A NEW DAILY FEATURE
With only a few exceptions, the Western press and the elite Arab press are reporting the war in Iraq primarily in political and strategic terms — despite the fact that many Iraqi combatants see their fight as a defense of Islam, and the U.S. has framed the battle with the theological language of good and evil.
The Revealer responds with a new feature: a daily collage of religion in the news from the war. Not just stories about religion, but the belief between the lines and the asides and assumptions with which we can start to piece together a fuller picture of what is fast becoming one of the planet’s major wars.
LIVE: Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid will be online live at 1 pm EST today. Shadid won this year’s Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage. He’s also one of the rare reporters with more than a cursory knowledge of Islam, as evidenced in his book Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, & the New Politics of Islam.
In this week’s Newsweek cover story, “The Vietnam Question,” Evan Thomas asks how Iraq is different from Vietnam. Well, for starters, it’s Iraq, not Vietnam. More importantly, it’s M-u-s-l-i-m, a fact you might miss if relying on Thomas for information. Thomas takes care of that concern tidily, with one reference to religion: “The Iraqis are Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds, age-old enemies, but there are disturbing signs that the Sunnis and Shiites were willing to bury their differences, at least for the moment, in the common cause of burying Americans.”
Common cause? Yes. “Bury their differences?” Hardly. A more apt question would be: What, beyond the much discussed favoritism granted to Sunnis by Saddam, are those differences? IfSadr, a Kurd, and a Sunni cleric with a duck on his head walk into a tea house, what does the waiter say?
No answers in Thomas’ story. For the sake of his calculations, he must make the Iraqis roughly equivalent to the Vietnamese. X=”The enemy,” but don’t expect Thomas to solve the equation. How could he, when next to the U.S. (“fact”: “too decent and freedom-loving”), any enemy is what Thomas calls an “ungrateful, if not incomprehensible people”?
Zeyad at Healing Iraq writes: “A spokesman for Ayatollah Sistani “also announced that an important statement is to be issued tomorrow by Sistani on behalf of the Hawza alilmiyyah that would be to the effect of a warning to coalition forces if they ever tried to attack Najaf or arrestAl-Sadr. This in response to Gen. Sanchez‘ remarks that Al-Sadr would be arrested or killed and that American troops are moving to Najaf. If that is true, it would mean a full scale Jihad against Americans by Shia followers of Sistani in the event of any movement against Sadr. A telling sign that Sistani and his colleagues are losing patience.”
Slate goes toe to toe with Al Jazeera by way of Lee Smith‘s review of Control Room, a documentary about the Arab news network that has become required reading for anyone who wants a full briefing on Iraq. Control Room misses much of the story, charges Smith, including the fact that Al Jazeera reflects the concerns of its owner, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar. Those concerns include the political despotism and theological ferocity of Saudi Arabia — fair game, one would think — but also a kind of accomodation with other powers in the region. Worst-case scenario was revealed, Smith notes, when it was discovered that some Al Jazeera employees were on Saddam’s payroll.
More fundamentally, he argues, there’s a cultural difference between Al Jazeera and the Western press — exemplified by the funeral for Tariq Ayyoub, an Al Jazeera journalist “killed by U.S. tank fire in Baghdad. In one subsequent scene, journalists from the world press gather in a room at U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, to commemorate their fallen colleague. In another, Ayyoub is laid to rest during the course of a demonstration that looks like it could have been shot at a Hamas funeral. Ayyoub, a journalist, is referred to as a martyr.”
Smith dissection of Al Jazeera’s assumptions is keen, but does he engage in journalistic Orientalism by identifying religion and bias as an Eastern concern? To suggest that a news agency is rendered invalid by the views of its owner would be to condemn much of the Western press (disclosure: including The Revealer‘s editor, who receives checks from both Rupert Murdoch‘s Newscorp and Viacom), an impractical absurdity that would be dismissed as shallow leftist boilerplate were it not applied to an “emir.” Likewise Smith’s proposed distinction between Al Jazeera’s “martyrs” and the Western press’ neutral employees. One need only recall the death of The Atlantic‘s Michael Kelly to summon up a vision of media mourning worthy of the name “martyr.”
Which still leaves Al Jazeera and its biases. The irony is that a careful reading of Al Jazeera reveals that those biases generally reflect that of the Western press — no surprise, really, given how many on its staff earned their stripes working for the BBC and other occidental stalwarts. This parallel is nowhere more evident than in Al Jazeera’s attitude — or seeming lack of one — with regard to religion. Like the Western press, Al Jazeera tends to view the news through a purely political lens, one that filters out the meaning behind actions of religious figures. You’ll learn no more — and perhaps less — about role ideas about God play in the decisions of Sadr, Sistani, or for that matter, Bush and Blair, in Al Jazeera than you will in the pages of the Grey Lady or the broadcasts of CNN.
Now that the fiercest fighting has ebbed, we can breathe and learn more about its causes, right? Maybe not. The Washington Post offers “Who is Moqtada Sadr?” in which Jefferson Morley forgets to mention what Sadr believes. The closest he gets to explication of the “holy” in Sadr’s holy war is this: “Sadr’s religious authority is far overshadowed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s leading religious figure.” Tell that to the dead.
Such equations are a projection of the prestige stakes-style with which many American journalists approach religion at home, as if the “big man” is the only one who matters to the story. Franklin Graham‘s religious authority is far overshadowed by his father Billy‘s, but that didn’t stop Jr. from setting off a political conflagration here when he threatened to invade Iraq with a small but fearless army of Christian missionaries.