For Americans, the Middle East story must always be of the American empire
A Critique of Reporting on the Middle East
Nir Rosen, Jadaliyya
I’ve spent most of the last eight years working in Iraq and also in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and other countries in the Muslim world. So all my work has taken place in the shadow of the war on terror and has in fact been thanks to this war, even if I’ve labored to disprove the underlying premises of this war. In a way my work has still served to support the narrative. I once asked my editor at the New York Times Magazine if I could write about a subject outside the Muslim world. He said even if I was fluent in Spanish and an expert on Latin America I wouldn’t be published if it wasn’t about jihad.
Too often consumers of mainstream media are victims of a fraud. You think you can trust the articles you read, why wouldn’t you, you think you can sift through the ideological bias and just get the facts. But you don’t know the ingredients that go into the product you buy. It is important to understand how knowledge about current events in the Middle East is produced before relying on it. Even when there are no apparent ideological biases such as those one often sees when it comes to reporting about Israel, there are fundamental problems at the epistemological and methodological level. These create distortions and falsehoods and justify the narrative of those with power.
According to the French intellectual and scholar Francois Burgat, there are two main types of intellectuals tasked with explaining the “other” to Westerners. He and Bourdieu describe the “negative intellectual” who aligns his beliefs and priorities with those of the state and centers his perspective on serving the interest of power and gaining proximity to it. And secondly, there is what Burgat terms as “the façade intellectual,” whose role in society is to confirm to Western audiences their already-held notions, beliefs, preconceptions, and racisms regarding the “other.” Journalists writing for the mainstream media, as well as their local interlocutors, often fall into both categories.
A vast literature exists on the impossibility of journalism in its classic, liberal sense with all the familiar tropes on objectivity, neutrality, and “transmitting reality.” However, and perhaps out of a lack of an alternative source of legitimation, major mainstream media outlets in the West continue to grasp to these notions with ever more insistence. The Middle East is an exceptionally suitable place for the Western media to learn about itself and its future because it is the scene where all pretensions of objectivity, neutrality towards power, and critical engagement faltered spectacularly.
Journalists are the archetype of ideological tools who create culture and reproduce knowledge. Like all tools, journalist don’t create or produce. They are not the masters of discourse or ideological formations but products of them and servants to them. Their function is to represent a class and perpetuate the dominant ideology instead of building a counter hegemonic and revolutionary ideology, or narrative, in this case. They are the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. Instead of being the voice of the people or the working class, journalists are too often the functional tools for a bourgeois ruling class. They produce and disseminate culture and meaning for the system and reproduce its values, allowing it to hegemonize the field of culture, and since journalism today has a specific political economy, they are all products of the hegemonic discourse and the moneyed class. The working class has no networks within regimes of power. This applies too to Hollywood and television entertainment and series: it is all the same intellectuals producing them. Even journalists with pretensions of being serious usually only serve elites and ignore social movements. Journalism tends to be state centric, focusing on elections, institutions, formal politics and overlooking politics of contention, informal politics, and social movements.
Those with reputations as brave war reporters who hop around the world, parachuting Geraldo-style (Anderson Cooper is the new liberal Geraldo) into conflicts from Yemen to Afghanistan, typically only confirm Americans’ views of the world. Journalism simplifies, which means it de-historicizes. Journalism in the Middle East is too often a violent act of representation. Western journalists take reality and amputate it, contort it, fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy.
The American media always want to fit events in the region into a narrative of American Empire. The recent assassination of Osama Bin Laden was greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulders in the Middle East, where he had always been irrelevant, but for Americans and hence for the American media it was a historic and defining moment. Too often contact with the West has defined events in the Middle East and is assumed to drive its history, but the so called Arab Spring with its revolutions and upheavals evokes anxiety among white Americans. They are unsettled by the autogenetic liberation of brown people. While the Arab Spring may represent a revolutionary transformation of the Arab world, a massive blow to Islamist politics and the renaissance of secular and leftist Arab nationalist politics. But the American media has been obsessed with Islamists, looking for them behind every demonstration, and the uprisings have been often treated as if they were something threatening and as if they had led to chaos. And all too often it just comes down to “what does this mean for Israel’s security?” The aspirations of hundreds of millions of freedom seeking Arabs are subordinated to the security concerns of five million Jews who colonized Palestine.
