Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Why American journalists need the help of their Arab colleagues | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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As change continues to unfold in the Middle East region, one question still overwhelms the psyche of the average Western observer: Is this the beginning of an Islamist-run Middle East? During my recent visit to the U.S., it was clear this is what leaders, scholars, and policy makers from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles wanted to know. Despite this thirst to know more about the role of Islamists and religious leaders in Middle Eastern countries transitioning to democracy, their voices are nowhere to be found in mainstream U.S. media.

Gallup asked Egyptians, after the revolution, what role religious leaders should play in drafting national legislation “qanoon.” Seven in 10 (69%) said such leaders should play an advisory role while 14% said such leaders should have full authority to make laws. This is a clear indication that Egyptians are not interested in creating a legal system styled after Iran’s Islamic Republic.

For any Arab American, the fear surrounding a role for Islam or religious leaders in governance in the region is nothing new. Interestingly, the regimes now toppled in Tunisia and Egypt were among the biggest proponents of what could be termed the “Islamist masses” theory. This theory argues that where true democracy and self-determination take hold, nations will inevitably adopt a system of governance that range from the Islamic Republic of Iran (at best) to Taliban rule in Afghanistan (at worst). To justify suppressing the aspirations of their own people, leaders often presented themselves as the only stable alternative in countries of strategic interest to Western powers. This approach indirectly fed into the west’s fear of Islam playing a central role in the political life of Arab citizens. A byproduct of such fear-mongering on the part of some regimes in the region and a general fear and unfamiliarity within the U.S. of [Islamic] Shari’a [law] altogether is that there are few, if any, serious attempts by U.S. mainstream media to engage and understand such groups or their agendas, policies, and vision on governance and democracy. During the two weeks I was in the U.S. closely following domestic coverage of developments in the region, I was unable to find one representative of any Islamist movement or prominent religious leader interviewed by any major U.S.-based news source.

Meanwhile, Egyptian journalists, now in a more open and free journalistic environment, are dedicating considerable time and resources in examining the various views and platforms of the several Islamist movements within the country, be it the Muslim Brotherhood or others. Over the past several weeks, dozens of representatives and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have been featured in most major political talk shows discussing their concerns, principles, and political vision for a new Egypt. Many of these interactions highlight the competing and sometimes inconsistent streams of thought within such organizations that break along not only generational but also ideological lines to a greater degree than ever before. However, those who live in the region understand that in the past, support for such groups was not always due to a religious philosophy on governance, but a vote against the status quo. Hamas’ election victory in 2007 was a good example.

By examining Islamist movements and the aspirations of Arabs citizens in depth, we can begin to unpick the role that Islam will play in newly formed governments in countries undergoing a process of democratization. With a changing region, perhaps the time has come for Egyptian and other Arab journalists, to help their Western counterparts overcome the debilitating fear of Islamist viewpoints to provide Western news consumers with a more nuanced, accurate, and in-depth view into such movements.

Today, many journalists in the Middle East are for the first time truly free to explore, the views, countercurrents, and ideologies within organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others in Egypt. Yet many U.S.-based news organizations are still engaging such movements from a monolithic, distant, and outdated perspective. As such, they are unable to satiate the genuine desire of their audiences to have a more informed outlook on the political realities of a democratizing region.