On the hidden costs of Media Error:
Muhamed al Durah and the French Intifada
The Second Draft
November 15, 2005
If anyone wants to start thinking about what has been ailing the world since 2000, there is no better place to start than with the poisonous tale of Muhammed al Durah: how did it get by our supposedly impartial and professional media? What damage has it done? How can we begin to address the problems it has caused our young and troubled century, and continues to raise about the way we think about our problems? The possibilities for healing, once our heads are clear, are enormous and do not need to be violent. It will just take a courage so far sorely lacking among the mainstream media.
On September 30, 2000, Talal abu Rahma, a Palestinian cameraman working for France2 sent his boss, Charles Enderlin what he claimed was footage of the Israeli army shooting to death in cold blood an unarmed boy pleading for his life. Although the limited footage Enderlin received either contradicted or did not support many of his crucial claims, and the lack of obvious scenes like the ambulance evacuation, raised many questions, France2’s veteran Middle East correspondent Charles Enderlin edited the rushes, cutting out problematic material, and giving a narration in which the boy and his father were “the target of fire coming from the Israeli position.” He distributed the footage – normally a stunning scoop that one guards jealously – to all the other news agencies. That evening, news media around the world warned their audiences about the painful and dramatic footage they were about to see and then showed the edited footage with Talal’s narrative of Israeli perfidy.
Muhammed al Durah: The First Draft
The effect was electric. Viewers were stunned; public figures, appalled; Palestinians enraged. The next day, infuriated by Talal’s footage, the riots that had already begun in the territories spread to the Arabs in Israel, a stunning development no one had anticipated. World opprobrium for such wanton violence crashed down on the heads of Israeli leaders, destroying any good will Barak might have gained from his efforts at Camp David, and turning Arafat from the villain of Camp David into the hero of the al Aqsa Intifada.
Within days, Palestinian Authority news had re-edited the footage, placing a picture of an Israeli soldier shooting rubber bullets at the riots in Nazereth caused by Talal’s footage into the sequence between the scene of the boy alive and crying (take 3) and that of him lying at his father’s feet (take 5). They now clearly identified an Israeli soldier as the deliberate murderer of Muhamed al Durah. This fiction played repeatedly on Palestinian TV – and al Jazeera – throughout the following months, becoming the icon for a ferociously violent Intifada. Suicide terrorism, previously a relatively marginal phenomenon, disapproved of by many religious leaders, became the weapon of choice. Done “to avenge the boy Muhammed”, suicide terrorism provoked dancing in the streets, exhibits displaying Israeli body-parts flying through the air at Palestinian campuses, and approval ratings that went from 30% before 2000 to 80% in the general Palestinian public. One Arab observer, thinking on “Muhammad Al-Dura in his father’s bosom,” could not contain his joy at suicide operations in Israel.
The Arabs were not the only ones to play the footage repeatedly. French TV in particular, featured the al Durah footage over and over in the subsequent weeks and months, making it the emblem of Palestinian grievance and Israeli aggression, the statement of how Israel caused the Intifada and deserved whatever rage the Palestinians might express. Large demonstrations all over Europe lionized the Palestinian cause. Fashion models, attending these rallies, wore suicide belts and little else, to show their support. Muhammed al Durah, paraded in effigy, became the patron saint of the hate-fest at the UN sponsored conference against racism [!] in Durban in the summer of 2001.
Europeans, often Arab Muslims immigrants, began to attack Jews and synagogues in an escalating violence that shocked those aware of it. Arafat, elated with the worldwide support, spurned all efforts to get him to rein in the violence. Although anything as big as the “Al Aqsa Intifada” arises from many factors, we can safely say that the PATV altered al Durah footage gave it its ferocity and durability. When, months later, the “leaders” wanted to revive a fading Intifada, they produced a music video of Muhammed’s martyrdom, rather than something about Sharon’s visit to the Haram al Sharif/Temple Mount, the Western media’s favorite “cause” of the Intifada.
Nor did it stop at the Palestinian Intifada. Muhammed al Durah opened the floodgates of Arab Jew-hatred, a new and more sophisticated media blitz in the Palestinian and Arab/Muslim world, recycling European anti-Semitic themes. Blood libels, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, calls to genocide from the pulpit, broadcast continuously from TV stations.