There is a strong element of chauvinism and racism behind the reporting. Like American soldiers, American journalists like to use the occasional local word to show they have unlocked the mysteries of the culture. The chauvinism issue was discussed a lot during Desert Storm, where journalists started to use “we.” Liberals won’t say “we” but they are still circumscribed by Imperial, white supremist paradigms. “Wasta” is one such word. One American bureau chief in Iraq told me that Muqtada Sadr had a lot of wasta now so he could prevent a long American presence. Inshallah is another such word. And in Afghanistan, it’s pushtunwali, the secret to understanding Afghans. Islam is also treated like a code that can be unlocked and then locals can be understood as if they are programmed only through Islam.
Arab culture and Islam are spoken of the way race was once spoken of in India and Africa, and it is difficult to portray Arabs and Muslims as the good guys unless they are “like us”: Google executives, elites who speak English, dress trendy, and use Facebook. So they are made to represent the revolutions while the poor, the workers, the subalterns, the majority who don’t even have internet access let alone Twitter accounts, are ignored. And in order to make the revolutions in Tunisia and especially Egypt seem non threatening, the nonviolent tactics are emphasized while the many acts of violent resistance to regime oppression are completely ignored. This is not just the journalists’ fault. It is driven by American discourse, which drives the editors back in New York and Washington.
To understand the environment journalists inhabit, the interlocutors, translators, and fixers they rely on to filter and mediate for them and the nature in which they collect information, accounts, and interviews. One of the popular myths about reporting in Iraq is that journalists stayed in the Green Zone, the walled off fortress neighborhood that housed the American occupiers and now houses the Iraqi government along with some foreign embassies. This is not true. Throughout the occupation almost no journalists actually inhabited the Green Zone. They stayed in green zones of their own creation, whether secure compounds or intellectual green zones, creating their own walls. The first green zone for journalists was the fortress around the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in Baghdad, which was initially guarded by American soldiers and later by Iraqi security guards. The New York Times soon constructed its own immense fortress, with guard dogs, guard towers, security guards, immense walls, vehicle searches, so too BBC, Associated Press, and others. Then there were was the Hamra hotel compound where many bureaus moved until it was damaged in an explosion in 2010. CNN, Fox, al Jazeera English had their own green zone, though freelancers like myself could rent rooms there. And there is one last green zone, which is a large neighborhood protected by Kurdish peshmerga where middle class Iraqis and some news bureaus live.
In principle, there is nothing wrong with staying in a secure compound. Foreigners are often targeted in conflict zones and authoritarian countries and you want all those privileges that local victims of violence (i.e. the population) are not afforded: You want to go to sleep at night without wondering whether men will kick down your door and drag you away, or whether you should go to sleep with your clothes on so that if a car bomb hits you won’t be caught sleeping naked under a pile of rubble. You want to eat “decent” food and have running water, constant electricity, internet access, conversations with colleagues. A journalist doesn’t have to live like an impoverished local. But the less local life you experience the less you can do your job, and this is what readers need to understand. The average person anywhere in the world goes to work and comes back home. He knows little about people outside his social class, ethnic group, neighborhood, or city. As a journalist you are making judgments on an entire country and interpreting it for others, but you don’t know the country because you don’t really live in it. You spend twenty hours a day in seclusion from the country. You have no basis for judgment because to you Iraq is out there, the red zone, and the pace of filing can make this even harder.
Most mainstream journalists have since 2004 treated reporting in Iraq like a military operation, going out on limited missions with a lot of planning, an armored car, a chase car for backup, in and out, do the interview and come back home to your green zone. Or they would more often just make the trip to the actual green zone where officials are easy to meet and interview, where you can enjoy a drink, socialize with diplomats, and feel macho because you live in the red zone. But in their artificial green zone they are still sheltered from life, from Iraqis and from violence.
