Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam, and the War of Ideas

Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam, and the War of Ideas

by Lawrence Pintak


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There exists today a tragic rift between Americans and the world's Muslims. Yet in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was widespread sympathy for the US throughout the Muslim world.

This book explores what happened. It examines the disconnect that leads Americans and Muslims to view the same words and images in fundamentally different ways. Partly a result of a centuries-old 'us' against 'them' dichotomy, the problem is exacerbated by an increasingly polarised media and by leaders on both sides who either don't understand or don't care what impact their words and policies have in the world at large.

Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens argues that the Arab media revolution and the rise of 'patriot-journalists' in the US marginalised voices of moderation, distorting perceptions on both sides of the divide with potentially disastrous results.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745324197
Publisher: Pluto Books Ltd
Publication date: 01/18/2006
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lawrence Pintak is a veteran foreign correspondent who has reported from more than 40 countries. As CBS News Middle East correspondent in the 1980s, he covered the birth of modern Islamic terrorism in Beirut. He is the author Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas (Pluto, 2006) and Seeds of Hate: How America's Flawed Middle East Policy Ignited the Jihad (Pluto, 2003).

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In the Eye of the Beholder

Empathize with your enemy. We must try to put ourselves inside their skin and look at us through their eyes just to understand the thoughts that lie behind their decisions and their actions.

Robert McNamara, architect of the Vietnam War

It is impossible to understate the degree to which the Othering of the United States in the Middle East and broader Muslim world was the result of a deep and widespread resentment for what was, and is, seen as decades of biased and misguided policies toward Arabs and Muslims. The essence of this worldview disconnect was encapsulated in the question that rose like a collective moan from the U.S. body politic after 9/11, "Why do they hate us?" and was mirrored by an equally bewildered "Why can't they see?" Much of the answer is found by examining the way in which America's long engagement with the Middle East, and particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has shaped Arab and Muslim perceptions of the United States. The naivete of the post-World War I King-Crane Commission that carved up the old Ottoman Empire; the cynicism of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles in manipulating regimes in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq; and America's increasingly overt pro-Israeli tilt since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

After World War I, Woodrow Wilson "followed his idealistic predilections, his chums, and his views of political prudence" and allowed himself to be convinced to support the controversial Balfour Declaration, a British-drafted document calling for the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, which a Zionist slogan at the time misleadingly characterized as "A land without people for a people without land." In 1948, America presided over the creation of the state of Israel on what was, to Arabs, undisputedly their land, recognizing the existence of the new state 11 minutes after it declared independence and leaving Arabs wondering "why they had been selected by the West for this particular treatment." Domestic politics was one reason. Responding to State Department advisors who warned that recognizing Israel would have long-term foreign policy implications, Truman said, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents." For posterity, he would write that guilt over America's failure to prevent the Holocaust had left him determined to "make the whole world safe for Jews."

In subsequent decades, Arab bewilderment would turn to anger and then rage as they watched America's relationship with Israel evolve into one of, in their view, blind support. "The United States has a special relationship with Israel comparable only to that which it has with Britain," John F. Kennedy told Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir, expressing a sentiment that would be repeated by American presidents for the next half-century. "The United States is foursquare behind Israel," Lyndon Johnson later confirmed, adding, "[it is] a friend in the truest sense." With Arabs already deeply suspicious of the United States, the so-called Six Day War of 1967 had a "devastating, negative impact on Arab views" of the United States, coming as it did on the heels of several years of disintegrating relations between Washington and Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leading Arab nationalist at the time. When Israel launched its preemptive strike on June 5,

Arab nationalists ... felt overwhelming resentment and anger for the Johnson administration, fueled initially by official Egyptian and Jordanian accusations that the United States had participated alongside Israel in the first air attacks against the Arab forces. Although unfounded, these accusations served to confirm a widely held Arab stereotype of American hostility ... Egyptians pointed to the fact that although the United States had secured from Egypt a commitment not to fire first, it failed to extract a similar pledge from Israel.

It was an example of the kind of double standard about which Arabs and Muslims would still be complaining in the years after 9/11 as George W. Bush vowed to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, while failing even to mention Israel's nuclear arsenal.

The 1967 war polarized the region, enmeshed the conflict in the Us against Them dichotomies of the Cold War and sent the protagonists – reluctantly or not – deep into the waiting arms of their respective patrons. Up until then, the United States had been wooing then-Egyptian president Nasser, while the Israelis received most of their weapons from Moscow. Now, roles were reversed and there began the flow of U.S. weapons and technology to Israel that would give it vastly overwhelming military power. Billions of dollars in military and economic aid and America's veto of 38 UN resolutions criticizing Israel between July 1972 and March 2004 left Arabs with no illusions of U.S. neutrality.

