President George Bush has a few months left in office. Many analysts have believed for some time now that before he retires from that position, he will have orchestrated an attack either against Syria or Iran. Increasingly, it seems that his fixation is with Iran. After much was made by the Bush administration about Iran’s covert nuclear program, recently there was acknowledgment that many of those fears may have been over-exaggerated or even misplaced. Yet no one from the administration was taken to task for spreading such sinister misinformation. More disturbingly, there was no substantive criticism from the American media either.
To the contrary, US media has increasingly become a mouthpiece of the Bush administration, perpetuating and ventilating the fears which prevent a population from thinking rationally about important issues. I happened to be in New York a few months ago when President Ahmedinijad arrived to address the United Nations General Assembly. The day he landed, local press ran shocking headlines in the newspapers. “Tehran Thug Comes To Town,” read one; “Terror Has Landed,” said another. It was the kind of diction one expects from a grade school bully, not intellectually honest analysis of issues with global ramifications.
Dismissing some of the local papers as tabloids, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker magazine, only to find on its cover a demeaning representation of President Ahmedinijad sitting on the toilet, pants down, playing footsie with the man in the next stall. Surely, for the American audience, it was a take on the Republican Senator from Idaho who had recently been caught doing just that with an undercover cop at an airport bathroom and a jibe simultaneously at Ahmedinijad, who had denied in his speech at Columbia University that homosexuality existed in Iran.
But to many American Muslims it was flagrant cultural insensitivity to caricaturize a head of state in such a way, and also a reminder that Iran was being demeaned through its President only so the attack could soon be justified. It reminded Muslims of the early nineties when Saddam toilet paper had taken America by storm, only to be followed by operation Desert Storm. That is how the propaganda machine works. First you degrade and then you attack. The invitation handed out to Mr. Ahmedinijad by Columbia University brought matters to a head. Mr. Bollinger, Columbia’s President, made every effort to insult his guest, which may have been satisfying to some Americans, but left the rest of the world baffled. One would invite a speaker, presumably, so one could hear his point of view with an open mind. Argue with him, debate him, disagree with him, certainly, but insult him before he even opens his mouth? Muslim countries pride themselves on their culture of hospitality and the offensive and aggressive posturing towards Ahmedinijad only further bolstered his image in the Islamic world, while tainting America’s.
Instead of reporting neutrally on the situation, American television rallied behind Mr. Bollinger, feeding a clash of civilizations. From the “No-Spin Zone” on Fox to “Keeping Them Honest” on CNN, American reporting on international affairs was devoid of objective analysis, preferring instead to divide the world into “good and evil” and refusing to see any “good” ever on the “evil” side of our world. Unlike most countries of the world today, the overwhelming majority of Americans also did not have the option to watch television based out of any other country. So it was either the American version or no version at all, other than a very sanitized BBC America, which some people caught on their cable channels.
Perhaps it was this frustration with having to report in such a biased one-sided manner, a nearly obsessive form of self-censorship, that led some newscasters to abandon altogether any seriousness that naturally comes with debating important global issues, preferring instead to dumb-down news to a level of flippant comedy. Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Keith Oberman all seemed to disagree with the Bush administration’s handling of foreign policy, yet instead of presenting serious critiques, pinpointing precise failings, they had resorted to comic relief at the expense of the establishment. It was better than nothing, and in my three month summer sojourn in New York, I watched Bill Maher regularly, but I could not help but feel that slapstick news was America’s way of escaping the real problems rather than an attempt at solving them.
Come mid-October, I had returned to London, with access to all variety of news transmitted in English, British, French, Arabic, Russian, and of course American. The attack on Iran had thankfully not materialized, but then came the alleged speedboat incident in the Strait of Hormuz a few days ago. The US Navy claimed that they had been threatened by Iranian speedboats. It was not until the Iranians released their version of the events, also on video, that the US Navy’s claims were exposed. It appears to me that this was nothing more than the excuse Mr. Bush has been so searching for to wage war against Iran.
Once again, it was extremely disappointing that the American media did not question or criticize the US Navy and government’s very dubious role in this very serious matter. Even after the Iranians released their tape and it was plainly clear that the voice that had threatened an explosion did not come from the Iranian patrols and most likely had been recorded later on, American media preferred to hush up the incident by attributing it to another ship in the area or a transmitter on land.
Had this happened in Pakistan, I could not help but think, everyone would have been talking about the government duping its people into a war. So perhaps it is the Pakistani in me that never rules out a conspiracy theory.
But what would have happened if the Iranians sat tight and did not offer their version? What will happen in months to come? Will the Bush administration continue to find excuses to throw America into another unjustifiable war? Will the American media just sit on the sidelines and watch while that happens? Is their obligation to the people of the United States or to the Bush administration?
AYESHA IJAZ KHAN is a London-based lawyer and writer and can be contacted via her website www.ayeshaijazkhan.com