Fighting old battles 

Mehrdad Kia seeks truth in the Middle East

Four years following the United States’ invasion of Iraq, University of Montana history professor Mehrdad Kia is frustrated with the situation’s general lack of progress. Kia’s frustration, however, is more rooted in ongoing cultural stereotypes rather than in political or military issues. The native Iranian and immensely popular professor is Western Montana’s resident expert on the region, and spends most of his day correcting basic inaccuracies and misconceptions—an Arab is a person who speaks Arabic and is part of that cultural heritage, and not a blanket term for anyone living in the Middle East, for example. With the upcoming anniversary of the invasion on March 19, the Independent asked Kia to reevaluate the relationship between America and the Islamic world.

INDY: What’s your impression of media coverage and the American public’s perception of the conflicts right now in the Middle East?

KIA: The Islamic world, like any other part of this very complex world we live in, is a highly complicated and complex entity, and we tend to always speak about Islam or the Islamic world or “them” as if this Islamic world is a monolith with no internal contradictions, and that 1.2 billion people think the same, feel the same, get angry about the same things and react to the same events in the same fashion…You still have people who don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs, between Turks and Arabs. They just basically think that whoever lives in that region lives in a vast desert with camels and oil and they’re all Arabs and they’re all Muslims, which is mind-boggling. If they’re all Muslims and all Arabs what are they fighting over, you know?

INDY: Are there some specific misconceptions you see in the day-to-day coverage?

KIA: I think the much bigger issue is the information is coming to us without really having any historical context. All the information that comes to us about the Islamic world is about a war, some violent interaction or some form or terrorism. When you constantly get fed articles about the latest bombings, the latest attacks, the latest terrorism, well of course you then equate the Islamic world with violence, fanaticism and so on…It’s like if somebody went and collaged several things—the riots in Los Angeles, added with the Rodney King beating, and a desert in New Mexico and then the explosion in Oklahoma City, and said “Okay, that’s America.” Of course, that is America but that’s not America either…

Unfortunately, out of the tragedies of 9/11 some of us thought there would be an opportunity now to educate the American society about the Islamic world and to answer the famous questions: “Why are they so angry?”; “Who are these people who are angry?”; “Do they represent the entire Islamic world or a very small minority?”; and, whichever the case may be, “What is the root of their anger?” And unfortunately many people took the wrong turn and went to Islam and the holy book of Islam, the Quran, in order to discover and identify the roots of the anger. But the Quran, having come out 1,400 years ago, does not have anything to say about the United States, the American way of life, Europeans and western civilizations as a whole.

I think the roots of anger are very much in the historical experience of Muslim countries in the 19th and 20th centuries when they were colonized by various European powers and artificial boundaries were created in order to control, subjugate and exploit their economic resources…What is very important for [the United States] to understand is that we inherited this colonized, artificially-created world of various countries.

INDY: What’s the trickle down effect of the misconceptions?

KIA: The trickle down effect is first of all you’re homogenizing, and as a result, you’re dehumanizing an entire culture and civilization and you’re reducing an entire civilization of more than 1 billion people to a few adjectives. It creates the exact opposite of [the United States] and historically it is much easier to attack that “other.”

INDY: Where do you go to get your media?

KIA: I use, first of all, print media, popular media, European print media and I also read, as much I can, the media of the region because I think it’s very important for us to understand how they are portraying the same events that are being portrayed in Europe and American media. And I have to tell you, sometimes I get the feeling [Iraqi media] are seeing one war and we are seeing another war…I think part of it goes back to the fact that American media are more interested in what the governments do. They kind of move with the line, which is basically sent from Washington, and they do not actually stand back and look at this more critically and critique it and see, you know, does what the Iraqi government say represent the truth, or is it one more fiction that is being sold as a kind of an image builder for this struggling government?

INDY: What can the media and the American people do to help solve some of these problems?

KIA: Ask questions. Ask questions and raise questions about claims, assertions, statements which seem factual but in reality may not be as solid as they seem…I think in a democratic society it is the responsibility of each and every citizen to educate themselves. Without that, you cannot expect media to be a book, to be a library or a classroom. Media provide information. The tragedy of our situation is that this information is coming into a vacuum and the vacuum has no solid historical, cultural, religious understanding of the Islamic world.
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