Give credit to Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi of The New York Times. For their story about Egyptians’ perceptions of the 9/11 attacks, the two reporters were not content to flip through their rolodexes and call a bunch of experts. No, they interviewed ordinary Egyptians on the street. The fruits of their shoe-leather reporting were mostly ripe.
As you might imagine, the reporters discovered that religion shaped Egyptians’ attitudes toward the attacks. One attitude was a pathetic paranoia about Jewish people:
First among these is that Jews did not go to work at the World Trade Center on that day. Asked how Jews might have been notified to stay home, or how they kept it a secret from co-workers, people here wave off the questions because they clash with their bedrock conviction that Jews are behind many of their troubles and that Western Jews will go to any length to protect Israel.
“Why is it that on 9/11, the Jews didn’t go to work in the building,” said Ahmed Saied, 25, who works in Cairo as a driver for a lawyer. “Everybody knows this. I saw it on TV, and a lot of people talk about this.”
Another related attitude was misgivings about the United States’ motives in invading Afghanistan and Iraq:
Hisham Abbas, 22, studies tourism at Cairo University and hopes one day to work with foreigners for a living. But he does not give it a second thought when asked about Sept. 11. He said it made no sense at all that Mr. bin Laden could have carried out such an attack from Afghanistan. And like everyone else interviewed, he saw the events of the last seven years as proof positive that it was all a United States plan to go after Muslims.
“There are Arabs who hate America, a lot of them, but this is too much,” Mr. Abbas said as he fidgeted with his cellphone. “And look at what happened after this — the Americans invaded two Muslim countries. They used 9/11 as an excuse and went to Iraq. They killed Saddam, tortured people. How can you trust them?”
Slackman, the writer of the story, deserves a pat on the back for including these quotes in the story. By letting his subjects speak at length, he presented their point of view with a brusqueness that rarely appears in American news pages.
Yet Slackman and Audi also committed a sin characteristic of U.S. reporters, and European ones too for all I know: they failed to identify the religion of each interview subject. While the speakers’ ethnicity and occupation are noted, their religious background is not. This information might have shed light on why the interviewers detest America and Israel. Are their views based on ethnicity, religion, or a combination of both?
Also, the speakers refer to their side in different terms. Some talk about Muslims, others about Arabs. This is confusing. As tmatt noted, some Arabs are Christians.
And the reasons for the speakers’ disgust of Jews and the United States are unmentioned. Do they hate Jews partly because of Israel? Do they fear the United States partly because it has a large Christian majority?
Asking interview subjects about their religious background and attitudes is not easy. It invites stares and uncomfortable silences and, no doubt in some parts of the world, worse responses. But the questions are key in determining whether a speaker has a Regensburg lecture view of humanity or a Lion and the Unicorn one.