Across the Bay

Monday, November 13, 2006

NYT Ignorance and Cliches

Lebanon is probably the most misrepresented and misunderstood of all the Arab states, but some people aren't even trying. The latest example comes from Michael Slackman in Sunday's Times highlighting the amount of laziness and ignorance that permeates reporting (and even scholarship) on Lebanon.

This piece raises a timely question: if the Baker realists are supposed to "solve" all the problems the neocons caused in Iraq, then who will save the liberal intelligentsia's paper of record from making itself look stupid with its Middle East coverage?

Slackman starts off on the wrong foot, asserting that Lebanon was "[c]arved out by the French as a haven for Christians." For one, Slackman completely cuts off Lebanese history to fit the anti-colonialist narrative, ignoring the preludes in Ottoman times. And second, never was there a formula of a "haven for Christians." Maybe Slackman confused this with the actual slogan, "haven for minorities," not just Christians. In fact, the autonomous 19th c. Mount Lebanon polity had a system that very much prefigured the current system of power sharing which, regardless of actual demographic distribution in Mt. Lebanon, included representation for all sects. The post-French mandate Lebanon was also not designed as "a haven for Christians." If it were so, then it wouldn't have encompassed the largely Sunni cities of Tripoli and Sidon, or the predominantly Shiite areas in the south. Those Christians, like Emile Edde, who advocated against including the Sunni cities and Shiite areas in order to maintain the Christian character of the state, did not prevail.

Next, he writes that "now the Taif era is widely regarded as over, with a handoff from Sunni to Shiite control well under way, although some Christians are still searching for a way to preserve the status quo."

What evidence does the Times have to support any of this? Who believes that Taif is over? Moreover, what's this about a handoff from Sunni to Shiite control? Does the NYT Middle East correspondent not understand what is currently taking place in Lebanon? It is not a handoff; Hezbollah is trying to bring down a democratically elected government and make it submit to the fanatical thugocracy next door and its Iranian patron. But maybe in the Times Middle East lexicon, "handoff" is how they describe a militia that wants to seize control of all state institutions and turn the country into a garrison state.

And then of course there are "demographics," the most frequently manipulated of all Lebanese political instruments that allow anyone to project their own anxieties and fantasies onto Lebanon. It once again validates the excellent insight made by Lebanon scholar Theodor Hanf, which I have quoted before:

The lack of census figures stimulated not only political, but also social fantasies. And the products usually correlated with the analyst's political convictions. From the mid-1970s onwards, a number of authors more or less equated social class and community in Lebanon, and interpreted conflicts between these communities as class struggles. Of course, this thesis was an effective mobilizer. It also satisfied the desire of some media for simple explanations of complex situations. The cliché of 'rich Christians' and 'poor Muslims', has had a brilliant journalistic career -- and it may not be over yet.

Slackman may not have a political agenda, so his vacuum of ignorance is ably filled by others, like Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University in Beirut, who appears to have become Slackman's number one Lebanon expert (along with Judith Palmer Harik. Others prefer Hezbollah flak Amal Saad-Ghorayeb. Take your pick.): "A census will show the Christians are a clear minority," and, he adds, "Nobody wants to know the extent of their decline. Some think they don’t even make up 25 percent of the population."

Never mind that Khashan is advancing his own agenda, an aspect of Middle Eastern politics that the Times has proven itself ignorant of time and again. And never mind that Khashan's statement directly contradicts Slackman's note about the lack of a census. So what is the basis of Khashan's statement, or for that matter, Slackman's categorical "everyone knows," other than pure speculation? "Some think"? Well, "others beg to differ." Does any sane person really believe the reason there is no census is solely on account of the Christians (the historical bête noire)?

The funny thing is that the same day the Times published this piece of nonsense, An-Nahar, Lebanon's leading daily, ran a story about a new study by Yousef Doueihi that provided the following demographic statistics: 35% Christians, 29% Sunnis, 29% Shiites, 5% Druze. (It turns out that my fellow Lebanese blogger Mustapha laid out the chart over at Beirut Spring.)

It's hardly a surprise the Times is ignorant of Arab media, but the results from this study (which I might come back to later to discuss in detail) seem within ballpark range of what the serious studies and scholars (see, e.g., William Harris) have postulated. Basically, there is demographic balance in Lebanon between Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites (in many ways validating the "haven of minorities" formula, as no single group represents a majority). Overall, although politically irrelevant, the Muslim-Christian ratio is closer to the 60-40 range, and this study has it at 64,29% to 35,33%. Of course The New York Times could've checked their quotes against the CIA factbook number, 59.7% to 39%, (as opposed to, say, relying on sources like Khashan's "some think," or Slackman's "everyone knows") but that would've entailed reporting and a certain amount of skepticism of its Middle Eastern sources and its stringers.