If there is something more frustrating to me than the tragedies unfolding in the Arab world these days, it is my attempt to make sense of those tragedies while also witnessing the “expert analysis” of the events on various media outlets. There are certainly exceptions, but most of what I have come across concerning the latest developments in Egypt made me want to pull my hair out. Let me be clear; this is not about whether the experts get it right or wrong. After all, no matter how qualified an analyst is, her or his expertise is limited due to a variety of factors, including but not limited to the availability or accessibility of data and the methods and tools used to study the subject at hand. So, being right or wrong, or partly this and partly that, comes with the job description. The frustrating part for me is that what is presented as expert analysis to the public is often a form of misleading rhetoric that makes the field muddier rather than clearer.
Within the world of experts on Egypt, you will come across a number of typical characters. First, there is Mr. Know-it-all who has made a media name for himself because of some combination of boldness, shameless ass-kissing, clever marketing, and luck (and yes, hard work too… sure!). Mr. Know-it-all is not really an expert on Egypt; he is an expert on everything. Whenever something happens in this mysterious place we call the “Middle East”, Mr. Know-it-all finds his way to your television screen and newspaper column telling you what you need to know. Even if a horse happens to pass gas near the Egyptian pyramids and our expert was asked about it, he would gladly provide the needed analysis, with a significant dose of foolish confidence akin to that of a middle school kid who was somehow sent to defend Michael Jordan in the fourth quarter of an NBA playoff game. The fact that Mr. Know-it-all’s expertise is on 16th century marriage and divorce fatwas in the Ottoman Empire will never be an impediment to him loudly insisting that, without a question, what happened in Egypt was simply a coup orchestrated by Islam-hating military generals. Oh yeah, and those millions of Egyptians cheering on the streets should simply be ashamed of themselves, says Mr. Know-it-all. Period. Humility is never really on the agenda of Mr. Know-it-all. Humility is for those who are never invited to television studios.
Then there is Mr. Ideological-agenda-first. He is out there claiming to illuminate the public about the intricacies of the Egyptian scene and warning everyone against misreading what is occurring in that part of the world, while he is in fact strongly coloring the picture with his ideological brush. Mr. Ideological-agenda-first secretly (and sometimes not so secretly if one cares to dig a little deeper) has a bone in the fight. He wants you to believe that he is doing nothing more than “neutral” analysis. But, he is like a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan that was chosen to anonymously referee the Super Bowl between the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Good luck getting the sought “neutrality.”
Mr. Ideological-agenda-first might believe that Islamists will bring an end to civilization or might alternatively believe that secularism is an imposed foreign system that must be fought. He might want “Islam” (more accurately his form of Islam) to be implemented as a political ideology or might alternatively want Islam to be recognized by all as a harmful remnant of a bygone age. BUT, he cannot tell you any of it. He is on a mission to push his political or religious agenda while masquerading as a fun-loving and knowledgeable analyst seeking to save you from your shameful ignorance. Shame on you if you don’t listen!
There is also Mr. Holier-than-thou who is constantly outraged that anyone should say anything good about any kind of seemingly “not local” Egyptian ideas or political positions. You see, Mr. Holier-than-thou is in the purification business. He had already decided what was authentically Egyptian and what was an imperialist imposition, tainting the cultural authenticity of Egypt. It does not matter that the concept of cultural authenticity is as real as the comedic genius of Carrot Top. Mr. Holier-than-thou is adamant that if any Egyptian spoke of human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, separation of religion and state, etc… she or he is at best duped by imperialist forces and at worst a traitor to the local community. Case closed. Everything else is mere sophistry.
Last but not least, keep your eyes open for Mr. Always-blame-Islam. He can rightfully be considered a form of Mr. Ideological-agenda-first, but he deserves recognition for his own striking characteristics. Mr. Always-blame-Islam is particularly prominent on certain “fair and balanced” media outlets. Having been possibly breastfed as a baby by Maleficent, the sorceress, and raised as a child by Dr. Doom, Mr. Always-blame-Islam never really analyzes anything. He simply assigns blame to an imagined static entity called “Islam.” To clarify, I am not into the business of defending religion nor do I maintain that religion has nothing to do with the crises in Egypt and elsewhere. In my opinion, that would be a grave misunderstanding. However, Mr. Always-blame-Islam is not seeking to understand the role of religion among other factors in shaping the situation on the ground. In his mind, Islam equals the actions and beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. This also means that, for him, these social actors are simply religious robots implementing the will of Allah. It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Always-blame-Islam always carries on him a list of incriminating quotes from the Qur’an ready to be thrown left and right (mostly right!) on every occasion.
So, next time you turn your television or computer on with the intention of following the latest developments in Egypt or other parts of the “Middle East,” remember that there is a very good chance that Mr. Know-it-all, Mr. Ideological-agenda-first, Mr. Holier-than-thou, or Mr. Always-blame-Islam (or some strange combination of two or more of them) would be your expert of the day. So, consume at your own risk.
P.S.: I do not mean to be sexist or male-centered by using Mr. rather than Ms. for our fun-loving experts. There are of course many analysts that would fit under the umbrella of Ms. Know-it-all, Ms. Ideological-agenda-first, Ms. Holier-than-thou, and Ms. Always-blame-Islam. It does however seem to me that women continue to face unfortunate challenges to achieve the same visibility as experts. In the case at hand, it might be a blessing in disguise.