Category Archives: Arab media

al-Jazeera and the blame game of racism

By Sune Haugbolle.

On Thursday night, al-Jazeera aired its much touted and feared programme about racism in Denmark. The trailers aired in the last week had sent alarm bells ringing among both politicians and media here in Denmark. The programme promised to expose Danish racism, intolerance, and Islamophobia, and could maybe trigger negative reactions in the region?

So far, no sign of an uproar from that notorious Arab street that should cause Danes to be alarmed… First of all, because people in the Middle East have much more important things to worry about than Danes and Denmark (I know this is hard to believe for some). And second, because the programme did not touch on any of the religiously fused issues that brought matters to a head during the Muhammad cartoon crisis. The story about failed integration in Western Europe is not a new one, even though the programme probably added to any dismay Arabs may already have felt towards Denmark. And maybe just because a lot of people will have found the tone a little shrill – certainly if they have any personal experience with Denmark.

I personally found instructor Awad Jouma’s portrayal of our problems with immigration, racism and crime in Denmark really black and white, both in content and form. The programme zoomed in on the most negative aspects and blew them out of proportion. Talk about al-rai wal-rai al-akher… For example, there was an unreasonably large focus on the Danish Nazi party, a tiny group of lunatics and not in any way representative of neither Danish attitudes towards immigrants nor the real political issues at stake.

Namely, principally, the Danish People’s Party and its central position in Danish politics since 2001. The regime change in 2001 was touched upon, but not analysed in any details that could have helped Arab viewers understand the situation. If any one thing about Denmark and Muslims would be worth communicating to the Arab world, it would be a nuanced, detailed story of how an extreme right wing party (Fremskridtspartiet) in the mid-1990s morphed into what has become the deciding factor in Danish immigration policies. How fears of Islam among some population groups have been blown out of proportion and used politically, and in the process changed the basic rules of public debate in Denmark.

As it was presented here, the viewer had no chance of understanding why around 10% of the Danish population vote for this party, how it conquered parts of the middle ground, and what relation this change has to racism. And, not least, how a large part of the Danish population is both alarmed and ashamed about our right-wing turn. The viewers of this programme would have learned little about neither the Danish “Kulturkampf” between left and right, nor the important implications it has had on politics and media in the last seven years. And it is no excuse that the director was an outsider: indeed, he was not. Awad Jouma lived most of his life in Denmark, and has previously shown some of the more positive aspects of that experience in a documentary about his father, also shown on al-Jazeera.

What we got instead was a vaguely formulated thesis, sustained by the usual fare of over-dramatizing background music, about how racism in the Danish population, broadly speaking, has lead to a number of things: to failed immigration, to crime among young immigrants, to the Danish police assisting ostensibly racist biker gangs like Hell’s Angels in their ongoing war against immigrant gangs, and how Danish foreign policy has become completely entangled with American and Israeli interests. All a result of racism in Danish society, mind you. The blame fell squarely on the Danish population.

There is of course racism, and there are anti-Muslim sentiments in Denmark, which is something we are all struggling with. And there is, in my opinion, way too little debate about it in the Danish media which appear to have agreed that tackling racism amounts to “political correctness,” a “Swedish” stage of development which Danish society has luckily long surpassed, as the Danish immigrant politician Nasser Khader formulated it on the news show DR2 deadline Thursday night. We should face our demons, (even if that makes us Swedes in the eyes of some), by all means, and we and outsiders interested in Danish affairs should understand how mainstream politics became infused with fear of “the other.” Not least because it not a purely Danish issue, but a problem in all of Europe. Therefore TV documentaries, very influential media forms in today’s world, are welcome.

But such a project calls for a nuanced and sensitive critique, not sensationalistic TV journalism. Where the programme worked tremendously well was in the parts where it talked about conditions in Denmark’s Sandholm asylum seekers center, which like other such centres truly is a shame and a crime. But mostly, we were served a spicy sauce of conspiracy theories, racist bikers, and the gloomiest shots of wonderful Copenhagen I have ever seen in my life! Every single image was of grimy suburban streets in February. Having seen this programme I think more than one Arab viewer would have been left wondering why anyone would have wanted to leave the Middle East for Denmark in the first place.

Understanding the roots of violence, racism and cultural divides in our societies can never be a blame game. The first thing we must realise is that they are shared predicaments, and that we must look for the answers, in a careful and nuanced way, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

Questions about the crisis in Iran, pt. 3

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

How does the region react to the unrest?
According to Rami Khoury, the Arab world has reacted in a mixed way – but mostly with ‘forlorn envy’:

”[O]rdinary Arabs would feel jealous were the demonstrators in Iran able to topple their regime for the second time in 30 years –because this would highlight the chronic passivity and powerlessness of Arab citizens who must suffer permanent subjugation in their own long-running autocratic systems without being able to do anything about it.”

