As President Obama gets ready to deliver a speech on why he is going to send more thousands of U.S. troops and spend more billions on the eight-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, it would be a good idea to get a better understanding of why so much of what is reported out of the Middle East suffers a great disconnect from the truth.
In 1998, Joris Luyendijk, a Dutch student who had studied Arabic at Cairo University for a year, was offered a job as a Middle East correspondent for a Dutch news agency despite having no experience as a reporter. What followed was his real education about the Middle East and the way it is presented to the West by the news media.
His book about that experience, "People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East" was initially published in the Netherlands in 2006 and has since then it has been translated and published in Hungary, Italy, Denmark and Germany. In October an English edition was published by Soft Scull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint, a Berkeley, California publisher.
Having begun my career as a journalist, I was interested to learn what Luyendijk had taken from his years hopping around the Middle East before and after 9/11 and during the two Iraq wars waged by the U.S. to resolve a problem called Saddam Hussein.
For anyone digesting the news from his morning newspaper or watching it on television, suspecting that it might be biased or wrong, this book that focuses on reporting from the Middle East is a revelation because Luyendijk strives mightily to expose the way the news is manipulated by all the parties involved.
Covering his experiences from 1998 to 2003, the author is refreshingly candid, admitting that, despite his student year in Cairo, he had little or no real understanding of Egypt or the rest of the Middle East.
There is, however, one thing that anyone can understand. The Middle East is composed of dictatorships and the sole purpose of each one is to survive. To do that, their people must be constantly indoctrinated and fearful. That is made possible by rendering them, individually and as a group, powerless. There simply is no such thing as justice or the opportunity to express an opinion in opposition to the leader.
Significantly, those living in the Middle East cannot make an informed judgment of what is occurring around them because they operate two points of view that are very real to them. First is a widely accepted sense of victimhood, and, second, they believe that Israel, ultimately, is manipulating the entire world!
Conversely, Americans who have no contact with the Middle East beyond the headlines and snapshots of bloodshed and warfare are comparably unable to make informed judgments about a people who differ among themselves in many ways.
The Middle East is very different from the West and Luyendijk believes that few in the West are even vaguely aware that those who live there live in a parallel universe; one that functions by the rules of ruthless dictatorships, by tribes, and by a religion that is hostile to all others.
Democracy is not likely to take root in the Middle East and this can be traced to the prevailing religion of the region, Islam. The only reason Democracy occurred in Turkey is because the founder of the modern state, Ataturk, isolated Islam from the conduct of governance and that has been backed up by an army that has, thus far, ensured the separation.
The only other democracy in the Middle East is, of course, Israel. Lebanon's effort has been steadily undermined by Hezbollah, Islamists who are an instrument of Iran.
The news coverage by western reporters tends not to reflect the fact that western powers have long supported the gaggle of monarchs and despots in the Middle East, at least until they saw fit to replace them. For this and for its interventions, the people of the Middle East quite naturally see the West as part of the oppression under which they live.
"EVERYONE IS AGAINST US. It's banged into ordinary Arabs through the media and their education from a very young age, so don't expect them to be pro-western."
For a western journalist, that means having to operate in societies where their reports are closely monitored and where access to events repeatedly reveal how staged they are, whether it's a mass rally or whether it is those they interview who know that one wrong word can get them imprisoned, tortured, and even killed. The journalists, too, are at risk.
The "truth" in such a place is an impossibility. The "truth" does not exist for those who live in the Middle East and is carefully filtered by the Western news agencies that cover it for people who live thousands of miles away. The task is to report on an enigma.
Citing a group trip to Saddam's Baghdad arranged by the Cairo Foreign Press Association, Luyendijk says, "It was complete madness. The secret-service minders practically sat on our laps. They'd regularly leave us waiting in lobbies for hours on end without any explanation, and then shove us into taxies for an excursion."
Though a novice journalist in 1998, Luyendijk quickly "abandoned the idea that you would know what was going on in the world if you followed the news generated by the twenty dictatorships of the region" or reported by the correspondents for western news agencies.
"There were virtually no reliable and verifiable figures or statistics against which I could (report) in a broader perspective." Information is power and it was controlled by the dictators. The foreign press was and is a pawn in the game.
"When something big happens, the (western) public wants to know things that the correspondent can't find out." The result is a lot of nebulous speculation or regurgitation of previous news.
While those in the west are accustomed to fairly rapid progress, the Middle East defies this because the currents that determine events are rooted in events that may have occurred a hundred or a thousand years earlier.
The hatreds, the lack of trust, the resentments, the rivalry for power, the need to survive, all jostle together in an impenetrable jumble in which one young, Dutch reporter found common human elements, "people like us," but people trapped by the past who are not like us.