Spring 2012, Vol. 14, No. 1

Quick Links:

Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog
on religion and politics 

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
    It's Baaack...

Religion and the Awakening

Repaving the Arab Street

Bishops in the Dock

Faithless Ireland

No Love for

The New Dominionist Politics


Without Benefit of Clergy

Cirque d'OCA

No Standing for It





Repaving the Arab Street
by Abdou Filali-Ansary


For American news organizations, the Arab Awakening of 2011 was glorious to behold and to cover. Democracy appeared triumphant and evil dictators (albeit supported or at least tolerated by the U.S. government) were on the run. The pictures and reporting reflected the exhilaration of revolution.

This was the ultimate political feel-good story, and journalists rushed to relay dramatic words and images to their audiences. Most journalists are good at this. When millions are in the streets, the story tells itself, and there seems to be little need to complicate the telling with nuance or background material.

But as with much else in the Arab world, religious faith was a significant, if initially underreported, part of the story. Islam is an important part of the lives of most Arabs, and events as transformative as the uprisings of 2011 include a religious dimension that needs to be covered thoroughly and thoughtfully.

No one has ever accused the American public of knowing much about international affairs, so when an international story does capture the country’s attention, comprehensive coverage is especially important because news consumers have so little background knowledge. In such instances, the connection between news reporting and public opinion is exceptionally close, and policymakers take note of the public attitudes that emerge from this relationship.

The knowledge vacuum extends to religion in general, and Islam in particular. According to survey data, less than one percent of the American population is Muslim, and for much of the rest of the remaining 99 percent, “Islam” is associated primarily with the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist acts.

Early in the coverage of the Arab uprisings, warnings about “Islamists” began appearing. Writing about Tunisia in a January 18 commentary piece for the Washington Times, conservative Arabist Daniel Pipes wondered if “moderate forces have the cohesion and vision to deflect an Islamist surge.” 

An article with a Tunis dateline that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on January 20 noted that long-banned “Tunisians espousing political Islam” were now “seeking a place in government—raising fears that Islamic radicalism might take root in Tunisia, long seen by the West as a bulwark against terrorism.” On February 13, an editorial about the future of the Arab world in the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle worried about “Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.”

Note the connection being made, at least implicitly, between those “espousing political Islam” and “radicalism” and “terrorism,” and more explicitly in highlighting Al-Qaeda as an “Islamist group.” During the early weeks of the uprisings, “Islamist” became a shorthand reference, often used as a counterpoint to more “democratic” protestors.

Notably lacking were substantive definitions of “Islamist” or introductory explanations of the central tenets of Islam. 

Defining “Islamist” as “an Islamic political or social activist,” the Oxford Dictionary of Islam states: “Islamists are committed to implementation of their ideological vision of Islam in the state and/or society. Their position is often seen as a critique of the establishment and status quo.” This definition is noteworthy because it underscores the breadth of Islamism. Islamists are not necessarily wild-eyed Taliban-like radicals. They range from moderate to extreme, as do activists who embrace other religions, such as those considered to be part of America’s “Christian right.”

To be sure, not all journalists fell into the trap of equating Islamism with extreme radicalism. In the January 29, 2011 edition of the New York Times, Anthony Shadid noted that in Tunisia, “Islamists marched for religious freedom.” On February 1, USA Today contributing columnist Lionel Beehner wrote, “The threat posed by Islamists seizing power is more often than not a crutch used by autocrats to safeguard their positions, secure foreign aid and snap up White House invitations.”

As time passed and the next phases of change in the Arab states began, U.S. news stories became more sophisticated in their approach to the role of Islam. In the Los Angeles Times on February 15, Ned Parker reported from Cairo about two Islamists in their thirties: “Both believe in working with secular parties. They both talk of a need for compromise in politics. They are fully engaged with the West, and at the same time deeply pious. Together, they represent a new generation of Islamists who have branched out in the 21st century.” 

On March 4, Scott Wilson wrote in the Washington Post that the Obama administration was “taking steps to distinguish between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government.” Noting that a White House internal assessment had “identified large ideological differences” among Islamist groups, Wilson pointed out that “Islamist governments span a range of ideologies and ambitions, from the primitive brutality of the Taliban in Afghanistan to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, a movement with Islamist roots that heads a largely secular political system.”

In the March 4 Christian Science Monitor, Caryle Murphy laid out some of the topics of political debate in many Arab countries—ones that were worth addressing by U.S. news organizations themselves:

What is the role of Islam in political and public life?

What does secularism mean in a predominantly Muslim country?

When does free speech become blasphemy?

What rights do religious minorities have?

What does it mean to live under sharia, or Islamic law, and what exactly is an Islamic state?


Meanwhile, linking “Islamists” to Al Qaeda did not vanish. A headline on a March 31 Washington Times editorial read, “Al Qaeda to Obama: Thanks; Toppling Arab Governments Feeds Islamist Revolution.”

This was comparable to the spin Al Qaeda itself put on the uprisings. The same day, New York Times reporter Scott Shane quoted Yemeni-American Al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki (subsequently killed by an American drone strike) as claiming, “The mujahedeen around the world are going through a moment of elation.” Comments by Awlaki, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other Al Qaeda leaders deserved coverage, but in a context that enabled news consumers to judge the validity of their claims.

