Thursday, June 14, 2007

Media, Islam, Negativity and A Piece of Work

Questioning from both IWF-ers and panelists about the negativity of western media coverage on Islam and the Middle East threaded the conference, as my previous Jordan blogs show. Since my return, I've seen many example of this. The May/June issue of American Interest, for example, reviews four new books about Islam in America--all of which would seem to focus on terrorism. The reviewer likes American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion best. The author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, organizes his book into seven chapters, each on a different American Muslim: Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA professor who was a no-show at the conference, a feminist from Mumbai, a Lebanese Sufi, and four men with ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. Four out of seven with ties to terrorism? Is that balanced? What about a grocer in Houston? A Somali immigrant in Maine? An Iowa entrepreneur? An imam in Detroit who speaks for peace? A Jordanian exchange student at Westover High School? (The Ahliyyah School for Girls in Amman and Westover High School in Middlebury, Connecticut exchange students for a semester every year.)

Subtler negative coverage abounds. From the article "A New Cairo" by Christopher Dickey in the May/June issue of Departures: "Single-masted feluccas set sail in the twilight with families and lovers, some of the women wearing veils in that coquettish nod to Islamic modesty typical of Egypt, where the arts of seduction are older than the legends of Cleopatra." Haven't we had enough of fatuous orientalism? And amused condescension--as in the Wall Street Journal's front-page article (June 5) "For Jordanians, Shotgun Weddings Can Be a Problem." Out of all the interesting things going on in Jordan, over a three-month period the Journal chooses to cover King Abdullah's speech to the U.S. Congress (in an editorial called "Hashemite Hokum") and the Bedouin tradition of firing guns into the air as a way of celebrating weddings. The handful of deaths that occurs every year as a result says as much about Jordanian society as the handful of drownings every year in Yosemite says about ours.

Sometimes the problem is truth-in-balance, and here, as is often the case, the New York Times is an example. Although in the last week the Times has run several thoughtful retrospective pieces on the anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the paper's most prominent piece, showcased with a color drawing on the front page of the Sunday (June 10) Week in Review section, is "The Guidebook for Taking a Life." With its eye-catching format, the insouciance of its choice of bestseller terminology, this article (researched in Zarqa, Jordan, by the way) purports to set out the rules of jihad etiquette. Not only is this bit of journalism in questionable taste, lightly equating killing with social manners, but also it is false, for jihadists are not all on the same page when it comes to rules of engagement. This is an important issue, and underlying it is the opacity of the Quran, whose verses are open to very different interpretations. Instead of tackling this difficult topic, however, the New York Times opts for shock journalism, which, of course, draws in more readers.

These choices show how low our media has descended, even in arguably the two most prominent American newspapers. This corruption was also on display at the IWF Conference during our first lunch session. I had been looking forward to this program, which featured the U.S., Turkish, and Russian ambassadors to Jordan as panelists and Raghida Dergham as moderator. I shouldn't have been optimistic, however, because luncheon programs for ladies are often light fare, and male participants, like our ambassadors, usually pick up on the tone and deliver accordingly. Nevertheless, I was excited, because I had googled Raghida Dergham.
Born in Beirut, a graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh, now a New Yorker, Ms. Dergham is a columnist for Al Hayat, the London-based Arabic daily paper, as well as an analyst for NBC/MSNBC, and a member of The Council on Foreign Relations. A frequent guest on t.v. and radio talk shows, she has won numerous awards in journalism. Something of a Lebanese Barbara Walters, Ms. Dergham has interviewed all the major players in Middle Eastern politics for the last quarter century.

Media stardom has gone to the head of Raghida Dergham. She wanted the IWF lunch session played her way and no other. Disingenuously, she began, "let's keep this off-the-record." In a room full of strangers armed with digital audio/video cameras and Blackberries? With me blogging? As if! As if the three ambassadors took her seriously for a moment! Quickly, Ms. Dergham moved in for the kill with the kind of pointed questions that twist any response before it is even made. But Ms. Dergham was not interested in an exploration of possibility and truth; she was prodding for the "gotcha" moment. She wanted to make the three gentlemen squirm. And, of course, as public servants the ambassadors were used to this verbal thrust-and-parry, with its overtones of gamesmanship and sexual titillation. (Raghida Dergham is a very attractive woman.) Resigned, the men offered anodyne remarks about politics in the Middle East, which gave us women of the conference nothing to ponder. Grim-faced, surrounded by the Jordanian security service, David Hale, the American ambassador to Jordan, departed the minute lunch broke.

Since Raghida Dergham can never return to Lebanon, where she is under indictment for treason (something about a public debate with an Israeli), I cut her some slack. I can not begin to imagine what it must be like never to be able to go home. But, I have to say, she is a real piece of work. As the lunch quickly ended, we ladies were surprised that the meal had been only mezzes (appetizers). Later we found out that the waiters, trays aloft, lined up in the hall outside the ballroom, preparing to enter with our main courses, had been turned away. Word had come down from Raghida Dergham. She didn't like the clink of cutlery and the chink of china of competing with her own voice. Either the luncheon service came to a halt--or she would get up and leave. Now wouldn't that have been a shame?

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