Extremism in context

CNN’s Reliable Sources from Sunday details some of the general problems or opportunities with media coverage in Egypt. Host Howard Kurtz and his guests discuss everything from Al Jazeera being shut down in Egypt to how reporters are dodging bullets with protesters being felled all around. The closure of foreign bureaus means that those hungry for news have been tuning into Al Jazeera English, which focuses on Middle East coverage. Tmatt already looked at one ghost in the coverage — the fate of Egypt’s Christian community.

The story that grew in importance over the weekend is the opposition role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group took a more public stance and that worried those who hope for a budding democracy. Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick had a helpful piece in the New York Times. Aren’t you glad Kirkpatrick went over to Egypt some months back? I was hoping to see his byline on some of these stories. Here’s how the reporters explained the significance of what’s going on:

CAIRO — Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition banded together Sunday around a prominent government critic to negotiate for forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, as the army struggled to hold a capital seized by fears of chaos and buoyed by euphoria that three decades of Mr. Mubarak’s rule may be coming to an end.

This “prominent government critic” is none other than Mohamed ElBaradei, someone who inspires dramatically different feelings among Egyptians. I was somewhat surprised to see his name bandied about considering that I know he has a bit of a “carpetbagger” image among various Egyptian groups. This article did a great job of quickly explaining why he was in the mix:

Though lacking deep support on his own, Dr. ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and diplomat, could serve as a consensus figure for a movement that has struggled to articulate a program for a potential transition. It suggested, too, that the opposition was aware of the uprising’s image abroad, putting forth a candidate who might be more acceptable to the West than beloved in Egypt.

And not just that, but the article got the perspective of the Muslim Brotherhood:

“We’re supporting ElBaradei to lead the path to change,” Mr. Beltagui said as he joined him in Liberation Square. “The Brotherhood realizes the sensitivities, especially in the West, towards the Islamists, and we’re not keen to be at the forefront.”

For his part, ElBaradei told Christiane Amanpour on ABCNews’ This Week program:

“The Muslim Brotherhood is in no way extremist.”

More from that interview here. Now, there’s no question that the Brotherhood — though working overtime in recent years to improve its image — is a powerful Islamist force. And yes, it would have been nice to see Amanpour press him on this point. (On that note, my favorite part about Al Jazeera English is the way they press all their guests. It’s a refreshing change from watching the deference U.S. media shows to many government guests.) But is El Baradei wrong? Many Egyptians — particularly the ones not trying to work with the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power — would say he is. But I was thinking of one statistic from that Pew Global report from last year:

When asked about the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion, at least three-quarters of Muslims in Jordan (86%), Egypt (84%) and Pakistan (76%) say they would favor making it the law …

It’s just a helpful reminder that extremism is a word defined in context.

Up to this point, though, I think the U.S. outlets’ lack of substantive previous coverage of the Brotherhood is showing. The video embedded above has the host being incredibly deferential to the Brotherhood in a way that makes it seem like opposition to this group must be crazy:

“I’m asking about the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that has tirelessly, and in many cases quite courageously, campaigned in elections, it has campaigned against the government, it has campaigned on behalf of the poor in Egypt. It has a long, long history in that country. What role should it have now?”

That’s really what the host said. It’s so ironic to see CNN behaving this why while Al Jazeera English is asking tough questions of its guests. But if the Muslim Brotherhood is ascendant, we’re going to need to see much more critical, thorough and balanced coverage of same. This is the movement that Osama bin Laden credits as formational, the one best known for its arguments in favor of imposing Sharia. It’s tough to cover well without a knowledgeable history of the group, which is probably why Reuters and Al Jazeera are doing such a better job with Egypt coverage than their peers.

A few other links — Time‘s look at why the U.S. is nervous about the Muslim Brotherhood, Guardian story about a mosque being turned into a hospital for protesters, Los Angeles Times on how funerals are becoming protests, Jerusalem Post on how anger is being directed at U.S. and Israel, Agence France-Presse on how Israelis are worried about an Islamist takeover of Egypt, Wall Street Journal‘s piece on the Muslim Brotherhood/ElBaradei coalition,

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  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    It does seem that the media is more concerned about being “shut out” than the rise of Muslim radicals.

    http://www.RedLetterBelievers, “Salt and Light”

  • Dave

    And in the (current) background, street protests are popping up all over the Arab world. It will be a test for journalists to keep track of the players when they and their countries are more obscure.

  • Julia

    Meanwhile no Western media coverage of an astounding article published by the on-line version of an Egyptian weekly on January 24th that spread quickly over the Egyptian internet in the days leading up to the street protests. Translation by a native Egyptian Jesuit.


    About 23 Islamic professors, writers, Imams and other intellectuals contributed their thoughts to what is called Document for the Renewal of Religious Discourse. Note in particular bullet point #8.

    1. Review the books of the Hadith (the words attributed to Muhammad) and Koranic commentaries to purge them.
    2. Fine tune Islamic political-religious vocabulary, such as the gizyah (the special tax required of dhimmi, the second-class citizens).
    3. Find a new expression for the concept of fraternisation between the sexes.
    4. Develop the Islamic vision of women and find suitable ways for marriage laws.
    5. Islam is a religion of creativity.
    6. Explain the Islamic concept of gihâd, and clarify rules and requirements that govern it.
    7. Block attacks on external piety and foreign practices that come from neighbouring states [a euphemism that aims to expose the influence of Saudi Arabia-ed.]
    8. Separate state and religion.
    9. Purify the heritage of the “first centuries of Islam (Salafism), discarding the myths and attacks against religion.
    10. Give adequate preparation to missionary preachers (du’ât) and in this field open the doors to those who have not studied at the University of Al Azhar, according to clear criteria.
    11. Formulate the virtues common to the three revealed religions.
    12. Eliminate incorrect practices and provide guidance with regard to Western ways.
    13. Articulate the relationship that should exist between members of religions through schools, mosques and churches.
    14. Redraw in a different way [adapted] to the West the presentation of the biography of the Prophet.
    15. Do not keep people away from economic systems with the requirement not to deal with banks.
    16. Recognising the right of women to the Presidency of the Republic.
    17. Combat sectarian claims, [underling] that the flag of Islam [must be] one. Invite people to come to God through gratitude and wisdom, not through threats.
    18. Evolve the teaching of Al Azhar.
    19. Recognise the right of Christians [to have access] to important positions and [also] to the presidency.
    20. Separate religious discourse from power and restore the bond with the needs of society
    21. Establish the bond between the Da’wah (the call to conversion to Islam) and modern technology, satellite chains and the market for Islamic cassettes.

    For discussion of the commentaries that were attached to the 21 bullet points in the published document and some of the public reaction to the document:

  • Jerry

    It’s just a helpful reminder that extremism is a word defined in context.

    That’s a very interesting observation but a surprising one from you because it reads to me like a statement of situational ethics applied in a political arena. I’m not disagreeing with your point. Rather I’m being a bit thoughtful of the implications of that particular frame-of-reference and the limitations of that viewpoint.

    Extreme can be measured from an ideal or extreme can be measured with respect to a culture. I’m also mindful of the infamous, at the time, comment of Barry Goldwater “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!….Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” An Islamist (or some Christians) could quote that today substituting religion for liberty and justice.

    So I guess I’m saying that this is a very tricky area.