By David Pollock and Mohamed Abdelaziz – PolicyWatch 2631 – June 15, 2016
This weekend’s mass shooting elicited wide official condemnation from Arab states, but regional media coverage has been limited so far.
The June 12 massacre at an Orlando nightclub, perpetrated by a self-described adherent of the Islamic State, evoked immediate and unequivocal condemnation among a wide range of Arab governments, along with expressions of sympathy for the victims and the United States. But Arab media coverage and commentary has been relatively limited, especially compared with previous media treatment of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past eighteen months. By June 14, after just one day of prominent coverage, the attack had almost disappeared from the headlines of most Arab mainstream print and broadcast media.
GENERALLY RESTRAINED MEDIA COVERAGE
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, news of the shooting featured prominently — though not usually at great length — in largely factual Arab press coverage. Much of this coverage avoided detailed description of the venue, including its well-known status as a gay club, instead referring very generally to Florida, Orlando, or a generic “nightclub.” More specific references tended to use the neutral terminology “same sex” (jins mithli) rather than the pejorative descriptors commonly used in the Middle East (“sexually deviant” or “debauched”). This was true even in the generally conservative media of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where homosexual activity is often criminally prosecuted. An exception was Qatar’s generally anti-Western Al Jazeera television, which persisted in using the label “deviant.”
Arab coverage often emphasized the killer’s Afghan American origins, accompanied by unflattering photos of him. At least two major Saudi dailies, al-Watan and the pan-Arab, London-based al-Hayat, headlined his alleged links to Hezbollah rather than his self-professed allegiance to the Islamic State.
Most commentary also speculated on the law-enforcement or political and electoral implications of the massacre. For example, a half-hour Sky News Arabia program on June 14 featured questions about whether the FBI let the killer slip through surveillance, and how the gun-control issue would play out in the U.S. presidential campaign.
There was surprisingly sparse discussion of Islamic angles to the story, including the potential for increased anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States. One op-ed in the leading Emirati daily al-Khaleej, took the atypical step of characterizing both the 9/11 attacks and the Orlando shooting as “the work of one terrorist, takfiri dogma,” referring to the extremist practice of labeling all outsiders and even many fellow Muslims as “infidels.”
This relatively limited media treatment of a potentially sensational story can likely be attributed to an unusual combination of factors. One is the region’s presumed sensitivity or embarrassment about the incident’s homosexual aspect. Another is the timing: the story broke during Ramadan, when religious coverage takes precedence, and it followed numerous other mass-casualty attacks involving Arabs in Damascus, Beirut, Sirte, Sanaa, Paris, and elsewhere.
OFFICIALS CONDEMN TERRORISM BUT LARGELY AVOID RELIGIOUS ISSUES
In general, Arab official responses to the attack were quick to offer unequivocal condemnation of the violence and condolences for the victims. Most officials explicitly labeled the incident as “terrorism,” and many decried it as an assault on “human values.” Yet only a few used explicitly religious terms in this context; Kuwait denounced the attack as “offensive to Islam,” and the Saudi king rejected it as “contrary to all divine religions.” The following examples are illustrative of each country’s official response.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid severely condemned the attack and asserted that Egypt will stand by the United States in such difficult times. He also underscored Cairo’s firm support for international cooperation on confronting all aspects of terrorism, which he described as being contradictory to human values.
Similarly, the foreign affairs committee chairman in Egypt’s parliament, Mohamed al-Oraby, condemned the attack and called for redoubling international efforts to confront terrorism. He also called for a new approach targeting the various components of terrorism, including arms, funds, and personnel. At the same time, he warned against escalating hatred and incitement against Islam anywhere in the world. (al-Youm al-Sabea)
The Saudi embassy in Washington issued the following statement: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia condemns in the strongest terms the attack on innocent people in Orlando, Florida, and sends its deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims and to the people of the United States…We stand with the American people at this tragic time. We pray for the recovery and the healing of all those injured in the attack, and we will continue our work with the United States and our partners in the international community for an end to these senseless acts of violence and terror.”
In addition, Saudi-owned pan-Arab media outlets reported that King Salman sent a telegram of condolence to President Obama on June 14. As mentioned above, he also denounced the attack as “contrary to all divine religions.”
Government spokesman and media minister Mohammed al-Momani issued a statement condemning all forms of terrorism and violence. The statement also expressed Amman’s condolences to the American people and the families of the victims. (al-Dustour)
The Foreign Ministry expressed its condolences and condemned the attack, describing it as offensive to Islam and a deviation from its tolerant principles. The ministry also noted that continued terrorist attacks have forced the international community to redouble its efforts to curb these “abhorrent phenomena” and rid the world of such “evils.” In addition, the government reiterated Kuwait’s firm and principled position against all forms of terrorism. (al-Rai)
United Arab Emirates
The UAE’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation issued a statement expressing condolences and condemning the attack, asserting: “Such criminal acts demand genuine international cooperation and solidarity at all levels so as to eliminate the forces of evil which seek to sow chaos and instability all over the world. Moreover, such criminal acts that target innocent civilians contradict all moral principles and human values.” (al-Bayan).
In addition to condemning the attack and conveying condolences, the Bahraini Foreign Ministry asserted the kingdom’s solidarity with the United States and renewed its rejection of all forms of terrorism and violence, demanding that the international community coordinate on eradicating terrorism worldwide. (al-Wasat)
Much like other countries, the Qatari Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning all forms of terrorism and violence while calling for the international community to cooperatively address such “criminal acts” against civilians around the world. (Emirates News Agency [WAM])
PA president Mahmoud Abbas sent a telegram of condolences to President Obama, and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah conveyed his solidarity in a message to the United States. (Shasha News)
Media reports indicate that the Lebanese government has not offered a formal response so far. But Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, condemned the attack and described it as a significant crime against humanity. He also asserted that the Islamic State is the greatest enemy of Muslims in the world. (Akhbarak)
Nabil al-Araby, the league’s secretary-general, issued a press release condemning the “brutal attack.” He also noted that the international community must respond by closely coordinating its efforts to confront both terrorism and the culture of hatred and violence on which radicals feed. (al-Masry al-Youm)
David Pollock is the Kaufman Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of Fikra Forum. Mohamed Abdelaziz is Fikra Forum’s Arabic editor.
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