Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism
February 6, 2018
Robert R. Reilly:
I’ll be brief in the introduction because you’ve already seen it in the invitation. The subject of tonight’s talk is also the title of Joseph Braude’s new book, “Broadcasting Change: Arabic Media as a Catalyst for Liberalism,” and as you know, there are copies available out on the table outside. What impressed me to no end – aside from my having had the pleasure some years ago of hearing Joseph speak and was deeply impressed by what I heard and learned from him – is the review he got from the person I happen to think is the finest Arab journalist and who was the manager of Al Arabiya television for quite a few years and that is Abdulrahman al-Rashed. And here is what he said about Dr. Braude’s new book, quote, “in the Middle East where literacy rates are low and public awareness is minimal, the influence of television and social media can be a life-and-death matter as Joseph Braude argues in this groundbreaking book media can play a crucial role in countering extremism, challenging entrenched ideas, and bridging distances. Braude’s expertise in the Arabic language and his history of deep involvement in the Arab world make him ideally suited to investigate both the problems and the promise of this field,” unquote. I don’t think you could get a better review than that, Joseph, as again, if you’ve read the intro, Joseph Braude is fluent in not only Arabic but Farsi and Hebrew and English I should add. He’s written a number of books that show his adventurous spirit, including one about Iraq and we were just sharing experiences from the spring of 2003 when he went there to see if he might be able to start a newspaper. And indeed, he wrote a book, “The New Iraq,” on what he saw. He also wrote a book of his experiences in Morocco, which were quite extraordinary when he embedded with the police on a murder case, so this just gives you some indication of the depth of his experience, and that was called, “The Honored Dead.” Joseph is widely published in a number of newspapers and magazines. He has left us or he will be leaving us with a take-away policy sheet that is available out where the book is. I didn’t want anyone fanning themselves with it during the talk so I didn’t put it in your seats but I encourage you to take a copy of that and I’m going to leave my brief introduction of Joseph here because he’s written some notes on the back that he needs to use. Please join me in welcoming Joseph Braude.
I’m going to bring you some good news and some bad news. The good news is that amidst the hardships and the partisan polarization taking the form of sectarian difference and intolerance in so many countries in the Middle East, there is a rising trend, particularly among young people who want to transcend the identities that divide them. The bad news is that they’re still outnumbered by some very nimble and effective actors who have been brainwashed by generations of extremist propaganda and that conflict is is a tough one for liberals. This good news and bad news was sort of nicely encapsulated by an Iraqi comedian who has a TV show. It’s called ‘the Basheer show‘ and it’s one of several knockoffs of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show that have become popular across the Middle East, so I thought in the spirit of levity but also because it really speaks to the situation, I would share that clip with you now.
[Excerpt of AlBasheer Show]
So shall we roll that clip about national unity and the unity of all sects?
Man on the street:
We are all children of this country. We need to get over these labels. We’re children of this country. I’m Iraqi and you’re Iraqi.
God bless you! So noble, decent, and humane. That’s exactly what we need. Let’s get over these labels.
Man on the street:
But if you’re talking about Shi’ites and Sunnis, then the situation is very clear. Everybody needs to understand who the majority is between the two. You’re 15 percent and we’re 85 percent.
15 percent? 85 percent?
Here’s a map of Iraq with all its provinces. If we say there are Sunnis and Shi’ites, then the map will come out like this. And the Sunnis would get this much.
I’m not going to tell you to take that paper and stick it… you know where.
Actually, I will: Take that paper and stick it… …in your pocket.
Final point. We decided to make our own map. We divided it up proportionately based on where the Iraqis live. It came out like this.
There’s no other way.
Now, when outsiders who look at the situation in Iraq, including specialists in Iraq, are asked to diagnose the challenge of establishing stability and security in the country, they often speak in terms of military and violent actors, Iranian proxy militias, the role of Sunni jihadists and so on, but for many Iraqis the problem begins between the ears of that young man who spoke about the 85% and the 15%. He is someone who speaks blissfully unaware of how he is contradicting himself perhaps because he was denied the tools of critical thinking that he would need to pick apart the contradiction in his argument in the Iraqi school system and if you’re Iraqi, you recognized that personality because someone like him may be teaching your child in school, he may be deciding whether to grant a license for your business in a government ministry, and he would be staffing the police in in many parts of the country, and alas he may have a seat at the table of senior decision-making levels of government and so the question of how to affect, positively influence that mindset and enrich it with the tools that would help that young men reason his way through the question of how to truly establish unity in Iraq, transcend sectarian division, goes to the heart of the problems that Iraq is facing today and a problem that is much broader.
Now, that problem is exacerbated by the fact that for every one show like the Basheer show, there are many satellite channels that are preaching violence and hate and seeking to indoctrinate the population and tweak the culture in a manner that suits their agenda, and so it would be necessary alas to ground you in a flavor for what those channels are like too and to be an equal opportunity exposer, I’m going to show you a Shiite clip followed by a Sunni one, the first being one of the many channels that is controlled by an Iranian government-backed militia, again in Iran. It’s called Al-Ahed and it belongs to the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, which is one of the subsidiaries of the Popular Mobilization Forces. And here, it’s not the typical type of clip in which he is- a given cleric is railing against the sectarian other but one in which the cleric Muhammad al-Ssafi has chosen the target of Valentine’s Day and we’re going to look at what he has to say about Valentine’s Day and then consider the larger meaning of of his effort here.
