Blood Underneath the Hype: ISIS, Syria and Our Media’s Selective Bias

A quick
sweep through our mainstream news headlines will plague you with worries about
contracting Ebola or your neighbor enlisting with ISIS. These are both real threats that are jeopardizing thousands of lives and livelihoods around the Middle
East and West Africa, but our media sources condition us to absorb information
in the least humanist way possible. 

Following
the recent Ebola outbreak, large Western media outlets promptly evaded a
discussion about how to efficiently tackle the disease as a global health issue.
Instead, major media sources have deliberately stirred up frenzy in the general
population, framing West Africa as an unsalvageable epicenter of Ebola and
shifting our attention onto how to prevent Ebola from reaching home soil. This
is just another example of one of the intrinsic biases of Western media: White,
Western lives matter, and others do not.

Further
proof can be found when analyzing how Western media has sensationalized ISIS
and, as a result, ignored the daily horrors that have been ongoing for more
than three years in Syria.

As a
Syrian-American, I detest ISIS. But my disappointment and dismay for much of
the West’s unproductive policies toward Syria can almost match my sentiments
towards ISIS. In the United States, we are not even having interactive conversations about
the situation that ISIS took advantage of to gain prominence, and we
clearly are not talking about who their barbaric acts are most directly
affecting.

Our
selective media was justifiably outraged at the beheading of James Foley and
other brave Western journalists who travelled to war zones in Syria and Iraq to
depict the mayhem that ordinary Syrians and Iraqis experience every minute of
every day. Ironically, the same sources systematically ignore the deaths of
Syrian and Iraqi citizen-journalists at the hands of ISIS. These Arab
photographers and journalists are equally as courageous and strive to portray
the situation on the ground as well, but their work and deaths both continue to
go unnoticed.

This is
just one example as to how our fascination with ISIS has enabled a collective
forgetting of the drastic humanitarian crisis in Syria.

To delve
into the numbers, an estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since
the beginning of the civil war in 2011. The death toll was estimated to be at
191,000 in August 2014 and has been steadily rising since then. Syria’s
population before the uprising and civil war was 21 million, so nearly half
of the population has directly been impacted by a war perpetuated in part by
the international community’s paralysis. 

A further breakdown gives us insight
into how tragic the situation is and will continue to be. According to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, around 3 million of
Syria’s displaced peoples have sought refuge across borders in Syria’s
immediate neighbors such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, where 83 percent of
refugees do not live in refugee camps, and 1.3 million refugees are under 18
years of age.

That
leaves 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced and still vulnerable to
Bashar al-Assad’s daily barrel-bombing campaigns, which, unlike his chemical
weapon attacks, are apparently exempt from international outcry.

We are blinded to the plight of these refugees. The repeated tragedies
on boats full of refugees destined for the Cypriot or Italian coasts are never
deemed headline-worthy. The full story of the United States’ bombing campaigns in Syria
and Iraq is not being told; we do not and will not know the names or numbers of innocent civilian casualties who are accepted as collateral damage.

Only a
year ago, President Obama and other heads of state tried to garner support for
airstrikes aimed to pressure and dismantle Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime.
After a “red line” was crossed, media sources dramatically covered Syria while U.S. policies and interests aligned for a sliver of time.

Nearly
200,000 deaths and millions of refugees later, Syria is only synonymously
mentioned with ISIS on major news channels. 

While it
is true that specific atrocities have been adequately covered, namely those
committed against the Yazidi Christians, rampant undertones of Islamophobia
have accompanied mainstream media depiction of ISIS in the region. The fear of
ISIS as a uniquely Western enemy is absurd and offensive; it enables us to
forget about the countless Iraqi and Syrian men, women and children who have
been victims of their brutality for years now.

It can
also be said that ISIS is benefitting from the Western media hype, which has
highlighted and empowered the group on social media. By emboldening ISIS and
their international recruits—who are now attracted to the popular ideology
from different corners of the world—Western media puts Syrian refugees doubly at a loss.

Syrians’
tragedies and struggles are ignored while ISIS’s barbarism escalates in response
to U.S. airstrikes. We must be reminded of the ongoing genocide, the political
aspirations of ordinary Syrians and the immediate humanitarian need of all
refugees when Syria genuinely makes the headlines.

Azmi Haroun PZ ’15 is a political studies and MENA Studies major from Seattle, Wash.

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