Monday, June 7, 2010

Clash of Perceptions: A Picture is Worth 10,000 Academic Theories

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By Barry Rubin

What if two groups are in conflict and have a completely different way of looking at the world, thus often misperceiving each other? Many Westerners say nowadays that their societies misunderstand the Middle East or Muslim-majority societies and the correct response is to apologize humbly, make amends through unilateral concessions that will prove they are nice, and avoid any possible offense.

But maybe the misunderstanding is in the opposite direction from what they think.

Consider this small example with big implications.

Hurriyet, a Turkish newspaper, ran as its lead article on page one a story about what it called photos the Israelis didn’t want the world to see. Many Westerners who read these words would expect to see some kind of atrocity—Israelis murdering or injuring people--that Israel wanted to hide. That's the implication in a Western context.

In other words, a large portion of Western intellectuals, media, academics, opinion-makers and policymakers are portraying the following image: Israel is too tough, cruel, and violent.

But that is not what Hurriyet is talking about, nor is it the perception of Israel’s actual enemies. For the picture doesn’t show Israeli soldiers shooting or beating. No, not at all.

It shows Israeli soldiers, beaten and captured by the Jihadis as crying.

Hurriyet claims that Israel somehow hid or erased these pictures “because the images of desperate, scared, and weeping soldiers would have harmed the image of the troops." [Incidentally, that’s untrue. Soldiers can be seen crying in the TV news coverage of almost every military funeral.]

The photos were taken with the cameras of the Jihadist-humanitarians of the Gaza flotilla, supposedly erased by the Israelis who captured them, but restored by Hurriyet’s technicians.

What did the photos show? The newspaper described it thusly: these photos showing the fear on the faces of the soldiers who were attacked by iron and wooden sticks and captured by the activists." After outlining the history of the Israeli unit as including daring deeds, it implied that in the face of the brave Islamic Turkish would-be martyrs they turned into cowards.

Meanwhile, Reuters took the same picture and airbrushed out a combat knife in the hand of one of the hostage-taking militants. The Middle Eastern supporters of the Islamists backed them by showing they were warriors with knives and demeaned the Israelis by showing them as bloodied prisoners. Westeners antagonistic to Israel wanted to blot out the perception of the militants as warriors by making them weak victims, and therefore they could not be seen to hold knives.

Here’s what is important to understand:

The Western anti-Israeli narrative views Israel as bad because it is too violent, tough, unyielding, and so on. In contrast, it portrays those captured as victims, humanitarians, underdogs.

Israelis: tough; Flotilla activists: weak. It finds the latter more appealing.

But this Islamist and Middle Eastern narrative views Israel as bad because it is too weak, sentimental, yielding. In contrast, it portrays the flotilla warriors as courageous, macho, violent, and tough.

Israelis, weak; Flotilla activists: strong. It finds the latter more appealing.

Note that these two visions are precisely the opposite though both favor the same side.

Why is this important?

It shows that both can’t be true. Israel’s enemies may hate it because they claim it to be brutal yet they believe that Israel is contemptible and will be defeated because it isn’t brutal enough to survive. Maybe the West overestimates Israel's meanness and its enemies--in fact, their own enemies--cuddliiness.

But most important of all, it shows that the radicals, Islamists, and to some extent Muslim-majority societies in general think precisely the same thing of North Americans and Europeans. Now suppose—just go along with me here for a minute—that the leaders of these countries have a strategy based on the assumption that they need to prove to the other side that they are apologetic, eager to make concessions, determined to avoid confrontation.

Wouldn’t that approach have the exact opposite outcome from what they suppose? In other words, if they see you crying they aren’t going to feel sorry and sympathetic for you. They will laugh at you and eat you alive.

And that, my friends, is the picture they don’t want you to see.

That doesn't mean the victim card isn't also--and simultaneously--played in the Middle East. As the Islamist Zaman newspaper summarizes the issue: “Israeli commandos raided the flotilla in a pre-dawn operation and shot at defenseless peace activists."

Nobody seems to deal, however, with the clash between the macho, Jihad, heroic image and the pitiful, defenseless, victim image. Implicitly, though, they are heroic warriors when bragging about how they will wipe out their enemies mercilessly, while en route to the battlefield, and during the time they are actually fighting, but quickly become pitiful victims when they lose. Much like Hamas itself.

In the West, however, it is the pitiful, helpless victim theme that dominates the imagery. The West censors out the aggressive ideology and activity that leads to the Israeli response and the Jihadists defeat. The Middle East vision merely disconnects the two: We heroically and violently attack you and you dare to defend yourselves!

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 (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. 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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