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The Muslim World's Take on Terrorism
by James Emery



"Truth and history are whatever we choose to make them; facts are unimportant," said a terrorist sympathizer who has written for Muslim news publications and who was recently interviewed by The World & I. The statement overtly expresses the view taken by those of the world's Muslim journalists who embrace radical Islam, of whom there are many.


Immediately after the September 11 World Trade Center attack, publications in Muslim countries filled their pages with articles that blamed Israel for the assaults on New York and Washington and suggested that the strikes were the fruit of a plot to sully Islam and justify a Western blitz against the Muslim world. The U.S. government was accused of complicity in the attacks and of fabricating evidence, and journalists bent over backward to exculpate terrorist ringleader Osama bin Laden. These articles appeared in news reports, which in turn fed editorials, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor alike.


Such news reporting encouraged violence against Christians in Muslim countries, anti-American demonstrations, and the burning of American flags and effigies of President Bush.


Behind all this is the fact that journalism in the developing world generally operates far differently than in the United States. An ethical code stressing objectivity and fairness, strict journalistic standards of double sourcing, presenting both sides of an issue, and providing explanatory background material--the norm in America--is not as important in the journalistic community of the Third World.


Verifiable information often has little place in the radical Islamic press--and increasingly even in the mainstream Muslim media. Editors and reporters routinely employ selective editing and ignore evidence, statistics, and facts that contradict predetermined, anti-Western conclusions.


Television in the Islamic world mirrors the print media. News coverage lacks balance and credibility. For example, visual images of wounded Afghan children and damaged homes make a powerful emotional impression, but reporters fail to mention that the Taliban place troops and antiaircraft batteries atop public housing.


Television stations in Muslim countries have limited programming, and most homes do not have TV sets. In the United States, there are 847 television sets for every 1,000 people. This compares to 252 in Saudi Arabia, 148 in Iran, 134 in Indonesia, 127 in Egypt, 62 in Pakistan, 61 in Nigeria, 48 in Iraq, and 10 in Afghanistan. Many people in the Third World live in rural villages beyond television coverage and without electricity.


Bin Laden apparently understands the power of the media. A branch of his al Qaeda terrorism network is dedicated to propaganda and media relations. It submits "freelance" stories to publications with sympathetic editors and reporters, some of whom may be on the Saudi multimillionaire's payroll.


In the war for people's hearts and minds, anti-Western journalists who empathize with bin Laden and the Taliban pen columns of disinformation. Their objective is to disunite the United States and its Muslim allies. They have been successful in that Islamic governments have curtailed their overt support of Washington in an effort to appease the volatile minority threat to their sovereignty. The al Qaeda media outreach partly explains why Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim allies have been reluctant to allow their countries to be used as staging areas for American forces.


The worst offenders


The Frontier Post, published in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, and the Arab News of Saudi Arabia are the worst offenders at the core of the anti-American, pro-bin Laden assault. They are both well-known, mainstream newspapers, though the Pakistan paper edges somewhat toward the extremist fringe, and are representative of scores of other Muslim media organizations across the Islamic world. Their editorials and news articles, based on gossip, distortion, outright fabrications, and selective omission, have been reported as fact in other Muslim publications from South Africa to Indonesia. Letters to the editor drive home the anti-American, anti-Israeli tilt.


The Frontier Post is based in Peshawar, a freewheeling Pakistani town on the Afghan border full of Taliban and bin Laden supporters. In fact, since 1998, "Osama" has been the most popular name for boys born in the province, which includes Peshawar. Many retailers in the area, from fabric shops to tobacco kiosks, have added "Osama" to the name of their store.


"It's good for business," claimed one Pakistani retailer. "To the people of Peshawar, Osama bin Laden is a hero."


Only about a third of the people in Peshawar can read, a problem that plagues many developing world communities. The village bazaars--a hugely important "medium" that is in effect an extension of the newspaper and radio media--serve an age-old function by providing news and gossip without distinction. As rumors make their way into print and on the air, they gain credibility and are spread widely through the bazaars.