[Excerpt from Al Ahed]
Among the victims today are the many Muslims, including Shi’ites, who are celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Who brought this holiday here? Who planted it? Who nurtured it? Who is it who caused people today to stop respecting Islamic legal and social norms? This is of course a problem demanding that the society take action. And we start today, God willing, God willing we’ll defeat this Valentine’s Day. God willing, Valentine’s Day will not continue. As long as this pulpit is still here, and honorable people are still here, and noble people are still here, and people of conscience, religion, and culture pay attention, then God willing, then this Valentine’s Day will not continue…
Now shout as loud as you can: “We sacrifice ourselves for you, Husayn.”
We sacrifice ourselves for you, Husayn. We sacrifice ourselves for you, Husayn.
February 2016: Followers of TV cleric Muhammad al-Safi attack Valentine’s Day celebrations in Najaf, Iraq.
And here is iPhone footage that I managed to find of an attack on the Valentine’s Day celebration in Najaf hours after that sermon was delivered. An attack, one of the least bloody attacks ordered by that station to be sure. A few people were roughed up, several hundred balloons were popped but the larger target is a celebration of love, something that is seen by the cleric to be a foreign imposition or implantation and this action that the cleric took, using this very powerful platform of television, was an effort, a successful one to impose a new taboo on Iraq by way of his hold over the popular imagination among his followers and tweaking the culture is an ongoing pursuit of all of these actors. There’s also a feeding frenzy among Islamist extremist elements of the two sects such that the 24-hour incitement against Sunnis in addition to the reality of Iranian – let’s call it political hegemony in Iraq – spawns pent up demand for a response, an equally vehement and visceral response, call it a cycle of incitement. And one of the many channels that is doing that kind of work on behalf of Sunni jihadists is called Wesal TV and I thought I’d show you a little poetry that comes out of Wesal.
[Excerpt from Wesal TV]
Wesal TV broadcast:
Wake up, o Arabs of Baghdad. Is there among you a single wise man?
Shi’ism is the offspring of the infidel Jew Ibn Saba’. They buried him in the land of Persia, out of vengeance against my ancestors.
They’ve grown and arisen in malice, and expanded across my borders.
You have allowed them to bear fruit – Hezbollah, the party of the damned – even as they give alms, like lowly servants, to the rabbi. O Arabs, Iran is stabbing you, and stabbing at the honor of Muhammad. If there is among you a man of zeal, his blood must have frozen in his veins.
Awaken! Obliterate paganism, by God, to the point of extinction! It is an unavoidable appointment with God that has been inscribed by His glory.
O Arabs, Iran, in its malice and thirst for revenge, wants to make you lowly.
O Arabs, Iran wants to replace Islam with hell. O Arabs, Iran wants to turn your home into hell.
See the organized killing ablaze in your streets. O Arabs, all asleep, Baghdad has become a Persian city.
Yet see how Sistani issues his rulings using Arabic words.
Now, it was heartening in 2014 when the Saudi government shut this, evicted Wesal from Saudi territory. The voice you heard is a Saudi preacher and the channel is a kind of a joint-venture, a lot of Kuwaiti funding and quite a bit of Saudi staff. It was also evicted from Bahrain and eventually from Kuwait. This is a channel that literally has blood on its hands. It was fingered by the Bahraini independent commission of inquiry for having directly incited some of the killing in Bahrain in 2011 and also attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been sourced to orders issued on this channel. The problem is, again, a matter of public attitude because two years later in 2016, a well-intentioned member of the Saudi Majlis Shura, the consultative council, tweeted a tweet that he hoped would encourage more shutdowns of channels like Wesal by trying to elicit a show of public support. And so he committed- this is a sort of an online poll on Twitter in which he asks in light of the fact that the Wesal channel insights internecine sectarian strife and serves a partisan agenda that is sometimes in tune with ISIS, do you support its having been closed? More than- or nearly 25,000 people responded to the poll. 18 percent said yes they support it having been closed. 82 percent said that they were opposed to its closure. Now, I think that some caveats are in order here. First of all, since we note that the the TV station’s Twitter presence gets a mention on the tweet it’s clear that Wesal was aware of the poll. [They] probably they used their formidable social media presence to engineer a get-out-the-vote, which would have skewed the result. Nonetheless, apparently they had who would get-out-that-vote and meanwhile if there were- There ought to have been a liberal cadre that would launch its own get-out-the-vote drive in order to send a message, but it did not make its presence felt in this poll and so the question comes back to a matter of popular culture and popular sensibilities, and so the question that returns to the aspiration expressed by the Iraqi comic of transcending divisions based on identity is how do you get from that vaguely espoused sentiment to an actual change in the culture?
Now, forty-nine years ago, a remarkable man far from Iraq and Saudi Arabia in North Africa set out to do just that. It’s the Tunisians strongman, al Habib Bourguiba, whom I have in mind, the liberator of Tunisia from France and a dictator, who sought to bring some liberal values or sensibilities to a conservative population and there was a memorable moment in Libya right after Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi had taken power in the last in a long chain of Nasserist coups when Bourguiba put into words what he called the ‘alternative Arabism’, the alternative vision of the nationalism that he believed in, and here’s how he expressed it.
[Excerpt of al Habib Bourguiba]
al Habib Bourguiba:
Colonel Qadhafi wants to unite Syria, Egypt, Sudan, and so on.
So where’s the unity? God only knows.
Syria’s gone in one direction, Sudan in another direction…
People don’t unite unless their mentalities change — and begin to broaden the meaning of nationalism.
I want to build something authentic — on the basis of people’s minds and human potential.
