Steven Erlanger, expert on the Orient

Orientalism is more cunning and subtle than just simple prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.  The other day, the New York Times offered another nice specimen of Orientalist technique. A “news analysis” by Steven Erlanger included the following paragraph:

“Unlike Fatah, Hamas claims the whole of the British mandate of Palestine as land granted by Allah, which cannot be ceded. In other words, Israel is illegitimate and its occupants should ‘go home.’ The most any senior Hamas official ever offered was a ‘hudna,’ a cease-fire, which the Prophet Muhammad offered enemies to restore his strength.”

There are several Orientalist gems packed into these short sentences. First, leaving “God” untranslated from the Arabic “Allah” is a standard exoticizing practice. Timesarticles about French- or Spanish-speaking people do not have them saying “Dieu” or “Dios.” And in Israel/Palestine itself, no Times reporter would be allowed to write, say, “Jews who have settled in the West Bank claim the whole of the British mandate of Palestine as land granted by Yahweh, which cannot be ceded.”

The sentence about a cease-fire reveals even more about Orientalist thinking. There are plenty of instances in world history of cease-fires, including in the recent Middle East, but our reporter is compelled to go back to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century for his example. This is Orientalism 101. Muslims and Arabs have an unchangeable essence, a core way of being, which is revealed in their ancient texts and in their history.

Our reporter’s sly insinuation is obvious. Nearly 1300 years ago, the first Muslim, the Prophet Muhammad, offered his enemies a truce “to restore his strength.” Therefore, Hamas, who are also Muslims, are duplicitous by their very nature, and you cannot trust them. Just like Muhammad, once their strength is restored they will stab you in the back. (This classic Orientalist view is, probably unconsciously, reinforced by the photograph which accompanies the article, which shows a large group of Muslim men praying inside a damaged mosque in Gaza.)

Imagine if the Times applied this kind of “news analysis” to the Israeli government. What if the newspaper summarized a feature of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policy, and then immediately compared it to one of the villainous characters in ancient Israel who we read about in the Torah?

Hamas and its policy toward Israel is of course a large and legitimate question. Fortunately, we have genuine scholars, like Professor Jerome Slater, who study reality today instead of using the 7th Century as their guide into the Muslim Mind. Professor Slater has written about Hamas and Israel at length; he argues, using one piece of specific, present-day evidence after another, that Hamas is ready to recognize Israel, perhaps grudgingly, but of course as part of a comprehensive settlement that will bring justice to Palestinians.  Professor Slater publishes in scholarly journals, and also makes his findings available to a wider public here. Maybe the next New York Times “news analysis” will include views like his, instead of more Orientalist insinuations?

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