Screening Islam: Terrorism, American Jihad and the New Islamists

By Baker, Raymond William | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Screening Islam: Terrorism, American Jihad and the New Islamists


Baker, Raymond William, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


ONLY THE HEADLINES AND DETAILS varied in the coverage of 11 September and the subsequent suicide bombings in Israel. The underlying story in the mainstream Western media remained the same. Arab-Muslim terrorists were precipitating a civilizational conflict on a global scale. Thomas Friedman, from his watchtower in the New York Times, sounded the alarm: "A terrible disaster is in the making in the Middle East. What Osama bin Laden failed to achieve on 11 September is now being unleashed by the Israeli-Palestinian war in the West Bank: a clash of civilizations." Lest there be any confusion about who fired first, Friedman hastened to explain that "in the wake of repeated suicide bombings, it is no surprise that the Israeli Army has gone on the offensive in the West Bank. Any other nation would have done the same." (1)

The West, wounded first in New York and then in Israel, cast itself as the avenging victim, struggling to understand and respond to the Islam that launched these unprovoked terrorist attacks. The American reaction to 11 September defined the rules of engagement by launching an unconstrained "war on terrorism." President George W. Bush set an emphatically American agenda, defined by U.S. interests, projected by the Western media, and enforced by American power. The same American security apparatus that had not had sufficient evidence to prevent the attack unhesitatingly pronounced Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network of Islamist terrorists guilty of the horrific assault on the Twin Towers. The President spoke in terms shorn of the usual diplomacy. He announced that the perpetrators of 11 September and those like the Taliban who shielded them were "wanted dead or alive." The war on terrorism in Islam's name was to be an American jihad and the world was asked to believe and to join the "crusade." If you are not with us, you are against us, intoned the American President. He vowed to "smoke out" the terrorists wherever they sought refuge and to punish those who harbored them. Osama bin Laden became the evil outlaw with a price on his head and the forces of good in hot pursuit.

The U.S. government would not hear arguments that the undoubted "crime against humanity" of 11 September should be denounced as such and responded to by international law. The voices that asked what would come next in Afghanistan, once the Taliban had been deposed by the military assault, were reduced to an ineffectual whisper. The public announcement of a U.S. right to topple regimes and wage war on any continent at any time would represent the only change in American policies. The United States had been attacked for its goodness, its freedoms, and its prosperity, the President explained. No changes in its fundamental foreign policies, including those in the Middle East, were warranted.

Was the United States really surprised when the Israelis, along with the Russians and the Indians, moved to appropriate this stance for their own ends? In the wake of a wave of suicide bombings that targeted civilians in the heart of Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon pronounced Arafat the "arch terrorist" in the bin Laden mold. On 29 March 2002 Israel launched its own war against terrorism, devastating West Bank cities in its own effort to "root out the terrorist infrastructure." Terrorists had attacked Israelis, like Americans, for who they were and not what they did. The thirty-five year old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the extensive colonization effort it enabled had no relevance. The Israeli government directed the focus elsewhere. In a frenzy of hatred with its roots in Islam, the irrational and homicidal bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, alongside the al-Aqsa Brigades, aimed to destroy the Jewish state that served as an outpost of Western civilization in the Arab Islamic world.

Islam suddenly became news and today, more than ever, news matters. The media constitutes what Manuel Castells has called "the privileged space of politics," as true in the global as In the national arena. …

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