The assassination of Osama Bin Laden by US Special Forces last week has once again underlined the importance of culture perceptions in defining US media coverage of Islam and the Arab world.
The roots of the cultural dimension, which overwhelm the US media coverage of the Middle East, lie in the European-Islamic centuries-old relations. European writings on the Middle East played a vital role in shaping American perceptions of Islam. After the Second World War, American contacts with the Islamic world substantially increased as the US inherited the dominance and influence of the European colonial powers in the region.
Post-Second World War US-Islamic contacts led to forging contemporary stereotypes — most of them emerged in response to Middle Eastern crises — where pictures of religion, culture and politics have become all mixed. These stereotypes are firmly established now in the US media limiting their ability to respond to changes in the Arab and Islamic world.
In fact, the cultural dimension in the US media coverage is not limited to the Middle East. It affects the world at large and is shaped by two approaches. The first is prescriptive: based on a particular understanding of how the world ought to look. This "ethnocentrism", Herbert J. Gans, an American sociologist, believes "comes through most explicitly in foreign news, which judges other countries by the extent to which they live up to or imitate American practices and values". In this respect, Gans presented a list of the hidden social values in the US media coverage of international news. They are ‘ethnocentricism, altruistic democracy, responsible capitalism, individualism, moderatism and order'. If we apply these values to the Arab Middle East, we find that most of them would tend to tilt against it. The second approach in the US media coverage is constructive: based on an interpretative understanding of other cultural realms.
In the Middle East, the cultural dimension is derived from a longstanding tendency to reject, and possibly substitute, what is believed to be a ‘traditional and inferior culture' that needs to be abandoned, or at least modernised, and a ‘backward people' who need to be civilised. The reluctance of some Americans to accept the multicultural nature of the world, on one hand, a tendency that has become increasingly clearer since the end of the Cold War, and the unwillingness of Arab Middle Easterners to abandon their own cultural dispositions, on the other hand, have led to a perceived cultural clash, at least on the part of the latter, prompting some fears of western cultural hegemony. Furthermore, when some Americans admit that western culture is unique but not universal, they do recognise other cultural realms but they perceive them as a threat to the western culture, paving the way for the culture clash vision.
Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the US media tends to reflect the fears and echo the prevalent apprehensions in Israeli circles. It must not be surprising, therefore, that senior Israeli voices are heard loudly in the US media trying to portray Islam as an enemy of the West.
Pro-Israeli journalists in major US newspapers also play a significant role in presenting Islam as an antagonistic religion and culture. Eric Alterman, a well-known US analyst, listed 60 big-name commentators he says are reflexively pro-Israel that "even Benjamin Netanyahu would not be able to complain about the level of support his actions typically receive from the members of the media. For reasons of religion, politics, history and genuine conviction the media debate of the Middle East in America is dominated by people who cannot imagine criticising Israel", let alone presenting Israel's own views in the media.
The US media tends also to echo important debates in academic circles. In fact, the academic debate on political Islam has extended to the media and became a matter of great controversy. Here, the US media tends to strengthen certain views through seeking guidance from experts on certain political issues and for political and ideological affiliation most of those experts, not all though, happened to be anti-Arab. It is clear now that a mutual dependency relationship has developed between media and experts where one uses the other to strengthen certain views and tries to influence the public debate on political Islam.
All these reasons prevent the US media from taking an objective stand in covering the world of Islam, something that was absolutely clear in dealing with the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is Lecturer in Media and International Relations, Damascus University, Syria.