Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Difference Between Us and Them

This BBC story on the muted Arab reaction to the Berg beheading illustrates perfectly the difference between the sociopolitical culture of the Arab world and that of the United States, and why those who are tempted to circle the wagons around Rumsfeld and company would be mistaken to do so.

For many, both in the Arab world and in the West, morality is merely a matter of what is convenient for one's cause, and anything that reflects badly on "our side" ought to be swept under the rug. The key thing is that in the Arab world, those who think this way seem to hold all the reins of influence, while over here those of us who don't subscribe to such moral relativism can still make our voices heard.

Reaction to the video of the beheading of Nick Berg has been muted and cautious in the Arab media.

After the horrifying pictures first appeared on an Islamist website on Tuesday, the main Arab satellite TV stations, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, did not follow their Western counterparts by leading with the story overnight.

Both showed short items on the killing, but did not dwell on its consequences. They chose instead to lead with the latest on the situation in Gaza.

On Wednesday, they did show longer items on the killing, but still placed considerably less emphasis on it than the Western media.

Some other Arab satellite stations like the Lebanese-based al-Hayat-LBC did lead with the story early on, but did not run long items on it.


None of the major satellite and national channels showed the moment of the beheading - saying that the story was strong enough without those images and it would have been indecent to show them.

Anyone who believes that last bit about "decency" should come take a look at this bridge I've been meaning to sell for a while ... "Decency" had nothing to do with it - the killing makes Arabs look bad, even in their own eyes, which is why the Arab press has bent over backwards to spare its audience the gruesome details. No such restraint has been at work whenever a chance to lambast the Great Satan has presented itself.

The Arab press followed the pattern of the TV stations in reporting the story but giving it limited coverage in their Wednesday editions.


There was a mixed response in the national press in the Arab world. Many newspapers in Lebanon and Kuwait put the story on their front pages with a photo taken from the video. But newspapers in Syria - where the government controls the press - did not run the story at all.

The leading newspaper in Egypt, al-Ahram, had nothing on the beheading on Wednesday, but ran a story on page four with no photo in its Thursday edition. Other pro-government newspapers in Egypt gave the story cursory coverage.

Is there really any more evidence needed that Mubarak's Egypt is hardly an American "ally" by any meaningful description, and is simply a free-rider going along for the $2 billion in annual aid, even as it uses anti-American incitement to distract the discontent of its masses?

In its commentary, the well-regarded Lebanese newspaper, al-Safir, said the beheading "was not an eye for an eye. It was a scene for a scene." The paper continued: "Competition has begun between the disgusting pictures from Abu Ghraib prison and the one of Nick Berg's slaughter - just like advertisements marketing various products."

This expands on a point made by several Arab commentators in interviews given since the killing of the young American in which they expressed their concern that it would distract attention from the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in a war of extreme images. (emphasis added)

That may indeed have been the case in the Western media, but not in the Arab world where the focus has remained firmly on the torture scandal and the latest events in Gaza.

We finally get to the heart of the matter: with the Arab press, objective standards of moral behavior simply play no role whatsoever in determining whether or not an event is newsworthy. All that matters is how it affects their ability to extract political leverage against America. Beasts like Saddam and Assad kill thousands of fellow Arabs, even hundreds of thousands, and not a word issues from the Arab press against them; Israel kills 56 "freedom fighters" in Jenin and all of the Arab world laments in unison the "massacre" that has taken place. A savage like Abu Musab Zarqawi chops off the head of an idealistic young American trying to do his bit to put Iraq back on its feet, and the news is buried in the inside pages of the Arab newspapers, while the humiliation (though not the physical torture) of Arab prisoners, many (though not all) of whom are guilty of far worse crimes, sparks an orgy of recriminations.

It is this difference in attitudes that give one the confidence to say that we are obviously better than our opponents, and it is precisely to the extent that we allow our press and media to call for the heads of those responsible for the Abu Ghraib fiasco that we are better than what passes for government in most Arab countries. Conservatives of the John Derbyshire persuasion who lambaste the "liberal" media for focusing relentlessly on the abuses at Abu Ghraib have it exactly backwards when they accuse the press of being "anti-American"; on the contrary, they are the ones who seek to betray everything that is best about America, by advocating a descent to the same calculating level that is so repulsive when viewed at work in the Arab world.