In the bloody Middle East, journalists must strive to use accurate labels

In the bloody Middle East, journalists must strive to use accurate labels

At first glance, there would seem to be little connection between the two items that I want to spotlight in this post. The connecting thread is that, every now and then, people in the public square (including journalists) need to be more careful when assigning labels to some of the key players.

So what happened in the Breitbart headline pictured above -- since taken down -- linked to the speech by Sen. Ted Cruz at the recent "In Defense of Christians" conference, an event focusing, in particular, on the brutally oppressed ancient churches of the Holy Land. Surf a few links in this online search to catch up on this media storm on the political and cultural right.

It's a complicated news story, one that hits home for me because of the years I spent in a majority-Arab Eastern Orthodox parish. Trust me when I say that I understand that some Arab Christians are anti-Israel and I have met some who sometimes veer all the way into anti-Semitism. I understand that some focus their anger on Israel, since it's hopeless to curse the radical forms of Islam that have, over decades and centuries, have inflicted so much pain on their families and communities. I understand that some of the Christians who heard Cruz praise Israel, in the bluntest possible terms, were offended. Read the details and make up your own mind.

Now look at that headline.

Whatever you think of those boos, was it necessary to scare-quote these Arab Christian leaders into pseudo-Christian status, even as the Islamic State and other monstrous forms of jihadist hatred burn their churches and unleash unholy hell on their families? Let's just say that I want to embrace these stark words of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat ("The Middle East's Friendless Christians"). Journalists, think about the journalistic implications of what he is saying. Please.

Then there was that Times story that ran the other day under the headline, "Arabs Give Tepid Support to U.S. Fight Against ISIS."

Ah, there is that tricky word "Arab," again. What was the Times team actually trying to say in that headline and in the following information, at the top of this story?

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.
As the prospect of the first American strikes inside Syria crackled through the region, the mixed reactions underscored the challenges of a new military intervention in the Middle East, where 13 years of chaos, from Sept. 11 through the Arab Spring revolts, have deepened political and sectarian divisions and increased mistrust of the United States on all sides.

If I learned one thing during the two trips I have made to Turkey, it was this: It infuriates many, if not most, Turks when outsiders call them "Arabs." Now, you can get a lively debate going about the degree to which -- at the level of DNA -- the Greeks and the Turks are closely related, and not just on the battlefields of history. But Turks and Arabs?

Note that the dateline of this story is Lebanon, another culture in which issues of ethnicity and race are complicated. At the very least, the Christians of Lebanon -- not an insignificant segment of the population -- often call themselves Phoenicians, not Arabs. Once again, this is a place where simple labels should be avoided.

What about Egypt? Are the vast majority of people in that complicated land Arabs or Africans? That's another point that experts have long been debating. Throw in the large and very significant Coptic population -- the ancient Egyptians, in the eyes of some -- and you have another lively topic for debate.

I'm not trying to pick a side here, I am simply saying that these debates are complex and important.

So what are the experts at the Times actually trying to say here? What is the most important uniting characteristic in the governments being courted by the Obama White House? Is "Arab" the most accurate label to assign, when pondering the common structures and influences in cultures such as Turkey and Egypt (as well as Lebanon)? What unites them?

The bottom line: Journalists must be careful when using the term "Arab." Often that word does not mean what journalists seem to think that it means.

Thumbnail art care of Dreamstime

Screen capture by @JoshGreenman

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