Professor Farzeen Nasri, a long-time consultant to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), recently gave a talk entitled “American Policy in the Middle East: Who Does it Benefit?” at a special NAPF Luncheon Dialogue. A native of Iran, Prof. Nasri currently serves as Director of the International Studies program at Ventura College and teaches political science and economics courses. At the luncheon, he offered his thoughts on the critical role of the media in constructing the public’s perception of threat, the realities of divergent Muslim groups, and the consequences of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Prof. Nasri began by stating that individuals and states act on perceptions, and the observer is the key translator who turns facts into a reality. He asserted that we must overcome cognitive dissonance (the tendency to disregard opposing data in search of information that is instead supportive of our preconceived beliefs) for successful international problem solving. The global level requires actors to see each other’s perspectives; one party must essentially become the “other.”
Nasri went on to describe how terrorism is perceptual: those considered “freedom fighters” or “founding fathers” by some are seen as “terrorists” by others. It is important to remember that many “terrorists” are relatively affluent, educated youth who are not against the United States but rather its invasive foreign policy.
The media is supposed to present accurate perceptions of the parties involved in a conflict. But according to Prof. Nasri, the American media has failed in its responsibility to turn fact into reality, leading him to conclude that it is “the most important threat to American democracy.” BBC has recently stated that the American media, which is very one-sided, especially in issues of foreign concern, has lost any credibility it once had after its coverage of Iraq. Advertisers have the power to decide what is presented through American media, an issue of increasing concern with the Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote to ease restrictions on media consolidation. Furthermore, U.S. corporate control of the media is not contained in this country alone: Fox’s role in Israel has led to the demise of BBC there, and Rupert Murdock owns media in England, China, Australia, and Israel, in addition to his expanding ownership of U.S. media.
What can American citizens do to confront the failure of their country’s mainstream media? Prof. Nasri suggested that they follow the example of other countries in having media classes as a part of general education. In such classes, students are instructed on how to read the news and distinguish news from propaganda.
Focusing in on the politics on the Middle East, Prof. Nasri reminded the luncheon’s participants that Arabs make up less than one-third of the world’s total Muslim population and that not all Muslim countries have religious rulers. All religions have both fanatics and moderates, and Islam is no exception. Prof. Nasri identifies four major groups of Muslims:
1. Fundamentalists, who insist on rigid adherence to the words and acts of Mohammed, often take direct and aggressive political action.
2. Traditionalists, consisting largely of Islamic scholars, teacher, and apolitical individuals, have allowed recent events to influence their religious practice.
3. Modernists, who seek tolerance and social justice through a religion that incorporates science, reject governments ruled by clergy.
4. Pragmatists, often discredited by the other three groups, do not necessarily follow religious directives. Influenced by secular education, their ideal system consists of modernization, lay Muslim rulers, a secular government, and a combination of socialism and capitalism.
Prof. Nasri noted that current U.S. policy makers, and to a large extent U.S. citizens, ignore the differences between Islamic belief systems, subscribing instead to a “Clash of Civilizations” mentality.
American policy in the Middle East is described by Prof. Nasri as a “new imperialism,” protecting U.S. interests abroad and attempting to control oil and fresh water in the region. Through its actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has earned a reputation for being “strong on destruction; weak on construction.” Among the international community, America is now known as a nation of lawbreakers.
Prof. Nasri revealed several negative domestic results from American policy towards the Middle East in addition to the changes in the international perception of the United States: The media has lost its credibility. Students from the Middle East are discouraged from coming to the U.S., meaning a loss in the brainpower and the cultural perspective in American universities and firms. There is militarization of American culture. And the economy has been weakened as tourism and sale of American products abroad has declined.
Prof. Nasri concluded by sharing his insights on how American policy in the Middle East has influenced the world system: It has weakened NATO while encouraging a “might is right” attitude. It has legitimized the idea of using non-governmental organizations and supranational actors only when they are in accordance with particular agendas. And it has disregarded years of work towards global cooperation.
American foreign policy in the Middle East, as seen by Prof. Nasri, is hurting American relations in the region and damaging the United States’ reputation in the world. In order for this to change, Americans must become better informed: about who the media really is, who Muslims really are, and how U.S. foreign policy is actually affecting the world in which we live.
* Jui Shah, a student at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, is a Lena Cheng Intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.