Across the Bay

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Beheaded and the Talking Heads

Everyone has learned of the brutal murder of Nick Berg whose beheading was taped and broadcast on the internet. We've seen the Arabs jump on the US for the Abu Ghraib scandal, which by the way the Americans themselves broke and are investigating! What was the Arab reaction to Berg's murder?

I looked around, and there is very little, and it's all reprehensible in that it is more concerned with the loss of the PR edge on the Americans (because of Abu Ghraib) more than an actual moral outrage at the murder.

The Arabist luminary Juan Cole attempted to show "the talking heads on US cable news" how this accusation of the Arabs and Muslim is unfounded. Cole went around the internet shopping for these "condemnations" and here's what he found and posted: two quotes from islam-online and one from the Sydney Morning Herald. Nothing from any Arab paper. But it gets worse. Let's read what those sources he quoted actually said:

The first quote came from a cleric from the Azhar seminary. Cole only quoted this section of it:

"Islam respects the human being, dead or alive, and cutting off the American's head was an act of mutilation forbidden by Islam," [said] Ibrahim Al-Fayoumi, a member of Al-Azhar's Islamic Research Academy."

But the next quote, which Cole conveniently ignored, states:

"However, Fayoumi suspected the whole episode was "an American propaganda to divert attention from the scandal of the U.S. military abuse of Iraqi detainees"."

Now that's more like it!! That at least sounds like something an Arab conspiracy theorist would say!

Here's another one. Cole cites this statement by Mahmoud Emara:

"Mahmoud Emara, another member of the Academy [said] "The mutilation even of enemies is rejected by Islam. A mistake could not justify another . . . " The scholar cited the respect Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had paid to bodies in the battle of Badr when he ordered the burial of the dead irrespective of their religion. The Prophet urged his Companions on the day of Badr to be kind to their captives and treat them with clemency."

There's actually a line in the quote that precedes the former:

"Mahmoud Emara, another member of the Academy, slammed the decapitation, saying it would harm the image of Islam."

This is merely an apology for Islam. Islam is the center point here, not the murder of Nick Berg. But here's where Cole actually stops using this particular source for more quotes. Allow me to press on from the same source:

"Abdel-Rahman Al-Adawy, another member of the Islamic Research Academy [said]: 'The decapitator vented his anger at the occupation forces," mired in gruesome acts of torturing and abusing Iraqi detainees.

Al-Adawy said the broadcasting of the execution "mirrors deep anger now filling the hearts of all Muslims and world peoples over the U.S. military abuses of Iraqi civilians."

The scholar recalled that the Iraqis "were not even prisoners of war but simple civilians detained for no clear purpose.

Get the picture? The only one who said something acceptable was one not quoted by Cole:

"Mohamed Raafat Othman, an Academy member, said Islam deems mutilating the body of an enemy a "punishable" crime" because after all he is a human being."

At least he acknowledged the humanity of Berg (as opposed to brushing him under the label "enemies") and actively called it a "crime" (and not just the usual "this is not the essence of Islam"). Yet, not one actually mentioned that Berg was someone working in the reconstruction effort in Iraq.

The second quote is also misleading because it's exclusively Iraqi! It says nothing about Arabs outside Iraq. Furthermore, it also displays the same problems I discussed with the Azhar statements.

The third and final quote came from the Sydney Morning Herald:

"Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah harshly criticised the beheading and questioned the timing of a "horrible" act which drove the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US-led forces from the headlines.

"Hezbollah denounces this horrible act which does an immense wrong to Islam and Muslims by a group which falsely pretends to follow the precepts of the religion of pardon and essential human values," the party said in a statement.

Ezzedine Salim, this month's chief of the Iraq Governing Council, insisted that "decapitations and mutilations are unacceptable and have nothing to do with Islam".

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier called for a return to "rules and limits" in the Middle East.

Cole added that Hizbullah as a Shiite group has nothing but "contempt" for the Sunni Zarqawi. At the same time however, he's pontificating on how the US intervention in Iraq is bringing about a historic Sunni-Shiite union! So which one is it sir? Furthermore, as much contempt as they might have for radical Sunnis, they have equal contempt (if not more) for Americans, and in this case, a Jewish American.

Moreover, I haven't found this Hizbullah reaction (neither has Cole) in any Arab or Lebanese newspaper. Neverthelss, it could be that their Sydney bureau issued it for PR reasons as they are fighting a ban there, and this way Hezbollah can get credit without damaging its "resistance" credentials in Lebanon or the ME. Regardless, this is really a useless statement once again because it's an apology for Islam and nothing more. The only other thing is that "tactical" aspect I alluded to earlier, evidenced by the mention of the "timing" of the act!! Irshad Manji was on the O'Reilly factor yesterday and she made the same distinction between a tactical disappointment and a moral outrage. The best of course is the French! If he only had kept his mouth shut. But the style is similar to Chirac's, whose comments a couple of days ago (before the beheading) were so slimy and quite obviously jabbing at the US.