They did not just hang out, sit in restaurants, in mosques and husseiniyas, in people’s homes, walk through slums, shop in local markets, walk around at night, sit in juice shops, sleep in normal people’s homes, visit villages, farms, and experience Iraq like an Iraqi, or as close as possible. This means they have no idea what life is like at night, what life is like in rural areas, what social trends are important, what songs are popular, what jokes are being told, what arguments take place on the street, how comfortable people feel, what sorts of Iraqis go to bars at night. Hanging out is key. You just observe, letting events and people determine your reporting. They also did not investigate, pursue spontaneous leads, develop a network of trusted contacts and sources. Dwindling resources and interest meant bureaus had to shut down or reduce staff and only occasionally parachute a journalist in to interview a few officials and go back home.
And since they don’t know Arabic they literally cannot read the writing on the wall, the graffiti on the wall, whether it is for the mujahedin, for Muqtada Sadr, or for the football teams of Madrid or Barcelona. It means that if they talk to one man the translator only tells them what he said and not what everybody around him was saying; they don’t hear the Sadrist songs supporting the Shiites of Bahrain, or hear the taxi driver complaining about how things were better under Saddam, or discussing the attacks he saw in the morning, or the soldiers joking at a checkpoint, or the shopkeeper cursing the soldiers. In fact they don’t even take taxis or buses, so they miss a key opportunity to interact naturally with people. It means they can’t just relax in people’s homes and hear families discuss their concerns. They are never able to develop what Germans call fingerspitzengefuhl, that finger tip feeling, an intuitive sense of what is happening, what the trends and sentiments are, which one can only get by running one’s fingers through the social fabric.
A student of the Arab world once commented that any self-appointed terrorism expert must first pass the Um Kulthum test, meaning has he heard of Um Kulthum, the iconic Egyptian diva of Arab nationalism whose music and lyrics still resonate throughout the Middle East. If they hadn’t heard of her then they obviously were not familiar with Arab culture. In Iraq an equivalent might be the Hawasim test. Saddam called the 1991 war on Iraq “Um al Maarik,” or the mother of all battles. And he called the 2003 war on Iraq “Um al Hawasim,” or the mother of all decisive moments. Soon the looting that followed the invasion was called Hawasim by Iraqis, and the word became a common phrase, applied to cheap markets, to stolen goods, to cheap products. If you drive your car recklessly like you don’t care about it another driver might shout at you, “what, is it hawasim?” If you don’t make an effort to familiarize yourself with these cultural phenomena then just go back home.
Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you. Maybe they are Sunni and have limited contacts outside their community. Maybe they are a Christian from east Beirut and know little about the Shiites of south Lebanon or the Sunnis of the north. Maybe they’re urban and disdainful of those who are rural. In Iraq, maybe they are a middle class Shiite from Baghdad or a former doctor or engineer who look down upon the poor urban class who make up the Sadrists, so your translator will dismiss them as uneducated or poor, as if that makes them unimportant. And so in May 2003 when I was the first American journalist to interview Muqtada Sadr my bureau chief at Time magazine was angry at me for wasting my time and sending it on to the editors in New York without asking him, because Muqtada was unimportant, lacking credentials. But in Iraq social movements, street movements, militias, those with power on the ground, have been much more important than those in the establishment or politicians in the green zone, and it is events in the red zone which have shaped things.
You don’t understand a country by going on preplanned missions; you learn about it when unplanned things happen, when you visit a friend’s neighborhood for fun and other neighbors come over. You learn about it by driving around in a normal car, not an armored one with tinted windows. That’s when Iraqi soldiers and police ask you to hitch a ride and take them towards their home. A few months ago soldiers at a checkpoint outside Ramadi asked me to give one of their colleagues a ride to Baghdad. He was from Basra. In addition to the conversation we struck up, what was most revealing was that a soldier outside Ramadi felt safe enough to ask a stranger for a ride, whereas before he would not have even carried his ID on him, and that a stranger agreed to take a member of the security forces. I’ve since given rides to other Iraqi soldiers and policemen.
