Reporter Michael Slackman's "Memo From Cairo" on Thursday talked to Egyptians on the subject of "Disentangling Layers of a Loaded Term in Search of a Thread of Peace." That term would be "terrorism,"a phrase thatMuslims in Egypt and elsewhere accuse America of using as a tool of discrimination against them.
The story's text box argued that what most would consider basic journalist accuracy is actually harmful to "diplomacy": "Defining 'terrorism' stirs strong emotions and halt diplomacy before it can begin."
Slackman, like his boss, Bill Keller, refuses to call the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups, using weasel wording: "United States refuses to speak directly with some of the main players, including Hamas and Hezbollah, which it calls terrorist groups."
(In an online chat in early February, Keller, the executive editor of the Times, said merely calling Hamas terrorist was "sloppy journalism," arguing "Hamas is also a charitable organization, which built much of its popular support by tending to the suffering of Palestinians.")
Slackman began with advice for the new president:
If President Obama is serious about repairing relations with the Arab world and re-establishing the United States as an honest broker in Middle East peace talks, one step would be to bridge a chasm in perception that centers on one contentious word: terrorism.
The recent fighting in Gaza offered a potent reminder of the challenge Washington faces in mediating a dispute when the United States refuses to speak directly with some of the main players, including Hamas and Hezbollah, which it calls terrorist groups. Whether the United States has declined to speak with hostile groups because it considers them terrorists, or whether it slaps the terrorist label on groups it wants to sanction or marginalize, a battle over the term terrorist has become a proxy for the larger issues that divide Washington and the Arab public.
Slackman won't say that America went to war on terror after 9-11, merely that President Bush did:
The perception gap, which grew wider when President George W. Bush declared his war on terror in 2001, was blown even further apart in Gaza, when most Arabs came away certain who the real terrorists were.
"Public opinion views what happened in Gaza as a kind of terrorism," said Muhammad Shaker, a former Egyptian ambassador to Britain. "And on the other side, they see Hamas and other such organizations as groups who are trying to liberate their countries."
Many here said they saw little distinction between Hamas's shooting rockets into civilian areas of Israel and Israel's shooting rockets into civilian areas of Gaza, even if Hamas militants were operating there or just hiding out.
Israelis often focus on intent in drawing a distinction between Israel and Hamas - saying their forces kill civilians only as an unfortunate consequence of war while Hamas aims attacks at civilians. "The Israeli military effort is to neutralize the forces of aggression that have been used against its civilians, and there sometimes can be collateral damage," said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. "That happens in every war and every conflict."
That argument convinces no one here, where the public is outraged that Hamas is labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, while Israel is treated as a close friend.
If such an irrefutable argument convinces "no one here," perhaps the problem isn't with the argument but with the mindset of the people there. But Slackman doesn't pursue the question.
People interviewed in Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon said they saw nothing but hypocrisy in the way the West applied the terrorist label - a feeling tied very closely to a belief that the West reserved the term for Muslims. President Obama has tried to counter that perception with his outreach to the Muslim world, but with the memory of Gaza so fresh, and with Washington still defining Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups, opinions have not shifted.
Slackman also lectured Americans second-hand from Cairo backin a June 2008 dispatch, putting words in the mouths of Egyptians:
It is those kinds of assumptions - that the citizens of foreign countries want to be liberated by America and live like Americans - that can really get under people's skin.