"American domestic politics became a principal component in the events leading to the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli wars," British historian Ritchie Ovendale wrote of Truman's role in the formation of Israel after World War II. Meanwhile, Israel would likewise become a principal component of U.S. domestic politics. Richard Nixon, for example, was so supportive of Israel during his first term in office that Israeli ambassador Yitzak Rabin openly campaigned for him. That same electoral muscle was also used against politicians and policies perceived as challenging Israel's vital interests. In his controversial 1985 book about those who tried to oppose the Israel lobby, They Dare to Speak Out, former Congressman Paul Findley charged that pressures from Israel frequently caused "damage in our relations with Arab states." One example was the 1986 Congressional defeat of a $354 million arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which marked the first time in history that Congress rejected a presidential proposal to sell weapons to a foreign country. "Because of the [Israel] lobby's influence," said Donald McHenry, America's UN ambassador under Jimmy Carter, "our government is unable to pursue its own national interests in the Middle East." American political support for Israel would become so complete that U.S. policymakers would, at Israel's behest, ultimately ban all official contact with Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, recognized by the UN as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, a move, Arabs were fond of pointing out, that the United States did not even take against its own enemy, the Vietcong. Even when the White House did criticize Israeli actions – as when President Reagan suspended shipments of jet fighters in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon – the Israelis themselves recognized the empty nature of such gestures. "Here is the final irony," wrote Michael Oren of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, "on those occasions when Israel has asserted, and exercised, its right to self-defense, the American reaction, after an initial burst of anger, has almost always been one of heightened respect." In the case of Reagan and the jets, shipments resumed within months.

By the time George W. Bush began to contemplate a run for the White House, support for Israel was the sine qua non of U.S. presidential politics. "America's special relationship with Israel precedes the peace process," Bush declared in a 2000 campaign appearance. "And Israel's adversaries should know that in my administration, the special relationship will continue, even if they cannot bring themselves to make true peace with the Jewish state." John Kerry would take up that refrain during the 2004 campaign, vowing in an opinion piece written for the New York Jewish newspaper The Forward, "We will never compromise America's special relationship with our ally Israel." When their respective vice presidential candidates, Richard Cheney and John Edwards, debated in October 2004, the two men argued which presidential ticket was more committed to defending Israel. The words "Palestine" or "Palestinian" crossed neither man's lips. Such performances were the reason many Muslims saw little distinction between the United States and Israel, which, as one Pakistani writer put it, had become "so intertwined ... that they exchange roles often, with America becoming Israel's surrogate, indeed proxy."

Resentment of Israel produced a deep vein of anti-Jewish hatred in the Arab world, erroneously called "anti-Semitism" (both Jews and Arabs are Semitic peoples, tracing their lineage back to the prophet Abraham). While the anger was primarily aimed at the state of Israel, not the Jewish people per se, Israel's self-proclaimed status as "the Jewish state" and the proclivity of Israeli officials to equate Israel with Judaism – as in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's references to terrorism in Israel as attacks "on the Jewish people" – meant that the two often blurred. Jewish financier George Soros observed, "The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that. It's not specifically anti-Semitism, but it does manifest itself in anti-Semitism as well." Anti-Zionist sentiment in the Arab world, therefore, was often indistinguishable from anti-Jewish sentiment. There were many ugly products of this anger. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist tract alleging a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, was available in many Middle East bookstores (rich Saudis financed the translations). During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2002, an Egyptian satellite channel, Dream TV, ran a television serial entitled Horseman without a Horse, based loosely on the Elders of Zion fabrication. Long-time Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass published a book, The Matzah of Zion, perpetuating the lie first spread in Europe that Jews use Christian blood to make matzos during Passover. Abu Dhabi's royal family helped fund, and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi presented a human rights prize to, a French revisionist historian who was put on trial in France for denying the reality of the Holocaust. But more rational voices could also be heard. As Horseman was airing, Egyptian presidential advisor Osama el-Baz told the al-Ahram newspaper:

We must uphold the correct perspective on our relationship with the Jews, as embodied in the legacy of Arab civilization and in our holy scriptures. This legacy holds that ours is not a tradition of racism and intolerance, that the Jews are our cousins through common descent from Abraham and that our only enemies are those who attack us.


