The “Good” Muslims found patterns of coverage in major U.S. newspapers in the year following September 11, 2001 and five years later in 2006 that may still be contributing to public confusion over the need for a global “War on Terror” and the public’s perception of the global terrorist risk.
According to the study, the press reported that:
1. Terrorism Is Monolithic—All Terrorism Is Conflated.
2. Madrassas Are Breeding Grounds for Terrorists.
3. Victory in the “War on Terror”—at least in Pakistan—Is Not Assured.
4. In 2001/2002: Pakistani Women Are the “Good” Muslims.
5. In 2006/2007: Maybe American Foreign Policy Is to Blame.
1. Terrorism Is Monolithic—All Terrorism Is Conflated
News coverage of Pakistan reinforced the Bush administration’s representation of global terrorism as a single category of threat. Journalists often referenced the Taliban and al Qaeda together, and failed to specifically identify other indigenous Pakistani groups when they were responsible for acts of terror.
Many news stories used a range of terms interchangeably in a single article, among them “terrorist,” “militant” and “extremist,” further obfuscating real differences in tactics, motives, history, politics and culture among different terrorist groups.
And following the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, journalists raised the specter of “terrorists” gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
2. Madrassas Are Breeding Grounds for Terrorists
News coverage of Pakistan emphasized the role Pakistan plays in global terrorism. One way in which that was done was through stories about “madrassas” which were represented as indoctrination centers for young “jihadists,” making it appear that Pakistan is virtually awash with terrorist training camps masquerading as schools for boys.
3. Victory in the “War on Terror”—at least in Pakistan—Is Not Assured
News coverage assumed the centrality of Pakistan in US foreign policy, but even with American troops in the region the reporting did not reflexively wave the flag, even in the months immediately following 9/11. While US-based stories on the region accepted the Bush administration’s assertion that “War on Terror” was being successfully fought on the ground in Afghanistan, articles datelined from the region were cautioning that victory in the war against the Taliban and for hearts and minds was not so evident.
The study concluded that the press’s coverage of Pakistan was more independent and more balanced than its coverage of Iraq. The perfunctory patriotism that swept the U.S. following 9/11 did not entirely blind reporters on the ground in Pakistan to what was taking place in the region in the administration’s conduct of the “War on Terror.” In both time periods investigated, the study found that journalists assumed the centrality of Pakistan in U.S. foreign policy, but offered contradictory perspectives on Pakistan’s role that were more blunt than the official line from Washington.
- News stories did represent Pakistan as a Western ally but they also emphasized that it was a base of operations for Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and “terrorists” in general.
- News stories represented Pakistan as a regional model of moderation but did not hide that it was also a tinderbox for regional conflagration.
- News stories represented Pakistan as a relatively stable state under the control of a progressive military leader but did also report on the shocking religious and tribal excesses—that were on occasion artfully managed by that military dictator.
4. In 2001/2002: Pakistani Women Are the “Good” Muslims
The study also documented how the press covered Muslims and Islam post-9/11 when it seemed like every talking head was asking plaintively “Why do they hate us?” The most surprising finding of the study was who the press decided were “our” Muslim friends—the “good” Muslims were women:
- Stories depicted women as the “peacemakers” who the West could use to find the solution to terrorism at the family, the tribal or ethnic and the national level.
- Stories depicted women as “saviors.” Multiple tales of women struggling to gain an education for themselves or to facilitate the education of others, for example, spoke about the transformative power of women at the local level.
- Women, rather than children became the most notable “innocent” victims of indiscriminate violence. Certain children were not innocent, articles made clear—indeed they were to be feared. Boys, even very young boys were part of the terrorist matrix, in large measure, because of their indoctrination at madrassas.
- Articles about women’s “victim” status at the hands of men validated the binary idea that Muslim women are “good” and Muslim men are “cruel,” perhaps even “terrorists.”
- Women’s clothing was a subject of intense interest. “Taking off the veil” was both a real and metaphorical statement and articles measured women’s freedom by how “uncovered” they were and how close their clothing approximated Western notions of dress.
5. In 2006/2007: Maybe American Foreign Policy Is to Blame
By 2006 the compelling issue in much of the news coverage of Pakistan was no longer who were the Muslim “good guys,” it was whether (or even how) Americans had become the “bad guys.” Articles reported that it was not only the enemy who was acting reprehensibly—it was the Bush administration’s prosecution of the “War on Terror” that was the “moral burden.”
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The data for this media study The “Good” Muslims: US Newspaper Coverage of Pakistan were first gathered for a paper delivered at the American Institute of Pakistan Studies conference on Islamic Identities, Gender & Higher Education in Pakistan, held January 12-14, 2007 in Islamabad. The conference, initiated by AIPS President Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, and organized by Dr. Rukhsana Qamber and Dr. Carla Petievich, was one of the first formal meetings of US and Pakistani scholars in Pakistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and offered a fruitful opportunity to interact and exchange ideas in Pakistan itself.
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This study evaluated news coverage of Pakistan by thirteen major agenda-setting U.S. newspapers: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post. Two time periods were considered: September 11, 2001 to December 31, 2002 and January 1, 2006 to January 15, 2007.
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The study was conducted by Susan Moeller, director of ICMPA. Earlier research conducted by Dr. Moeller, includes her study of “Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” in March 2004, released by the university’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM).
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