We need to know more, but the “experts” aren’t helping
With the US currently engaged in an air-war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and with voices now calling for deeper engagement in both conflict zones, the American public is being bombarded with commentary and analysis about ISIS, Syria and Iraq, and Muslims. Unfortunately, too much of it is shallow—mostly a stringing together of clichés. More disturbing still, is the extent to which this crisis has provoked another round of uninformed conversation about Arabs and Islam fuelling fear and hatred of Arab and Muslim Americans.
While a few knowledgeable individuals have been invited for rare media appearances, all too often the networks have let laziness win out dragging out a cast of "regulars"—former military officers, current or former elected officials, and paid "talking heads". They may know a few choice Arabic words (Sunni, Shia, Jihadi, etc.) and can use a few of them in a sentence. But experts, they are not. I'm sorry to sound elitist, but some guy who made a fortune in real estate and happened to be elected to Congress is not, in my book, qualified to speak about countries he's never visited or cultures he's never studied.
To hear these "experts" pontificating about Islam or Arab culture is more than annoying. It's downright dangerous. Instead of elevating the discourse, they dumb it down. And instead of making us aware of the enormous complexities involved in these conflict zones, they reduce them to simple and easy clichés.
America has been down this road before in the Middle East - with tragic results— I fear we may be heading there once again. During the past four decades we've been deeply involved across this region, but because we've known so little about its peoples, cultures, and history—all too often our involvement has spelled disaster.
Studies have shown that the US educational system doesn't prepare us to understand the Middle East. Popular culture has distorted perceptions of the region and its peoples reducing them to crude one-dimensional negative stereotypes. And the political culture has, all too often, exploited these stereotypes—elevating them to political truths.
After 9/11, there was a flurry of commentary about Islam and the Arab World. Questions were asked "why do they hate us?" and "what's wrong with the Arab World?" We knew we had a problem and we wanted to understand its source and how to resolve it. I found it especially tragic that, in that moment, when so many were open to knowledge, major media outlets and political leadership failed miserably. Instead of informing, they fell back on the conventional wisdom of the stereotypes. The airwaves were dominated by commentators who were either purveyors of the same old myths or those who had an axe to grind against Arabs and Islam.
The answers they provided to the above questions were ahistorical, tautological, or just plain uninformed. To the first they responded –"they hate us because they hate our values and are envious of our success" or "they hate us because they have been taught to hate us". And to the second –"they have failed because their religion is fundamentally backward" or "they have failed because their culture is inherently flawed". Instead of helping to create understanding, they reinforced stereotypes. And instead of shattering myths enabling us to see our way forward to bridging the chasm that separated the West from the Arab and Muslim peoples, they accented our fears and contributed to deepening the divide. Fear and sensationalism might have been a convenient way to boost ratings or an easy way to scare up votes—but real damage was done.
Our political leadership, with most media outlets cheering them on, committed hundreds of thousands of our young men and women to fight and lose their lives in two failed wars. The Bush Administration invaded both Afghanistan and Iraq without any real understanding of their history or people—stumbling as one would upon entering a dark room—not knowing where we were going, what we would find, what we were bumping into, and what the consequences of our blunders would be.
Almost ten years after 9/11 and seven years after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Zogby International conducted a poll of American public opinion. What we found was frightening: 37% of Americans still couldn't find Iraq on a map; less than a quarter knew that Syria bordered Iraq; and two-thirds thought Iran was an Arab country. Almost half of all Americans believed that "most Muslims are religious fanatics", and almost three-quarters were convinced that "Arabs hated our values".
As someone who has spent his entire adult life attempting to understand the Arab World and to build bridges between East and West and who has worked with my brother, John, to measure Arab and American public opinion, all this was so terribly frustrating. Our polling in the Arab World shows that the overwhelming majority of Arabs love American values and culture, people and products, and the advances Americans have made in science and technology. What they don’t like about us are our policies which so negatively affect their lives. Far from being fanatics, Arabs tell us that what they value most are their families and their work. They watch TV to be entertained. And their mosque attendance rates are roughly the same as church attendance rates in the US. But that's not what comes through over our airwaves or in our political discourse.
When President Obama traveled to Egypt in 2009 to speak to the Arab and Muslim Worlds, he was making an effort to change and elevate the discussion - there and here. He began,
"We meet at a time of tension between the United States and Muslims around the world—tensions rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate...tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations".
He continued appealing to both sides not to let our relationships be defined by differences, to reject negative stereotypes, and to end "the cycle of suspicion and discord".
I believe that the President's Cairo speech is as relevant today as it was then. What is unfolding in Syria and Iraq is clearly a danger that we must address. But before we go half-cocked into another Middle East war based on half-baked notions about the people we will be fighting, we need to know a great deal more about the challenges involved. We need to understand the nature of ISIS. What is its appeal; what are the social and political characteristics of its base; how is it seen by those whom it counts as supporters; and what accounts for its rapid spread? What will it take to defeat them and what exactly would victory look like? How are we perceived by allies and enemies, alike? And will that impact our ability to operate in the region?
This may be a war worth waging. But before we do more, we need to know more. Given the level of understanding on display from too many political commentators, that’s something they still don’t get.