What can Arabs and Muslims do about the incessant, mostly negative reporting they get in the American media? With renewed warfare in Gaza, and accusations flying back and forth about who is responsible for recent flare-ups, this is a time either for great hope or for a wringing of hands. It is an opportunity to turn the tide of American public opinion, or just another low tide in the ongoing coverage of this widely misunderstood and misrepresented community.
There may be more than 6 million Muslims in America, yet their influence on the political scene and on American foreign policy does not reflect these numbers. The tragic death of 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Durrah presents new possibilities for influencing the future and for generating a new understanding of this otherwise highly stereotyped community.
Why? Because he has a name. A face. A father.
A faceless mob gets no sympathy. Mobs are hateful stone-throwers, not brave Davids challenging Goliath. They are security threats aimed at the northern Israeli border, not farmers and shepherds in South Lebanon.
This is the picture Americans have had of Arabs for the past several decades. Arabs (including Iranians and all Muslims--they are all one category in the minds of many) have initiated violent acts and suffered for them. They get what they deserve, it would seem, according to years' worth of news reports on the Middle East.
The intifada, beginning in the 1980s, is a good example of an opportunity gone by. Ostensibly, these were not individual young men and women. Instead, they were anonymous youth bent on the destruction of Israel. They were portrayed as youngsters who may have been instigated by their unfeeling elders to attack innocent Israelis and suffer the consequences.
The fact that these children were throwing stones--the only weapons at their command--and were responded to first with rubber bullets and then with live ammunition never got the full measure of its worth on the public relations scene. The reasons these children were riled enough to put their lives on the line were not explained nor exploited by an American Muslim and Arab public relations network (none existed).
The shooting of unarmed civilians by an occupying authority would not be tolerated by Americans under other circumstances. Were these the heroic youth of an Eastern European nation rebelling against a communist dictatorship, they would be lauded; their efforts would have been affirmed and even perhaps redeemed by legislative action in Washington. Were these the stalwart pioneers of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, their cause would have been supported by an enthusiastic world community, led by the United States. These were causes of justice the media made clear to an American audience.
In the case of Palestinians, the cause has not been clarified; worse, it has been obfuscated in many instances by unsympathetic persons in power. The making of refugees in 1948 and 1967, the brutality of ongoing occupation, unfair lack of access to jobs and housing, drought-level restrictions on water, and the inability to stay on land owned by their forefathers are substantive reasons for frustration. These explanations would have resonance for the American ear had they been systematically exposed. Personal stories were--and are--the way to get them across the unique barriers of prejudice and stereotyping that the Arab and Muslim communities face in this country every day.
Americans feel for those suffering injustice and personal loss, particularly when they can see them as individuals, so giving faces to the Arab and Muslim victims of violence and oppression in the Middle East is the key to awakening the American conscience.
There seems no question anymore whose bullets ripped apart his guts, leaving him lifeless in his father's arms on a street-turned-battlefield in Gaza. He was killed by Israeli soldiers.
Muhammad al-Durrah's supreme sacrifice will not be in vain if his death paves the way for other Palestinian victims to be named and identified. For the enemy to become human and to be counted.
Muhammad is not the first child to be killed by Israeli firepower. Just, perhaps, the first with a face. The protracted siege of Beirut in the early '80s, with the daily bombing of that city by Israeli fighter jets, killed countless children, but only their mothers and fathers know their names. The brave boys of the intifada remain in memory as they were shown by the media, with black and white kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads, leaving only the eyes visible. The mines laid by the Israeli army in South Lebanon continue to kill civilians young and old well after the Israeli withdrawal, yet they aren't even on the radar screen of American public opinion.
And Americans really should take note. After all, U.S. taxpayers help underwrite the Israeli military establishment with about $5.5 million a day. Americans are not disinterested parties to this horrific history. Their response to the events of the past week, calling on their legislators to stem the hemorrhage of American funding to the Israeli military machine, for example, could make Washington sit up and take notice.
Who is to blame for the recent, stomach-turning bloodshed is almost irrelevant. It's no surprise that the Israelis blame Arafat, and the Palestinians blame Sharon. Socio-political analysis would show that, really, Arafat has no control over the actions of the Palestinians. There are many who are volcanically angry. And orders from above won't stop the volley of stones at Israeli soldiers. Just as Milosevic can't stop the striking Serbians. And Nixon couldn't stop the anti-war protestors. And starving Iraqis can't stop Saddam Hussein.
But the name Muhammad al-Durrah could catch someone's conscience--the echo of his screams resonating in some sympathetic soul. The image of a little boy's death on the screen could go a long way in encouraging Americans to say enough is enough.
Muhammad's death could be forgotten, buried on the back pages of the papers, decomposing under the debris of the deaths that have followed, if American Muslims and Arabs don't drive the effort to keep his memory alive. This community must take responsibility for keeping the heat on this heartbreaking story in order to achieve long-lasting positive foreign policy results and better understanding and acceptance on the American domestic scene.
The time is ripe for American Arabs and Muslims to put their shoulders to the public relations wheel and push. It may seem like exploiting the dead, yet the dead will have died in vain if their deaths remain anonymous. What better example of that kind of public relations success exists than the specter of the Holocaust, making Americans wince with shame and go red with indignation even after 50 years?
It's too bad people aren't piling up bouquets of flowers at the place Muhammad was killed. Hundreds of them laid lovingly by grandmothers and schoolchildren, with cards saying "Muhammad, we won't forget you." That's the kind of ongoing, heart-tugging, soft-news angle the Palestinians need now.