Over the last year there have been a slew of articles about whether the Iraqi security forces are ready to handle security for themselves, but these have all been based on the statements of American or Iraqi officials. Journalists have not talked to Iraqi lieutenants, or colonels, or sergeants; they have not cultivated these sources or just befriended them, met them for drinks when they were on leave, sat with them in their homes with their families. So the views of the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi soldiers and policemen who man checkpoints and go on raids are not written about. Meeting with them also lets you understand the degree to which sectarianism has been reduced in the security forces while corruption and abuses such as torture and extra judicial killings remain a problem. And just traveling around the country since 2009 would reveal that yes, Iraqi security forces can maintain the current level of security (or insecurity) because they have been doing it since then, manning checkpoints in the most remote villages, cultivating their own intelligence sources, and basically occupying Iraq. The degree to which Iraq remains heavily militarized has not been sufficiently conveyed, but since 2009 Iraqi security forces have been occupying Iraq, and the American presence has been largely irrelevant from a daily security point of view.
And then there are the little Abu Ghraibs. The big scandals like Abu Ghraib, or the “Kill Team” in Afghanistan, eventually make their way into the media where they can be dismissed as bad apples and exceptions and the general oppression of the occupations can be ignored. But an occupation is a systematic and constant imposition of violence on an entire country. It’s twenty-four hours of arresting, beating, killing, humiliating, and terrorizing and unless you have experienced it it’s impossible to describe except by trying to list them until the reader gets numb. I was only embedded three times over eight years, twice in Iraq for ten days each and once in Afghanistan for three weeks. My first embed in Iraq was in October 2003, six months after I first arrived. I was in the Anbar province. I saw soldiers arresting hundreds of men, rounding up entire villages, all the so-called military aged men, hoping somebody would know something; I saw old men being harshly pushed down on the floor, their hands tied tightly behind them, children screaming for their daddies while they watched them bloody and beaten and terrified, while soldiers laughed or smoked or high fived or chewed tobacco and spit on the lawn, while lives were being destroyed. I know one of the men I saw arrested died from torture and countless others ended up in Abu Ghraib. I saw old men pushed down on the ground violently. I saw innocent men beaten, arrested, mocked, humiliated. These are the little Abu Ghraibs that come with any occupation, even if it’s the Swedish girl scouts occupying a country. Many journalists spent their entire careers embedded, months or even years, so multiply what I saw by hundreds, by thousands and tens of thousands of terrorized traumatized families, beatings, killings, children who lost their fathers and wet their beds every night, women who could not provide for their families, innocent people shot at checkpoints.
Then there are the daily Abu Ghraibs you endure when you live in an occupied country, having to navigate a maze of immense concrete walls, of barbed wire, waiting at checkpoints, waiting for convoys to go by, waiting for military operations to end, waiting for the curfew to end, military vehicles running you off the road, fifty caliber machine guns pointed at you, M16s pointed at you, pistols pointed at you, large foreign soldiers shouting at you and ordering you around. Or maybe in Afghanistan the military convoy runs over a water canal, destroying the water supply to a village of thirty families who now have no way to live, or they arrest an innocent Afghan because he has Taliban music on his cell phone like many Afghans do, and now he must make his way through the afghan prison system.
But if you are white and/or identify with white American soldiers then you ignore these things. If you identify at even the deepest level with US fetishizing of militarism and the myth of the heroic US GI, they just don’t occur to you. And so they never occur to your readers. Likewise you never think of how your average Yemeni or Egyptian or Iraqi deals with their own security forces on a daily basis because you focus on the elite level of politics and security and your cars don’t get stopped at checkpoints because you have the right badges. You don’t get detained by the police because you have the right badge. Until you get beaten up by regime thugs like Anderson Cooper and then you can become a hysterical opponent of Mubarak and crusader for justice. Television reporting is overprotective of the celebrity correspondent; they barely go out, they just embed, and they do their live shots on the street inside their safe compounds, while making the story more about the celebrity correspondent rather than the story. Then they show the “back story” about the journalist and his work rather than the story.
