Thursday, September 3, 2009

How to Tell Who’s Lying and Who’s Telling the Truth in the Middle East

By Barry Rubin

A reader wrote me about one of the latest (and innumerable) sensationalist stories in the Middle East. Namely, in this case, that Hizballah has allegedly deployed chemical and biological weapons. This is absurd but it reminds us of the care that must be taken in analyzing developments in this region.

In this case, the source is a Kuwaiti newspaper. One must first ask: how does a Kuwaiti newspaper with no foreign bureaus and surely no inside sources in Hizballah (or Syria or Israeli intelligence) know this big secret? So the first question you must always ask is: Is it credible that the news outlet or other source knows what it/he/she claims to know?

The second question is the more specific identity of the source. There are sources that are literally always wrong (Debka, al-Quds al-Arabi, the Syrian state press, etc) and should be remembered as such. In this case, the newspaper is al-Siyassa, a courageous newspaper in its stance against Syria and radical Islamists and which is also pro-Saudi. Clearly, as in the past, al-Siyassa wants a sensationalist story and also to make the Syrians (and their client, Hizballah) look bad.

The third question is the rule of rationality: There have been no credible previous reports of Hizballah having these weapons. And if they did, Israeli sources would be talking about it a lot.

Consider another recent story, the claim that Israel hijacked a Russian ship carrying arms to Hamas. Russia is a very important country for Israel. Aside from trade and other issues, Israel doesn’t want Moscow to sell advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, just in case Israel decides one day to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Would Israel take the risk of creating a virtual war scenario with the Russian government? Not credible.

In the past there were mythical lands, or at least lands about which myths could be told. People remember that Marco Polo described the court of the emperor of China but not that Polo also speaks of lands along the way where he insisted he saw men with two heads.

The Middle East has become the part of the world onto which fantasies are projected. But there’s a problem. Due to Political Correctness and other dubious blessings of contemporary life, one cannot even speak honestly about what goes on in Iran or Arabic-speaking lands. The old cliché that, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” has seemingly been enshrined on the intellectual temples of our era.

Consequently, a growing proportion of the mythology settles on the place about which it is permissible to say anything: Israel.

For example, if I were to assert that the proportion of deliberate and credibly believed lying in public life, media, and universities in the Arabic-speaking world is far higher than in the West (not to deny that there is plenty of that in the West also, enhanced by some current trends), that would be considered shocking.

Can I prove this? Certainly, just look at the record of past statements which have been proven accurate or inaccurate.

Combine that with the lack of institutional controls. If something outrageous is asserted—the Holocaust never happened, America is behind all the terrorism in Iraq, Israel murders Palestinians to steal their organs, the Mossad or CIA was behind September 11, ad infinitum—there are few voices that will say: That’s nonsense! In short, not only are the lies, slanders, and conspiracy theories not countered, alternative views are endangered species.

In this context, a natural Western impulse to say that “the truth must be halfway in between” or “we’re just hearing two equally credible discourses” is crippling.

Yet without understanding these realities, it is impossible to comprehend the area’s political life or to set policies toward the Middle East.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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