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 eldersthose of all ages, reallywho 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 reactionwhere 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 societieswhether it's impoverishment or whether it's hopelessnessis a pervasive factor in these countries and has to be dealt with.
NG News: So you are saying that U.S. foreign policy is lacking in sensitivity and nuance to what its effect is on the ground in the Muslim world?
Belt: In a way it is and I think that our policies aren't helping us in that regard. You know, within the Muslim world our policies towards Palestine and in Israel are not seen as mutually supportive. Our Israel policy is interpreted almost as an anti-Muslim policy. Our unconditional backing of Israel in certain cases is perceived in the Muslim world as an insult to their faith and I think that that is something we have to be aware of, as we move forward.
Joe Judge, in his 1983 story on Jerusalem that is in The World of Islam makes this point very accurately: A lot of times what happens is that the discontent that our policies create in a place like Jerusalem and places like the West Bank and Gaza become indistinguishable from the policies of Israel. That's something that we need to be aware of. That is how it looks from out there.
NG News: Is National Geographic playing an effective role in informing Americans, and readers everywhere in the world, about the way U.S. policy is perceived from the Muslim point of view?
Belt: Well, that is a very good question. What I react to is really what I see out there. I've traveled over the Middle East a dozen times in the last decade and done six stories over there. From here, in Washington, it's easy to be abstract about it; from there, from the Muslim world, the vantage point that you get is very much the sense that the United States is engaged in policies that serve its own interest, as all governments do.
I mean, this no surprise because we need oil to run our economy and to run our country. It colors all our policies in the Gulf where the oil is. But because we are a staunch and long-time supporter of the state of Israel, from the Muslim perspective that colors everything thing that we do in that region.
You have to look at the world through their eyes to some degree and you know National Geographic's been doing this for a century in this part of the world. We've been going to these places and reporting accurately and honestly about the viewpoint that we encounter there and often they run counter to what we hear in this country. It's a whole different reality.
NG News: So in some ways what has been happening since September 11 has validated what National Geographic has been trying to do for almost a century, trying to inform people about other people's point of view?
Belt: You know it's interesting. After September 11, I'd say beginning the next day our phones here at Geographic lit up with people asking questions about the history, culture and religion embodied by the Islamic world, and so suddenly there's a real desire to know more about that part of the world that America hasn't even had on its radar screen up until this point.
Americans and Westerners are curioussuddenly, very curiousabout what this is about. And this is for obvious reasons: We were attacked and so that focuses the mind, and people are very, very interested to know more.
I see in that an opportunity for us here at Geographic and for us here in the West to learn more about a way of life and a culture and whole set of realities that up until September 11 were just totally neglected or misunderstood.
You know the popular image of what the Muslim world was like prior to September 11 was fairly two-dimensional and it usually involved a terrorist with a rag on his head doing something bad. I think that the reality, of course, is far, far more nuanced and varied than anything that we dreamed of, and so then I see this as an opportunity not only for the National Geographic to help to do some good to build a bridge of understanding between us and the Muslim world but also for our culture to reach out and understand more.
NG News: Is part of the problem about the West's lack of understanding of the Muslim world attributable to the secretive nature of that world? For example, there seems to be an intolerance towards non-Muslims visiting or living on Islamic soiland hasn't Mecca been closed off to "non-believers"?
Belt: I don't see that world as necessarily so secretive; just misunderstood or little-accessed. One of the things we take pride in is how often we've been able to gain access to these hidden corners of the Muslim world during the past 100 years. If you read the stories in The World of Islam you'll see this.
I mean, we have invested the time that's necessary to get behind those cultures and understand what they are about. We have always given our writers and photographers time to develop relationships with people. The Muslim world is a very, very hospitable place. I have never been greeted as warmly as I have been in just about every Muslim situation that I can think of.
You're right that their holy places are off-limits to people that aren't Muslims and I think that is something that is a challenge to us here at National Geographic to cover. But we've done that by having Muslims write and make images for us in these places. There are in fact a couple of really good examples in The World of Islam. Our 1978 coverage by Dr. Muhammad Abdul-Rauf about a pilgrimage to Mecca is an example of allowing a Muslim to take us along on a pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest act in Islam. So there are ways to get in there, there are ways to understand and to report on this part of the world, but it takes some doing and, you know that has been our job for as long as we've been around and it will continue to be our job.
NG News: You say you are bridging the information gap between Islam and the West, but how can it be possible for Westerners to understand how Muslims treat their women in a way that Westerners can appreciate, that the Muslims have a point of view? There is also what appears to be sometimes a brutal repression of individual rights in certain societies associated with Islam. How can that be explained in terms that Westerners can feel some appreciation for that point of view?
Belt: Well, I think the appeal of Islam is individual, rather that societal. I think that what we are seeing in the Arab Muslim world especially is a rising up, a kind of unifying behind the banner of Islam that is translated in the political movements.