U.S. news coverage diminished as the drama in the Arab streets was replaced by the relatively mundane (and less visual) tasks of building political parties and drafting constitutions.  The rebellion in Libya was reported as more of a conventional war story, with limited references to religion. Coverage of the conflict in Syria was limited by journalists’ lack of access. Events in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, and elsewhere lacked the drama of the early uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. And as the months went by, as the excitement of revolution shrank, so too did Americans’ attention span wither.

By the fall, speculation about what Islamist governments might do was giving way to actual election results. In Tunisia, the Islamist party Ennahda won the most seats in the October post-revolution elections and formed a governing coalition with several other parties.  In a November 28 Religion News Service article, Elizabeth Bryant asked about Ennahda: “Will it make good on its promises to uphold Tunisia’s pro-Western, secular foundations and women’s considerable rights? Or, as some critics maintain, is Ennahda hiding a more radical agenda? The answer, analysts say, may shape the future of political Islam that is gaining ground in countries like Egypt, Morocco, and Libya.”

In Egypt, when the first round of parliamentary voting in November found Islamists making a strong showing, the Wall Street Journal’s Matt Bradley reported on November 30 that “conservative religious politicians could have the upper hand in next year’s drafting of a new Egyptian constitution.” 

The Egyptian elections underscored the complexity of Islamist politics. The leading vote-getters came from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, but the more conservative Nour Party, representing the ultraconservative Salafi branch of Islam, ran a strong second.

Suddenly it seemed that the Muslim Brotherhood, for so long vilified by the Egyptian establishment and many Western governments, might be a moderating influence vis-à-vis the Salafis.  But, as Bradley pointed out in another article published the same day, there were also fears that Nour might pull Freedom and Justice farther to the right. Analogizing from current American politics, the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid called that possibility  a “tea-party effect.”

As the West began to take note of the Salafis, journalists explored what Nour and its members stood for. Writing in the December 3 New York Times, David Kirkpatrick quoted Egyptian Salafi leader Sheikh Abdel Moneim el-Shahat: “I want to say, citizenship restricted by Islamic Shariah, freedom restricted by Islamic Shariah, equality restricted by Islamic Shariah.”  Kirkpatrick noted that in “a polarizing Islamist-against-Islamist debate,” the Muslim Brotherhood was implicitly more appealing to the West because it is “at its core a middle-class missionary institution, led not by religious scholars but by doctors, lawyers, and professionals.”

Kirkpatrick’s article was noteworthy in providing a detailed explanation of the intersection of religion and nationhood that is an essential element of Muslim life. Comprehensible to Americans who were interested in but not expert about Islam and the Middle East, it avoided the scary hot-button terminology that dominated U.S. news reports earlier in the year.

And it reflected the reality of the influential type of Islamism currently holding sway in Turkey, which is frequently cited by political and religious moderates in the region as the model they would like to see their own states follow. Turkey’s political leadership has, with considerable success, brought Islam and democracy together in an increasingly prosperous and influential nation.  The popularity of the Turkish model is one reason that many Arab Muslims are puzzled by and dismissive of Americans’ concerns about a rigid and intolerant “Islamism.”  Relatively few people in the region want that.

This is not to say, however, that moderates in the Middle East subscribe to Western political views. Even among secular Muslims, antipathy toward Israel and distrust of U.S. foreign policy remain high. News coverage should reflect the difficulties the United States faces in establishing lasting friendly ties within the region.

By late autumn, stories about Muslim-Christian violence in the Arab world were appearing in the U.S. news media with greater frequency. In the December 5 Wall Street Journal, for example, Sam Dagher reported from Iraq that since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, at least 54 Iraqi Christian churches had been bombed and 905 Christians killed. Of approximately one million Christians who lived in Iraq in 2003, about half have left. In Egypt, where 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people are Christian, religious violence flared numerous times.

If these incidents continue, it will be interesting to watch how American news organizations play the story. Given the vast Christian constituency in the United States, the violence could become a catalyst for broader anti-Islam sentiment.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted last spring found that Muslim and Western publics continue to see their mutual relations as generally bad, with both sides holding negative stereotypes of the other. Many in the United States saw Muslims as fanatical and violent, while few said Muslims are tolerant or respectful of women. Sixty-nine percent of American respondents expressed concern about Islamic extremism within the United States. 

News coverage is not wholly to blame for this, but it is a factor. Ultimately, the American public must take responsibility for informing itself adequately enough to make reasoned judgments about events of the day and sensible decisions about whom to vote for. But as the uneven coverage of the role of Islam in the Arab Awakening indicates, journalists could do a better job of giving the public what it needs to fill its knowledge gap.

As part of filling this gap, they should take special care not to be manipulated by Islamophobic demagogues who employ half-truths and absolute falsehoods about Islam to stir public opinion. By citing out-of-context passages from Islamic writings and by quoting terrorists’ screeds, the anti-Muslim movement in America and Europe has had considerable success in equating “Islamist” and “al Qaeda” in the minds of many in the West. 

To counteract this kind of distortion, journalists should make a concerted effort to define and contextualize the term “Islamist” when they use it in writing about post-2011 politics in a given Middle Eastern country. Such an effort is particularly important while the new Arab world seeks to establish itself in the global community.


Hit Counter