But what did the Arab papers say? Well, it's either nothing, or along the lines of the tactical and conspiratorial approach. I.e., very similar to the approach after 9/11. They want to keep the heat on the US for Abu Ghraib, and that's what they're doing, even when reporting the story of the beheading of Nick Berg. So they briefly mention the murder, then go back to attacking the US for Abu Ghraib.

This is exactly what As-Safir did, as well as An-Nahar, which barely mentioned the murder. Same applies for Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat. In fact, Al-Hayat today had no piece whatsoever, either in its front page or its op-ed page, reacting to the murder, but there are plenty on Abu Ghraib.

The Daily Star followed this lead as well, and summarized the Arabs' attitude:

"Firstly, the beheading of Berg has eclipsed the shame and failure of the US and its allies over the Abu Ghraib scandal. Berg's self-appointed executioners appear to have been oblivious to the fact that a public relations disaster for the US' Middle East policies was a prime opportunity for the Arab and Muslim worlds to push Washington for a new, just approach to the region. Instead, they sabotaged this unique opportunity. They have created a reactionary climate in which Abu Ghraib can be seen as a deserving punishment for an entire society, a climate which fosters the belief that Berg's killers represent the real face of Arabs and Muslims. Not only did an innocent civilian lose his life in appalling circumstances, but the Arab and Muslim worlds have been dealt a severe body blow by the same blade that ended Berg's life."

A tactical PR blow, nothing more. Another commentary in the same paper mentioned the murder, then a couple of opposing reactions to it from Iraqis, along with the condemnation and demand for an apology by the US, then continued on about Abu Ghraib!

But the Star had published an op-ed by Sabah Salih on Abu Ghraib that put things in perspective and made a couple of excellent points that I think will help explain the reactions to the murder of Nick Berg:

"The recent Abu Ghraib images are here to stay. They will become an integral part of the intellectual justification for opposition to the Iraq war.


However, this is also bad news for the Kurds. From now on their suffering will scarcely provoke a shrug. Already, much to the delight of Arab pundits in London, Cairo and elsewhere, Kurdish particularity is being steadily swept aside as terms like "the Arab world" and "the Muslim world" occupy the center.

Third, the power of the images lies not so much in what they show as in the nature of their targets: the Arab and the Muslim. There would certainly have been little or no international outcry had the images been of, let's say, Serbian men. For one thing, the Serbs have already been demonized by the war in Bosnia. For another, they number less than 8 million. In contrast, there are 280 million Arabs, with many more millions of Muslims on their side. The images will reinforce a perception, popularized by the likes of the late scholar Edward Said and fortified by the perennial obsession with victimhood in Arab political culture, that America is no friend of the Arabs or Muslims.

The first point is self-evident. The second and third one about the Arabo-centric attitude are on target as this whole thing basically swallows all events back into the pathological Arab victimhood narrative.

But there's another point that Salih misses (but he wrote before Berg's slaughter), and it's linked more to his point on the European vision of America, that is that this behavior is somehow excused or downplayed because it comes from Arabs. It's part of the "culture" like honour killings and so on. Like everything else with the Arabs, it's part of the "Arab exception." So it's excused with statements like "a reaction to the humiliation at Abu Ghraib" which appeared in all the Arab papers. I can hardly wait to read how Patrick Seale or Robert Fisk or Noam Chomsky will rationalize it. That is if they don't outright deny it, or accuse the Americans or "fabricating" it like Al-Azhar's Fayumi did. Speaking of fabrication, Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat's Abdel Rahman Rashed reported that an Egyptian paper ran photos from a porno movie and said they were the pictures from Abu Ghraib! (cf. this story from Reason's Hit & Run.)

On the war of images, Lee Harris had this to say:

"The enemy's compelling images show what we are fighting against in Iraq; but there are no equally compelling images that show us what we are fighting for -- an "image gap" that is already causing many well wishers of the administration to question a policy in which we are endlessly willing to help a people who refuses to offer us even a single image of themselves caught in the act of displaying friendliness toward us -- a people who, on the contrary, take every photo opportunity given to them to show how much and how deeply they hate us; and who, when not given such an opportunity by us, are quite able to make one for themselves."

However, like Fouad Ajami said last night on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, "there are no hearts and minds to be won in the Arab world."