Al Durah was not only the icon of the Intifada, he was the icon of global Jihad, which entered a new phase in late 2000. The video produced by the Pakistanis who slit Daniel Pearl’s throat for being a Jew, interwove images of Muhammed al Durah with the murder. And before 9-11, Osama bin Laden used the image of al Durah intensively in a recruiting video. Pictures of the al Durahs crouched behind the barrel with the twin towers in the background make the connection to the attack on the USA. Muhammed al Durah was, like the Protocols, a warrant for genocide.
How did the Western academics, media experts, and politicians respond to this surge of anti-Semitism in word and deed, especially in Europe where it had direct, if somewhat less murderous manifestations? Few applied the brakes. Many responded with “understanding” if not approval rather than moral outrage. Some justified and celebrated. In the most worrisome of the responses – the liberal’s “understanding” of the suicide terrorist’s “hopelessness and despair” – we can hear both the soft bigotry of low expectations in comments like “What choice do they have?”, and the workings of the al Durah myth: “If you kill their children, what do you expect?” Radical leaders within the “peace” movement, went further: “Resistance is not Terrorism,” read rally banners from the allegedly “pacifist International Solidarity Movement.
With the image of al Durah preventing Western observers from vigorously condemning suicide terrorism, the phenomenon metastasized, from attacks on Israelis to attacks on Americans, Spaniards, Englishmen, Australians, Shi’i Muslims in Iraq, and now, in Jordan, Sunni Muslims. Violence against Jews never stops with the Jews. The image of Muhammed al Durah haunts the 21st century and its poison blights the dawning global community.
Muhammed al Durah: The Second Draft
Given its global impact, responsible members of civil society need to ask about its veracity. Does the footage indeed tell the tale Talal and Enderlin told the world? How reliable a cameraman is Talal abu Rachma (who received numerous awards for his explosive footage), how reliable a news correspondant is Charles Enderlin?
We have so little firm evidence – no bullets, no autopsy, minimal film footage, leveled crime scene, few witnesses interviewed and fewer deposed – that no one can state with certainty what happened. But an assessment of the available evidence, which anyone can now view themselves, and of further evidence that France2 refuses to release, but which some of us have seen, indicates two preliminary conclusions: 1) the story we were told by Talal and almost universally accepted by the media (scenario 1) was the least likely to have happened, and 2) the most likely to have happened is that the footage represents a Pallywood production in which Talal abu Rahma played a key role as cameraman and spokesman (scenario 5).
The possibility that the mainstream media could have been fooled into giving the 21st century its most hate-mongering and destructive image by mistake, seems incredible. Indeed many resist even considering the “staged” hypothesis purely on the presumption that our media could not have been so thoroughly fooled. That the media have resisted reconsidering it for five years while, unimpeded, it worked its poison into global culture, is frightening. Fundamental questions arise:
• How can the media can have failed so badly to protect the public from this poisonous propaganda?
• How, once the evidence began to emerge, could the media continue to show such hostility to reconsidering it?
Part of a generous answer to these questions – they knew not what they did – raises yet more profound questions:
• Why did the European media not recognize that by playing Talal’s image over and again, they were inflaming hatreds they could not control?
• How did the media not recognize that the Israelis were not the only target?
• Why did the media reject anyone who tried to warn them about its reliability?
• Why can the media not recognize the evidence that is now apparent?
• What can we do to move forward?
We invite you to our website, The Second Draft, to examine the evidence and to join in the conversation.
Muhammed al Durah: The Long Term Consequences
In the meantime, perhaps the best way to illustrate the nature and value of meditating on al Durah, is by considering the way that embracing and broadcasting the image may have contributed to a dynamic whose most recent manifestation is the current riots in France now spreading through Europe and elsewhere.
