May 12, 2002 Special Dispatch No. 378

Suicide, Martyrdom, Terrorist Attacks, or Homicide - A Debate in the Arab Media

May 12, 2002
Special Dispatch No. 378

Terminology referring to suicide bombers is sometimes debated in the Arab media. The following are excerpts of opinions relating to this debate:

The Syrian Position: Martyrs Not Suicide Bombers
Unlike most of the Arab media, which use the term "martyrs" when referring to suicide attackers, the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat uses the term "suicide attackers" in its news reporting, though not on its editorial pages. Officials and intellectuals in the Arab world have been sharply critical of this practice.

At the "Towards the New Arab Media" symposium, held in Tripoli, Lebanon, in early May, Syrian Minister of Information Adnan Omran was asked for his opinion on media "that call the martyrs 'terrorists' and 'killed.'"

Omran replied: "To tell the truth, many Western terms have begun to infiltrate our media. We would like to hope that this infiltration stems from naiveté. But what is even more dangerous is the infiltration of ideas. Two days ago, we heard one [Arab journalist] say in a radio interview that 'suicide operations against the Zionist enemy are acts of violence and terror.' Even if the life of that person is more precious to him than his land and his honor… he must not interfere with the martyr who has decided to revive his homeland by sacrificing himself; he must let the martyr do his duty [and leave him alone]."

"There is a mistake that comes from the West. Washington has asked all Arab countries to condemn the [phenomenon of] martyrdom. The Americans are denying facts from their own history in which they take pride - as we have seen in Hollywood-produced movies on [American military] suicide missions behind enemy lines."

Referring to the Japanese kamikaze operations during World War II, Minister Omran said, "All this was done by peoples to attain their independence and secure their legitimate rights. Yet the heroic Fidai [martyrdom] operations in Israel that harm the Zionists occupying the land are considered by the U.S. to be a great crime. This is an [attempt] to hold in contempt not only the honor of our faith, but even Western societies' own values."[1]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat's Policy: Op-Eds Can Be Biased, News Stories Must Be Neutral

A couple of weeks earlier, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor-in-chief Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed responded to critics like the Syrian foreign minister, in an article titled "Terrorist, Suicide Attacker, Martyr."

He wrote, "In our journalistic work, we deal with conflicting opinions and [hear] angry voices: Why don't you call them martyrs, why don't you call Sharon a 'criminal,' why, why? They want to turn the battle into one of words instead of one of genuine issues."

"The answer is that we ultimately prefer to act professionally, for a simple reason: [A professional approach] achieves the most important goal - full journalistic service. We are not opposed to bias in favor of the oppressed Palestinian citizen or to expressing objections to Israeli aggression. But when we report the news, we do this with knife-sharp neutrality. It must be done thus so that the reader puts professional trust in us."

"In our paper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, we strive to maintain restraint in reporting. This is the right dictated to us by the profession, not the readers."

"We describe news events in a neutral manner, in accordance with the situation in the field, and we use the term 'suicide operations.' However, on the editorial page, we tend towards what we think is right, and call them martyrdom [operations] - also in the editorial expressing the paper's official opinion. We allow every columnist the freedom to use the words 'suicide,' 'martyrdom,' or 'terrorist operation,' in accordance with each one's opinion."

"The great majority among us call it 'martyrdom.' Others tend towards the old term - Fidai [martyrdom] operations. The Israelis protested against the use of the term 'suicide operations' [sic] claiming that this term expresses heroism. They demanded the use of the term 'terrorist' operations. Some American officials call a martyrdom [operation] an operation of deliberate murder - a crime of homicide instead of suicide. But most of the Western papers have refused to give in to the pressure and kept the word 'suicide,' which they saw as a newsworthy word…"

"Even Abu Ammar [i.e. Arafat] himself sees these operations as acts of violence, and he has been forced to condemn them officially many times. This, of course, is a political position, not a personal position…"

"The rule is to differentiate between a news item and an op-ed. On the editorial page, we write however we like. We describe Sharon as a criminal and the dead as martyrs. This is the arena for expressing opinions. Yet news items we write like a police report, expressing no opinion."

"In this newspaper, we do not pride ourselves on whining, but on something more important - reporting news in a way that will help people crystallize their opinions and increase their understanding…" [2]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2002.

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 20, 2002.

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