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Presentation of the Islamic Movement in Algeria (FIS) in the Us Elite Press
Political Issues
Umer Sarfraz



Since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and later since Communism's decline, the fad of opposing "Islamic Fundamentalism" (Islam to be precise) has been utilized as an effective substitute for the "national religion" of the US and an ideological substitute for anti-communism (Siddiqi, D.A., 1992). Many a scholarly political analysis has posed Islam as a threat to Western culture, providing a base for agenda-setting in the media for "ever bigger and better things" (Nixon, 1988; Lewis, 1990 and Brewda, 1990). Hackett (1991) speculates that after the end of the Cold War, Islam might become the future potential threat candidate on the Western media agenda (1990). He cites Galung (1967) and Wright (1989) to note that Third World debt, war against drugs, environmental issues and Islamic fundamentalism will be the most probable "Threat Candidates" for the West after the end of the Cold War. Said (1987) also feels that the Western media has fostered the belief that Islam is a violent and destructive religion for individuals and civilizations.

This textual analysis of the US elite press (The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times) is based on the mix of theoretical positions suggested by Gitlin (1984), Said (1981) and Hackett (1984). Gitlin defines "Media Frames" as `persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, presentation, selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual' (P 7). The notion of the media frame has been used loosely and often undefined. It is frequently used in a vague way, or as a metaphor (Tankard et al, 1992).

This article intends to discuss how the US elite press portrayed the image of Islam and Islamists from the reference point of the victory of FIS1 in the Algerian election. The New York times (NYT), The Washington Post (Post) and The Los Angeles Times (LAT) have been selected for the purpose of this study as representatives of the US elite press. The main goal of this study is to examine the editorial policy of the elite press towards the Islamic Movement of FIS in Algeria.

Brief Background of FIS

After the fall of Communism and the establishment of a new world order, political pluralism is now recognized as an efficient guarding path against tyranny, despotism and dictatorship. After three decades of an authoritarian socialist regime, on December 26, 1991, Algerian voters went to the ballot boxes to choose their parliamentary representatives. Out of 231 seats (first round), the ruling FLN for Salvation (FIS) obtained 188, FFS received 25, the ruling FLN got 15 seats and 3 went to independent candidates. The FIS led in about 144 our of the 199 districts that remained to be decided. The FIS practically secured itself the 98 additional seats required to attain a two-third majority.

However, the FIS, the victorious party which emerged as an expression of the identity and aspirations of the identity and aspirations of the people of Algeria, was denied its victory at the polls. On January 11, 1992, the military/security establishment seized power allegedly for the sake of "saving democracy" and announced the cancellation of the second round of elections, which were to take place five days later. Algerians were denied their inalienable right to freely elect their government, merely because they preferred an Islamic state over dictatorship and puppet regimes (Haddam, January, 1993).

This study will examine the differences and similarities between the editorials (signed and unsigned) of "The York Times" (NYT), "The Washington Post" (Post) and "The Los Angeles Times" (LAT) on the issue of portrayal of FIS in Algeria.

To determine how the elite press of a "Democratic Society" perceives an undemocratic army action against a democratically elected Islamic party in Algeria, the following questions have been posed for examination in this research: (1) How did the US elite press frame the Islamic Movement (the FIS)? (2) Were there any similarities and differences of approach found between the elite papers' editorials while framing the FIS?

A mix of qualitative method of content analysis and a method suggested by Tankard et al (1991) was used to interpret the latent meaning of the text2. The NEXIS data base information was used as the main source of this study. All editorials relating to the above mentioned Islamic Movements and to Islam (in general), published in all three US elite newspapers between January 1st to March 23rd 1990, were included in this study. Purposive samples were drawn for coding to reflect qualitative aspects of the sources which were deemed important (Holsti, 1969:13). These purposive samples were different segments of the contents on the subject of FIS since the time frames for these samples were different according to the historical development of this particular event.

In order to avoid the bias of the qualitative approach, the researcher re-read the material as many times as necessary to satisfy himself that the inference favoured was consonant with all the relevant portions and characteristics of the original communication material. Qualitative analysis was used by taking notes through preliminary readings of communication material for the purpose of research, making observations, writing impressions about content characteristics, and finally by developing the frames (themes, ideologies, portrayals, metaphors, phrases, key words) and identifying their directions.