• The Meaning of “le petit Mohammed” to the French and to their Arab Immigrants: The Moebius Strip of Cognitive Egocentrism
The French eagerly took to the Al Durah footage. The media played the tapes over and over. Chirac used it four days later to publicly chastise Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, while urging on Arafat’s rejection. The image had mythical power. It helped Europeans resolve their their guilt about the Holocaust and their “debt” to Israel. Journalist Catherine Nay proclaimed on Europe1 TV: “The Death of Muhammed cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto.” Note that she felt no need for last names: in France Muhammed al Durah is widely known as “le petit Mohammed.”
Suddenly, what had been forbidden by post-Holocaust political correctness, surged forth like a decapitated fire hydrant. The comparison of Israelis and Nazis became a commonplace in France and widely accepted theme in many Western circles. The French ambassador’s remark at an English diplomatic reception in December 2001 about Israel as that “shitty little country” illustrates nicely the quality of a new round of negative comments about Jews. And the response – the ambassador did not apologize, Chirac did not even rebuke him, and the BBC referred to a it as a “spat” about “‘anti-semitic’ remarks” – all reinforced the permissibility of such discourse.
The al Durah tale seems to have struck a powerful chord in Europe. It appeals to a kind of moral Schadenfreude, in which Europeans can – at last – openly feel themselves morally superior to those Israelis who, unlike their post-colonial selves, continue to pursue imperialism and commit racist crimes against the innocent indigenous peoples, all the while endangering the whole world with their aggression. And of course, while they did this, they could also make friends with the Arabs, show both the providers of their oil and their manual labor what good friends they are. If there really is a Eurabian policy, then this was the apex of its “logic.”
Perhaps this should not surprise us. This reaction lies at the heart of the zero-sum garden-variety anti-Judaism found everywhere in pre-modern Christianity and Islam: we are superior because the Jews are inferior; we are right because they are wrong; we are the chosen people because they have been rejected. Of course, like their eagerness to believe Talal’s icon, this European attitude towards the Israelis as the “other” – be they enemy or nuisance – seems now, to have been a mistake.
When the French played these enraging images over and over again, they did not perhaps realize that another eager audience – their Arab Muslim immigrant population – might respond differently to these images. Perhaps, as the Europeans sipped their anti-Judaic wine, savoring their release from Holocaust guilt, these others were mainlining anti-Semitic drugs like those that drove the Nazis to genocidal rage. (As far as I know, Nazi Germany did not have preachers calling for genocide from the pulpit.) Al Durah in the Arab world did not mean smug anti-Judaic pleasure at a triumphant feeling of moral superiority. It meant a battle with an enemy whose very existence threatened their own. Not “rule or be ruled,” but “exterminate or be exterminated.”
For Jihadi Muslims, Talal’s icon sounds the trumpet of apocalyptic battle against the evil enemy, the battle in which Muslims slaughter the Jews until the very rocks and trees call out, “Oh Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.” In the Muslim world, Muhammed al Durah serves a warrant for genocide. And rather than object to their savage attacks on innocent civilians, Europeans like Cherie Blair insisted on explaining Palestinian rage as a frustration and hopelessness. After all, we all know, they only want a state just like the rest of us. And so they attacked the Israelis for failing to make more concessions.
So while the Europeans in their cognitive egocentrism, apologized for Palestinian terrorism, which they took to express thwarted national aspirations, they continued to fuel Jihadi violence. The outbreak of the Intifada and constant exposure to “le petit Mohammed” brought the violent discourse against the Jews to new heights in Europe. This was especially true in France with the highest numbers of both Jews and Muslims in Europe, where formerly mixed and functional neighborhoods of Jews and Muslims from North Africa were split apart by the new tone. The racaille won: attacks on Jews and Jewish sites multiplied.
Indeed France has become the bell-weather of violence against the Jews, the earliest and most widespread manifestation. As a Tunisian cabdriver said to me, “I grew up in Tunisia with Jews in my neighborhood. I didn’t become an anti-Semite until I came to France.”
“Were you watching Hizbullah cable TV,” I asked?
“No, French news.”
In mid-2005, a journalist asked some hard questions of a Muslim Brotherhood activist from one of the Parisian suburbs that had become a lost territory of the Republic, about the anti-Semitism in a recent speech by a preacher from his group:
“He said nothing unusual,” Mr. Amriou said with a shrug. He clicked on his cellphone, bringing up a picture of a Palestinian boy allegedly killed by Israeli troops [Muhammed al Durah, confirmed with journalist]. He showed it to the [other Muslim] men and they nodded in agreement, anger crossing their faces. The preacher’s questionable remarks were forgotten.
