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Acceptable lies and the New York Times: Get Religion, December 23, 2011 December 24, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Israel, Press criticism.
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The New York Times has an extraordinary article that extols the virtues of lying and doublespeak in a recent “Memo from Jerusalem.” Well, you might ask, what of it? How does a dodgy story on the Arab-Israeli conflict fall within the ambit of GetReligion? What is the religion/journalism hook you ask?

To which I respond: lying is a sin or bad manners or ethically challenged behavior from a Western perspective. Lying is not always a sin in Islam — that is to say lying to non-Muslims is not a sin, bad manners or ethically challenged behavior. The Times ties itself in knots trying to excuse lying by the Palestinians, even going so far as to raise instances of Israelis behaving badly. However, the moral equivalence argument expressed in the Times-patented insouciant world-weary tone, which holds that as both sides are dissemblers we should not cast aspersions, does not work here.

Ignorance of Islamic moral standards, or perhaps the reluctance to raise the precept of taqiyya has placed the Times in the position of endorsing cant.

Take a look at this 20 Dec 2011 article entitled “Finding Fault in the Palestinian Messages That Aren’t So Public.” The editorial voice of the story states that news agencies that translate into English the statements made in Arabic by Palestinian leaders are doing a disservice to the cause of peace.

The Times argues that statements in English that are tailored to a Western audience by Palestinian leaders that speak of peace and reconciliation should not be juxtaposed against by statements made in Arabic by the same Palestinian leaders to their constituencies that call for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews.

The article begins by observing that:

A new book by an Israeli watchdog group catalogs dozens of examples of messages broadcast by the Palestinian Authority for its domestic audience that would seem at odds with the pursuit of peace and a two-state solution.

This claim is “not new” the Times notes. As:

For years, many Israeli and Palestinian analysts have said that what Palestinian leaders tell their own people in their own language — as opposed to English-language statements tailored to opinion in the rest of the world — is the truest reflection of their actual beliefs. This has had the effect of further entrenching the sides to the conflict and undermining confidence that it can ever be resolved.

Let’s stop and think about what the Times has just said. It is true, the article concedes, that Palestinian political leaders are saying one thing to the West and another to their own people. The lede sentence in the story soft peddles the results of this lying: it “would seem at odds” with the peace process. However, the follow up sentence states this explicitly: it has had “the effect of further entrenching” Palestinian revanchist views.

The article quotes one of the lead authors of the study on Palestinian media doublespeak on why this is problematic, but the story then pivots with a sentence that sets the theme and context of the article.

Some Israelis struggle with the practice of monitoring the Palestinian news media, acknowledging the importance of knowing what is being said in Arabic, yet disturbed by how its dissemination is exploited by those not eager to see Israel make concessions.

The article offers examples of this doublespeak, but then introduces contrary Israeli and Palestinian voices that criticize the book. This criticism, however, is not that the results of the study are untrue, but that these truths are inconvenient to the political agenda of the Israeli left, which the Times also conflates as being co-equal to the cause of peace.

The Times then offers its critque.

Some of the examples publicized by the Israeli monitoring group are old ones that have been repeated over the years, and some of its interpretations are arguable.

A Palestinian critique is offered.

“This is not a serious attempt to solve the problem of incitement,” said Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. Mr. Khatib said that the authority had significantly reduced the level of incitement on the Palestinian side in recent years. “The question is,” he said, “are the Israelis improving or reversing in this regard?”

And the story concludes with voices from the Israeli left.

“There is peace making and there is peace building,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, explaining why the contentious messages in Arabic are so damaging. The lack of peace building, he said, is part of the failure of the Oslo peace process that began with accords signed in 1993 but has not yet produced a Palestinian state.

In one of the most egregious examples of Palestinian doublespeak, Yasir Arafat spoke in a mosque in South Africa in May 1994, only months after the signing of the Oslo accords, and called on the worshipers “to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”

As the ambassador to Washington at the time, Mr. Rabinovich said he found himself in the awkward position of having to explain to anyone who would listen that jihad, usually translated as holy war, could also mean a spiritual struggle, in order to justify continuing the peace process.

Still, he said, it is not by chance that those focusing on Palestinian incitement and publicizing it are “rightist groups who use it as ammunition.”

Where is the religion hook then? It comes in the form of a religion ghost — meaning that there is a religion element to this story that is omitted. And this omission is crucial, I believe, in understanding the story.

As it is written, the Times piece is a defense of sophistry and comes across as being morally dubious at best. By excusing the doublespeak the Times engages in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — to quote a favorite of its editorial board, President George W. Bush. It belittles those who expose this duplicity by arguing that truth telling will block a two-state solution.

Are the Palestinians masters of moral duplicity then, as the Times would have us believe? Or are they acting according to the lights of their own moral and ethical system?

Writing in the Winter edition of the Middle East Quarterly, Raymond Ibrahim discusses the concept of dissimulation [taqiyya] in Shia and Sunni ethics.

While the Qur’an is against believers deceiving other believers—for “surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar”— deception directed at non-Muslims, generally known in Arabic as taqiyya, also has Qur’anic support and falls within the legal category of things that are permissible for Muslims.

Ibrahim explains that Shia communities living as minorities in Sunni areas were permitted to dissemble about their religion in order to avoid persecution. But among the Sunni community,

… far from suffering persecution have, whenever capability allowed, waged jihad against the realm of unbelief; and it is here that they have deployed taqiyya—not as dissimulation but as active deceit. In fact, deceit, which is doctrinally grounded in Islam, is often depicted as being equal—sometimes superior—to other universal military virtues, such as courage, fortitude, or self-sacrifice.

Palestinian leaders have used taqiyya in their war with Israel. In an incident dismissed in the Times article as being “old” news, Ibrahim reports on a speech by Yasser Arafat that offers an example of this strategy.

More recently, and of great significance for Western leaders advocating cooperation with Islamists, Yasser Arafat, soon after negotiating a peace treaty criticized as conceding too much to Israel, addressed an assembly of Muslims in a mosque in Johannesburg where he justified his actions: “I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.”  In other words, like Muhammad, Arafat gave his word only to annul it once “something better” came along—that is, once the Palestinians became strong enough to renew the offensive and continue on the road to Jerusalem.

The implications of this way of thinking offend Western sensibilities, Ibrahim writes.

Yet most Westerners continue to think that Muslim mores, laws, and ethical constraints are near identical to those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Naively or arrogantly, today’s multiculturalist leaders project their own worldview onto Islamists, thinking a handshake and smiles across a cup of coffee, as well as numerous concessions, are enough to dismantle the power of God’s word and centuries of unchanging tradition. The fact remains: Right and wrong in Islam have little to do with universal standards but only with what Islam itself teaches—much of which is antithetical to Western norms.

What then are we to make of this story about Palestinian doublespeak? The Times concedes it exists, but down plays its importance and gives prominence of place in its article to those who see the exposure of lies as being harmful to the cause of peace.

Would ascribing all divergence between what the Palestinian leaders say to the West and what they tell their own people to taqiyya answer the questions raised in this story? Or does cant play a role in any of this? What say you GetReligion readers?

But where ever the line may be found between lying to advance the faith and cant, the omission of this religion element to the story by the Times does a disservice to its readers.

First printed in GetReligion.

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