By Koh Choon Hwee
I am a Singaporean student of the Middle East (West Asia/MENA region), and have long been frustrated at Singaporean Newspapers’ continuous republication of Islamophobic Articles from American newspapers, especially the New York Times.
In the past two years, my friend and I have gone back to secondary schools and junior colleges in Singapore to talk about the Middle East (the original, 1902 definition of which is the “indeterminate area surrounding a part of the sea route from Suez to Singapore”) and counter stereotypes that such media reports perpetuate. We also introduce students to Singaporean heroes like Dr Ang Swee Chai, an orthopedic surgeon who worked in Sabra and Shatila Refugee camps in south of Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. (She is most recently interviewed in Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore With Love.)
Two days ago, Today newspaper published this article from the New York Times, “Why a beheading makes us feel different” by David Brooks.
In many ways this is just a typical NYT article that does nothing to inform us or enrich our understanding of the current conflicts there. However, this time I really had had enough. I wrote a response and sent it into Today Voices, but I have not received a reply and assume that it was rejected. Today (19 September 2014), I see that Today newspaper has republished yet another NYT article, this time from the incorrigible Thomas Friedman, who despite his Friend-of-Singapore status and many accolades, is really just a peddler in stock stereotypes about the region.
Hence, I am republishing my letter here, in the hopes that at least some people will get to read it. I am no expert on the region, but I do feel I know more than what these distorted depictions in NYT articles have presented.
“I am shocked that Today newspaper chose to republish the New York Times’ article, “Why a beheading makes us feel different” by David Brooks. This article fails to clarify that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are not representative of Islam, fails to account for the context surrounding the rise of ISIS in the first place, and fails to mention the obvious reason for the prominence of these beheadings in the media and in the political world – the fact that the victims are Americans and now, British.
In his article, Brooks distinguishes a ‘beheading’ from ‘shooting’ or ‘bombing’ in the context of the ISIS’s beheadings for American journalists and one British aid worker. Brooks’ conclusion is that a ‘beheading’ is an indignity, defacement of the ‘sacred body’; he identifies the concept of the ‘sacred body’ as existing in Judaism and Christianity.
However, Islam, also an Abrahamic faith, shares the same concept of the body as sacred, even after death. Defilement of the human body is just as abhorred within Islam. In Brooks’ article, ‘Islam’ is only ever mentioned in the context of the ISIS, the proto-form of which, if we will deign to remember, received much funding and arms support from western nations merely one year ago. At that time, Obama was contemplating air strikes in Syria against Bashir al-Assad and in conjunction with the efforts of the “rebels”, many of whom regrouped into ISIS this year. In other words, just like Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and many others, ISIS is in many ways a creation of these western nations, the US included.
While studying in Iran just last month, I heard from locals in Tabriz that their friends from Azerbaijan had joined ISIS simply because it was the largest employer in this economically depressed region. In addition to Azerbaijanis, Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis who were displaced from war were joining their ranks for mundane, economic reasons. This is, of course, apart from Muslim youths in western nations who join ISIS for their own ideological reasons, which has been highly publicized in the media. My point here is that while the media has been playing up an essentialist version of “Islam” as the reason behind ISIS, there are always practical, economic and political factors guiding people’s actions. The American Empire’s long involvement and interference in the region we call the Middle East provides a crucial backdrop for all that is happening today, but which unfortunately cannot be summarized readily into a headline or soundbite.
I feel that Singaporean media should exercise great discretion in importing American news publications for our local audience. It is widely known that the American media is biased and skewed, especially on the topic of Islam. We should not replicate this Islamophobia in Singapore, not just because of our many Muslim friends and families who live among us, but also because we belong to a region that has known Islam for over a thousand years and we should really be wiser than to imbibe such crude American propaganda.”
The writer graduated from NUS in 2012 (BA Philosophy, South Asian Studies minor) and the American University of Beirut (MA History) in 2014. He is currently a PhD student in History (Middle East) in the US.