The essence of the matter

In a recent radio interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent based in New York, discussed the difficulties of reporting the news from the Middle East. He points out that coverage is “incredibly fraught…It goes back decades…on back to the Bible for many people. I think it is also essentially seemingly insoluble…Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth. You’ve got two enemies which seem inclined not only to not want to strike a decent bargain, but not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other in doing so. So the coverage of this means that….the idea of fairness…kind of goes out the window: it’s two competing narratives which are irreconcilable and therefore a strict adherence to what you can prove and show and facts on the ground is probably the safest bet for reporters there.”

In describing problems that reporters face in covering the news, Folkenflik may have unwittingly brought to light the words that highlight the existential essence of the conflict: “Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” I wonder, when the cry is raised for Israel to “negotiate a truce,” what exactly is it that they might be negotiating about? Funeral arrangements?

My blog is dedicated to the idea that words are important, that words can heal and words can kill. Folkenflik emphasizes that reporters should report only what they see. But often this is not so simple. If a reporter is on the street and sees two people wrestling, one on top beating one on bottom, what does he report? When bystanders rush in to intervene, the reporter watches and later interviews them. One of the interveners says “Oh, the guy on the top, he was brutal, beating the guy on bottom! So unfair, that man was clearly weaker than he!” Another says “The guy on the bottom — I saw the whole thing, he started it when he attacked the other guy with a knife! It was just out of the blue, he was walking by and pulled a knife on him. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him!” The words the reporter uses to tell this story can leave the reader clueless as to the context, and helpless to resolve the conflict.

Often reporters in war zones are young, and have never focused intensively on the background of the conflicts they are covering. They go in “tabula rasa,” clean slate, with the intention of being impartial, reporting only facts. But facts do not make good radio or television or even good print stories. And without the understanding that a deep knowledge of history of a conflict conveys, the “human element” that every reporter adds to his or her stories strikes the reader “context free,” leading them to believe that a story rich in detail is also rich in context.

So this all leaves me wondering: does Hamas really represent the average Gazan? Dr. David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently commissioned a poll of Gazan residents. To his surprise, the poll reported that the average Palestinian family man was interested in peace and a steady job in Israel. This is some solid context demonstrating that extremists who manage to grab power and headlines are not necessarily representative of the people they purport to represent and defend. And often those average people are the ones who pay the price of extremism.

(This posting received special assistance from my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

Irrelevant Majorities

On many occasions in my blogs I have challenged the silent majority of Muslims from whose midst extremists emerge to act against them in word and deed.

In an email I received from a friend, I was referred to a video of a panel discussion about the murders at the American Embassy in Bengazi in 2013. One audience member, a young Muslim-American law student, got up to ask why the panel thought it was possible to fight an ideological war using physical weapons. One of the panelists, Brigitte Gabriel, pointed out that while the questioner was correct in stating that most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims were not supporters of the jihadist ideology of violence, that still leaves a sizable minority of Muslims who do support the jihadists logistically and financially. It is my belief that there is no ideological ground for discussion with the jihadists, no way that the “philosophical conflict” can be resolved. The extremists are using intimidation and violence against their own co-religionists as well as others. And it is the radicals who typically set the agenda.  This, she said, is why we focus primarily on the extremist minority: just a very few extremists can cause the deaths of 14 million in Nazi concentration camps, or 20 million during the Stalinist era, or 50 million in the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A small minority of extremists determined the agenda while the peaceful majority was irrelevant. And it took only two dozen radical Muslims to shut down the entire US on 9/11 and cause a complete culture change with regard to national security.

The question that is left begging for an answer is the obvious one: where is the leader who speaks out strongly for the majority of Muslims who want nothing to do with jihad? There are a few imams and other prominent moderate individuals, but I know of no one of stature who claims that role or who has the charisma that might allow the silent majority to coalesce into a stronger and more vocal force. It would take a lot of daring for anyone to put him or herself into this position — the forces of violence constantly threaten to silence those who choose to speak strongly against the jihadist agenda. The voices of the silent majority need to be heard as individuals, as spiritual leaders, and in the media.

I am writing this blog on the eve of the Fourth of July, the day when Americans celebrate the birth of our country as an independent nation. I hope and pray that we will continue to inspire and support those who want to establish democratic systems in their own countries in the hope of benefiting all people with freedom.