"Framing" is the term researchers use to refer to how an event is portrayed in a particular news story. Hackett (1984) pointed out that the conflict in El Salvador was framed as a "National Security" issue and that other frames were possible, such as a "Rich-versus-Poor Frame". Media analysts have also used the term "Frame". Chomsky used this term in an interview (Szykowny 1990) to refer to the way "The New York Times" introduced a news story. Chomsky argued that the NYT's story marginalized the Iraqi offer by opening its story with a statement from the US government which discredited the Iraqi offer (Tankard et al, 1991:1).

Islam is a misunderstood and misinterpreted religion in the West. According to Kamal Husain, `usually Muslim groups are labelled as "Terrorists", "Aggressors", "Insurgents" or "Separatists" and not as "Freedom Fighters" and the phrase of "Militant Islam" is more often used instead of the "Reawakening of Islam" which is more neutral.' (Adnan, 1989:67)

The literature on Islam and the Western media concludes that the Western media was not only critical towards Islam, but also helped promote stereotypes about the Muslim World and Islamic values (Said, 1961, Kamal cited in Mohd. Hamdan, 1989; G H Jansen, 1979; Richter, 1988 and Shaheen, 1990.

Textual Analysis

The NYT took a critical stance on the silence of the US administration and the West regarding the military coup in Algeria which demolished the electoral mandate of the FIS. It (NYT) further suggests: `If the Bush Administration is sincere about encouraging democracy in the Arab world, it has a responsibility to press Algeria's army to reverse its reckless course before the damage gets worse.'3

The NYT very cautiously condemned the military coup and called it a "Clumsy" one. It warned that repressive action by the military against "Fundamentalists" would radicalize an already aggrieved people and promote Islamic extremism.4

The NYT recognized that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was being denied a fair chance at the polls based on the assumption about its intentions, not its deeds. Those intentions might well be undemocratic, but it was not the Islamic opposition that brazenly avoided the elections and pushed the nation towards extremism.5 

The editorial reads: `...Repression and hysteria offer no remedy to the obvious discontent of jobless and hungry Algerians. Fear of fundamentalism does not justify reversing the gradual democratizing moves that since 1988 have given Algerians their first taste of political freedom. An ambivalent Washington and a worried France have hesitated to make plain their discomfort; the year-long state of emergency should finally untie tongues.'6

However, it showed its skepticism about FIS future agenda louder than its criticism of US silence. It reinforced the view of the apologists that the "FIS Fundamentalism" would cause isolation and the emigration of the moderates to France and other European countries, radicalize its foreign policy, dilute market reforms, cause the human rights of non-Muslims to be abused, and would exclude women from work. The NYT portrayed the attitude of the West as remarkably shortsighted7 and framed the Bush administration's attitude as "shamefully reluctant"8 to condemn an illegitimate and unwise move to demolish democracy in Algeria.

In its two editorials9, the NYT clearly voiced its concerns and skepticism of FIS for following the path of Iranian-style fundamentalism in Algeria. It (NYT) advised the FIS leadership not to repeat the barbaric actions of Iranian "mullahs" against their political adversaries. It also advised US officials and Westerners to treat Algeria's democratically elected Islamic government on the basis of its performance in office, not the deeds of fundamentalists elsewhere.10

"The Washington Post" (Post) condemned the military coup in Algeria while it expressed its skepticism about the future agenda of the victorious FIS. It took a position against "Extremism" of any kind, whether religious or secular.11

The Post tried to portray army action against Islamists as a legitimate one and framed this action of the army as "Constitutional".12 It justified the action of the army and anticipated that the "Islamic Fundamentalists" would stop the democratic process after coming into the power.

