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Argument

Middle Eastern Voices Deserve to Be Heard in Western Media

Coverage of Suleimani’s killing shows locals are still silenced.

A Yemeni artist sitting atop the rubble of a collapsed buiding, plays the aoud during a street performance in Yemen's third city of Taez, on December 6, 2019.
A Yemeni artist sitting atop the rubble of a collapsed buiding, plays the aoud during a street performance in Yemen's third city of Taez, on December 6, 2019. Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images

As the news of the killing of Qassem Suleimani sunk in, the differences between how it was covered in the West and the reaction in the wider Arab world became clear. As one Syrian writer based in the United States noted, the voices of Syrians, Iraqis, and Lebanese—the “main victims” of Suleimani—have been largely absent from U.S. television. That has led to an often misleading impression of Suleimani’s role and the impact his death is having.

I’ve been keenly listening to both the Western and Arab discourse, as a British think tanker in U.S. and British policy institutions, of English and Arab origins, who has spent the better part of the past decade working in the Arab world. In the aftermath of Suleimani’s death, it’s high time to center on voices from within the region, rather than exclude them. They, after all, are the ones who will pay the cost in blood of this action and Iran’s retaliation. Indeed, they’ve been paying that cost all along, while being kept on the margins of Western discussion.

Suleimani’s main impact should be judged by how he was perceived by the peoples of the region—not Americans or Westerners. And that perception, by and large, was negative. Suleimani was the leader of the Quds Force—a division within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps primarily dedicated to overseas operations and covert action of this deeply ideological outfit. It was for that reason that Arab journalists like Kareem Shaheen, who spent years as a Guardian reporter throughout the Middle East, and Kim Ghattas focused, likewise, on how Syrians, Iraqis, and other victims of Suleimani’s Quds Force were going to interpret the news.

That’s why the initial flurry of responses to his death from Arab media and from Arab figures was largely positive. Suleimani’s activities in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon had targeted scores of Arabs who were either fighting against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad or protesting against their leaders in Beirut or Baghdad. The Palestinian activist Iyad el-Baghdadi spoke out strongly, centering on the struggles of movements dedicated to good governance and accountability in the region, rather than supporting or centering on the designs of Washington, Riyadh, Tehran, or really anyone else: Suleimani “was a war criminal and nobody in the communities that were subjected to his brutality will shed a tear for him. But we also *know* for fact Trump has no plan other than one-upmanship. Iraqis and Iranians will be left to pay the price.”

There were, of course, many who mourned his death in the region, primarily in Iran, as well as acolytes elsewhere. You saw that among officials of the Iranian regime, as well as allies and their proxies elsewhere. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he also had a genuine base of support, primarily in Iran, even while many Iranians also felt differently. Mistaken support for a terrible political leader is hardly unique to the Middle East. If nothing else, history teaches us—including rather recent history—that normally reasonable people can support truly outrageous political figures.

But the reactions also make it clear that this was not a Sunni-Shiite divide, despite Suleimani’s appalling use of sectarianism to further the fortunes of the Iranian regime. Many within Assad’s regime are Sunni, and they wanted Suleimani’s assistance. Many protesters in Iraq are Shiite, and they were targeted by Suleimani’s allies, as were protesters in Iran. Arab activists like Joey Ayoub put it succinctly: “The ‘problem’ is that us anti-sectarians refuse to use that ‘card’ as opposed to actual sectarians who do it all the time while pretending to be anti-sectarian.”

When I tried to follow discussions in Washington and Western media outlets, the focus was rather different. There was very little discussion about the peoples of the region, only the fortunes of the West. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, for example, led with: The killing of Suleimani “has removed a huge threat to U.S. national security,” continuing to warn against threats to “U.S. interests.” Bild, Germany’s most popular newspaper, went with: “[Trump] has freed the world of a monster whose aim in life was an atomic cloud over Tel Aviv. Trump has acted in self-defense.”

Hypothetical Israeli and American victims weighed much heavier in the scale than the Arabs and others who died because of Suleimani’s actions. For those who supported Trump’s ordering of the strike, it was about Suleimani’s impact on Americans or about supporting the U.S. president. For those who opposed Trump’s move, it was about the stability of the region for American interests—or opposing Trump for domestic purposes. Indeed, even in the immediate reporting around Iraqi protests following the killing, the Western media focused on grassroots opposition to the U.S. military presence in Iraq—ignoring that the protests also called for Iranian forces to leave. Nowhere was that more visible than in the initial media focus, after Iran’s retaliation in Iraq, only on the possibility of American casualties. (In the end, thankfully, nobody was killed at all.)

On one level, perhaps that’s understandable. After all, the audience that the Beltway and the Western media writ large isn’t necessarily of the region or from the region. Their audience is domestic—so, naturally, they’ll talk about issues that are most relevant domestically. And surely, that’s what every country will do—focus on their own interests.

But that shouldn’t be accepted as the norm, especially for the West and particularly the United States—because the impact the West has on the wider Arab world far outstrips anything in reverse. For far too long, the wider region has been viewed without due consideration for how that same region looks at itself and understands itself. That gives us an analysis that can often be dangerously distant and sometimes even callous, such as the notion that “One day they may name a street after President Trump in Tehran,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently claimed. To be sure, Middle Eastern depictions of the West can also be distorted. But the consequences of narrow Western thinking are far starker than in reverse—because like it or not, the West in general, and the United States in particular, has far more power in the Arab world than vice versa.

But listening to informed voices in the region who highlight victims will also help the West avoid catastrophes—for itself, as well as the Arab world, and arguably far beyond. The Islamic State, for example, was not really considered a major problem for Western policymakers when it was rampaging against the peoples of the region—it became one when it began to target Westerners. It’s not just a moral and ethical failure of the highest proportions that the West engages in this region with minimal or little care for the perspectives of the people there. It’s a strategic disaster of untold proportions.

At every step of the way, the record of catastrophic Western involvement in the region could have been averted by better local understanding. There is no better way of doing that than by engaging with voices of the region more widely and with more seriousness. Some Western media has sought out local voices and commentators, and broadened its coverage. Yet we’re still at a point where a major news network such as CNN can hold programs on the impacts of Suleimani’s death with a wide-ranging panel—none of whom are from the region.

There are better ways of going about this. Commentators on France, say, are expected to be French, know French, or at least to have spent long amounts of time there. That’s not the case for the Middle East.

It’s true that finding people who actually know the region is the harder option. Those engaged in forming the nature of the debate in analytical circles and the media arena are often under a great deal of stress, particularly against the backdrop of fast-moving stories. It’s easy to go to the regular talking head that we know on the basis of previous work, even if that work is only tangentially related to the subject at hand. It will make for satisfying television, or a certain number of retweets on Twitter, and so forth.

But it is far more rewarding for listeners to benefit from years of experience and in-depth cultural understanding, even if the vision presented might be more complex than an easy soundbite. There are scores of such figures who do know the region; who have spent years within it; who engaged in a lot of effort to understand it; who know the languages of it; and who, ultimately, see the people there as complicated and complex as any Western population.

And as noted: It’s a grave responsibility. Informed policymakers are less likely to make reckless decisions that will engage their countries in turmoil abroad—or worse, take them to war. It’s not a guarantee, of course—but it’s certainly better than the alternative of relying on a cast of interpreters who are fumbling in their own outdated phrasebooks.

H.A. Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

  Twitter: @hahellyer

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