The Arab nationalism we believe in and want to create, we want to build it by changing and renewing the way Arabs think.
Something different than the narrow-mindedness that is still with us today.
Now, the reason why I feel it’s worth subtitling and sharing that decades-old clip is not because he said what he said but because he acted on it. Say what you will about Tunisia under Bourguiba and his successor Ben Ali, who was deposed in the first of the Arab Spring revolutions. They were brutal, they were corrupt, and so on but they were also people who consistently pursued a cultural agenda which took the form of education in schools, an overhaul of religious instruction and consistent media work to promote a certain set of ideals, which included women’s equality and empowerment, ideas about intolerance and a range of other essentials for the development of a democratic society such that when in 2015, four Tunisians were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in holding together the frail and ongoing democratic experiment in the country, at this point the only ongoing Arab Spring democratic experiment, a lot of observers in Tunisia said that this was somehow in a sense Bourguiba’s legacy, that the presence of a strong labor constituency in Tunisia capable of organizing and acting against Islamist impositions, the presence of a strong network of women’s movements, organizations capable of pushing back against efforts to roll back their rights, would not have happened but for the groundwork that was painstakingly laid for that within the culture.
So, if you are a liberal today in the Arab world or any number of Arab countries and you’re looking at the bitter legacy of the post-Arab Spring experiments, you have, in attempting to draw up your own plans, as they say in Arabic:
خيارين أحلى المر
Two choices, the sweeter of which is bitter. You can adopt the revolutionary position, more revolutions and face the likelihood that like so many of the recent revolutions, it will lead to more chaos, more violence, that even if there are elections, those elections may only calcify communal divisions or consecrate an extremist ideology or coronate a strong man, or – and this is no fun – you can look for an environment in which a new leader has begun to speak the language of Bourguiba and attempt to hold him to it, to enter a relationship with the system to contribute your ideas and energies to that new experiment and to push against the limits and the red lines that have been imposed on you by that autocratic establishment.
I wrote this book because I’ve spent a lot of time in the region, looking for opportunities to promote liberalism or I should say opportunities that local actors have found to advance their liberal agenda, the question of how to help them do their work more effectively. There are leaders in the region today who, at the very least are speaking a Bourguiba-like language. Before we evaluate this since the genuineness and the staying power of their stated commitments, I’d just like to give you an opportunity to watch one. Here is the Egyptian president, Abdul Fatah Al Sisi, speaking about the role of media in inculcating the ideals that he says he would like to pursue. Bear in mind the Bourguiba statement you just saw when you watch this:
[Excerpt of President Abdul Fatah Al Sisi]
Abdul Fatah Al Sisi:
I think the media has a decisive role to play in realigning Egyptians. We have a problem with our religious discourse. A big, big problem.
It’s a factor that has prevented us from comfortably progressing forward as we ought to be.
And the Egyptian consciousness itself needs to be worked on.
And in my estimation, the Egyptian consciousness is formed within the family, through worship, in school, and via the media.
And the media may be the most important of all at the present time.
Let’s admit that we currently have no media strategy and no media policy.
Perhaps many of you don’t see this as an important point in our discussion.
But frankly, I see it as a real problem that we need to work on.
And it needs to be not only the media, but all institutions of the state that need to act together to restore the Egyptian social fabric.
That is a gathering of leading establishment media in Egypt whom Sisi convened as a presidential candidate shortly after the ouster of Mohamed Morsi and a lot of people, many liberals at the time were supportive of Sisi, and that kind of talk is what gave them their grounds for optimism, and all over the world, [the] Arab world, I think people were looking to see whether Sisi would act on these ideas. Now, why did he focus on media and he mentioned also religious establishment schools, the family. If you watch the extended clip, he explains his rationale. It is not easy to reimagine the type of control over the flow of information and indoctrination that a Bourguiba would have been able to achieve 50 years ago, and media in an environment where the school system is sclerotic, the religious establishment is exceptionally rigid, is the most fluid and dynamic tool of inculcation. It is also the play, the venue that you can use to skip across borders and reach into parts of Egypt and parts of the broader region where it’s not possible to deploy a cultural initiative on the ground due to the instability, so media indeed, has a special role to play.
Can a state come together and partner with motivated actors within its own society to begin to inculcate a constructive message in a systemic way? We’ll come back to the question of Egypt a little bit later but I’m going to say a few words about Morocco in order to provide a sterling example of where the answer might be yes. In that country, after triple suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, a newly minted King (taken over in 1999 from his father), pledged to pursue a holistic strategy to rollback extremist ideologies in his borders through a security clampdown on mosque indoctrination, through economic initiatives, through schools and indeed, through the media. He had, in his corner, a very strong and promising institutional capacity in his Ministry of Islamic Affairs where the reigning reading of Islam is one that rather seamlessly links Moroccan nationalism or, I should say, the royalist idea about Moroccan nationalism, with the experience of religion. It has Sufi traditions that are recognized, a kind of a quietest mystical strand and other, very useful religious teachings and tropes that can help challenge an extremist ideology, so when he set out to launch a media campaign to counter the likes of the religious broadcasting we saw earlier this evening, he took 12 really talented people from the Islamic Affairs Ministry and sent them to France for various types of training and creative role playing over the space of a year to begin to conceive of a satellite channel of his own, a religious affairs channel that could be some kind of an antidote to the likes of the jihadist and Shiite Islamist programming you saw earlier. They did it by way of focusing on certain themes, reclaiming a sense of place that is Morocco, its cities, a sense of a unified Moroccan destiny that is independent of any trans-state ideology, reclaiming what is particular, peculiar, and special about the experience of Islam in Morocco, its distinctive style of Qur’an recitation, the accent, the the Sufi traditions. The role of women would become a prominent theme in this broadcast, and the role of the family in speaking to young people who are being urged by extremists to detach themselves from family. This would be a broadcast that asked the family to come together around Islam. One little illustrative example of what came out of this effort is a program loosely based on American Idol but for Qur’anic chanting, and at that Qur’anic chanting by Moroccan girls and as you’ll see from this clip, which ties together those themes that I just mentioned, it’s really not about the competition.