However, on the individual level Islam is a choice that people make to follow a way that to them represents a simple path to God. In the introduction to this book, I interviewed a woman, a Catholic woman who is a registered nurse here in Washington, D.C., who converted a year and a half ago to Islam, and I asked her about that because she was wearing head covering and a robe. My question to her as I recall was, "Do you feel trapped, or do you feel restricted in this garb that you're wearing; do you feel somehow you are restricted by Islam in your private life?" She said, "No, on the contrary I feel liberated, because it frees me from the need to live up to the expectation of our culture to be wealthy, to look good, to wear makeup, to be attractive to men," and on, and on, and on.
The cultural values that we instill in people, I think because of our advertising and our kind of popular culture, are seen by many people as unnecessary complications. I think Islam is appealing because it calls for a return to a simple way of dealing with your God. It's very attractive to people on an individual basis.
NG News: If Islam is so appealing and hospitable, how then does it manifest itself through acts of such horrific violence against innocent people?
Belt: Well, I think what we are seeing in those cases is political extremist, a radical minority within a movement that these days is called Islamism. The goal of such movements is political change to overthrow a government or to challenge a government in some way.
We've got a wonderful map in this book as part of the introduction that shows the world of Islam. For the most part, the Muslim world, if you look at the map, consists of impoverished countries with either a history of corrupt governments, or a dearth of natural resources, or a host of other societal problems. So it is for the most part the Third World that we are looking at when we see the Muslim world. These are mostly disenfranchised people with grievances against their governments, and I think what's happened is that the Islamist political movements that have risen from these societies have galvanized people. The calls to action that these movements issue have Islam written all over them, but it's really a political movement rather than a spiritual movement.
NG News: Doesn't it seem like that in the Muslim world there needs to be a separation between mosque and state then. The West also learned the hard way that church and government don't always mix too well. Isn't the enforcement of a secular state and the separation of state and religion in Turkey a model for the rest of the Muslim world to follow?
Belt: Turkey is a secular Muslim state. In fact wearing the head covering, the Muslim head covering for women, is outlawed in public in Turkey. On the other end of the spectrum you've got Iran, where in 1979, as we all know, there was a revolution and Iran became an Islamic republic.
As our reporter Fen Montaigne and our photographer Alex Avakian found when they went to Iran to do our 1999 story in the magazine, which is excerpted in this book, twenty years after the Iranian revolution, there is a social upheaval in Iran. People don't want to live like that; they don't want their lives dictated by a bunch of old men interpreting the Koran according to their wishes and desires.
I think that what you are seeing in Iran is kind of a humanization of Islam that is entirely predictable based on what we know about human nature.
Turkey is a different case. I mean Turkey has started out a secular state and has developed along those lines. Turkey recently banned Islamic political parties from their political system too. So there's a repressive aspect to this that may need to be reconsidered down the road. But there is a wide spectrum within the Muslim political world with respect to the degree to which Islam or Islamic political movements are allowed to participate in government.
NG News: So you are saying that the Muslim world is a lot more nuanced and complex than most of us think it is?
Belt: No more than Christianity is or Judaism is for that matter. There are so many interpretations, so many different manifestations, so many different looks, and so many different religious practices. One of the most fascinating thing about The World of Islam to me is the chance to go back through history. Throughout the last century one can see all the incredible visual variety and the real-world variety that you encounter in the Muslim world.
One of our accounts from 1914 is what life was like inside a harem in Baghdad. That's a fascinating look inside the Muslim world. On the other hand, you've got an article on Turkey, another on life in Iran nowand you've got a look inside Afghanistan, which is a war-torn country. There is also a piece on Indonesia, which is the world's most populous Muslim country.
What these countries have in common is not much. Islam is one of the things they do have in common, but there is a huge disparity and a richness and a texture that I think we in the West would do well to understand. That's what National Geographic is all about, showcasing those shades of differences. We have gone to the ends of the Earth to bring back reports from these places and to communicate to our readers how rich the Muslim world really is.
One of the reasons that this book may actually be a bit unique is because we have been covering this part of the world, the Muslim world, since our founding in 1888. We've been out there for over a century doing stories from the Muslim world. In may cases, the reporters and photographers that we sent in were the first Westerners to actually go to those places. The coverages that are collected in this book are like time capsules, many of which touch upon trends or foreshadow trends and events that we are seeing in the headlines today.
NG News: How did you make the selection from a century of reporting to include a representative sample for the book?
Belt: It was hard; we had an embarrassment of riches. We had hundreds of stories to choose from. I think our grand total of stories for this part of the world was more than five hundred. Going through those stories was a real chore. The criteria we tried to use were stories that were either so unique or so tantalizing that they deserve to be seen by a modern public.
Examples are the story about life about inside a harem in Baghdad from 1914, or our correspondent going to the Shia Mecca in Southern Iraq in 1914, or our story from Afghanistan in 1921; all were rare looks behind a curtain of misunderstanding and ignorance in their day that still stand up. A lot of the things that our correspondents found in those days are worth reading about now because they still apply in certain ways.
