Through A Western lens darkly

Bernard Lewis, the universally acknowledged doyen of Middle East studies, informs us in What Went Wrong that, “In the first extant account of the British House of Commons written by a visitor who went to England at the end of the eighteenth century, the writer expresses his astonishment at the fate of a people who, unlike the Muslims did not have a divine revealed law, and were therefore reduced to the pitiable expedient of enacting their own laws.”
An interesting perspective, indeed. By the time the emissary, Abu Talib Khan, filed his report, Western Europe had past through the Renaissance, the Reformation and was in the final stages of the Enlightenment. The Ottomans, who still ruled over the Greater Middle East (and parts of Eastern Europe), never experienced those transformational movements.
It should, therefore, be of no surprise that in the above passage, the writer expresses amazement at how a society could properly function without complete reliance on God’s law. Indeed, it is entirely beyond his comprehension to even consider such a possibility. It should be noted that the Ottoman Caliphate was less religiously rigorous than its predecessors.
Today’s radical Islamists would likely label the Ottomans as profligate, “takfirs,” - apostates who must be vanquished, placing them in the same category as today’s reviled Arab regimes. By contrast, are many of today’s reporters any more attuned than the Ottoman emissary was to the profound societal differences that still exist between the two regions?
Middle East reportage is often palpably lacking in cultural/religious context, historical perspective and dispassionate analysis. While often priding themselves on a multiculturalist world view, many journalists paradoxically assumed that the majority of the inhabitants of the Greater Middle East aspired toward those same sets of goals which they hold dear – democracy, individual political freedoms, separation of church and state, etc.
While a distinct minority have come to recognize the Western model as a more beneficial and enterprising construct, for most pious Muslims in general, and Islamists in particular, this is not the case. For the majority, the primary role of government should be to implement sharia, rather than enact laws counter to it (see the yearly polls conducted by the Pew Center for Social Research concerning Arab/Muslim - social/political/religious views). Simply stated, as evidenced by Pew, et al: for the solid majority, liberal, democratic rule cannot exist because it has no basis in the received law.
While there are numerous, daily examples of distorted reportage of the region, a particularly egregious case was one that occurred, en masse, as the media covered the events which engulfed much of the Arab world beginning in 2010. Well-meaning journalists coined the term: “The Arab Spring,” meant to impart that a momentous event was flowering - an inexorable, popular movement was afoot which would forever refashion those societies toward a pluralistic, secular model.
We were inundated with interviews of young Arabs who informed the reporters of exactly what they wanted to hear: the goals of the revolution were about freedom, democracy and… perhaps even a covert love of Woody Allen films.
Hence, when the journalists unpacked their luggage before they converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the winter of 2011 to cover the revolution, they were mostly unaware that just beneath their shirts and pants, packed tightly into corners of their suitcases, were their cultural preconceptions and political inclinations.
We were informed day after day that the multitudes would soon usher in a new era based on liberal, secular values. But sadly, when the parliamentary elections finally came about a year later, and the votes were tallied, the antidemocratic, Islamist movements, led by the Muslim Brotherhood backed Freedom and Justice Party, achieved nearly seventy percent of the vote.
The democratic, secular parties barely reach twenty percent. To the shock of the Western media, the Egyptian people had voted overwhelmingly for fundamentalist parties – parties which overtly supported the implementation of sharia as the law of the land.
But they could have taken a modicum of solace: Abu Talib Khan would, perhaps, understand. When the international press realized that the election results fell far outside the narrative they had proffered, and would not result in the election of progressive, democratic parties, they began to paint a surrealistic portrait of the victors.
The apotheosis of the Muslim Brotherhood began almost immediately. A new, robust revisionism was in full swing. But that is an article for another day.