Geographic Editor on a Century of Islam Coverage

January 11, 2002

National Geographic News interviews Don Belt, senior editor of National Geographic magazine and editor of National Geographic's The World of Islam, a compilation of articles and images that have been published in the magazine over 98 years. An expert on the Muslim world, Belt shares his views on tensions between Islam and the West and reviews how articles published by National Geographic decades ago foreshadowed the news in today's headlines.

NG News: How much of the tension we're seeing today between the Muslim world and the West is attributable to a reaction against America's ubiquitous popular culture?

Belt: Well it's interesting, the power of our movies, of our advertising, of our popular culture, is an extremely powerful force within the Muslim world and especially among young people and among wide cross sections of those societies.

I think that's one reason that the elders—those of all ages, really—who would turn back the clock to something simpler, to something more in keeping with their notion of Islam, find this so disturbing and why there is, I think, today a real reaction against America's popular culture.

In The World of Islam, Tom Abercrombie in his story from 1980 writes about this conflict between the tendencies against Westernization in the cultural life in these countries and this kind of rising tide of Islamic reaction—where not only scholars but just ordinary people reject the values that the West is force-feeding their societies. We're not force feeding them, necessarily, but that's how they see it and that's how it comes across and so there's this reaction against our culture and an embrace of traditional values which are embodied in Islam.

NG News: In The World of Islam, you pose the question in the chapter on the seeds of conflict, "Will it be Islam versus the West, or something in between?" Would you like to venture an answer to your own question?

Belt: Let's hope it is something in between. I think that one thing that Bin Laden and the extremist elements within the Islamist movement wanted to create was the situation where the West would react militarily against an Islamic country like Afghanistan and that the Muslim in the street would then rise up, and it would become a pitched battle between Islam and the West.

This is something that a number of our writers in this book have mentioned along the way. I mean, over the past century we've covered the Muslim world and our writers and photographers have found these trends at work in the Muslim world. I think what's happened though in the current day is that the popular opinion within the Muslim world has rejected Bin Ladenism or Al Qaeda or the Taliban as a viable expression of what they believe.

I think there was an initial cheering in a certain way that America had been laid low, but as time has passed people have thought about it and they've reassessed whether Bin Laden is a true representative of what they believe. I think they've rejected it. So there is a middle ground and let's hope that it's something in between rather than some sort of cultural war between Islam and the West.

NG News: To what extent is the anger of ordinary Muslims towards the West a way to blow off steam about the frustrations they feel about some of the corrupt and repressive regimes they live under, but which they dare not criticize openly? Arguments are made that Bin Laden and other radicals are angry about what is seen as Western support of questionable governments. Equally, some of these very governments are said to deliberately encourage anti-Western sentiment as a way to deflect the anger of their own citizens.

Belt: That's an excellent question. There is to a degree a tendency by some regimes to use this kind of anti-America sentiment or anti-Israel sentiment for their own purposes, to deflect criticism of their own sometimes corrupt regimes. That is something to be considered. But I think that among Muslims on the street the United States policy in the Middle East is often rightly criticized.

I think that we are seen as arrogant and bullying in our approach to the Muslim world and especially the Arab world. A number of the stories in The World of Islam touch on that point. The story on Pakistan in 1991 that Bill Ellis wrote, which is excerpted in the book, is an excellent reminder that a lot of times this tendency to blame the United States for the evils of societies—whether it's impoverishment or whether it's hopelessness—is a pervasive factor in these countries and has to be dealt with.

Continued on Next Page >>


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