Saturday, May 8, 2010

After Times Square: The Media's Refusal to Discuss Islamism in Terrorism Surpasses Satire

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By Barry Rubin

A lot has been said about media contortions to avoid the “I” word when talking about terrorists, and most specifically about the Times Square bomber. But when one sees it in an extended analysis (22 long paragraphs) in the country’s best newspaper, not just some remarks on television by a giggly host, it is really shocking.

In my view the Post is definitely the most serious general newspaper in the United States today. [I’m not even considering the Wall Street Journal because of its financial/business focus.]

So I’m ticked off about the lead article in the May 7 Washington Post, “Suspect Made `Gradual’ Shift.” The headline on the jump page is: “Radicalization of Times Square suspect was gradual, officials say.”

Gradual shift to what? What kind of radicalization?

As you examine the headline you can spot an incredibly clear contradiction. The subhead of the article is “Religion and Anger.” But which religion and how did it figure in the story? The issue is never—well, almost never--raised in the long article.

We read that he is angry at the United States, that this increased during several trips to Pakistan, and that he trained with the Pakistani Taliban.

What kind of organization might that be? Liberal or conservative? Communist or Fascist? What are the beliefs and aims one would have to feel in order to train with the Taliban? Not a hint.

Oh yes, an official is quoted as saying “a combination of religion and anger.” But that’s it. No hint of what religion, no mention that religion and anger combined have been responsible for more than 10,000 revolutionary Islamist (oops!) terrorist attacks including September 11, Madrid trains, London subway, Arkansas recruiter, Empire State Building, LA airport (still classified as non-terrorist though a Muslim gunmen killed two people at the El Al counter), Fort Hood, Detroit airplane bombing, and many more.

Sometimes it gets ridiculous—well, it’s all ridiculous but sometimes especially so:

“A U.S. official said Shahzad was associated with at least one individual who was in contact with Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born cleric in Yemen, who has been tied to the suspect in the attempted Christmas bombing…as well as the man charged in last year’s fatal shootings at Fort Hood, Tex.”

I won’t remark on the reference to “the man charged.” Everyone is innocent until proven guilty but that wording is a little further than necessary isn’t it? Yet more important: What kind of cleric might Aulaqi be? What kind of ideology is he teaching?

The article continues, analyzing the bomber's possible motives:

“The lender foreclosed on the property, prompting speculation that financial hardship contributed to Shahzad’s alleged violent turn.”

See, the Post is too good to suggest that this is true, it's mere speculation. But, ok, might there be some speculation that he became a radical Islamist? Might his religious belief have contributed to his “alleged” violent turn? Apparently, it is all right to speculate about a dust mote but not the woolly mammoth waving its tusks and trumpeting loudly at stage center.

Incidentally, because the Post is basically a good newspaper it did tell us that the property was only foreclosed after he quit his job and stopped making payments on it. So much for his being a victim of the economic situation. Let me speculate that he was getting ready to launch an attack and so didn't need to keep paying out money.

This is only another “speculation” but the presence of the subhead mentioning religion might indicate that there was more on Islamism in the article and it was edited out at some point.

There is one other vague reference to the bomber's actual motives and ideology, a quotation from a Pakistani-American leader who spoke with someone who knew Shahzad (sounds a little vague and hearsay to me), saying, "A year ago he became more introverted, more religious, and more stringent in his views.”

Stringent? Like a strong distaste for nutmeg? Religious? He went to confession daily?

In the most silly point in the article, we’re told:

“Even though his ties to foreign radical groups may be real, he doesn’t exhibit the instincts, training, or traits of a hardened terrorists. Officials note that Shahzad did much out in the open….”

Well, he got away with it up to the time of the bombing, didn’t he? So maybe the problem is that U.S. government officials don’t exhibit the instincts, training, or traits of hardened counter-terrorist experts. Moreover, we know that he got training only during brief visits to Pakistan and so was no veteran fighter. It isn't hard to figure out what happened. The Taliban was thrilled to have a U.S. citizen who knew how to function well enough to succeed. Unlike al-Qaida—or the Muslim Brotherhood and Palestinian groups--they hadn’t spent years building up a network inside the United States.

Now, as a scholarly old-fashioned liberal kind of guy who gives the mass media an even break, I am tempted to suggest that this kind of thing is partly understandable because the story is still unfolding. It is too early to know everything. The media is just being cautious until all the facts are available.

But as we look at Fort Hood and other such incidents the truth seems something different. Much or most of the mass media today basically argues as follows:

Tolerance is good; hatred is bad. Precisely because so many Muslims have been involved in terrorism, Americans might hate Muslims, mistakenly confusing ordinary law-abiding Muslims with revolutionary Islamists who use Islam as the main source of their ideology. Therefore, we must censor the news in order to protect Americans from becoming right-wing bigots forming mobs to burn down the local mosques, and to protect Muslims in America from being massacred in the streets of Connecticut by crazed Islamophobes wearing tee-shirts with American flags on them! Our function is to lie to our audience for their own good. It's wonderful to be so virtuous!

Funny, I thought the media’s function was to tell the truth, report the news, and provide accurate information.

I told you I was old-fashioned.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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