Nor did the call to global Jihad that Talal’s icon fueled merely target the Jews. Like so many apocalyptic movements, the Jihadis see the world in white and black, those who are with us and those who are against us… there is no in-between. For Jihadis, the enemies list is mind-boggling – the Israelis, the Jews, the Westerners, Europeans, the US, other infidels, heretics like the Shi’is, and eventually (or is it first of all) the lax or westernized Muslim Kufrs (apostates). What the French – and most of our “interpreting classes” – did from 2000 on, was to ignore any evidence that, from the perspective of global Jihad we, Jews, French, Europeans, Americans, Westerners, were as much objects of the hatred aroused by Talal’s icon as the Israelis.
• Creating the French Arab Street:
The first signs of the “Arab Street” in France come with the anti-Israel demonstrations that broke out all over Europe, but with special intensity in France in response to the Intifada. In these gatherings came the first public expressions of the new and violent hatred of Israel, in which Arab demonstrators were allowed, even encouraged, to act out their hatreds. Attacks on Jews became common, and rarely punished. A new and aggressive tone had seized the voice of the radical left.
When the “peace” protests of 2003 opposing American invasion of Iraq took place, the Arab contingents carried signs of Saddam Hussein and Yassir Arafat, shouted Allahu Akhbar, and beat up Jewish groups participating in the rallies. Their fellow protesters looked the other way. The media did not run the footage of their attacks. The origins of the “Arab Street” go back to this moment of anti-American frenzy. One of the French Arab chants: “Le veto c’est nous” [We are the veto.] Did such chants imply that the Arabs saw French attacks on America in defense of Saddam not, as did the French, as acts of courage, but as acts of weakness?
In March 2004, gangs from the suburbs came in and broke up a student demonstration in Paris, beating up the students, smashing their cell phones, kicking them while they were down. Why? Not for political reasons. But because the French students were weak and deserved it: “…to beat people up… [especially] little Frenchmen who look like victims… to take revenge on whites.” You know you have a problem with an Arab “street” when the violence is gratuitous. How did the French media cover these casseurs? Briefly, if at all. [Now, in Spring 2006, they're back, under cover of student "protests" of the CPE.]
Now in November 20005 (Ramadan, 1426 AH) the violence breaks out. Who is astonished? Not the people who watched this phenomenon and tried to report back to their fellow citizens about the “Lost Territories of the Republic,” about the time-bombs that these nightmarish suburban neighborhoods constitute, and the virulent anti-semitic, misogynist and anti-western discourse that has been making such headway. Instead the surprise, like 9-11 in the USA, came primarily to all those who listen to the voice of the talking heads – media and academy (they are closely bound in France) – who systematically dismissed and excluded from the mainstream anyone who tried to draw attention to the problems arising among their Arab Muslim minority and who condemned anyone who warned about the virulently anti-Zionist Muslim rhetoric as “racists.”
As several Frenchmen commented to me in the last few years, both Jewish and Gentile, “If I even seem to defend Israel and criticize the media’s strident support for the Palestinian cause, people say, ‘I didn’t know you were Jewish.’” To criticize the wave of anti-Jewish violence on the part of an increasingly aggressive and deeply disaffected population of 2nd generation Muslim immigrants, as something worthy of attention and condemnation was “communautariste” – partisan… apparently only a Jew would think like that.
Anti-Zionism as Cultural Auto-Immune Deficiency
The French (and European) media’s coverage of the second Intifada had four key characteristics:
1. It accepted without doubt the claims of Palestinian sources about the terrible things the Israelis had done and ran Pallywood footage (especially al Durah) on TV repeatedly.
2. It accepted and repeated Palestinian assurances that this was a war for national liberation of the “occupied territories” and not a Jihad against the very existence of Israel.
3. It justified the violent responses of both Palestinians and French Arabs as a natural reaction to these Israeli deeds and driven by their legitimate “national” aspirations and cultural pride;
4. It condemned Israeli efforts to defend itself against the murderous onslaught of suicide terrorism – like the “apartheid wall” – as “excessive use of force,” as “racism,” as inexcusable oppression.
