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With Pope's Remarks, Media May Be the Culprit

October 5, 2006 By:
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The pope's recent speech on Islam opened a Pandora's box in the Arab world: Churches were torched in the West Bank, effigies lit in Iraq, and condemnations flooded in from angry Muslim leaders.

But according to Abdallah Schleifer -- a veteran Arab news journalist and director of Al Arabiya's Washington bureau -- the media, and not the papacy, might have been the real culprit here.

Schleifer said that reporters took the pope's comments out of context, making no reference to the official papal perspective on Islam -- one of dialogue and not disdain -- nor to the pope's previous comments promoting inter-religious harmony. In doing so, the media turned "one unfortunate paragraph" into "some sort of papal insult and declaration of war against Islam," explained Schleifer.

Speaking last week at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Schleifer discussed how such shoddy reporting, which is particularly rampant throughout the Arab news world, aggravates tensions between Islam and the West -- with often dangerous consequences.

During the nearly 10 years he spent as NBC's Cairo bureau chief, Schleifer said that he came across numerous examples of such paltry journalism.

Once a speech he gave in English was so butchered when it appeared in an Arabic-language newspaper that Schleifer did not recognize the words as his own. Another time, an aide's comments were mistakenly attributed to Schleifer himself.

Ironically, such an aversion to truth-telling is inherently "un-Islamic," according to Schleifer.

He explained that since the Koran is the holiest scripture in Islam, the written word is of paramount importance to Muslims. Historically, Muslim scholars have striven for "painstaking accuracy" as a way of proving their devotion to God, noted Schleifer.

But these values, so fundamental to Islam, did not translate over to the Arab press.

Schleifer said that failure has its roots in Middle Eastern history: When the printing press came to Arab states, it did so at the hands of Napoleon and other Francophiles, who extolled literary analysis and secularism. These early journalists infused their principles into the Arabic media; in doing so, they moved away from the "obsessively accurate and objective" nature of Islam, according to Schleifer.

'No Sense of Equity'

Arab media has also been shaped by an overarching narrative of victimhood, said the newsman. He relayed that Arab journalists are so eager to draw attention to stories of Arab persecution that they sometimes lose sight of the real issues at play.

He cited an incident where an Egyptian student reporter chatted with a professional Egyptian reporter outside of the John F. Kennedy airport in New York. When the student, who wore a head veil, told the reporter she had breezed through customs without hassle, the news team didn't bother interviewing her -- "they left in search of another would-be victim."

Despite this hypersensitivity to bias and victimhood in the Arab community, Arab journalists show "little or no sense of equity" when it comes to reporting on non-Arabs, said Schleifer.

For example, though much has been made of the fact that Rome has a shortage of mosques, the fact that churches are a rarity in Saudi Arabia "is not an issue that will ever be raised by most of the Arab media," he said.

The Arab media also lacks many of the checks and balances of the Western press, he told the crowd. For instance, when a member of the Western press gets a story wrong, he or she -- or one of their peers -- can issue a follow-up to provide a counternarrative, or an opinion piece, to offer an alternate position.

But these mechanisms don't exist in the Arab press, he said.

The speaker did have some good news about the Arab media, however. He said that Arab satellite TV has given rise to a new crop of journalists who -- "inspired by CNN and trained by the BBC" -- host talk shows marked by rigorous, frank debate.

Schleifer counted his news station, Al Arabiya, among this set. While other news outlets pander to Arab nationalism and "incite the Arab street," he said Al Arabiya "will not be a cheerleader" for such sentiments.

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