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How do they see us now?

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Arab media have moderated their anti-U.S. vitriol. But the propaganda war is far from won

Donald Rumsfeld is the kind of guy who takes no prisoners. Literally. A couple of weeks ago, Rumsfeld said at a press conference that the U.S. military was not "in the position to have people surrender to us. If people try to, we are declining." Rumsfeld added that the U.S. did not have enough forces on the ground to accept prisoners and that the Northern Alliance should "make their own judgments on that." Most U.S. journalists seemed satisfied with the explanation. When CNN anchor Judy Woodruff came back on the screen after the press conference, she did not mention the no-surrender rule in her summary. The next day the New York Times and the Washington Post only briefly noted it.

News consumers in Arab and Muslim nations, however, got an earful about it. In newspapers and on TV in many predominantly Islamic nations, Rumsfeld's "declining" of surrenders was seen as a barbaric order to kill anyone with a white flag. Al-Hayat, a Saudi-owned paper read by Muslims around the globe, said Rumsfeld uttered the words with a "coldness that makes the hearts of legal experts shiver." Pundits on al-Jazeera, the 24-hr. views-and-news channel based in Qatar, asserted that Northern Alliance troops were mostly shooting those from Arab nations who had gone to help the Taliban. Though Rumsfeld clearly said he opposed such executions, it seemed to many Arab journalists that he was implicitly condoning them. Charged Abdelbari Atwan in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi: "This is racist hatred in its ugliest form."

In other words, the Afghan war that Arabs and Muslims are seeing and reading about isn't the one on ABC or in the pages of USA Today. Al-Jazeera reporters routinely say the U.S. is fighting a war on "what it calls terror." Most Americans saw scenes of joy in the streets of Kabul after the Taliban fled last month. But Dawn, the respected English-language newspaper in Pakistan, published an editorial that mentioned the discarded beards and burkas but dwelled more heavily on the "fury and vengeance" of Northern Alliance troops.

And that's a paper considered friendly to the U.S.-led coalition. Pakistan's Urdu-language papers, Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt, have largely adopted a blame-the-victim approach to Sept. 11. "They regularly point out why some people are angry at America," says Riaz Ahmad, founder of the Pakistani American Congress. "They regularly remind everybody that if you solve the Israel-Palestine issue, those killings would stop."

Many Arab newsmen agree. They say the bitterness that the U.S. has sown with its policy toward Israel has intensified because of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago, Yasser Abu Hilalah charged in the Jordanian daily al-Rai that the Americans are ignoring war crimes committed by the Northern Alliance. "The U.S. has lost the propaganda war," Abu Hilalah concluded.

But since the Taliban's virtual defeat, many Arab and Muslim media outlets have had to re-evaluate at least some of their negative coverage of the U.S. The quickest change has appeared in stories about the military: Arab and Muslim journalists can no longer claim that the U.S. lacks the strength and resolve to beat the Taliban. Historical parallels to the failed British and Russian campaigns in Afghanistan have vanished. Anti-U.S. rhetoric has particularly dulled in Pakistan, where a columnist for the Karachi News International wrote last week that "the unraveling of the self-styled Islamic State [Afghanistan], the only one of its kind in the Muslim world, took only seven weeks. The fabric woven with only one strand, religious fervor, could not withstand the pressure of modern technology." For its part, al-Jazeera had repeatedly promoted the Taliban's military prowess. While the network still relentlessly airs stories about the plight of Afghan refugees, it recently showed a program that denounced the Taliban's extremism and gender oppression.

Some Arab commentators have also recently questioned the unofficial involvement of thousands of Arabs in the Afghan wars. "The time has come to let Afghanistan be," wrote Shafik Nazim al-Ghabra in the Kuwaiti daily al-Ra'i al-Aam on Nov. 23. "The time has come to stop exporting the Arab world's problems to neighboring societies." That paper has been critical of the Taliban from the start, but al-Ghabra's article was particularly bitter. Other Muslim journalists have written articles in the past few weeks about the misinterpretations of the Koran that led some of those Arabs to join the Taliban in the first place.

But if the intellectuals have paused to soul search, surely the Arab masses are still shouting out there on that fabled Arab street? Not quite. Last month, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current Brookings Institution senior fellow Martin Indyk declared that "the Arab street has, for all intents and purposes, been quiet." His office has tallied the number of demonstrations in the Arab world since the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan; there were nine that first week and only a few afterward. That maddened street now seems more like an overgrown footpath.

To be sure, these shifts in the Muslim media and public opinion have been subtle. Even with many Afghans rejoicing in recent weeks, "there is no love affair with the U.S.," says Fawaz Gerges, author of America and Political Islam. "Suspicion still runs very deep in most Arab countries about America's war aims." Many Muslim commentators are still exercised about U.S. policy toward Israel and its Arab neighbors. "If the U.S. decides to go after other Arab or Muslim countries," Gerges predicts, "there will be a major outcry." Despite the recent calm, in other words, the U.S. still has a long way to go in the propaganda war.



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Cover Date: December 10, 2001

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