, of course, cogent, careful chroniclers in all four centuries—offering observations and commentary as nonjudgmental outsiders as they record and recount the routines and perspectives, the customs and traditions of the Muslim world. For the most part, interest of this sort was scholarly, and the readers were scholars, too. Each usually brought a high level of knowledge, informed insight, and understanding to their writing even if, as an Arab who practices Islam, I might not always like what was written about me or my fellow Muslims.
Turn from the scholarly to "popular" writing on these topics and words inevitably start to bulge with the offensive language of stereotypes and generalizations, half-truths and inaccuracies. Most egregious are what appear often to be the media's calculated misuse of words, resulting in a distorted and inaccurate picture of a culture, a religion, and its people. When such misuse happens regularly, over a sustained period of time and by a wide variety of media organizations, reality gradually becomes subsumed by a new layer of misinformed belief—and this belief can be difficult to shake.
There was a time when I thought this was only a sin of omission, but regretfully I've come to believe that many who write on these subjects set out to create mischief and end up spreading distrust and suspicion. Disinformation and misinformation abound in what gets said in the press about those who practice Islam. This is less so, it seems to me, when Jewish or Christian subjects are discussed, since efforts are made not to offend adherents of these two great monotheistic religions. But when the subject is Islam, the tone of coverage can be mocking, an attempt, it can seem, to divest the third great monotheistic religion of the heritage it shares with Judaism and Christianity. Given that many readers are unaware of this shared heritage—and don't know what is common among the three religions—too many accept what is reported as being an accurate portrayal. Acceptance translates all too easily into bias and prejudice, in thought and sometimes deed.
Let me share a small—but relevant—example of why words matter from a story I read in a major American newspaper. In coverage of an embassy party, these words appeared: "The Indian ambassador's wife wore a green sari. The Colombian ambassador regaled the room with his diplomatic adventures, while the PLO representative was lurking around the corner." Lurking? The word carries connotations of something unsavory, illegal or even criminal. It's possible the PLO representative had heard the ambassador's tales before and was uninterested in hearing them again. The reader doesn't know why he wasn't a part of the regaled throng, but would the same word, "lurking," used without a modifying phrase or clause, have been used to describe the location of another diplomat?
Words as "savagery," "brutality" and "merciless" are regularly used when discussing Islamic tenets or teachings, and the religion is regularly portrayed as "violent." There are violent Muslims, as well as savage, brutal and merciless ones, but similar claims can be offered about members of other groups and religions. Identify the individual, and offer evidence for the adjective chosen as a description, but to label an entire group based on the actions of a few is faulty logic and erroneous reasoning. To perpetuate this use of language and to travel in ignorance when insight and understanding are possible is to drive a wedge between Islam and the West.
Arabs, despite their economic clout, have not done well in their efforts to counter such misinformation and untruths. Where is the Arab answer to The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was founded by Israelis in 1998 to monitor news coverage published in Arabic, Persian and Turkish? Every day, MEMRI translates articles into English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish and Japanese, and provides "original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural and religious trends in the Middle East."
MEMRI has virtually no competition in the Arab world. How many Saudis, I wonder, are fluent in Hebrew or any of these other languages, so they can know what is being written and said about issues that affect the region of the world in which they live? How many Arabs are paid to read foreign language newspapers and asked to translate them for an Arab readership? How many Arab governments want foreign language articles translated for their citizens?
After 9/11, voices hostile to Arabs and Muslims—many of them carried in news accounts—became deafening. And truth became an early casualty as experts (real and imagined) pontificated at length about the attack on America. Less widely heard from—and often not listened to—were specialists in Arabic and Middle Eastern at universities. Actual knowledge they could provide was less appealing than stereotypes and generalizations that struck a chord in a time of anger and grief. Through the build-up to two wars—one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq—the demonizing of Arabs and Islam escalated, as can happen when the need for an identifiable enemy is great. But nearly six years later, ignorance is still being allowed to galvanize the ill-informed Americans, escalating the animosity for Arabs and Muslims.
I often ask what we, as Arabs and Muslims, are doing—or can do—to counter the tension and animosity. At times I fear that too often we counter it with our version of tension and animosity, creating a vicious circle offering either side little chance of escape. Neither side is blameless; on both sides, error and unfairness abound. To recognize the problem is a first step; to seek solutions to stopping what is a reckless and heedless descent toward an unimagined abyss must follow.
Minds must be opened—on both sides—and this means that preconceptions must be set aside. Every journalist arriving at a story brings to the coverage a certain set of cultural and societal perceptions. That seems inevitable. Yet to understand the need to attempt to set aside those preconceived ideas and approach reporting with an open mind would be a promising first step to finding a way to build bridges across the abyss. From that would come an increased awareness of how and why word choice matters, and this second step would draw us closer still.
Khaled Almaeena is the editor in chief of Arab News, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, an English language daily founded in 1975 as part of an independent publishing group, the Saudi Research and Publishing Company, which has 15 publications in five different languages. Almaeena is also a social commentator, writing for several Arabic and English publications.