The Post's column writers adopted an aggressive tone against Islamic Movements. Jim Hoagland in one of his editorials did not even accept the fairness in Algeria's first democratic election. He feared that anti-democratic forces would come up through democratic practices, although he portrayed Islam as the "New Global Enemy" of America. Like Jim Hoagland, Richard Cohen also seemed reluctant to respect the democratic process in Algeria and stated that it was just mindless to insist that any result, democratically arrived at, had to be accepted like some change in the weather.13

Amos Perlmutter warned the West not to make any mistake:`... The FIS in Algeria would not become democratic any more than the fundamentalists of Jordan and Gaza would become democratic should they reach that stage. Lenin had not become a democrat when he came to power.'14

Graham E. Fuller's article was one of the few which gave a balanced analysis and took a supportive position for the victorious FIS and advised the West to come to terms with Islamic politics, whether they like it or not. He portrayed the phenomenon of "Islamic Fundamentalist" as politically tamable. He further advised that an Islamic victory should not be grounds for panic and the election must not be annulled. He suggested that it was time to demystify the phenomenon of "Islamic Fundamentalism" and to see it for what it was: a movement that is both historically inevitable and politically tamable. Over the longer run it even represented ultimate political progress towards greater democracy and popular government.15 He further asked for concessions for the fundamentalists and opined that only second and third elections would inform us whether Islam really had the "Right Stuff" to operate on the political scene for long.16

Like the NYT and the Post, the LAT also criticized the military coup, but showed its optimism towards the co-existence of Islam and democracy.17 However, the LAT published a few editorials (signed and unsigned both) on this topic and distinctively focused on growing "Iranian Islamic Fundamentalism" in Central Asian Muslim States after the fall of the Soviet Union. The LAT drew the attention of the US administration to keep an eye on the anticipated influence of Iranian fundamentalism on these States and advised it to reinforce the influence of moderate Muslim countries like Turkey and Egypt.18 

Discussion and Conclusion

It is surprising that the US elite press did not fairly analyze the question of democracy in Algeria. On one side, they expressed their fears about FIS but on the other hand, they did not give deserving recognition to the choice of the people of Algeria. Zaidi (1992) raises the question that if the Algerians are the citizens in their own country and if the majority of these citizens decide to adopt a certain course of action at a given point in time, should they not have the right to do so? Why have only the elected leaders of Algeria been portrayed as "Fundamentalists" and FIS as a "Threat to Democracy" and why not as human rights activists or freedom lovers or pro-democracy Islamists. During those days, the Post ran a story under the headline "Christian Knights Claim Key Role in Georgia". The president of that former soviet State, Ziyad Gamsakhurdia, had been democratically elected and had played a leading role in the human rights movement in the Soviet Union by associating himself with the Helsinki Group. He was toppled by an armed group of 1,000 people who saw themselves as `defending a Christian fortress nation'. Nowhere in the news story were these people called terrorists, militants or even Christian fundamentalists. Their leader is not a "Terrorist" but a self-styled "Knight" who simply `helped overthrow the elected president of Georgia' for, as he put it, his people and Christianity. Why? Because he thought that the democratically elected government was corrupt. Apparently these "Knights" are acceptable, but the Algerians who took the peaceful, civilized course of an electoral process to demonstrate their majority are to be given no opportunity to prove that their critics are wrong.19

The Post suggested that a moderate form of Islam could help Algeria shape the contacts with the West essential to its modernization. The question was whether its cultural tradition and its current polarization, the latter as reflected by the assassination and the reprisals that would no doubt follow, would enable Algeria to find that moderate form.20

In several signed editorials, the Post took a negative position against the democratic process in Algeria. Jim Hoagland portrayed the democratically elected FIS as a danger to the welfare and livelihood of millions of middle class and secularized Algerians. The fact of the matter is that, at the time of the election, the Algerian economy was suffering badly and fourteen million people were living under the poverty line (Abdullah, 1993). As a result, there was growing dissatisfaction amongst the Algerian youth about the economic and political policies of the ruling party. These factors tremendously helped FIS to achieve a landslide victory. Moreover, no evidence was found that any of the FIS leaders made anti-Western statements. Instead, after the victory of FIS, its leaders issued statements explaining their views of the West. They assured, in their statements, that the West should have nothing to fear, that the FIS would work closely with Algeria's Western neighbours and would pose no threat to Western culture. It is incomprehensible that a party (FIS) which came up with a welfare programme and won the election could go against the welfare of their own people.21 Surprisingly, all the papers neglected this aspect of the story. This discussion supports the thesis of Said (1981) that the West has its stereotypes and bias against Islam as anti-Western.