Domestic American politics was one reason for the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel, but the connection also went deeper, inextricably linked to the concepts of worldview and Othering – tinged with racism – that so colored U.S. relations with the Muslim world. America's suspicion of Islam stretched back to the dawn of the republic. Cotton Mather, the famous minister of Boston's Old North Church, had railed against "Mahometan Turks and Moors, and Devils" when reports of the imprisonment of North Americans by the Barbary pirates trickled back to the colonies in the late 1600s. He took pride in the fact that "we are afar off, in a Land, which never had (that I ever heard of) one Mahometan breathing in it." Mather and other American Protestant religious leaders commonly equated Muhammad with the Antichrist and linked Islam to Armageddon, a theme still heard in the sermons of televangelists like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham. Aaron Burr wrote of the "Rise of that false Prophet and great Impostor Mahomet," and from the earliest days, Islam became an epithet in American politics. John Adams was accused of being the new Muhammad and John Quincy Adams compared Jefferson to "the Arabian prophet." Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard wondered aloud, "Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?" In fact, it was the confrontation with the Barbary pirates over the taking of American slaves that became the young republic's first foreign policy challenge – and its first real encounter with Islam.

In contrast to this history, many Americans felt a natural affinity with the people of Israel. They were, after all, "like us," citizens of a Western-style democracy whose leaders, through much of the twentieth century, were largely born in the West (Israeli image-makers downplayed the fact that by the mid-1970s Oriental, or non-Western Jews, were the majority). Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, everybody's grandmother, grew up in the United States and taught school there before emigrating to Israel. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to high school in Philadelphia and spoke American-accented English. There was a sense of shared identity because, after all, many Israelis were Americans; the law of aliyah gave every Jew the right to claim Israeli citizenship upon setting foot on the soil of the Promised Land. This connection was assiduously cultivated. Each summer, planeloads of American students enjoyed all-expenses-paid trips to Israel, grassroots organizations like B'nai Brith made Israel's cause their own, and, whenever possible, the spokespeople the Israeli government made available to American reporters had American accents (as those with British accents often appeared on British TV). All this was bolstered by the fact that American reporters gave Israel a relatively free ride. "The American media is far less critical of Israeli policies than we in the Israeli press," says Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

This careful crafting of Israel's image as an outpost of Western democracy – some would say America's 51st state helped to produce a gut-level sympathy for the Israeli cause on the part of many Americans. Madeleine Albright admits that it was not until she met with a group of students on the West Bank while serving as secretary of state in the Clinton administration that she began to understand the Palestinian point of view: "I was brought up completely seeing the Israeli side."

The Arabs spent millions of dollars on public relations firms in an effort to make their own connection with U.S. opinion leaders and the body politic, to no avail. They remained the Other. "Israel sends its best people to interact with the policy and opinion makers in Washington, while the Arabs host parties and indulge in public relations exercises which fail to convey much," Benjamin Bradlee, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, told a 2002 gathering in Dubai. Nor did efforts to organize the Arab vote meet with any more success. "Arab Americans do not vote as a block," explains James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, the main Arab lobbying group. "They come from many different countries with many different ideologies and outlooks. They are Republican businessmen and Democratic factory workers. There is no one issue that unites their vote."


The Arab-Israeli conflict may have been the root of Muslim and particularly Arab – anger at the United States, but a host of other issues also fueled resentment: restoring the father of the Shah to his throne after a coup in the 1950s; the dispatch of the U.S. Marines to Lebanon to shore up minority Christian governments in both the 1950s and the 1980s; unquestioning support for the feudal rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and authoritarian leaders like Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; the cynical, secret arming of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Arabs point to these and a host of other examples of American oppression and hypocrisy that produced "a pervasive sense of external, Western, manipulation of the politics of the region."

Yet historically, hatred of American policy has not automatically meant hatred of Americans. Very little serious public opinion research was conducted in Muslim-majority countries until recent years. However, those surveys that were carried out showed "a strong dislike for American foreign policy but much more nuanced, and often quite positive, attitudes toward Americans society and culture and toward the American people." It is a finding backed by widespread, street-level experience, producing such seemingly bizarre encounters as my conversation with a member of Hizbullah, the radical Shi'ite militia responsible for a string of suicide attacks against American interests in Lebanon, who both denounced "the Great Satan" and wished aloud he could qualify for a U.S. visa. "It is a love-hate relationship, of course," explained Jordan's then-foreign minister Marwan Muasher. "Culturally, American music is popular, American food is popular, American clothes are popular. People still wear jeans with American flags on them. And they don't see any contradiction in that despite the animosity towards America."


Excerpted from "Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Lawrence Pintak.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface Introduction: Worldview, Identity and the Other Section I: Foundations of the Relationship 1. In the Eye of the Beholder 2. U.S. Coverage of Islam 3. The Arab and Muslim Media Section II: The Framing of an Era 4. Rhetoric, Religion and Righteousness 5. The Myth of Terror and the Terror of Myth 6. Enemies, Allies and other Artificial Constructs Section III: Perceptions of Policy 7. Weaponizing the Media 8. Prism of Pain: Palestine 9. Rewriting the Script: Iraq Section IV: Hearts & Minds 10. Beyond the Middle East 11. Brand America 12. Symbols of Empire Epilogue Acknowledgements Notes and References Index

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