The media needs a villain
The dramatics were in full force by late Sunday evening Washington time. CNN was calling the coming speech by American President Barack Obama “the most important speech he will make” as president. Then the people began flowing toward the White House, chanting “USA, USA” as the announcement that “terror suspect number one” Osama bin Laden had been killed by the US military in a raid.
The reactions from the media were to be expected; bin Laden had been the focal point of the “War on Terror” for nearly a decade since September 11, 2001. He was the enemy, so the pomp and circumstance given to his killing should not have come as a surprise to those who have followed the Western media’s coverage of global events, especially when Islam is involved, over the past few years.
First it was Osama, then Saddam, then Mahmoud, then Osama, then Muammar and again Osama. Bin Laden has always taken the cake in terms of radical Islam and anti-Americanism. He deserved much of the anger, for he was the one who purported a war against the West, attacked embassies, civilians and military targets with little restraint. But in the end, he was the villain, the Lex Luther to Superman, and with his death will undoubtedly see the crumbling of the Daily Planet’s number one fallback criminal for all things evil in the Islamic world. I mean, of course, Western media.
Let’s put things into reality. The death of bin Laden will, unfortunately, do little to curtail the wave of anti-West sentiments. Radical Islamic leanings have been seen in Egypt, where with the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, the so-called Salafis – those who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Quran – have been more forceful in voicing their illicit attacks on non-Muslims. Radical Islam was not birthed by bin Laden and it won’t die with him.
Certainly, there is some solace that the face of al-Qaeda – the most fervent force in violent radical Islam – is now gone. But already, the media are attempting to create a new enemy, a new image of what we are supposed to hate. They have talked of clerics in the Gulf who are recruiting new “soldiers of Islam” to continue the fight against Western ideals.
“They understand the new social media world and are on Facebook,” said one CNN announcer in the lead up to Obama’s speech. The PR campaign was in full force, even before the president was able to tell the nation that the man the US government had allegedly been searching for a decade had been killed.
The media has always wanted a villain. During the Cold War it was the Communists, whether the Soviet Union, China or Cuba. With the end of the Cold War in 1991, we had to search for new enemies, new faces for our continued brainwashing of American and Western societies.
This is the unfortunate reality that our mainstream media have created. For them, putting a face to “evil” is vital to pandering to the uneducated who, as a result of our media’s “numbing down” the intricacies of the Islamic world, have believed them wholeheartedly. Bin Laden was a bad person who deserved to be brought to justice. But he is not the sole harbinger of death, destruction and intolerance. There are hundreds, if not thousands of radical clerics and others who are likely to take up his mantle against the United States.
“The question is what will be the implications of bin Laden’s death on US foreign policy? Muslims are now asking what’s next for US policy in the region,” said Khalil al-Anani, a leading scholar on Islamic movements in the Middle East. He’s right, what will happen? It’s the million-dollar question that undoubtedly, editors in newsrooms far removed from the Islamic world are currently debating.
But we, as commentators and supposedly messengers to the people on the events unfolding across the planet, we should take note of what has occurred and not force a new face onto the public. There is no reason we should create enemies. They exist no matter how disparaging they are. Instead, we should turn the hate fomented and created by bin Laden and his network of violent radicals, and turn it into tolerance and understanding.
Bin Laden is dead. Fine. Terrorism, radical Islam and violence in the name of whatever religion persist today. One man’s demise is not going to end this and we as editors and journalists must be willing to be honest to our readers.
The only solution – and the only solution for the past 10 years – has been to educate. Across the Islamic world, from Morocco to Pakistan and Southeast Asia, analysts and observers have continued to lament the stark reality: Westerners just don’t understand. And they are right.
With bin Laden out of the picture, the media can take those important steps in creating a society that understands the root causes of Islamic radicalism, whether it be the US government’s actions, Israel’s constant oppression of Palestinians and other ills that have befallen the Islamic world. In doing so, not only do the media help create a new society of educated individuals who are not hell-bent on the destruction of the Islamic world, and vice-versa, it will create a world that is moving toward peace and tolerance, not one of destruction and chasms that have had broken bridges for far too long.
The writer is an American journalist based in Cairo and is the Editor-in-chief of bikyamasr.com