Mideast coverage by mainstream media takes cue from Dr. Pangloss and Charlie Brown
The Mideast is in turmoil. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi party win big in Egyptian elections, capturing 70 percent of parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based supreme leader of Hamas wants to step down, as his staff flees the mayhem in Syria.
What to make of all this?
All very disturbing and threatening to Western values and interests? Should liberal Egyptians, trounced at the polls, worry about their future under Islamist rule? Does the Arab Spring bode well for Iranian-backed terrorist outfits like Hezbollah and Hamas? Is the region apt to be plunged into a new era of medieval darkness?
Not to worry, according to the general tenor of Western media reporting. There are lots of silver linings. Harsh evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, mainstream media correspondents insist that the Arab Spring is changing the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, turning them into movements the West can do business with. So Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaches out to the Muslim Brotherhood in search of reassurance, which the Brothers are only too happy to supply.
Here's one example among many of media readiness to portray ascendant Islamist groups in roseate hues - an Associated Press dispatch run by the Washington Post on Jan. 22 about Meshal's announcement that he's ready to step down as head of Hamas. (World Digest, page A12).
Does the AP remind its readers that Hamas is a terrorist group dedicated to the destruction of Israel and unalterably opposed to a two-state solution, that it therefore opposes any peace talks with Israel? No way. The AP instead sees an opening for a more peaceful, less unbending Hamas. Meshal, according to the AP, hasn't headed a terrorist outfit. The article starts by describing Hamas as a "political movement." The AP also postulates that Hamas faces "far-reaching decisions on whether to stay the course of militancy or to shift to a more moderate path." Never mind that Hamas leaders keep insisting that they'll never bend in their pursuit of a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, or in their reliance on "resistance" (read terrorism) to achieve this objective.
The AP, however undaunted by such evidence, conjectures that Meshal still might retain his leadership post, which would be a "boost for his more pragmatic line." This is another favorite media-propagated myth that Hamas is not a single, unified movement under Meshal's supreme control, but that he merely heads the political side, untainted by the military side's terrorist pursuits.
In the same vein, the AP portrays the Muslim Brotherhood as ready to change its spots and, since having won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, fully prepared to govern in pragmatic ways. As a sign of this supposedly beneficent metamorphosis, the AP reports that the Brothers have been urging "Hamas to moderate."
So there you have it: the Brotherhood and Hamas on the cusp of transformation from Islamist militancy to more "pragmatic," more "moderate" agendas.
Editors of the Washington Post and the AP badly need to ask their Mideast correspondents for some long overdue reality checks when it comes to coverage of the Brotherhood and Hamas. They seem to suffer from a bad case of journalistic amnesia, forgetting how Hamas, empowered by its election victory in 2006, unceremonious ousted Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas from Gaza in a brief but violent civil war. Hamas and the Brotherhood know how to cultivate phony "moderate" images for consumption by gullible media, while biding their time for the right moment to demonstrate and achieve their real goals.
In the meantime, the AP and the Washington Post --- along with other Western media -- keep emulating Charlie Brown's misplaced optimism that next time for sure Lucy is bound to play fair with him and not yank away the football.
Voltaire, the 18th Century French philosopher, memorably nailed such illusory tendencies in his great satirical novel, "Candide," in which one of the characters, Dr. Pangloss, keeps insisting that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds " -- even in the face of a terrible earthquake that devastated the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers