Need to know ‘why they hate us’

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 24 Dec 2006

Behind the Headlines: By BUNN NAGARA 

NOBODY can accuse political conservatives of being slow or lethargic, at least not these days. Upon a bedrock of ignorance and prejudice they have built and sold policies that have often failed, but they continue to do even more. 

The problem also covers conservatives labelled as Democrats in the United States, as the case of Congressman Silvestre Reyes of Texas shows. Even as he is the incoming Democratic Chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, he has been unable to tell Sunni from Shi’ite Muslims or understand the basics of Hezbollah. 

Reyes may be comforted by the fact that he is not alone among his colleagues in being clueless about his work, but society as a whole cannot afford such complacency or indifference. Among top US officials, the closer they are to the White House, the greater the ignorance and prejudice. 

But there is a difference with the present Republican incumbents – disdain and arrogance come as added ingredients. Who cares about what other people are, if you’re busy pouting and spouting about what needs to be done to them? 

And so a declared “war on terrorism” targets Saddam Hussein’s Iraq instead, leaving Osama bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaeda in peace, relieved, ready to recuperate and regroup between hit missions. 

With the kind of limited intelligence even within the intelligence community, foreign names are often confusing. Thus when al-Qaeda sends occasional videos to the Qatar-based broadcast network al-Jazeera, some had assumed a relationship of sorts. 

It was then for people like talk-show legend Sir David Frost, who hosts Frost Over The World on al-Jazeera, to defend the channel. He made sure there was no such shadowy, skulking relationship before he decided to work with them, he said. 

It is unlikely that the hardcore ideologues among neocon Bushmen are convinced, not that the facts matter much to them. In word and deed, they have shown an animosity towards the network that – given their own negative reputation – only give al-Jazeera more credit. 

In late 2002, al-Jazeera’s Kabul office was destroyed by a US missile, but there were no casualties. A direct hit was reported the year before. Then in April 2003, an al-Jazeera staff died when its Baghdad office was hit in a US bombing campaign. 

The following year, British premier Tony Blair flew to Washington to talk Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha. Since Qatar was a Western ally, Blair said the bombing might present something of a problem. 

When the news leaked out, there were typically denials all-round. The shadowy, skulking relationship actually existed – but between Washington and London. 

With this skewed attitude and mindset, US domestic politics was bound to be affected. On Thursday, Congressman Virgil Goode attacked the wish of incoming Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim US lawmaker, to use a Quran at his swearing-in ceremony. 

Goode went on to link his fear and disdain of Muslims in general to immigration to the United States. This went beyond “standard” Islamophobia since he made this preconceived, prejudicial link based on Ellison’s case, when Ellison was not a migrant but US-born. 

Goode might not have known that, or cared to know it. Likewise, he might not even bother to know that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States today.  

He might therefore not be emotionally or intellectually equipped to debate whether – given the number of Muslims in the United States (divergent estimates range up to 2% of the 300 million population) – a sole Muslim congressman may actually be a case of under-representation. The lower house has 435 voting members, and there are 100 senators. 

The world at large is an increasingly complex place, including the United States as a part of it. Lazy, hazy views based on bigotry and coupled with resolute policy action tend to be dangerous and destructive. 

So how much understanding can be expected by US policymakers when al-Qaeda and Hamas argue and criticise each other, as on Thursday? Even when they try to understand these things, US officials are typically blinkered by the comfortable set notions “out there” among their colleagues, the public and the mainstream media. 

Despite much talk of freedom of the press, US news media constrain themselves from reporting with different angles, airing different views and considering different criteria, reference frameworks and starting points. They have to share the blame for an underinformed public, and public representatives, in the richest country in the world. 

Thus Hezbollah is conventionally reported in the US media as if it were a foreign force in Lebanon, when it is actually local Lebanese formed to resist Israeli occupation. And Israel is often reported as a status quo power seeking reasonable solutions, when it is a major interested party that occupies foreign lands by force. 

Then when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held an international conference earlier this month questioning the Jewish Holocaust, reports of condemnations flew all-round. But when at the same conference the Iranian president warmly welcomed a Jewish delegation of orthodox rabbis critical of Israel, little or nothing was reported. 

Similarly, when on Friday Indonesian courts acquitted Abubakar Ba’asyir of the Bali bombings, there was a flurry of reports about how detestable the court decision was. Yet what should have been key was hardly reported: that the court based its judgment on the evidence presented, and there was no evidence linking Abubakar to the bombings. 

Abubakar is not Nordin Mohd Top, Azahari Husin or any of the three condemned terrorists on Indonesia’s death row. Whether or not he is guilty, the lack of evidence presented in court could produce only a verdict of a lack of guilt. 

Should due legal process be subverted to pacify Western critics, like the popular vote for Hamas might be sabotaged by those who dislike the democratic result? US leaders and media have not learned that you don’t always have to agree with the results to champion proper procedure, thus weakening their case for just causes. 

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