I’m writing this as a response to “Why we shouldn’t be afraid of the Middle East,” an article by junior Adam Mattison that was published in last week’s Campus Times.
First things first, I’d like to say that I don’t have any experience in the Middle East, and I don’t mean this as an attack on Mattison, or really any of the things he said.
I agree that Americans often have an unfairly negative idea of the Middle East, and it probably is a fascinating place to visit. But I think the problem we have faced recently, especially in the media coverage of the so-called “Arab Spring,” is not a fearful portrayal, but a patronizing one.
Coverage of the unrest sweeping through Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Libya has been just as dangerous as reporting that incites fear, but it takes a very different tack. It has marginalized these revolutions, ignoring what enormous changes truly are sweeping through the region, or treated them as one-shot events.
When was the last time you read or heard something about Egypt? And why would you hear anything really: The whole thing in Egypt is done, right? They got rid of Mubarak, so everything is fixed. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The military still has enormous control over the Egyptian government and the economy, and many of the close allies of Mubarak remain in power and continue to perpetuate the corruption that has plagued Egypt for decades.
The U.S. media in particular has often taken an extremely self-centered view of the recent events, a sort of suburban realpolitik that cares less about people beginning to govern themselves and fight for freedom and instead focuses on how much more expensive it is to drive the SUV to work. We welcome stability over anything else, since stability is what makes our excessive consumption possible, and our media coverage reflects that. Reporters talk of the war in Libya ending quickly, hoping that supplies of its uniquely high-quality crude won’t be disrupted for too much longer, ignoring the civilian deaths that occur every day. It is a misguided and selfish interest that most people take in the Middle East.
Finally, many take too rosy a view of events. If Egypt is now democratic, and we’re democratic, then we must be buddies! That’s great! I admit, this is a trap I fall into as well — I assume Egyptians (and Arabs the world over) must know that we think self-governance is important, and we support the changes they are fighting for.
What that ignores is the decades of support we have given to Mubarak, Qaddafi and others, helping them to remain in power and continue to oppress their subjects. It ignores years of covert actions the U.S. took to suppress democracy in the name of “Democracy” during the Cold War. Americans are shocked to hear that Iranians believe the forced confessions that are constantly put out, asserting that Iranian activists and reporters met with the head of the CIA to overthrow the government. How can they believe something so ridiculous? Oh wait: The U.S. did overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammaed Mosaddegh in 1953 and replaced him with an authoritarian leader. But the American media continues to act as if “democracy” means “Pro-America.”
I’m not trying to say these revolutions are a bad thing — that couldn’t be farther from what I believe. But saying, as Mattison does, that the “large-scale grassroots protests which followed the rigged 2009 elections in Iran seem to be a far more accurate measure” of the opinion people in the Middle East have of America is a fallacy.
Rigged elections are not just the domain of dictators, and pro-democracy is not the same as pro-America. There’s a difference between living in fear of the Arab world and assuming that the Arab people will love us. Remember when we thought we would be greeted as liberators? That didn’t work out so well.
I admit that Mattison is talking more from a tourist perspective and I’m looking more at the political side of things. But assuming that, because people in the Middle East “love hummus,” they’ll love America is foolish. The Arab world deserves our respect and support for their recent actions, but we have to recognize them as ultimately unconcerned with our support. Giving them distance and independence is the first step to restoring our tarnished reputation.