Let some light shine on Arab world's progress

The Baltimore Sun

BEIRUT -- I had a very unusual experience recently as I was going through my pleasant early morning routine while sitting in my easy chair on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea: reading the newspapers, drinking coffee, listening to the BBC radio news. The unusual thing was that there was not a single item about the Middle East on the BBC radio news.

I do not exaggerate when I say that it may be the first time in around 36 years of regular listening that the morning bulletin did not carry Middle East news. Jerry, my water turtle, seems to have picked up on the fact as well, for he was particularly athletic that morning - perhaps because of the refreshing change of not having to listen day in and day out to the news that dominates the Middle East: violent wars, terrorism, assassinations, kidnappings, refugees, civil strife, stalemated governments, invasions, hostage-taking, beheadings, militias, sanctions, regime changes, military occupations, armed resistance, illegal immigrants, religious fanaticism, corruption, police states, rigged elections, human rights abuses, stressed economies, presidents for life, and many other such depressing phenomena.

I wondered whether consumers of mainstream radio, television and newspaper news around the world, who primarily receive a diet of depressing and violent news about our region, are receiving an accurate picture of the realities of my Arab society and other Middle Eastern lands. I was able to contrast this Western news-anchored view of a troubled Middle East with the personal experiences of two graduate-student friends of our sons who came to the Middle East for a two-week vacation this month.

They visited four different corners of the Arab world: Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Beirut; south Lebanon; and Damascus. It's hard to get a more representative sample of the modern Arab world than these four examples of oil-fueled hyper-urbanism, a war-scarred but fun-loving cosmopolitan metropolis, a tense and brutalized front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a tough security state where the government rules with an iron fist.

The experiences of our American friends and the coverage of these regions in the mainstream American and Western press are as different as night and day. On the ground here, the visitor sees and experiences the full range of issues that define contemporary Arab society, the good and the bad together: extremism and compassion, suspicion and hospitality, destruction and construction, tension and relaxation, political concerns and the assertion of a powerful humanism, anger at American policy but a warm embrace of individual Americans.

Especially in places such as Damascus, Beirut and south Lebanon, visitors from abroad experience the nuances and subtleties of daily life, political sentiments and social-cultural dynamics that unfortunately are largely missing from the global media's reporting on our region.

Global reporting about this region has presented it almost exclusively as an arena of aberration and violence, seen primarily through the lens of conflict and extremism, emotionalism, exaggerated religiosity, and deep ethnic or religious prejudice. The underlying human rhythms, prevailing moral norms, and routine cultural and political values of the 500 million or so Arabs, Iranians, Kurds and Turks are not presented accurately or fully.

The world has been told repeatedly - if fleetingly - about the intemperance and drama of Dubai's skyscrapers, Gaza's tensions, Fallujah's killings, and Hezbollah's defiance and militancy. The American- and British-dominated global news media seem to have much less time for Arabs who don't carry knives, cut off heads and arms, shoot machine guns, launch grenades, or talk on gold-plated cell phones.

Western journalists and editors in particular may be consistently missing the most important story in the Arab world: the quest by millions of ordinary people to create a better political and socioeconomic order, anchored in decent values, open to the world, pluralistic and tolerant yet asserting indigenous Arab-Islamic values. The wholesale attempt to transform autocracies into democracies, and corrupt and often incompetent police states into more satisfying and accountable polities, is a saga of epic - and often heroic - proportions.

By reporting on the Arab world primarily in terms of its public and political deviance, rather than its human ordinariness and the rhythms of its many different neighborhoods, the Western media leave little if any space to convey the defining reality of ordinary Middle Eastern lives. It's refreshing to get an occasional break from this menu of madness, but it would be better to get a more comprehensive and accurate daily picture of the good and bad in our lands.

Rami G. Khouri is a syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper.

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