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Pride and prejudice

April 22, 2013

BEFORE the hair-raising dénouement of the hunt for the young men suspected of having perpetrated the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week, the interim couple of days during which there were no leads and no information were illustrative of a problem that several are convinced has become entrenched.

The problem is the assumption that terror is linked to one religion, and that someone from the world’s Muslim nations must be responsible.

So it was that one of the first purported ‘suspects’ the unthinking — or merely the grossly prejudiced — found to hang out to dry was a 20-year-old Saudi man. The New York Post, a right-of-centre newspaper, led the charge. On CNN, a former official of the Bush administration, Fran Townsend, insinuated the same: “We know that there is one Saudi national who was wounded in the leg who is being spoken to.” The same idea was launched from other quarters too, including Democrats.

As we found out shortly thereafter, he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a man of the wrong background.

Before the authorities had released the by now familiar images of the two young men in white and black baseball caps, the New York Post published front-page photos of two men, one with a duffel bag and the other with a backpack. The oversized headline announced: “Bagn” while the subhead added “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon”. Turned out, the newspaper was wrong.

The New York Post compounded what feels uncomfortably like prejudice with professional misconduct.

If a newspaper fails to get its facts straight, doesn’t check its sources, then … well, here’s the satirical ‘news’ site, The Onion, putting words in the mouth of the editor of the New York Post: “[…] yet people have this obsessive need to get bogged down in all the teeny tiny minutiae — the precise number of dead, how many explosions there were, etc — when we all know that these kinds of details don’t matter when you’re in the middle of a terrible emergent tragedy.

“Who focuses on that stuff? Not me, that’s for damned sure. All I cared about in the moment was giving our readers a vague, erroneous conception of what was happening on the ground while also beating our competitors to the punch with a more sensationalistic story featuring a drastically higher body count.”

Such was the scale of the misreporting in general that, unusually, the FBI was driven to issuing a statement of correction asking that news outlets verify information through official channels.

Is such prejudice becoming entrenched in parts of the media in the West? Regrettably, there are indications that this might be the case.

The day after the July 2011 gun and bombing attacks in Oslo (which for a while were thought of as not being linked), the featured headline on The New York Times’ internet page implied that Muslims were responsible. The Washington Post published a column on the same assertion. Similar prejudices were displayed after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Many people have for years now been warning that such attitudes are becoming rooted in society in general. And, regrettably, it has to be conceded that more times than one would like to face up to, someone related to the Muslim world is found to have been behind violence as, indeed, was the case with the Boston bombings.

Of course it’s unjust to hold the entire population complicit for the actions of a few, but reality is not a kind place.

In the aftermath of the Boston attacks, much of this community found itself desperately hoping — in vain, as it turns out — that it wouldn’t in some way find itself in a news story about the men being pursued by the FBI.

If some sections are giving in to their baser emotions, are there any voices of reason?

Writing in The Guardian, here’s what Glenn Greenwald had to say on April 16: “One continually encountered yesterday expressions of dread and fear from Arabs and Muslims around the world that the attacker would be either or both. That’s because they know that all members of their religious or ethnic group will be blamed, or worse, if that turns out to be the case.

“… One tweeter, referencing the earthquake that hit Iran this morning, satirised this collective mindset by writing: ‘Please don’t be a Muslim plate tectonic activity’. … No other group reacts with that level of fear to these kinds of incidents, because no other group has similar cause to fear that they will all be hated or targeted for the acts of isolated, unrepresentative individuals.”

But before any readers find in this article vindication for their long-cherished views that the West is ‘against us’, let me point out one other aspect of prejudice: here in Pakistan, we are hardly strangers to it.

What else is the so rampant ‘anti-American sentiment’? In burning down a food outlet thought of as being American, aren’t the perpetrators punishing the community at large for the actions of a few?

If the sins of a few madmen who are also Muslim ought not be used to hold the whole Muslim world responsible, should strikes that are the domain of a single government be enough to tar the entire West with the same brush?

The world swings in mood between societies’ liberalism and conservatism, between times of freedom and repression, when people tend to be active or reactive. Unfortunately, it would seem, this is an age of the pendulum’s swing to the right.

The writer is a member of staff.