Saudi Arabia's Arab News also expresses a virulently anti-American, anti-Israeli sentiment. Muslim fundamentalist Saudis--as well as many other people in the one-billion-strong Islamic world--are upset by the presence of American troops on the "holy ground" of the Arabian Peninsula, consider the Saudi royal family and other Persian Gulf dynastic regimes corrupt and oppressive, and see the Palestinians as horrifically persecuted by the U.S.-backed Israelis. Bin Laden, a quintessential public relations expert vis-a-vis his native Islamic world, embraces these themes as part of his platform.


Rumors versus facts


Many Middle East writers--in front-page news articles, editorials, and opinion pieces--have categorically stated that bin Laden was not involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. They claim he does not have the resources, organization, or money for large-scale operations like these.


The reality, according to a range of expert sources, is that tentacles of bin Laden's terrorist network span the globe. Objective and substantive evidence clearly links him to the Pentagon and World Trade Center assaults, the attack of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in 2000, the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the attacks on American military personnel in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and '96, and several other incidents.


Further inflammatory propaganda in both the Arab News and the Frontier Post alleged that up to 4,000 Jewish employees in the World Trade Center were absent on the day of the attack, unsubtly implying they were tipped off by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. One report, appearing in both news and editorial sections, said that five Israelis were atop a building near the World Trade Center, "hooting and hollering" as they filmed the attack. These claims were quickly debunked but continued to appear in the fringe element of the Islamic press.


Initial U.S. government reports of the criminals involved in the airliner-hijacking assaults included several Arabs living abroad and at least one who was deceased. Muslim journalists focused on these regrettable and hasty American reporting errors as proof that Washington had undertaken an anti-Islamic witch-hunt. They also wrote in news articles, without citing any evidence, that Arabic material found in a hijacker's car parked at Boston's Logan airport was planted.


Both news articles and editorials in Middle East media insisted that since two of the Arab hijackers were seen consuming alcohol in a bar, they could not have been involved in the bombings. "Fanatics about to undertake a suicide mission would not be polluting their bodies with alcohol," wrote one bin Laden supporter. "It makes the whole concept of jihad [holy war] meaningless."


Yet the handbook of bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network directs operatives to hide their Muslim identity and modify personal grooming and behavior to blend in with the culture of the target country, even to the extent of avoiding mosques and traditional activities. To this group, Western clothing, consumer goods, and activities are merely props to conceal their true identities and objectives.


An article in the Arab News, repeated by other publications, claimed that the passport of one of the hijackers, found near the debris of the World Trade Center, was planted. The writer failed to mention any evidence for this. But he said the U.S. government was behind the attacks in a conspiracy similar to those supposedly involved in the assassination of President John Kennedy and the death of Marilyn Monroe.


Prior to the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan, a reporter for the Frontier Post said that the United States was contemplating the use of chemical and biological weapons, neutron bombs, and fuel-air bombs against the Taliban and al Qaeda. Variations of this doomsday theme appeared in other publications.


'Jewish-controlled' media


Most bin Laden sympathizers claim that the "Jewish-controlled" American media deliberately incite hatred against Muslims. Several newspapers in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, for example, claimed that CNN attempted to create an anti-Muslim backlash by repeatedly broadcasting film footage of Palestinians celebrating a Scud missile attack on Israel in 1991 and representing it as live coverage of similar jubilation on September 11, 2001.


"This claim is a complete lie," exclaimed a CNN official who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. "Reuters shot that footage in East Jerusalem September 11, the day of the attack."


A review of the CNN Web site at cnn.com includes a retraction by the culprit who initially spread this story over the Internet. The retraction failed to make its way into publications bent on increasing the level of anti-American hysteria that swirled through Muslim communities worldwide.


Assaults, discrimination, and ethnic stereotyping against Muslims in the United States and Europe received extensive coverage throughout the Islamic world. One Arab News story was headlined "Saudis Now Most Hated People in U.S." While it is unfortunately true that some discrimination and physical attacks against Muslims have occurred in the United States, the radical press ignored the fact that American politicians, newscasters, and civilians soundly condemn them.