Each of these attitudes reflects a strong identification with the Palestinians and dissociation from the Israelis, as if to say “we believe the Palestinian’s accusations and think the Israelis deserve what they have coming.” Did it never occur to them that others, in their own back yard, saw them with much the same hostility?
Now they have a problem: how to deal with their own Intifada? Having assaulted Israel for defending itself, can it muster the forces needed to defend itself? Having insisted that the Israelis faced nothing more than a movement of national resistance, can they see that they may face something more than bread riots? Or do they believe, as they have with the Palestinians, that it’s just about wanting the same break everyone else has and Islam plays no role?
After years of assuming that Palestinian and European Arab hostility to Israelis – and even to Zionist Jews – were reasonable responses to Israeli misdeeds, and assuming that their own Arab population would be thankful to them for taking their brethren’ side, the French are beginning to discover they may have misjudged. Perhaps what is at work in both the Palestinian and the French Intifadas may not be the French sense of justice (liberty, equality, fraternity), but a frustrated sense of lost dominion, grievance at the humiliation of inferiority that demands blood be shed for honor to be restored, a sense of rage and hostility at the French – and any other Westerner – every bit as deeply felt as their hatred of the Israelis. After all, does not Arafat refer to Palestine as “the frontline land”?
How humiliating for the French: rather than the Israelis as the despised other, the “shitty little country” that causes so much trouble, it may have been the canary in the mineshaft of their own civil society, or, still more embarrassing, the fighting on the frontline. As France struggles with its new “lost territories”, they will probably not relish going to a court whose harsh precedents against civil societies trying to protect themselves from terror were established on the subject of Israel’s “apartheid wall.”
And they listened not. The Jews of France who tried to speak out after 2000 felt that they were in a glass ghetto.
In the meantime, voices begin to prepare the Europeans for the advent of a new Caliphate bringing Shari’a… after all, it’s just another version of freedom and human rights. It’s one thing to be generous and argue that medieval Islam was tolerant, it’s another to live under that system of “tolerance” in the 21st century.
French Politicians and Media Respond to the French Riots
All of a sudden, the French realize that excessive and credulous coverage may inflame rather than help control the violence. “Do we send teams of journalists because cars are burning, or are the cars burning because we sent teams of journalists?” asked Patrique Lecocq, editor-in-chief of France 2. Certainly these are questions French journalists might have asked themselves as they encouraged the most warmongering elements of Palestinian culture with their eager affirmation of Pallywood footage.
But the learning curve is flat, and largely self-protective (read: denial). As with the way they handled the sudden outbreak of anti-Semitism after 2000, the French media does everything it can to play down the riots. Is this from shame at what the world might think? (The French are très sensible about their public image, especially after gloating about Hurricane Katrina.)
Is there a left-wing agenda behind the reluctance to discuss Jihad and Eurabia? “Politics in France is heading to the right and I don’t want rightwing politicians back in second, or even first place because we showed burning cars on television,” says M. Dassier, owner of France1 TV.
Are these good reasons for not letting the French know what kind of problems they face? Will the French stumble blindly just to avoid embarrassment? Does it make sense to insist that the rioters are “secular” and deny that they identify in any way with Islam, even as you use Islamist leaders to calm the rioting? Already, had the French authorities had the presence of mind to consult the Israelis, they would have learned to shut down the cell phone network right away to prevent rioters coordinating through it. But that would mean understanding something that the uncritical French embrace of Palestinian aspirations makes impossible.
The dilemma – and it is not only, but right now it is poignantly French – is that, as with the “Oslo Peace Process,” if you misread the problem, you run the risk of making it worse with your “solutions” by bringing in a Trojan Horse. If the French authorities, following what their talking heads like Tariq Ramadan have to say, believe that this is “just” and “only” about poor immigrants who simply want a break (and behind that, the arrogant assumption that everyone wants to be like us Frenchmen), they will throw money and concessions at the problem.