However, the unrest may also inspire Arab populations. In the words of Jamal Dajani:

“Those leaders and others may have a lot to worry about as Iran’s demonstrations have caused many in the Arab world ask to themselves why they cannot do the same. This might not be evident in the media, but all you have to do is talk privately to some of the youth and read the blogs. Although Iran failed to penetrate the Arab world with its 1979 revolution, it may have succeeded with the recent popular uprising.”

By the way, Dajani also asks a very important rhetorical question (which may be unrelated to the Iran crisis itself but important for the discussion of how Western media have portrayed the events – a topic to which I will return):

“Now here is a question to all those “brave, fair and balanced” journalists, pundits, bloggers and analysts in the U.S. who have been using strong terms to condemn the Basij and the Iranian government’s crackdown on demonstrations, such terms as brutality, murder and horror: why can’t you use the same language when you watch and film Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian children in the town of Bil’in, or when they evict a helpless widow from her ancestral home and throw her out to the cold? Why?”

As one could expect, pro-Iranian organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and various Iraqi groups, have congratulated Ahmadinejad on the victory. Furthermore, the Lebanese Hezbollah has accused ‘the West’ of ‘fomenting Iran turmoil’.

According to this article from NY Times, US-aligned Arab states, on the other hand, ‘savor turmoil in Iran’:

“The good-news thinking goes like this: With Mr. Ahmadinejad remaining in office, there is less chance of substantially improved relations between Tehran and Washington, something America’s Arab allies feared would undermine their interests. At the same time, the electoral conflict may have weakened Iran’s leadership at home and abroad, forcing it to focus more on domestic stability, political analysts and former officials said.”

More on the Arab world:
On Bitter Lemons, four experts reflect on how Arabs are reacting; and Josie Delop and Lane Green’s observations are to be found here.

In Turkey, reports Yigal Schleifer, the unrest has presented Ankara with a ‘diplomatic challenge’:

“The Turkish public has greeted the crisis in Iran with a mix of indifference and confusion, while on the official side, Ankara is treading with extreme caution. Not wanting to possibly strain bilateral ties, Turkish officials are refraining from criticizing Iranian hardliners, or questioning the results of the country’s recent contested elections.”

In Afghanistan, Afghans are also ‘tracking Tehran power struggle’.

The Spiegel affair

by Sune Haugbolle.

On Saturday the German magazine Der Spiegel published an article claiming that Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigators believe Hizbollah is linked to the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The article quotes an unnamed person close to the tribunal for saying that there is now hard evidence, in the form of a number of connected cell phones belonging to the perpetrators of the killing and key Hizbollah members, that the Oerpational Unit of the Shiite organization organised the crime.  

I tend to think that the timing of this leak alone is fishy, and I am not convinced that the story is real. But who is to say in a world of Arab politics shrouded in truths and lies. Either way you look at it, the Spiegel article is remarkable. There seems to be two possibilities. Either we are dealing with a terrible truth, shocking to Lebanese as well as to outside observers (me included) and diplomats, which must surely be dodged politically lest Lebanon is to be thrown into sectarian and military turmoil. Part of that truth could also be that the Party of God is split to an extent that one part of the organization acts independently. That is speculation of cause. It is also pure speculation to start thinking about which regional power must have been involved. It is hard not to speculate, though, and people are speculating massively as I am writing this, inside and outside Lebanon, and in the blogosphere of course. For some, the Speigel story is nothing more than a confirmation of earlier suspicions. Hizbollah’s detractors have brought up that the car used for the killing came from the Dahiya, which suggests that Hizbollah must have had some knowledge of the operation.

The second possibility is that we are dealing with a partial or full fabrication, as Hizbollah officials and associated media in Lebanon have suggested today.

There have been suggestions that Der Spiegel could have links to Israeli security services, or at least israeli sympathies. Even if the story turns out to be a fabrication somehow accepted by the editorial board of the Spiegel magazine – who must have known that they were dealing with explosive stuff and therefore presumably made sure that the source was trustworthy – and the magazine is forced to withdraw the story, the mechanisms of public life in Lebanon will make sure that a new “truth” about Hariri death, rivaling the narrative of a Syrian plot which many have favoured to this day, has been born. A truth, conspiracy theory or not, will take on a life of its own, circulate, be verified, preached to the converts, and perhaps used politically. Those who have axes to grind against the Party of God, and they are many, will grind their axes happily. None more so than the segments of the Sunni community, which have been locked in street battles with Shiites in West Beirut several times in recent years. The Druze who clashed with Hizbollah last May in the Shouf also have grudges and scores to settle. 

First reactions from Jumblatt and Hariri suggest that the leaders of these groups are very aware that whether true or not the Truth must now be contained. Jumblatt even evoked (for God knows which time) the specter of Ayn al-Rumaneh and a new civil war. IF –and that is a big if in my opinion – the leak turns out to be some kind of media strategy from the Tribunal, in an attempt to prepare the world for the terrible Truth, rather than presenting it out of the blue once the hearing begin in earnest next year, it is possible that the story will blow over for now but then suddenly reappear as the real thing. A worrisome scenario. Let’s all really really hope that this is baloney, German style.   