NG News: You point out in the book that many of National Geographic's earliest correspondents used language that would be considered impolitic today. Yet you elected to leave those remarks unedited. Why did you do that?
Belt: We excerpted the text and we chose from the pictures for space consideration primarily. We made a conscious decision not to change any of the language because a lot of time the initial impressionseven though to our modern sensibilitymay seem archaic or insensitive but are honest in their own way, and we felt that they also gave insight into the times in which these accounts were written. So we chose to leave them as they were. I mean some of the writing and some of the photographs from these early accounts is just dead-honest, accurate reporting that was too good to change.
NG News: National Geographic is, of course, known for its spectacular images and many of them appear in this book. How did you make that selection?
Belt: Well again, it was a total embarrassment of riches; we had thousands and thousands of pictures to choose from for these stories. When our photographers go out, they shoot a lot and we had just an enormous wealth of archival material to choose from. What we tried to do was, of course, to select images that were arresting visually that gives our readers some insight to the cultures and the practices of the Muslim world. Also, we tried to make editorial points in the selections that we made. A lot of times the trend and events that are covered in these past stories in National Geographic are showing up today in trends and events that we see in the headlines.
NG News: What's an example of a trend of way back then that is in today's headlines?
Belt: Well a couple of things come to mind, one of which is touched upon in our 1921 story on Afghanistan by Frederick Simpich, which is excerpted in this book, in which he foretold the obvious fact that Afghanistan was going to be the crucible of future conflicts between the East the Westthe Russians, the English, the U.S. were all involved in events which were foretold back then. Afghanistan is this crossroads of cultures where conquering armies have gone through time and time again throughout history. It is a place that's unruly and where it's hard to enforce law, and so it's a seedbed for all kinds of rebellious types who take advantage of the topography and geography. Simpich writes about this very eloquently in the 1921 piece and we see it again in a 1993 story we ran in our magazine about Afghanistan after the Soviets got kicked out. That too is excerpted in this book and it shows you the degree to which chaos reigned in Afghanistan when warlords and the like were fighting for the country after the foreign power had been pushed out. These trends, these events, these realities in the Muslim world are something that's our stock and trade. We go and we do stories on these things and often times these things don't change.
NG News: Are there any lessons to be drawn from this history endlessly repeating itself?
Belt: Well, a couple of things come to mind for me that are really touched upon in this book. One is the unsettled situation in Afghanistan right now going forward. Ed Girardet, in the December 2001 issue of National Geographic, which is also excerpted in this book, writes about the need for there to be a solution inside Afghanistan that brings together the various tribal and cultural elements. I think that's something that obviously we are going to need to pay attention to. I think another thing that's gone largely unreported since September 11 that we really need to be paying attention to, which emerges time and again in the stories that are told in this book, is the need to pay attention to the vast majority of Muslims whose moderate views are drowned out by the extremist view that's put forward by Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban.
NG News: What do you suggest we do to bring about those suggestions?
Belt: Well one of the things that we've had our eye on for quite some time at National Geographic is something that our author in 1980 discovered when he went and took the temperature from all parts of the Muslim world and he saw really this emerging conflict between the value of the West and the values of Islam that was being manifested in the societies that he covered. This is one of the stories in our book that I find so fascinating. This conflict is an ongoing story obviously, it's in the headlines of today, and it's going to be in the headlines a year from now and probably in the headlines twenty years from now.
The Islamic world is a force to be reckoned with and part of the reason is because it's impoverished and it's dispossessed. People in those societies are to some degree without hope; they are clamoring for a place in the discussion about what happens in this world, and I think to the degree that we ignore that it's at our peril as we discovered on September 11 and the days afterward.
Somebody once said that the only time Americans learn geography is during a war, and I think that's really the case here. The curiosity that has been expressed to us here at National Geographic since September 11to learn more, to try become educated about the Muslim worldis phenomenal, which is why we decided to do this book.
NG News: How does National Geographic plan to make a contribution in the future?
Belt: We have for a century been trying to penetrate and get behind the reality of the more mystifying aspects of the Muslim world. We've sent reporters over there to do that for us. We've given them the luxury of time and we've demanded that they find ways to understand those cultures beyond what the casual observer or even the newspaper reporter would find.
That said, it is a Western perspective even though we have gone to great lengths, and we continue to go to get lengths, to get a Muslim perspective involved. We have a number of stories underway right this minute that are by either Muslim authors or Muslim photographers.
We seek to take into account as many different perspectives as we possibly can. For the most part the stories that are excerpted in this collection, The World of Islam, reflect the combination of both Western and Muslim perspectives.
This is not a story that's going to end any time soon and so we've got probably eight to ten coverages underway right now on aspects of the Muslim world going forward, and I expect that we will be covering the world of Islam with this degree of seriousness throughout our lifetimes.
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