A rather strange, to Western sensibilities, war is being fought in the Islamic media. The battle is being fought with ideas, myths and spin by terrorists, Islamic monarchs and dictators, and opportunists of all kinds. Playing defense are the United States counter-terrorism forces. Playing both sides is most of the Western media.
Before the Internet, and web sites for the Islamic media came along over the last decade, most Westerners were pretty oblivious of what was being said, discussed and debated in the Islamic media. Perhaps thats just as well, because in the Islamic world, some pretty strange ideas (to Westerners) are constantly in play.
First, let us consider the Israel issue. There has been an Israel issue in the Islamic media since World War II, and before. But the unique Islamic view of Israel became a major issue once Israel declared its independence in 1948. From the beginning, the Israelis were seen as a plot by the Europeans to steal Arab land, and to take control of the holy places (mostly Christian and Jewish, but including some important Moslem ones as well.) This attitude came from several centuries of Arabs being on the losing side of history. Moslems, especially Arabs, felt persecuted and put upon. While Islam had started, with much promise, in the 7th century, after about five hundred years, things began to go downhill. There were military defeats at the hands of the Christians, and the pagan Mongols. Then the Turks moved in, and displaced the Arabs as the leaders of the Moslem world. After a few centuries of being a major world power (and the head of the Islamic world as the Caliph), the Turks began to decline as well.
Its well to remember that memories are long in the Middle East, and Arab hatred of Europeans predates the founding of Islam in the 7th century. A thousand years before that, Greeks, and then Romans, came a-conquering. Every time the Arabs turned around, there seemed to be another bunch of bad-ass Europeans telling them what to do. The Turks werent really appreciated either, even though the Turks were Moslems. The Turks were another bunch of aliens. And when the Turks left after World War I, they did so because they wanted to become more European, because they were on the losing side of the war, and because the Arabs really wanted them to go. After World War II, the Europeans finally departed, but left many, many bitter memories behind. OK, you can see why the Arabs, in particular, and Moslems in general, dont like Europeans. But it's worse than that.
Left to their own devices, and in possession of vast (and newly discovered) oil wealth, the Arabs had some reason for optimism after World War II. But it was not to be. The hated Israelis, despite being outnumbered over a hundred to one by their Arab neighbors, fought the Arab armies to a standstill and created this new country. At the urging of other Arab nations, about 600,000 Arabs (later called Palestinians) fled the newly established Israel. In retaliation, an equal number of Jews were expelled from Arab nations. Most of these Jews, many of whom had lived among Arabs for thousands of years, went to Israel and became Israelis. But the Arabs expelled from Israel were not allowed to settle in any of the Arab nations they ended up in as refugees. No, the Arab countries insisted that Israel would be crushed by the vastly more numerous Arab armies soon. The Arab refugees would remain refugees, not because of Israel, but because their Arab neighbors insisted.
Over half a century later, and many lost wars later, the Arabs have still not destroyed Israel. And they wont quit trying. Despite the fact that during that time over a hundred million other refugees were resettled, many national boundaries were redrawn, and numerous wars were ended and left in the past. But the Arabs fixated on Israel. Almost, it would appear, to the exclusion of everything else. While most of the world made substantial economic and social progress in the last half century, the Arab world slid to the back of the list. Most other nations educated more of their people, provided more medical care and achieved more economically and in terms of new technology. But not the Arabs. To make matters worse, the Arab media, when it noticed these shortcomings, blamed it on Israel, and, of course, the West. It had to be someone elses fault. It always had to be someone elses fault that the Arab world was run by a motley collection of monarchs and dictators. While the rest of the world prospered because of the rule of law, democracy and clean government, the Arab world wallowed in corruption and tyranny. It was all Israels fault. Go ahead, visit Arab media web sites. There are many of them in English. The only difference between those sites, and the ones in Arabic, is that they tone down the anti-Semitism and some of the more extreme conspiracy theories for the English speaking audience. The English speaking Arabs who maintain the English language sites are, so to speak, bi-cultural. They know that there is a different cultural sensibility in the English speaking world, and realize that some of the stuff that flies in the Arab media, would leave Westerners (and English speakers from other parts of the world, like India and East Asia) perplexed.
Al Qaeda, and other Islamic conservatives, not only believe a lot of the conspiracy theories, but try to manipulate them to their advantage. This creates, to Western eyes, some strange changes in attitude. For example, right after September 11, 2001, the Arab media denied any Arab involvement in the attacks. It was widely claimed that the attacks were carried out by the Israelis. This is still widely believed in the Moslem world, even though al Qaeda as since taken credit for the attacks. Thus Arab media will simultaneously repeat the Israelis did it story, while also discussing how al Qaeda is going to carry out, another 911 any day now.
So how do you fight an information war in an environment like this? Not using the normal rules of logic, thats for sure. The United States has provided support for the growing number of Moslem journalists that report reality as it is, not how traditional Moslem journalists would like it to be. This can be dangerous. One reason that the fantastical and illogical stories keep running is the most Arab media operate in police states. Say they wrong thing and you can die. But transnational, satellite based, media has made it easier to get an untraditional (and often unpopular) message to Arabs without threatening the lives of the reporters.
The truth is getting through. More and more Arabs are becoming aware of what is happening in Iraq, and what happened in Israel over the last half century. Long held beliefs will not be abandoned quickly. But attitudes are changing. But to understand that, you have to know where the strange ideas came from in the first place.