[Excerpt from Moroccan TV]
Dear viewers, with respect to the girls who will participate in this episode, they are, Fatima al-Zahra Janizi from the city of Meknas — welcome to you.
Also, Maryam Fayid, from the city of Tangier. Welcome to you.
And with God’s blessing, we begin with our first competitor. Let’s start with Tangier!
Welcome, Maryam Fayid. Take the chair of recitation, and make yourself comfortable.
The verses to be recited are your choice.
God willing, I will recite what I can from “Surat Fatir.”
“Verily, God knows all the hidden things of the heavens and the earth.”
“Verily, He has full knowledge of all that is in the hearts of humankind.”
God the Most Awesome speaks the truth.
God the Most Awesome speaks the truth. Thank you, my daughter Maryam.
First off, if I may ask you, Maryma, how much of the noble Qur’an do you know by heart?
The whole of God Almighty’s book.
Your comments, professors, beginning with committee coordinator Kabir Hadidi.
Truly, all of us view a child, or a girl, who has memorized the noble Qur’an at an age as young as Maryam’s we imagine that behind her is a mother, or a father, who have worked very hard, and worked late into the night, to help –
And so it is with all the parents. All our participants were brought here by their parents, who are so happy with them, and are always with them, God reward them with all that is good.
And indeed, that is the message that every father, every mother, should understand.
So this colorful and charming little program encapsulates the theme of the family, the theme of locality, the theme of girls and the need to make them prominent. I might add that another interesting contrast between this clip and what you saw of the Shiite and Sunni extremist television is that it’s not built around a cult of personality. It’s not a single figure, telling you what to do and how to think. Who is at the center of this? There is a panel of judges, there’s a host. they’re all standing aside so that young ladies can show show off their talents. There’s an institution here. Nor are they reacting to extremist preaching by inciting back the way that the two faiths are inciting at each other in a cycle of mutual exacerbation. They are ignoring those messages in a sense and telling their own story on their own terms, so this is a remarkable achievement and it’s extremely popular in Morocco together with its radio sister broadcast. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you have a strong state institution backing the venture. It’s not easy for three or four people to get together and create a channel like this even with unlimited funds. There are other countries where liberally motivated actors have successfully engaged the state in efforts not necessarily of a religious nature but in sort of reaching outside of the religious discussion to talk about women’s issues and other matters through comedy and entertainment. Saudi public television has been a venue for a remarkable program. It had a 17-year run that at a much darker time in Saudi Arabia was subtly challenging clerical hegemony over the public space in that kingdom. The program was called Tash Ma Tash (طاش ما طاش), which roughly translates to ‘you either get it or you don’t’ and I think you’re all going to get the meaning of this clip, a very short skit about- What’s that? Yeah, it’s it is a great show, was a great show. [It’s about] what happens when a policeman and his sidekick respond to a call about a possible robbery.
[Excerpt from Tash Ma Tash]
Peace be upon you.
Upon you peace.
We got a call from you I believe?
Yes, it came from us. And there’s a thief creeping around in the house!
Ok, stand back everybody, here we go.
Pardon me, but I wanted to ask, where is your father?
– Young men, our father isn’t home. He’s traveling.
– Then we can’t do this. We can’t enter the house unless there’s a man here.
I swear to God. I swear to God I wish I could serve you with all my heart.
But we can’t do it. We can’t do it unless you have a male escort.
Police officer #2:
What he’s saying is true. He wouldn’t say otherwise.
So God keep you safe. And God keep you covered.
Police officer #2:
Yes indeed, may God keep you covered.
By contemporary Saudi standards, this is a fairly gentle comedy skit, but in its time I think about 15 years ago, 13 years ago, this was so controversial that it barely made its way onto the airwaves and it inspired death threats to everyone who was involved in the writing and production of this the skit and it wasn’t the only one of its kind. This program was relentless. A book has since been written called “The Battles of Tash Ma Tash” about the struggle within the Information Ministry in Saudi Arabia. At one point for every ten skits that the writers submitted to censors, four would be rejected, but over time through persistence they managed to work the censors over to challenge, to be persistent, and things that were once forbidden would later be resubmitted and accepted, and in retrospect over this remarkable 18 months in which Saudi Arabia has seen rescinding of the ban on women’s driving, the stripping of the authority of the religious police to make arrests, now the advent of the cinema in Saudi Arabia, and other social reforms that have been welcomed by the population. Women in particular credit this program with having nudged the public discussion forward with having challenged ingrained ideas by exposing them to ridicule. It was one of many initiatives that were happening on Saudi Arabia in the media for certainly the past 13 years.
