Friday, November 16, 2007

The Media & Iraqis

NaBloPoMo#16: Here's an important article written by our dear friend Shea in Detroit, who is part of the Boggs Center. It's very enlightening. I also spent the night at Kellie's house years ago when I was there for an arts project for Great Leap. She made the most delicious mung dal dish.

The Media and Iraqis
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, Nov. 18-24, 2007

I’ve been working with a colleague at Oakland University, Dr. Kellie Hay, studying the mainstream media coverage of Arabs. We have been comparing the way the Palestinian people were described in the New York Times and Detroit Free Press before 911 with the way Iraqi people are portrayed today.

Much of what we found was both disturbing and predictable. Even though Palestinians and Iraqis are very different people, engaged in very different struggles, with very different histories, the media continues to use the same dehumanizing and limiting categories when describing Arabic people. The frames and labels used to depict Palestinians continue today in the portrayal of Iraqis.

As you read daily papers or listen to the news, you might want to consider some of what we found.
First, we found that when American troops are killed, their deaths are attributed to some one: Iraqi militants, al Qaeda or insurgents. By contrast, the deaths of Iraqis, when they are reported at all, simply happen. No one is ever identified as causing them. They are simply reported as facts, without any assignment of responsibility. A typical sentence is “173 Iraqis were found dead.”

Second, we found that Iraqis were rarely identified as individuals, acting on their own behalf. Rather they were almost always reported as mass groups: “mobs,” “crowds,” and “thousands.” These mobs were often described in terms associated with forces of nature rather than with human beings. The mobs “surged,” “flooded streets,” “erupted” and “ignited.”

In many cases, these mobs had their origin in mosques. Frequently, stories emphasized mosque doors opening and mobs flooding the streets. In fact, in the four months period we studied, mosques were either the object of violence, places that were attacked, shot at or bombed, not the source of violence. Curfews were justified to keep people away from mosques because they might “incite” people to violence.

This association between Islam and violence wove through all the stories we read even when, between the lines, it was clear that religious leaders were calling for peace, for calmness, and for respect across differences.
One of the most interesting images to emerge in the study was that of Moktada al-Sadr, the Shiite leader most associated with the poorest people in Iraq, and usually noted for his anti-occupation stand. The mainstream press labeled him a “firebrand,” “rebellious,” and “anti American.”

In the incident we studied, the bombing of the Mosque of the Golden Dome in Samarra in 2006, al-Sadr and the Shiites were the people most aggrieved by this tragedy. After the bombing, al-Sadr joined with other religious leaders to appeal for calm. Yet, within three days press reports had shifted from acknowledging him as a victim to describing him as a cause of the violence that followed. There was never any attempt to allow Sadr to speak in his own words.

This obscuring of the role of religious leaders, especially al-Sadr, in responding to violence is one reason why the mainstream media has been unable to convey the role he is playing in the current decline in daily violence. At the end of August, al-Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire. CNN reported on September 1, this “’declaration holds the potential to reduce criminal activity and help reunite Iraqis separated by ethno-sectarian violence and fear,’ the U.S. military said.”

Following long-standing patterns in reporting on the Arab world, we find no discussion in the mainstream press of the critical role Iraqis, especially al-Sadr, are playing in restoring daily life. By denying Iraqis a voice and vision, the “objective news” distorts our understanding of the possibilities for peace.

Peace. Out.

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