October 01, 2008

Getting Religion Wrong: Three Decades of Misreporting Iran and Iraq


War is always a hot story for journalists. Walter Cronkite, Morley Safer, and Christiane Amanpour rose to national prominence as war correspondents. First in 1991 and again in 2003, hundreds of journalists flooded into Kuwait and Iraq to cover the U.S. military. For many, war was a sexy story; religion was not. Ignoring religion, though, is a mistake. In the Middle East, war, politics and religion can often be so intertwined as to be inseparable. As in any story, the devil is often in the details. As journalists rush to fill 700-word copy, they can seldom address theology in detail. Failure to understand the nuances of religion, though, can lead them to misanalysis and an artificial emphasis on political and diplomatic motivations.

It would be an exaggeration to say that correspondents in the Middle East always ignore religion. Few miss the religious angle to the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). Journalists described the sectarian nature of protests against the Sunni ruling family in majority Shi‘ite Bahrain in 1995-1996, although only after years of ignoring such tension. The general rule for Western correspondents in the Muslim world, though, is to report violence and political intrigue, but ignore underlying religious tension, especially when disagreements involve doctrinal disputes within sects rather than fighting between sects or religions. As a result, the Western media often gets the Middle East wrong. . . .

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Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.