New York, January 30: A battle between fundamentalism and the freedom of a secular society is being waged in many parts of the world-including inside the United States. In other countries, our media is quick to identify religious forces as anti-democratic, even fanatical.
The election of Hamas in Palestine has been greeted with “Terror Wins” and “Shock” headlines with virtually a total focus on Israel with a drumbeat of constant repetition of references to that movement’s unchanging determination to refuse to recognize Tel Aviv and “destroy” it. Most of our news from the region comes out of Israel and reflects the spin of its hardliners like Netanyahu.
You have seen these news themes again and again with phrases like “terror” and “destroy Israel” repeated ad-finite. There has been very little concern shown for what this election will mean for Palestinian society or, indeed, why it occurred. In the first stories that always shape our impressions, there was little on the role played by outsiders in the corruption (and occupation) of Palestine, or the reality of a peace process that has been inert for years even as the Administration and much of the press treats it as if it were real.
What the US media keeps referring to as facts other media outlets throughout the world challenge. Hamas’ own comments to clarify its stance itself are ignored and disregarded. In fact, Hamas says it will work with the Palestinian President Abbas who still insists “I am committed to implementing the program on which you elected me a year. It is a program based on negotiations and peaceful settlement with Israel.”
News increasingly comes to us stripped of context and background. The focus is usually on the latest “up to the minute” development with very little exploration of larger trends and deeper meaning. News language, offered up as objective often masks agendas and glosses over what’s being left out. It’s used as an emotional trigger more than as a tool for illumination.
As it happens, in this same period, a small play dramatizing America’s battle with fundamentalism has been touring 23 American cities. It’s called “The Great American Monkey Trial” and is based on the transcripts of a 1925 trial in Tennessee of a school teacher accused of illegally teaching evolution despite a State law banning the practice because it allegedly contradicted the teachings of the bible.
Two great American personalities of the time, William Jennings Bryan, an orator and progressive turned fundamentalist (played brilliantly, if ironically, by the progressive actor and orator Ed Asner) and the prestigious criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow dueled in the courtroom on whether the state can regulate the teaching of science in the name of Christian values.
In one fascinating moment the defense cited an expert on the Hebrew Bible, to discredit the literal “creationist” beliefs of those challenging evolution. Their expert showed how the original Hebrew conveyed a different meaning than the one translated in the Christian bible.
(This brought to mind Hamas’s insistence that its covenant in Arabic does not mean what its detractors insist it does. Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a Hamas leader and a newly-elected Palestinian lawmaker, said “You Westerners have got it wrong: our statute does not call for Israel’s destruction at all. The Arabic actually says that the Israeli occupation of Palestine must end. We don’t want to eliminate anybody. We just want our rights”)
The “Monkey Trial” case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is still fighting on the same issues today. They lost in the trial court in Dayton Tennessee but the teacher’s conviction was later tossed on appeal.
These issues were fought over again the fifties and most recently in the “Intelligent Design” controversy that even this Supreme Court overruled. Yet the underlying conflict remains even as Christian militants march in support of Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito convinced that he would vote to overturn Roe V Wade while he plays coy claiming he has an “open mind.”
In America, because of our traditions and more evolved (if often retarded) Democracy, these issues are fought in the courts. In other countries without real democratic institutions, they are fought in the streets with often-inflamed rhetoric. Language games are played as with Hamas refusing to recognize Israel as long as Israel doesn’t recognize Palestinian rights. No serious observer believes that Hamas represents any military threat to Israel. Its militant defiance, already mellowing after the election results, is used as a device to mobilize supporters along with hostility to corruption and social services. It ran on a program of reform, not Islamic revolution.
Not long ago, violent armed groups like the Klu Klux Klan appropriated the symbol of the Cross to give their racist cause biblical foundation. Their “terror” in the form of lynching were in spirit, were not so different from the way some groups used suicide bombings. The Klan sacrificed others; the Jihadis sacrifice themselves as well as others usually in attacks justified as “pay back” for earlier killings. These tit-for-tat killings have defined the ongoing conflict-Israel uses tanks and bombers; Hamas trains “martyrs” with bomb belts. Bear in mind that many top Israel leaders were once denounced as violent terrorists. (Parallels are never exact but comparative history can be a way of seeking deeper understanding.)
A media focus on violent incidents or even election results only makes sense if there is context provided. For example, did you know, as UPI reports, that Israel helped create and finance Hamas?
” â€¦According to several current and former U.S. intelligence officials, beginning in the late 1970s, Tel Aviv gave direct and indirect financial aid to Hamas over a period of years.
“Israel “aided Hamas directly — the Israelis wanted to use it as a counterbalance to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization),” said Tony Cordesman, Middle East analyst for the Center for Strategic Studies.
“Israel’s support for Hamas “was a direct attempt to divide and dilute support for a strong, secular PLO by using a competing religious alternative,” said a former senior CIA official.”
Information like this, fascinating in itself, also points to a dimension often missing in the news that helps explain why things happen and the key role played by shadowy forces. The news we rely on sticks to the surface.
No wonder we know so little and are manipulated so much.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His new books “When News Lies” (Select Books) and “The Death of Media” (Melville House) explores how media misleads. Comments to [email protected] Info: news.dissector.org/store.htm