Cohen recommended in the Post's editorial that the US had an obligation to assert its own fundamental beliefs in democracy, but also in "Unalienable Rights" that no majority could abrogate.22 It seems as if that editorial advises US officials to recognize and collaborate only with "Safe Democracies" which will work for the interests of the US.

Several column writers of the elite press expressed their fears about the status of women in Algeria and anticipated that, if the FIS came to power, women's emancipation would be jeopardized. None of the editorials paid any attention to the choices of Algerian women. Scores of women would be "brought down" -- one million women to prove their solidarity and support for their Islamic leadership. If this is not proof of the women of Algeria's solidarity with Islam, what does it take to convince the world?23 The US press totally ignored this aspect of the Algerian society. Further, none of the editorials exposed the atrocities and human rights violations of the military and authoritarian rulers. The elite press did not mention the brutal killings of young people by Algerian security forces and the shooting of hundreds of innocent civilians in January 1991 and February 1992 (Nait-Ameur, 1993).

The fears about the FIS's future agenda expressed by the editorials of the US elite press clearly indicate a lack of depth in their analyses. The editorials lacked any cultural and historical background on the issue. They were negligent not to inform their readers about the welfare programme and the manifesto of the FIS which reads in part: `The FIS has come into existence in a part of the world where people have been through different frustrating experiences at all levels of human life. The political programme of FIS aims at institutionalizing a stable governing system. A system which ought to be representative of the fabric of the Algerian society. The means to achieve this is through political pluralism which fully guarantees, implements, and preserves minority rights. The economic programme is based on the principle of growth. The FIS aims at building a balanced society where the right of life, right of health and welfare benefits, the right to education at all levels are guaranteed' (Arfi, 1993).

The Post in its signed editorials took a negative stance against Islam. Amos Perlmutter in his 10240-word editorial described Islamic Fundamentalism as anti-West and anti-democracy. He insisted that Islam cannot be compatible with liberal, human-right oriented, Western-style representative democracy. Amos compared Islamic Fundamentalism with an aggressive revolutionary movement as militant and violent as the Bolshevik, Fascist and Nazi movements of the past. The Jordanian, Pakistani, Algerian and Egyptian movements have managed to deceive the experts into believing that once they are in power, they will become "Reformist", "Gradualist" and eventually will rule by law.24 It (the Post) further portrayed the threat of Islamic Fundamentalism as the new threat that was `as evil as the old Evil Empire.'25

Two editorial writers of the Post framed "Islamic Fundamentalism" as a "New Global Menace" that will replace Communism. They said that there were too many diverse currents in both modern and traditional Islam, and too many national problems and conflicts in those countries where fundamentalists hold or threaten to take power.26

The major reasons for this treatment might be the prevailing ignorance of Western journalists about Islam, the silence of scholars on this issue, the historical aspect of the religion, the anti-Islam and pro-Israel lobby (Hammond, 1987; Mughees, 1991) and indifference and negligence of the Muslim community, which has never made a serious effort to build its image in the Western media. Moreover, Islam has always been seen as belonging to the Orient.

Said (1981) speculates that some stereotypes and misunderstandings about Islam are unintentional and some are intentional, based on cultural and ideological biases against Islam (Pg. 4). These stereotypes seem valid in the 90s, and an anti-Islam bias is still working in the US media. Anti-Islamic groups have seized this case as an opportunity to whip up hatred.

The US elite press, in its unsigned editorials, conveyed cool attitudes towards the army coup in Algeria. However, the analysis of the data indicated that the NYT was more critical than the Post and the LAT on this subject. The NYT called the military action "Clumsy", whereas the Post portrayed it as a "Legitimate Action". The LAT surprisingly gave the least coverage to this topic. However, in opinion editorials overall, these papers were unfair not to criticize the military action in Algeria as they should have done.