Another way that liberals in Saudi Arabia sought to use media was through the news and turning news into a series of teachable moments and turning news analysis into a kind of liberal exhortation. When a decision would be made by the royal family which, in liberals judgment was a positive step, they would seek to build on it, push on it, and try to urge the public to call for more such reforms. One example was in 2014, when the late King Abdullah instituted – this was at the time in the Muslim Brotherhood was to to be designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and other countries – he ordered surveillance of teachers who might be indoctrinating for the Brotherhood in the sanctity of their relationship with schoolchildren. Mansour al-Nogaidan, who is formerly a hard-line religious leader himself and who evolved over time into a prominent liberal actor in Saudi Arabia, was asked to comment on this new decision and watch him describe his views, watch him push beyond the Brotherhood to talk about other groups that he would also like to see in the kingdom’s sights, and push beyond targeting an enemy to advocating for an alternative reading, alternative set of ideas about what it means to be Saudi.
[Excerpt from 4KSA broadcast]
With me from Riyadh is writer and journalist Mansour al-Nogaidan. What is the importance of implementing today’s decision in the schools presently?
This is a step that has been taken 30 years late. But it’s a very important step at the beginning of a long road that will be full of stumbling blocks, tribulations, great pains, and many sacrifices.
I am hoping that this step will also be accompanied by a greater effort at inculcating a feeling of openness to the “other.”
Every Saudi student and young person should grow aware that your fellow citizen – who happens to be a Shi’ite living in the Eastern Province, Qatif, Al-Ahsa, or Medina – is your brother in national identity, and you should be closer to him than to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the real threat to the country and its well-being.
Is it your assessment that the schools are penetrated by those who would spread those sorts of [pro-Brotherhood] ideas?
The penetration of Brotherhood, Islamist, and Qaeda-jihadist ideas is, sadly, very deep.
They have been spreading their roots for decades. But praise God, we’ve woken up.
And it’s incumbent as well for all the institutions of government — including schools, higher education, the Islamic affairs ministry, and the Islamic endowments as well as “Da’wa” and “Islamic Guidance” should come to understand and to bear their responsibilities.
That was also a gutsy statement to make in 2014. It’s still a little ahead of its time in Saudi Arabia but progress that has been made since this period and the Saudi discussion of what it means to be a Saudi nationalist, the notion of a more inclusive Saudi identity that well, that recognizes the Shiite minority as a legitimate and authentic faith-based community, testify to certainly the acknowledgement of the importance of this approach if you’re trying to hold the country together and the pent up demand among liberally-minded Saudis for these ideals. The examples I’ve shown you just now all relate in some way to a state institution whether it be the Moroccan Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Saudi Public Television, a semi-government venture which is Al-Arabiya or, I should say, not controlled by the government but dominated by the royal family of Saudi Arabia. There are also independent initiatives that happen without the blessing of a given government by liberals who seek to introduce new ideas that they don’t believe their government will readily propagate itself but in bringing them via the internet and through other means, bend over backwards to avoid crossing the government in hopes that over time they can build support for their ideas and see it find a way into government. And so, this is where we will return to Egypt and encounter a young man named Aslam Hussein who was part of a team of a group of people called Tahrir Academy, who do online learning to try to pioneer new types of curricula that they hope will eventually be embraced by Egyptian schools. Earlier we talked about critical thinking and the idea that all kinds of dramatic irony and internal contradiction could be obviated if young people were exposed to the tools of critical thinking to reason their way through disputes and hatred, so one learning module, Tahrir Academy, intended to instill critical thinking in viewers so I thought I’d give you a little flavor for that as well.
[Excerpt from Tahrir Academy]
The world around us is changing as fast as a missile. Does our way of thinking change along with it, enabling us to keep up with the change, so as to address the problems we face each day? Unfortunately, no — because we were brought up so as to deal with problems in traditional ways. We were taught something, then taught to repeat it. Reality say the rules of the game have changed. The problems we face need more creative solutions, solutions outside the box. That’s why we need to learn an important skill called “critical thinking.”
Let’s look at what happens to a person who doesn’t use critical thinking in his life. He only wants to listen to people he agrees with, and ignores any opinion he disagrees with. Though the information he has is limited, he likes to claim that he understands everything. He lives in a world of fantasies, he lives and breathes conspiracy theories. He easily believes anything he hears, and spreads it around with utmost confidence. If you have any of these characteristics, then you need to watch our series on critical thinking.
Let’s consider how we benefit by using critical thinking in our lives. Nothing in life is black and white. It’s all shades of grey. Your use of critical thinking will help you reach the most precise degrees of grey possible. That is it brings you as close as possible to the truth. Using critical thinking will affect your entire life: personal, social, and political. It will give you explanations and evidence to support your perspective and your decisions. No one will be able to easily control you, or manipulate you to serve his goals. That is, your mind will be yours and yours alone. Critical thinking will be your defense against any distorted news spread by the media. It will teach you to rely more on reason than emotion. Not every disagreement will become a war of words. Critical thinking will make you a better person, capable of contributing creative solutions to the problems society is facing. Critical thinking is a moral responsibility on you. Critical thinking is an obligation, not a choice.
And that, I might add, is a very popular- This is a, you know ,two minute distillation of a long lecture series that is very popular in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of people have watched the series. It speaks to some kind of a demand. It speaks to the the fact that these efforts are finding a receptive ear and that there is potential. If you take stock of all of these clips that I shared with you this evening for liberal actors working either, in cooperation with amenable States or at least not finding themselves imprisoned by those states, are able to begin to make a dent in the public discussion.
