A Flood of Cliches

Western media tags distort Middle Eastern realities

I AM writing this from flood-ravaged Iowa. Actually, Cedar Rapids, where I live, was spared major flooding. But on the news and among my friends out of state, Iowa has became "flood ravaged" this summer. It's the new phrase. Why it is flood-ravaged Iowa and not "flooded" or "flood devastated" I don't know. What locks such cliches in place? The ancient bards supposedly used stock epithets as a way of filling in time when they forgot the lines in a recitation.

In modern journalism, however, cliches can work as a substitute for thought. By repetition they create a false memory in the public that can be dangerous. Sometimes cliches break loose and collide with each other, as when, on Washington Week in Review recently, a pundit suggested it was time for Bill Clinton to step up to the plate and grab the bull by the horns.

When American reporters write about the Middle East rather than the Middle West, the epithets can be both dangerous and mindless. Consider the hyphenated epithet "pro-Western." If being pro-Western means free, fair elections, guaranteeing freedom of the press, speech, and assembly, and providing fair trials, no Middle Eastern regime, except perhaps Yemen, could be called pro-Western.

But strangely enough, the adjective never appears before Yemen. It appears before countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where it seems a euphemism for "obedient." I don't expect American reporters to start writing "the obedient regime of Hosni Mubarak" or "the compliant King Fahd," but in keeping with Western values they should not call such leaders "pro-Western."

Automatic phrases can also confuse even our sense of geography. Take the phrase "pro-Iranian Hizbullah." A student recently asked me if Lebanon was a real country, or simply a contested border area between Israel and Iran. I was tempted to ask whether the Israeli "security zone" in Lebanon (actually, Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon) now included Syria and Iraq.

Since the Hizbullah were "pro-Iranian" the student thought Lebanon was similar to the area between India and Pakistan - Kashmir. In Kashmir you find pro-Indian groups fighting pro-Pakistanis. Likewise, he felt, in Lebanon you find the pro-Israel South Lebanon Army and the pro-Iranian Hizbullah. How could I explain that both groups were comprised of Lebanese citizens who hoped that one foreign power would force a more hated foreign power out of their country?

Yet since few American newspapers see fit to mention this, my explanation is made harder. If the Hizbullah were occasionally called "a Lebanese resistance group" maybe students would be spared the impression that Israel borders Iran.

Another automatic phrase in reports on Egypt deals with Omar Abdul-Rahman. He is "the leader of the Islamic militants." The militants want to topple "the secular government" of President Hosni Mubarak.

Often reporters use "Islamic" to describe those who plant bombs in Cairo's cafes. Yet "Islamic" does not describe politically motivated killing in Egypt anymore accurately than "Christian" describes the actions of the Mafia. Muslims who kill are no more adherent to the teachings of Islam than the Mafia is to the Sermon on the Mount. To claim that those who fight against the government act according to the teachings of Omar Abdul Rahman is wrong. Research indicates that the "Islamic militants" in Egypt co nsist of more than 200 local groups with very little contact with each other.

As an Egyptian secular writer, I am offended by the many references to the Mubarak regime as "secular." I am assuming that secular means what the dictionary says it means: no specific religious affiliation.

In a secular state, presumably, the government does not use the religion of the majority to infringe on the rights of the minorities. Yet a year ago, Hosni Mubarak's party platform adopted Sharia (Islamic law) as the source of legislation in Egypt. When Salman Rushdie applied for a visa to visit Cairo, Mubarak's government referred it to the state-sanctioned religious institution, Al-Azhar, instead of handling his visa request at the Egyptian consulate in Paris. Al-Azhar denied Mr. Rushdie the visa, not the consular officers.

AL-AZHAR clerics now urge the government to imprison Egyptian author Ala Hamid for his "blasphemous" book "A Gap in a Man's Mind." Al-Azhar is asking the government to arrange a divorce between Dr. Hamid Zidan, a professor of philosophy at Cairo University, and his wife. Dr. Zidan was accused of retreating from the path of Islam due to blasphemous research. Under Islamic law, a Muslim woman may not be married to an unbeliever.

Also, under Egypt's "secular government" Christians are, by law, not allowed to build new churches without permission. If this is "secular government," what is "religious tyranny?"

During last year's elections in Algeria, almost all reporters described the leaders of Islamic Salvation Front as "Muslim fundamentalists." They believe in "one man, one vote - one time," we are told. What is not said is that their opposition, the Algerian government, believes in "one man, one vote - never."

Cliches might help mobilize aid for flood victims in the Midwest. In the case of the Mideast, however, they add more victims.

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