Dexter Van Zile, editor of the Middle East Forum's new publication, Focus on Western Islamism (FWI), spoke to a July 8th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about how bad journalism paves the way for Islamism in the United States. FWI is necessary, Van Zile said, to counter this process and provide an example for journalists to follow when covering Islamism.
Van Zile, who worked 10 years as a journalist before starting a career as a media analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) — the post he held before taking the position of FWI's managing editor — said that reporters have a lot of information thrown at them during the course of their work. Consequently, they look for ways to limit the number of facts they have to process and organize for their audiences.
"You have to figure out a way to filter out what parts of the story you're not going to include in your work," he said. If a given fact does not fit into a pre-existing narrative, or worse, disconfirms such a narrative, journalists have every incentive to omit the information, he said. Oftentimes, journalists will tell stories with easily identifiable villains and good guys, Van Zile said, because they are so easy to write.
Stories that revolve around villains and good guys, Van Zile said, help "journalists divide the world into a manageable place to operate in. And it helps them give clues to the readers about who they can trust."
Another factor that inhibits the willingness and ability of journalists to convey the world in its complexity is their desire to get along in with their colleagues in the newsroom. It also doesn't help that many journalists have short attention spans.
"It takes a catastrophic event to force them to pay attention to a subject for a very long period of time," Van Zile. "And 9/11, that was a catastrophic event. It focused the attention of a lot of people on a very important subject for a long time."
In the years since 9/11, interest in Islam and Islamism has decreased substantially, Van Zile lamented.
"That's the primary reason why FWI was founded," he said. "What we're struggling with at this point is to figure out a way to somehow get beyond that block."
In particular, Van Zile said FWI is needed to present an alternative to the larger anti-Western narrative most journalists have embraced. This narrative is particularly evident in the 1619 Project authored by Nikole Hannah-Jones and published in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019. Under the rubric of this narrative, Van Zile said, the West needs to get its house in order.
"Under the 1619 rubric, any attempt to defend or protect the United States, the American body politic, or American civil society is an act of racism or oppression," he said. "Or when you're dealing with issues related to Islamism, any attempt to counter Islamism as an ideology, as a political agenda, is itself an act of anti-Muslim bigotry or Islamophobia."
Van Zile said that since starting his work at MEF, he has been astonished at the refusal of local journalists to report on bigoted and retrograde statements made by the Islamists they are paid to cover. Sam Westrop, one of Van Zile's colleagues at MEF, once got an email back from a reporter that said that he would not cover the bigoted statements made by a local Islamist.
In sum, the reporter declared to Westrop "'No, you are the bigot. You are the racist. You are the hater,'" Van Zile recounted. "And that is really falling under the rubric of the 1619 narrative."
Van Zile's antidote to the 1619 narrative is to present a narrative about Islamism akin to the 1946 "Long Telegram" written by George Kennan, who served as a U.S. diplomat in Moscow during the Cold War.
Kennan's essay, published as "The X Article" in Foreign Affairs magazine, explained the communist threat. The title of the article was "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." Kennan complained that in some instances his writings were misunderstood, but he ultimately succeeded in sensitizing readers to the threat of communism. When a new "bit of data" on the subject presented itself, readers could see how it fit within the greater context of Soviet communism's hostility to the West, Van Zile said.
What Americans need, Van Zile said, is something like "The Sources of Islamist Conduct." There isn't one type of Islamist conduct, nor is there one individual source of such conduct, but an overall narrative about Islamism needs to be presented to the American people to help them articulate the proper response to the ideological challenges they face from the various strands of the movement.
In addition to proffering such a narrative that explains the movement's goals and methods, counter-Islamists also need to embrace Kennan's "tendency not to overreact," Van Zile said.
"One of the things that we can learn from the anti-communist movement, here in the United States is that ... if you are going to somehow change peoples' world view and warn people about the threat, you have to be very careful not to come across as a hysterical person who's talking about jihad under every bed," Van Zile said. On this score, counter Islamists need to follow the example offered by George Kennan, not Joseph McCarthy, he warned.
Commentators who want to bring a greater swath of the American body politic into the cause of counter-Islamism, Van Zile said, "have to show a temperamental intelligence and temperamental maturity."
Expanding the counter-Islamist movement in the United States will require reassuring people that there is a "reasonable, doable response to the challenge of Islamism that doesn't require ... terrible acts of violence, or some sort of reworking or abandonment of who we are as a people."
"We have to come up with a response to Islamism that's rooted in our tradition as Western democrats," he said, warning against the temptation to think about the challenge of Islamism in apocalyptic terms.
If we adopt that tone, Van Zile warned, "there's going to be a lot of people who are going to say, 'Well, the apocalypse isn't going to happen during my lifetime, and I just don't want to engage in that sort of confrontation.'"
One way to counter the threat of Islamism is to give voice to the Muslim victims of the ideology; another way is to highlight how Islamists use Western freedoms to advance an anti-freedom ideology and set of practices. Islamists need to understand that "We don't allow blasphemy laws here in the United States," he said.
Van Zile expressed optimism that Islamism can be defeated just as communism was.
"Islamism is an idea that has real consequences that we aren't going to like," he said, adding that once people start to experience these consequences, people will start to push back against it.
"The counter-narrative is going to be something like 'Western civilization is good,' and that there's a place for everybody in it just as long as they are willing to play by the rules," Van Zile said. "And one of the underlying messages that we [need] to offer is that if you demand a right for yourself, and you deny others that very same right, that's an act of supremacism. ... That means if you are using the right of free speech to deny other people their right to free speech, then you're basically engaging in supremacism and we're going to call you out."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.