Now, as we move toward winding down and eventually to taking your questions, I want to discuss with you what all of this means for the United States, for American policy toward the region. There is a formidable commitment on the part of various American institutions and some of our allies in Europe to media development work. Here in the U.S., we have a group like the International Center for Journalists, which is concerned with training young and Arab journalists, as well as others all over the world, with the best practices of investigative reporting to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, to uncover government corruption, report on human rights abuse, to also provide technical equipment that journalists need in doing that kind of work. There are journalist advocacy groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists and both the training and the advocacy activities have their parallels in Europe. The Deutsche Welle Akademie is doing similar type of training. The BBC has a group like that as well. The underlying premise of these ventures is that the free exchange of ideas brings freedom. Now, it is undoubtedly true, the converse is undoubtedly true, that by that the curtailment of the free exchange of ideas is the definition of a of an impediment to freedom, but does the free exchange of ideas necessarily bring freedom? I will show you one more clip from the Wesal channel, that Iraqi Shiite Iran-backed satellite channel that we saw early on this evening and we’ll talk about it and we’ll reevaluate that premise in light of it.
[Excerpt from Wesal broadcast]
Let’s show a photograph of the Reuters bureau chief in Iraq. This is the chief of their bureau. His name is Ned Parker. He publishes articles in the West that are offensive to the Popular Mobilization Forces. Please issue complaints and demand his expulsion from Iraq. and please publicize and popularize awareness of what he’s doing. Do you know that Reuters has made you into a laughing-stock in the West? Do you know that Reuters, which you give total freedom and protection to work in Iraq, is constantly agitating Western public opinion against the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces? Do you know that Reuters is depicting Iraqi military and Popular Mobilization Forces as a group of slaughterers and criminals who are more dangerous than ISIS? By God, if you have any honor, you will not allow Reuters to remain in Iraq one minute.
So, Waji Habas is the talk show host who read that statement and it was a successful little monologue because Ned Parker fled Iraq hours later in 2015. He had the good fortune to be an American citizen and had a place to flee to but most targets of media intimidation by the media properties controlled by rogue states and trans-state actors are local voices with nowhere to run and so one challenge to the premise that the free exchange of ideas brings freedom is that when rogue states use media to intimidate their critics, the media can itself be an impediment to freedom, so there are several problematic assumptions that many of the media development organizations based in the West regard as axiomatic. The first is that in focusing on the uncovering of, let’s just say, we’ll put it this way, in training their energy on investigative reporting against government abuses, which is to be sure a vital function in any society and certainly in the Arab world, they are nonetheless reducing the struggle for free expression to a confrontation between free or democratic journalists and autocratic establishments when in reality there are other challenges to free expression as well that include foreign governments like Iran, trans-state actors with their own media properties and so on and indeed, the society itself in the sense that a traditional society can exercise its own form of organic censorship on a voice that it perceives to be divergent, and so a broadening of the spectrum of confrontation is perhaps called for.
The second assumption that is problematic in Western media development programs is the difficulty in finding media to engage that is truly free; that is if the ICFJ calls a training session in a given Arab country, who shows up? People who may, in some cases, represent themselves to be free journalists, democratic journalists, but may actually identify with a given militia or movement that is quite anti-democratic. Do you provide technical equipment to such a person if that is- What if it’s a staffer from Wesal? Is that person to be given the same advantages that a liberally minded public voice should grant? That’s another question that needs to be asked and it’s an especially important one in light of some of the choices that some of the Western institutions have made.
I’ll give you one example. Rust, it’s an online news service, extraordinarily popular, that was launched in Egypt with support from Deutsche Welle Akademie, and when several its principals were arrested by the Sisi government and probably tortured, the Committee to Protect Journalists did what it knows how to do with its communiques and public advocacy campaigns to get them out of prison. Rust owes a lot to Western institutions. [The] problem is that Rust, if you examine its content and you look at its board, you see that it speaks in large part for a hard-line faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. You see that it has been a kind of a clearinghouse whereby Brotherhood figures that are for armed activism are taking credit for terrorist operations and exhorting people to follow in the footsteps of those violent actors. They’re promoting conspiracy theories. They’re also attempting to denigrate their opponents, however valid some of their criticisms may be of President Sisi. In saying that well, he’s the son of a Moroccan Jewish woman, which in its cultural context is intended to be an insult, these sorts of cheap tricks of denigration and stigmatization do not encourage a democratic ethos in Egypt. They play instead to the worst traits of bigotry that have been long ingrained, so it raises the question as to whether you want to equip a group like that.
Now, some may say well, isn’t everything you just said also true about Egyptian state media? Don’t they incite against Islamists and call for their death? Don’t they also spout conspiracy theories and for that matter say that the Muslim brother as a Jewish enterprise? Yes, all of that is true, but making that point and drawing that equivalency is also a kind of admission that Rust, this network so staunchly supported by Western actors, is a kind of a mirror image of its worst opponents and not the kind of free journalism that those institutions are meant to encourage.
Another point is that if you- that there is a presumption about the Fourth Estate, the idea that through investigative reporting, the exposure of wrongdoing will lead to its redress. That is a kind of a projection from a Western democratic environment. In a country where the central government is too weak to act or a tyrant is capable of ignoring public opprobrium, it does not follow that the exposure of wrongdoing will lead to its redress and if you simply expose wrongdoing and no action is taken as a result, you may have the unintended consequence of only compounding social defeatism, a feeling that nothing can be done, so again not that it isn’t vital to uncover corruption and report on human rights abuses, but if you don’t also worry about how to send a message that emboldens the population rather than inspire them to feel even more fatalistic, then you aren’t necessarily moving the ball forward, so if you were to- and I’ll say one more thing about this problem.
