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February 26, 2008

The Middle East Knowledge Gap
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Sometimes it really seems we don’t know anything about the Middle East. Some people do, but most Americans are totally lost, including politicians, policymakers, and, yes, journalists who cover the Middle East. Except for the last group, that’s to be expected (it’s not like I know anything about India or China). But, it becomes a problem when the Associated Press is making blatant errors in its coverage of the region, even well after 9/11 made it frightfully abundant that we needed to address the knowledge gap. I’m not talking only about issues of bias, perception or misrepresentation. That’s really par from the course with Middle East coverage. I’m talking about things which are demonstrably, obviously factually wrong. So, with the advance warning that this post may be boring, I just want to go over one particularly bad article from November 21, 2007, which I stumbled yesterday while doing research on democratization in Jordan.

The first thing I’ll point to is an example of a factual error, while the second is the more usual type of analytical stupidity. Both, however, distort our understanding of issues which are quite relevant to U.S. foreign policy. It’s really unacceptable and it - if you aggregate all such examples - puts our country at risk. As background, the largest opposition party in Jordan today is the Islamic Action Front, or the IAF. As the name suggests, it's an Islamist party. The AP tells us:

In 1989, IAF nearly won a majority of parliamentary seats on promises to tackle poverty that affects nearly 25 percent of the population. But four years later, the group lost much of its clout because it failed to provide jobs and ease the burdens of poverty.

The IAF didn’t exist in 1989 (it was founded in 1992). Not only that, even in a theoretical, parallel universe, there’s no conceivable way it could have been founded then, because Jordan didn’t allow for legal parties until 1991. The group that they are referring to is actually called the Muslim Brotherhood (while they are closely associated with each other, the MB and IAF are different organizations with different functions. The former is a social movement, while the latter is a political party).

Maybe we can forgive this oversight, but then they compound it by making an error about an error. They say that this group (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) “nearly won a majority of parliamentary seats” in 1989. Not even close. The MB won 22 seats out of 80.  Granted, I specialize in Jordanian domestic politics, but that’s neither here nor there. A cursory 5-minute google/wikipedia check would have clarified these two matters (I verified the founding date of the IAF in exactly 10 seconds. I typed "Islamic Action Front" in google and then was referred to the group's wikipedia page).

There are also stupid analytical mistakes in this paragraph, which, while to be expected, have the effect of really confusing readers. It says the group (the “IAF”) lost “much of its clout...” It may be true that the group lost some clout from 1989-93, but, according to no reasonable interpretation of events could one say that they lost “much of” anything. While the IAF won only 16 seats in 1993, this was not an accurate reflection of diminishing power, as it won a similar number of votes as the MB did in 1989. It was actually the result of a new electoral law passed by the regime in 1993 which was designed specifically with the goal of limiting Islamist parliamentary representation.

In any case, the article is right that the Islamists lost seats (from 22 in '89 to 16 in '93), but they attribute this to their failure to “provide jobs and ease the burdens of poverty.” This makes no sense. Number one, there isn’t a whole lot the Jordanian parliament can do to “provide jobs,” since the Lower House is an institution which is constitutionally emasculated and subject both to a royal veto and an Upper House veto (the Upper House is appointed entirely by the king). That’s even assuming Islamists had a majority. The Muslim Brotherhood had around ¼ of the seats. To blame a minority party for national policies is a bit baffling. Imagine that the Democrats held only 27% of seats in the U.S. congress. Do you think it would be appropriate to blame them for economic failures? 

These aren’t gripes. After reading this article, you would come out with the following misinformation:

1. The Muslim Brotherhood had its chance to govern in 1989 but they messed it up.
2. Parliament in Jordan is comparable to the U.S. congress in its ability to affect matters of national importance.
3. Islamists were powerful in 1989, but are weaker now, because they “failed to provide jobs.”

All three of these things are wrong, and the vast majority of American policymakers wouldn’t be able to say whether or why they are. Yet, these three things, while not the end of the world as we know it, are quite important to assessing both the extent of democratization in Jordan, and the relative power of Jordan’s Islamists, both of which are – or at least should be – of utmost concern to those who shape our policies toward the Middle East.


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