But what if a significant player in these riots is a gangsta-rap Islamism – not particularly observant, but street-wise, triumphalist, macho Islam? What if these rioters have been inspired by a Jihad mentality spread by preachers all along the Islamist spectrum, from the urgent al Quaeda to the more patient Muslim Brotherhood, in which they are the advance guard of a world-conquering Islam, set to take over Europe. What if, in addition to the rigorous ideology of Islamism, there’s an honor-shame Islam that thrills to Bin Laden’s 9-11 discourse not because they want to pray five times a day, give up alcohol and fast on Ramadan, but because they love to see the humiliating West get kicked in the teeth, and they pick their heads up in pride at the death of several thousand civilians on the other side. What if the reassurances of specialists that it has nothing to do with Islam is the work of demopaths and their chorus of dupes?
“Ridiculous” says liberal cognitive egocentrism. “It’s impossible for Islam to take over Europe.” But what the Israelis have learned at the cost of great pain over the last five years, is that some enemies do not think in terms of our idea of the possible; that just because they may be deluded in their hopes for total victory does not mean that they do not act on them – no matter how self-destructive those actions might be. And right or wrong, the unintended consequences of their behavior impacts us all.
What if these macho youths – and anyone who does not think that this is partly a good old fashioned showdown mano a mano is at best tone deaf – do not want to be Europeans? On the contrary, what if they despise European civic culture? What if they have no desire to become like Frenchmen, with all the effeminate behavior that entails (women’s rights!), and consider any Muslim who adapts to it to be a despicable “white?” By the rules of their particularly aggressive honor-shame culture, rioting in the streets for days, burning cars and buildings, attacking bystanders and the police with little reprisal, and getting funds and autonomy from the government in return for their efforts, means a spectacular victory for them. In their efforts to establish dominance over public space, to claim “territory” in France, this would be a stunning victory.
As with the Palestinian response to Israeli concessions at Camp David, generosity reads on their zero-sum screens as a sign of weakness, and further generosity once violence breaks out, as proof that aggression works. Those who urge the French authorities to appease the rioters, however well intentioned, may be counseling disaster. France – and Europe – may think their civilization is invulnerable, but soberly considered, the odds are not necessarily in their favor.
Is the answer a crackdown? And if so, what kind of crackdown? And after the crackdown, what? Is it possible to shape helpful programs so that they really engage the cultural problems that divide Arab Muslims from French (former) Catholics and Protestants? Can Europeans stand up for a civic culture and demand tolerance and mutual respect? Can the French Jews be given an honorable place at the table in discussions about the “dignity of difference”? Or will the Europeans avoid dealing with their own bigoted attitudes towards Jews and Arabs, and thereby continue fueling Arab hatred for Jews (and the West) with their morally hysterical anti-Zionism and the soft bigotry of their low expectations of the Arabs? Will moral Schadenfreude and the journalism of ressentiment, carry the day, just when the Europeans need to renounce it?
We don’t have the answers. If we can’t realize what we’re up against then, right-wing, left-wing, liberal, radical or conservative, we are all in for some painful history lessons in the medieval realities of violent warriors and theocratic clergy.
We don’t have the answers. This current thrash of cultures is unprecedented in the history of civilization, certainly in its global scale, but also in its penetration and transformation of all the cultures involved. If we don’t recognize that right now we are blinded to the dangers that loom ahead, on the one hand by an inexcusably remiss Mainstream Media, and on the other by the reassuring platitudes of our intelligentsia’s cognitive egocentrism, if we can’t realize what we’re up against then, right-wing, left-wing, liberal, radical or conservative, we are all in for some painful history lessons in the medieval realities of violent warriors and theocratic clergy.
Civil society is a rare and precious social experiment. It makes high ethical demands, and cannot survive persistent, much less aggressive stupidity, no matter how well intentioned. And one of its fundamental demands is that we judge fairly, that we renounce the indulgences of moral Schadenfreude and scape-goating. Why? Because when we don’t renounce them, we encourage what’s wrong and discourage what’s right.
This time, I don’t think we can get away with it. And I can think of no better place to start unraveling how we in the West have contributed to our own moral and social failures than in understanding and addressing the tragic failure of our media and our intellectuals in the Muhammed al Durah affair.