Arab reactions to Durban II: the ghost of colonialism

by Sune Haugbolle

 

The images of EU representatives walking out during Ahmedinejad’s speech in Genève yesterday, amidst the cheers of Arab and other representatives, are haunting. They speak of a chasm in cross-cultural understanding, and that sense will probably remain as a big ugly stain on our collective global consciousness from this event even if the diplomats manage to avoid further walk-outs and a final document is agreed upon. It is a chasm worth dwelling on for a bit. How can the world’s leaders, in 2009, disagree fundamentally on such a universally deplorable phenomenon as racism?

 

We can begin to grasp this chasm by looking at the Arab press’ reactions to Durban II. The views on racism presented here differ dramatically both from the Western press and from the universalising UN discourse that forms the basis of the conference. As columnist Mahmoud Mubarak wrote in al-Hayat on 20 April, “the seven years that have passed since Durban I have been some of the most racist in recent history.” From an Arab perspective, the US is to blame for much of this: the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Quran-pissing in Guantanamo, have all been products of a resurgent neo-colonialist US under President Bush. Add to that the Muhammad cartoons, Israel’s incriminate wars on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the racist ideology that underpins it. One then wonders, according to Mubarak, why none of these issues will be on the agenda at Durban.

 

He answers the question himself. The reason is that the Western countries have other priorities, and perhaps other views of what racism means. Mubarak wryly ends his piece by noting that the Dutch call for a sentence on protecting “sexual freedoms” (ie. homosexuality) in the final document of Durban II “reflects the difference in thinking between the Islamic countries and Western countries on the priorities of this conference!”  

 

The op-ed on 21 April in another of the pan-Arab London dailies, al-Quds al-Arabi, follows suit. Why did the European delegates walk out, when Ahmedinejad, deplorable as he may be, “only spoke the truth”? This only underscores that the West is not fully committed to freedom of speech. In a conference on racism, critique of Israel, “the most racist regime since the dawn of time,” should be a natural given. At the very least, the critique should be listened to in full details. By walking out the EU delegates “consented to Israel’s position.”       

 

The feeling of victimization is well rehearsed and nothing new, and not without a certain sense of self-rightousness, as racism is also a fact and a problem in Arab societies and Arab politics. But the important part here is the totally different optic through which the issue of Palestine is viewed.

 

One should recall that the weeks leading up to the conference have seen an arduous diplomatic work to refine the final document – a piece of work not condoned by all nations, and certainly not by all populations either. Judging from the Danish debate surrounding “Durban II”, the usual cohort of Islam critics in Europe sees this conference basically as a venue for the display of Islamic power on the global scene. There is no understanding for the points of view put forth, least of all given that they come from less than democratic governments.

 

The points of contention are principally the questions of Palestine question critique of religions. The first was alluded to in the declaration from Durban I in 2001, which said: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” That caused an uproar back then in the US and Israel in particular by people who objected to the singling out of Israel, the only country mentioned in the declaration, even though there was other language that respected the “rights to security for all states in the region, including Israel”.

 

The explicit mention of Israel and the Palestinians has been removed from the new document. But at the same time the text reaffirms the 2001 declaration, which is why the US and Israel have strongly condemned the 2009 text also. Furthermore, an echo of the old formulation has survived in that the text emphasises the need to protect “all those under foreign occupation”. Again, despite its seemingly universal message, a troubling line to Israel, the US and other of its supporters.

 

The second question, regarding critique of religions, of course follows directly on from the Muhammad cartoons debate. During the negotiations leading up to the meeting, some Islamic countries attempted to introduce the concept of “defamation of religion.” This would have had the effect, so western and other critics argued, of restraining free speech.

 

The final document deplores the “derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on their religion” without singling Islam out as the document deplores all religious intolerance including “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian phobia and anti-Arabism”. To some, not least in Denmark, the freedom of speech is so holy that anything that suggests an Islamic temperance of it by recourse to “racism” was seen as reason enough for the Danish government to stay away. As we know, the Danish Foreign Minister, quite boldly, chose to let Denmark participate, as did 22 other of his EU colleagues.

 

We have here the conflation of several contested issues, racism, islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. Why colonialism? I believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy. It is not the only history of racism. Racist ideas of other peoples have existed in many other parts of the word and in different historical periods. But it is one that has shaped our modern world decisively, and its effects persist in territorial conflicts such as that over Palestine.

 

The post-colonial states live with this historical experience in a whole other way that any of us in the West. Racism exists anywhere, but we are not equally subjected to it, and have not been equally subjected to it in history. At the UN we are all expected to agree on a formulation regarding this subject. We imagine a universality that is, frankly, illusory. To think that the world’s populations share in a common view on a discourse that has been instrumental in determining the power relations of modern history in way that subjugated large parts of the world to Western control is naïve and ahistorical.

 

Yes, but…, many would say, colonialism is over. Get on with it.

 

And this is why some walked out while others cheered.