When I was in Cairo a few years ago, on the trip I met with Akram Shaaban who is the BBC bureau chief, bureau chief of the BBC Arabic Service in Cairo. Obviously, a practitioner of free journalism who enjoys a mandate to follow the story wherever it leads and he says, you know Joseph, a lot of Egyptians come to me and say that they wish that they could have my job but there are so few jobs like it and they don’t want to go into state media. Akram said I always tell them no, go into Egyptian television, do the work and if you only have 20 percent of the freedom you want, push to make it 25 percent. What he is saying when you think about it is willfully participate in the manufacture of government propaganda most of the time and become an advocate for free journalism some of the time. The thing is that struggle, not the struggle between free journalism and unfree states, but the struggle within the unfree organizations, is the the struggle of the mainstream of the media profession in the Middle East because these are the hybrid and undemocratic media institutions that are creating the content that most people are watching, and so if you don’t have a recipe to engage and support those actors, then you are not reaching the majority of Arab publics directly or indirectly.
Now, if we were then to devise an alternative approach, it would be an approach that is based not on criteria which undemocratic media failed to meet, but rather by the work that they actually do and the work that they do – if the examples that I’ve shown you today can be summed up – is not the reporting of fact for public use but rather the use of facts, hopefully facts, to inculcate a set of values, political sensibilities, and cultural values and so one way to evaluate an institution is on the merits of the values that it is inculcating and on the possibility to negotiate over those values and build on them. If you think about the media in that sense, you’re going way beyond journalism because the inculcation of values is the comedy, the Qur’anic chanting competition, and some of the other programs you’ve seen today attest it’s not just journalism, it’s also it may be children’s programming, it may be soap operas and comedies. You need to engage the spectrum of media in that sense and you need to have a means by which to identify our partners on the ground and a gentleman in the room asked what is expeditionary diplomacy. I’ve used the term to describe the kind of work I feel that would be needed to more effectively promote liberal media in Arab countries. It is the practice of having a cadre of bicultural, bilingual people deployed to Arab countries, studying the informational environment, identify liberal actors, determine their needs, and devise a plan to help them, and what you will find if you engage in that practice is that there are a lot of actors worth engaging, that some of them have been granted a space in which to act relatively safely and securely, and that they welcome outside support, so those who say well what about the kiss of death, the notion that an international partnership discredits a local actor? No, they are prepared to stomach whatever insults or insinuations are made for the benefits of international engagement because they prefer it over the cost of isolation, so this is a kind of a radical departure from conventional views about media development in Arab countries and I have been sort of living this process through quite a bit of media work in the region over the past ten years and I wrote this book to sort of sum up the findings and boil down the argument for an audience of concerned Americans and so, I thank you again for the chance to summarize it for you.
Rough Q&A transcript:
Thank you very much for a very interesting conversation. My question is can you evaluate their work as you see it from every perspective in this regard?
You mean would they want someone like me to evaluate what they’re doing or have I done it or- but would you- would you be effective? Well, I think that there is tremendous potential for when you have a government or semi-government institution that is tasked with promoting a set of ideals, which Americans embrace and which are shared by a great many actors in the region to provide that support. I think some of the things that would be needed in order for those institutions to achieve their potential. First of all, recognition of how dynamic the landscape is, that you have to be on the ground or have people on the ground who are continuously evaluating the competitive landscape. I mean I could have gone on to tell you about other foreign actors not just Iran. The Russian government is extremely active in supporting its allies in media and other cultural platforms. China has some exquisite information programs in Arabic today, so you have to be ready to continuously reevaluate your strategies and plans. You have to know a lot about the people you’re working with and you have to grant the people you send overseas the latitude to adjust their plans according to the realities that they see around them. I think that when the U.S. government deploys militarily, those sorts of principles are very much in place where there’s a certain amount of delegation of decision-making to the people who are actually in the field whereas when we craft our information programs, there’s considerably less latitude granted to the actual implementers. I think another question that we would need to be asking more is the issue of neutrality. Some information programs are, and I’ve been talking around this issue today, concerned out of showing- being abundantly careful not to take sides in any intra-Arab dispute within a given country, not to appear to be siding with one ideological group over another, and the result may be that you are convening a gathering of people and the ones who show up might include a few liberals as well as a whole bunch of people who are working with an Iranian-owned satellite channel or the likes of Rust that was supported by the Deutsche Welle Akademie, so if we were to move to a stance where we are identifying thought partners and trying to find out what we can do to help them via their domestic competition, I think that too would make these efforts more effective.