Anti-Americanism intensified after Washington demanded that the Taliban extradite bin Laden. "America is an enemy of Islam," claimed the Frontier Post in a news story, "and has always supported terrorists of the world to sabotage Muslims." This theme has been one of the most widespread, appearing repeatedly in newspapers in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.


Shortly after the United States began military operations against Afghanistan, the Tehran Times, in both news stories and editorials, accused the United States of committing terrorism against American Indians, black slaves, Japanese residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Vietnamese during their liberation war. Muslim publications accused Americans of killing innocent people in Africa, Cambodia, Chile, Kashmir, Korea, Kosovo, Laos, and Palestine. These assertions created another feeding frenzy, generated scathing letters to the editor, and encouraged even harsher editorials condemning America's timeless "savagery" against humanity.


Egyptian newspapers criticized the United States for discriminating against Muslims and waging an unlawful war against Afghanistan. A story in Al Ahram, "Terrorism Works," claimed Western powers anticipated slaughtering three to four million Afghans. The writer called the United States a terrorist nation that carried out aggressive colonialism and genocide for 200 years, from Hawaii to Nicaragua. The article accused Bush of ignoring Taliban efforts at negotiations in order to carry out genocide against the Afghan people.


In the Daily Nation of Kenya, which has featured many anti-American articles, a letter blamed the United States for "the great devastation inflicted upon the civilian people of North Korea between 1950 and 1953." The author continued, "Many subhuman Americans felt it was OK to slaughter Korean children and rape Korean women because they were just 'gooks.' "


America the terrorist


The question "Who is the real terrorist?" has often been posed in the Frontier Post and repeated in letters and editorials in countless Muslim newspapers. It always arrives at the same conclusion: the Americans. "The giant of the world of terrorism is the USA, " noted one Frontier Post journalist in a news story.


The drumbeat grew louder after the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan began. A letter to the Daily Star of Bangladesh equated the American attacks on "helpless" Afghans with terrorism comparable to the September 11 carnage.


Several newspapers in the Middle East claimed that Bush, like his father, couldn't wait to attack a Muslim nation. The fact that Operation Desert Storm was carried out on behalf of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia was never mentioned. In their news stories, the reporters instead stressed Iraqis' suffering under U.S. and UN sanctions.


Whenever Israeli forces seize territory or shoot Palestinians, it makes headlines in most Muslim papers. But background information that Israeli troops may have been responding to a suicide attack on innocent Jewish civilians is left out.


"Arabs Say U.S. Should Punish Israel, Too" trumpeted a headline in the Jordan Times. Israel was repeatedly condemned over the Palestinian issue, as was the United States by association. Anti-American protests in the United States and around the world also received wide coverage.


In Pakistan and other countries, bin Laden was compared to Che Guevara and Robin Hood in news articles and opinion pieces alike. "Che Guevara, like bin Laden, was a cry of humanity for social justice, equality, and freedom," claimed the Frontier Post in a news piece. After bin Laden suddenly tied his campaign to the Palestinian issue, several articles claimed, "Bin Laden has won the hearts of Palestinians by championing their cause."


Saddam Hussein, in a hasty attempt at credibility, tied his withdrawal from Kuwait to the Palestinian issue in 1991. Saddam and bin Laden used the Palestinian cause for their own selfish objectives, knowing they could count on a sympathetic Muslim press to play up their "humanitarian" concerns.


A news article in the Ghanaian Chronicle claimed that bin Laden had already won the war a few days after the United States launched attacks against Afghanistan. "Spin doctors the world over can only applaud the skill of his media operation," crowed the reporter.


Al Qaeda and similar terrorist groups attempt to give their acts a gloss of honor by draping them in the cloak of Islam, tying them to popular causes, and relying on a sympathetic media. Journalistic ethics regularly give way to emotional and political objectives that go beyond a slant to become overt bias, deliberate distortion, and selective omission. Meanwhile, many observers say, terrorist zealots continue to sacrifice the lives of countless Muslim youths for their own selfish objectives, content in the fact they'll be glorified as heroes in heaven--and in the Muslim press.n


James Emery, a journalist and anthropologist, writes for publications in the United States and abroad. He has traveled extensively, including trips into Afghanistan with the mujahideen during the Soviet occupation.
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