All the papers, in their signed and unsigned editorials, showed their skepticism about the future agenda of FIS anti-West, anti-women, causing immigration of moderates to Europe and France, a radical foreign policy, market economy, human rights etc. Very few editorials suggested that the US and the West should give the FIS a chance to give their performance.27 Few advised against treating FIS on the basis of the activities of the Fundamentalists elsewhere but rather on the basis for their deeds, while one advised the West to wait for more than two elections.28

It is interesting to note that, in the past, the term "Terrorist" had been used mostly for left-oriented freedom fighters (e.g., the PLO). It has been noticed that, for the last decade, this image has been switched from socialists or secular radicals to Islamists, in particular those Islamists who are working in a democratic frame and using the democratic process instead of adopting other non-democratic methods to come into the power (e.g. Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and Pakistan). These few editorials portrayed Islam as the "New Global Enemy" of the West. Some column writers warned the West that these "Islamic Fundamentalists" were coming into power through democracy and speculated that Islam was a "New Global Menace" which would replace Communism. Some argued that the US seems always in need of some identifiable international menace. If it is not Communism, it is Terrorism. If it is not Terrorism, then it is Islam (Nubar Hovsepian).29

The present consistent pattern in the portrayal of Islam in the US media supports the theory of Hackett (1991) that, after the end of the Cold War, Islam will be the next "Threat Candidate" for the US media. Since one year's data after the end of the Cold war is not enough to make a valid judgement about Hackett's ideas, the next half-decade will make things clearer and show whether or not an anti-Islamic element has been substituted for "anti-Communism" as the "National Religion" in the US media.


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1. FIS refers to Islamic Salvation Front.

2. According to this method, a list of possible frames (position, theme) be established for editorial contents. The list of frames might not be exhaustive, and in fact the list for a particular topic to some extent will be shaped inductively by looking at the contents of the editorials.

3. See Editorial: Algeria: Democracy Betrayed (The NYT, January 14, 1992)

4. See Editorial: Algeria: Democracy Betrayed (The NYT, January 12, 1992)

5. See Editorial: Algeria: Democracy Betrayed (The NYT, January 12, 1992)

6. See Editorial: Algeria: Democracy Betrayed (The NYT, January 12, 1992)

7. See Editorial: Democracy Denied in Algeria (The NYT, Jul 24, 1992)

8. See Editorial: Algeria: Democracy Betrayed (The NYT, January 14, 1992)

9. See Editorials: Algeria Chooses Islam (The NYT, January 3, 1992) and Democracy Denied in Algeria (July 24, 1992)

10. See Editorial: Democracy Denied in Algeria (The NYT, July 14, 1992)

11. See Editorial: Assassination in Algeria (The Post, July 1, 1992)

12. For Information, See The NYT's Editorials: Asia Needs Help - Not A-Bomb (January 22, 1980) and No peanuts for Pakistan (March 10, 1980) and Iran: Orchestrator of Disorder by Charles Krauthammer (The Post, January 1, 1993)

13. Richard Cohen: Phoney Democracies (The Post, January 1, 1992)

14. See Editorial: Wishful Thinking about Islamic Fundamentalism; The Movement would Power by Amos Perlmutter (The Post, January 19, 1992)

15. See Graham E. Fuller's Editorial: Islamic Fundamentalism: No Long-Term Threat (The Post, January 13, 1992)

16. See Graham E. Fuller's Editorial: Islamic Fundamentalism: No Long-Term Threat (The Post, January 13, 1992).

17. See Editorial: Democracy in an Unusual Place; Algeria Struggles to Overcome a Nasty History of Authoritarianism. (The LAT, July 14, 1991)

18. See Editorial: Jim Baker is off to the Provinces: But Washington Needs to Heed Allies like Turkey as it Heads off Tehran's Central (The LAT. February 8, 1992)

19. For Details See Nayyar Zaidi's letter to the Editor (The Post, January 25, 1992)

20. See Editorial: Assassination in Algeria (The Post, July 1, 1920)

21. It should be noted that FIS was portrayed as against the Welfare of the people. For details, see Editorial: Phoney Democracies (The Post, January 1, 1992)

23. See Editorial of Message International, 16 (8), January 1993.

24. Amos Perlmutter: Wishful Thinking about Islamic Fundamentalism; The Movement would Power (The Post, January 19, 1992)

25. See Editorials: Politics of Payback by Jim Hoagland (May 1992) and Iran: Orchestrator of Disorder by Charles Krauthammer (The Post, January 1, 1993)

27. One unsigned Editorial in The NYT and one by Graham Fuller in The Post.

28. See Editorial of Graham Fuller (The Post, January 13, 1993)

29. Nubar Hovespian was interviewed by Elissa Samson for LOOT (March-April, 1993 Pgs 6-8)



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