Robert Kaplan, a terrible writer and great supporter of imperialism, said one smart thing by accident when he criticized journalists for not being able to relate to American soldiers because journalists represented an elite while soldiers come from rural areas, went to public schools, and come from the working class (we’re not supposed to use that word because everybody in America thinks they’re middle class). But equally they cannot relate easily to the working classes anywhere, and so they gravitate to the elites. Focusing on elites and officials is a problem in general, not just in Middle East coverage. An American official visiting the region warrants articles about the region, but it is not studied empirically in its own context. People in power lie, whether they are generals, presidents, or militia commanders. This is the first rule. But at best journalists act as if only brown people in power lie and so they rely on the official statements of white people, whether they are military officers or diplomats, as if they should be trusted. The latest example is the Bin Laden killing, when most mainstream journalists lazily relied on US government “feeds”; they were literally fed an official version that kept on changing, but this is business as usual.
One reason for the failure of journalists to leave their green zones may be a combination of laziness and aversion to discomfort. But in Iraq, Afghanistan, other developing countries and areas of conflict in some countries, you have to leave your comfort zone. You might prefer an English-speaking whiskey-drinking politician over six hours of bouncing along dirt roads in the heat and dust in order to sit on the floor and eat dirty food and drink dirty water and know you’re going to get sick tomorrow, but the road to truth involves a certain amount of diarrhoea.
When there are no physical green zones journalists will create them, as in Lebanon, where they inhabit the green zones of Hamra, Gumayzeh, or Monot, which shelters journalists from the rest of the country, giving them just enough of the exotic so they can feel as if they live in the orient, without having to visit Tripoli, Akkar, the Beqa, or the majority of Beirut or Lebanon where the poor live. Like other countries, Lebanon has a ready local fixer and translator mafia who can determine the price and allow a journalist who parachutes in to meet a representative of all the political factions, drink wine with Walid Jumblat and look at his collection of unopened books (including one I wrote) and unread copies of the New York Review of Books while never having to walk through a Palestinian refugee camp or Tariq al Jadida in Beirut or Bab al Tabaneh in Tripoli and see how most people live and what most people care about.
A green zone can be the capital city or a neighborhood or a focus only on officials, as long as it shields you from the red zone of reality, or poverty, of class conflict, of challenges to your ideology or comfort. In Egypt even before the revolution Cairo got most of the media’s attention, but during the revolution journalists barely ventured outside Tahrir square. Egypt is 86 million people, its not just Tahrir; it’s not just Cairo or Alexandria. Port Said and Suez were barely covered, even though Suez was such a key spark in the revolution. In Libya at first everything was new and everybody was an explorer and adventurer, but now the self-appointed opposition leadership is trying to manage the message so you can be lazy and just refer to their statements. Yemen was totally neglected, but when people came it was almost always just to Sanaa. And Yemen’s capital has its own green zone in the Movenpic hotel, situated safely outside the city. Now Yemen is portrayed as if it were two rival camps demonstrating in Sanaa even though the uprisings started long before (and were much more violent) in Taez, Aden, Saada and elsewhere. Yemen is viewed mostly through prism of the war on terror, through the American government’s prism, rather than the needs and views of the people. But if you spend any time with the demonstrators you realize how unimportant al Qaeda and its ideology are in Yemen, so that they don’t even deserve an article. And you would do well to remember that even though the Yemeni franchise of al Qaeda is portrayed as America’s greatest threat, AQAP’s record is little more than a failed underwear bomber and a failed printer cartridge bomb.
American reporting is problematic throughout the third world, but because the American military/industrial/financial/academic/media complex is so directly implicated in the Middle East, the consequences of such bad reporting are more significant. Journalists end up serving as propagandists justifying the killing of innocent people instead of a voice for those innocent people. Our job should not be about speaking truth to power. Those in power know the truth, they just don’t care, and they serve systems greater than themselves anyway. It’s about speaking truth to the people, to those not in power, in order to empower them, or unfortunately, sometimes to leave them feeling bitter and cynical.
This piece was first delivered as a talk at Jadaliyya’s co-sponsored conference on “Teaching the Middle East After the Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions.”