I also thank you for this awesome work English okay? I have two questions, criticism. What I praises if you emphasize liberalism and social modernization, graduated the waters or electrical democracy, that raises the question station that’s the basis or possibly the point where I find some criticisms where you’ve adopted out of mass media’s language of saying the Islamists are conservative conservatism is not the antithesis of liberalism. Liberalism is John support bill said conservatives and liberals are the two necessary polarities of a healthy society true if we were to describe the Muslim Brotherhood as our mediator as progressive what they are fighting against pro-western dictatorial regimes and it’s fighting against the global right the West’s status and as conservative when they are oppressing women that is again fighting against what is identify to the global right now we’re not describing the Muslim Brotherhood we’re describing what our own bass beat did use as the enemy and which is the conservative right we need a consistent description for the immigrants ism or I think that’s what needs to be consistent not bifurcating them into totally description for them while keeping the same so to the first question democracy versus some kind of a social liberalism that is the distances itself from demands for political participation if you are engaging the kinds of liberal actors whose clips you’ve seen today you’re talking to people who have decided to strike a generational bargain with autocrats as I alluded to earlier they generally further Democratic experiments to be likely to carry their countries in an illiberal direction and would prefer to benefit from the stability that continuity provides even under an autocracy in order to gradually inculcate social values that are among the underpinnings of a functional democracy so I’m not saying that those who are advocating for democracy or those who are insisting upon an unbridled definition of liberalism that necessarily includes political liberalism should stop doing what they’re doing but I am arguing that the systemic approach that other liberals in the region are taking is also promising and it should not be ignored we shouldn’t just have one approach nor should we feel bound to you know to implement projects only along one one strategic line we can be like other countries and try many different approaches that might even sometimes run into cross purposes and see what which one works there’s an expression in Arabic throw the fig at the wall if it doesn’t stick at least sustain and I’m for throwing a lot of things at the wall with regard to if I if I called Islamists conservatives than I miss spoke I try to avoid conflating those two terms I used the term Islamists to mean refer to a political ideology informed by ideas about Islam and not all Islamists are necessarily violent themselves and it’s possible to construct a political ideology that is quite salubrious and is informed by ideas about Islam but the ones that I’m talking about are in my judgment inherently illiberal on the score of the kinds of values that the figures you’ve seen today are talking about whether it be empowering women a notion that both sects Islamic sects should be regarded equally in the eyes of the law an outlook of tolerance toward the other and so on so that’s my my judgment queer I know that can we have two because this lady and Intifada have both it’s a little good thank you very much just one who has spent 40 years working in and with media in the US you can’t have that discussion without talking about the disruptors of the Internet so I realize we’re talking about broadcast but what role do you see in the Middle East with social media and the Internet actually we call it the Berlin Wall so social media captured the world’s attention with respect to the Middle East in how remarkably effective it would refer effectively it was used as a tool of mobilization at that mobilization around a negative bringing down regimes the 140 word 140 character tweet proved less helpful in enabling young people to debate what they wanted to build up because when you start to talk about a positive agenda you need more space to articulate it and you need the opportunity to speak at length and elaborate consistently over a period of time and it’s not as easy to use social media to do that the other thing about social media in Arab countries I feel that there’s been too much of a focus on the power of social media to the exclusion of the power of broadcast media in particular because so much of the Arab InfoSphere is populated like its Western equivalent with material from TV broadcast and print so in other words you want to make a point in a tweet the quickest way to do it is to tweet one of these clothes right and so a lot of what you find on Twitter and on Facebook as in the U.S. our clips from Arabic television or links to articles from Arabic publications so the role of conventional media is very important and it becomes significant for example when you’re talking about clamping down on extremism where the U.S. has reached a point where it there’s a consensus about the need to shut down jihadist indoctrination via social media what about applying the logic the same logic to satellite channels that are reaching a larger audience not only indirectly via social media but also they’re reaching people who can’t read and don’t have access to a smartphone yes yes so it is something to some of this point a lot of social media and the internet and internet-based media in Arabic is serving as an intensifier of traditional media it is you know it is serving to intensify a TV celebrities relationship with her public by giving a chance for interactivity inside not to dispute or diminish the potential for web based independent media ventures to actually build up an organic following and the Tahrir Academy clip about critical thinking speaks to the value of independent you know highly motivated young people doing that and not waiting for a conventional broadcast to take them on however I’m not prepared to give up on the potential that some of these ventures dominated by Arab establishment that our allies may yet do the region anyway one of the biggest bad news the US media dealing with specific which started as an excellent broadcasting station which made a huge difference which was the leader and was amazing success now this training at the bottom nobody watches it alright and our taxpayers money is going down the drain listen billions of dollars I think you I met with my congresswoman Barbara cops they told me if you had the hundred dollars bills to do like you public you would make much more difference the reason why if you notice all foreign based media broadcasting in Arabic they start with success and they they start failing and failing them why because they start to go with the politically correct within that they haven’t read you that how it started was broadcasting the message of freedom and democracy against the dictatorship which is brutal against its own people and this message before the Arab Spring was a very new long strong message and is to work very well and Havana is basically with a lot of taste of Hezbollah ideas and Lebanese controlled the Shia level is controlled media outlet supportive of the Iraqi government anybody against the Iraq government cannot it is a totally it shows you how successful project became a failure I upload Deutsche Welle TV for taking a position so what I’m trying to say the United States or the Western the best thing they can offer is freedom liberalism democracy ideas and that’s what we should promote it’s very simple and be blunt about it don’t be shy about it one of the things I raised presently that he loved for the first time for a program to criticize the idea that of course or Jerusalem is Holly for the Muslims or present an alternative idea which was not presentable and how a few months ago that’s what I’m trying to say critical thinking present the American ideas they all have the best market the market the beliefs is hungry for such ideas outside the box outside. Thank you. Well the as you pointed out in mentioning Alberto Fernandez. Hurra now has new leadership and I believe that he would share your critique about Al rap for many years and the reforms that he’s introducing that we’re going to see unfold in the coming months are meant to reestablish ahora is more of an advocacy voice for a position and a set of principles unless a barometer of conventional wisdom in our countries or that is what I understand to be the case and has begun to manifest already online through manzara okra which is publishing new sort of rather audacious editorials and so I think the hope is that some of that will also be transforming the the content of the TV station I’m optimistic about positive change in the hora and obviously the the months to come will will determine that.