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Media cast jaundiced eye on Muslim side of stories.

Most of us in the Arab and Muslim world who watched U.S. television coverage of the arrest of Mohammed Salameh in connection with the World Trade Center bombing found it incomplete, stereotypical and often racist.

What troubled us was its excessive focus on the violence of a brand of politicized Islamic fundamentalism that defines a very small minority of Arabs and Muslims. We have no problem with straight news coverage of the suspect, the rented van, the mosque where he worshiped, even instances of Islamic violence in Egypt, the United States or other countries.

But that must be balanced by efforts to explain his religious motivation, the conditions fostering militant Islam in the Arab world and why the Islamic religion responds to the needs of so many people for political expression and social support.

Instead, the TV coverage repeatedly ran stories presenting Islam, Arabism, violence and terrorism as a single, unified phenomenon. The reports I saw - and that I continue to see a week later - focused on the preachings of Sheik Omar Abdul Rabman in New Jersey, his links to fundamentalists in Egypt and their alleged collective association with the assassinations of Anwar Sadat and Meir Kahane and the more recent violence against foreign tourists in Egypt.

Those may be accurate facts, but aired in isolation from the broader reality of our world they become selective, inaccurate, incomplete and almost racist components of a brand of media distortion that demeans the intelligence of American viewers as much as it savages the dignity and humanity of Arabs and Muslims.

In trying to explain the U.S. coverage, Arab journalists like myself cite four reasons for its distortion.

* First, the nature of TV news demands that reporters package stories as a combination of fact and drama to capture and hold the viewer's attention. To do this in the one to two minutes allotted to them, most reporters have to rely on images, words and symbols that reduce complex realities into stereotypes and cliches.

* Then, there is the legacy of years of distorted Western, especially American, perceptions of Islam and Arabism. Ironically, Arabs and Americans tend to share the same stereotypes of each other, in both cases focusing on parallel images of violence and opulence.

The average Arab's image of the United States is that of a land of wealth and opportunity where people hesitate to step outside of their homes for fear of being robbed or raped. Similarly, the average American's view of Arab-Islamic culture mixes images of wealth and terrorism.

* Third, there is the apparent need among Americans to define a new external enemy to replace communism. With Japan and China no longer in the race, the Arab-Islamic world is now the leading contender to become the world's new bad guy.

* Finally, over the last 50 years a small minority of people in the United States, either because of their pro-Israeli convictions or to gain electoral advantage, has actively promoted a negative image of Arabs and Muslims. With little Arab activism or diplomacy to counter this negative attitude, it has created a residue of negative images of Arabs and Muslims.

The litmus test of fairness and accuracy is always a simple one: Would the U.S. media have used the same religious and racial imagery had the suspect been black or Jewish? Probably not. In such cases, the media usually make a credible attempt to look beyond the surface violence to its root causes, as the media did in the aftermath of the riots in Los Angeles, in London's Brixton and in Soweto. In instances of violence by Arabs and Muslims, however, such explorations are rare.

Why does American TV news project such dramatic imagery of Arab-Muslim violence without addressing its underlying causes or placing it within the broader context of one billion Muslims and 230 million Arabs?

A great opportunity to communicate between U.,9. and Arab-Muslim publics has been lost at a time when dangerous new tensions are building in the Middle, East.

Rami Khouri is an Arab author and TV commentator based in Jordan and former editor of the Jordan Times.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Mar 26, 1993
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