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Sep 14 2006 11:00
These are Meera's draft minutes of the Second Session of the recent conference on the media at St Brides titled: Drawing the line between Xenophobia and legitimate comment; Next Century Foundation / The St Brides Forum / The International Communications Forum; XENOPHOBIA AND DISINFORMATION IN THE MEDIA; Hosted by: The St. Brides Forum Thursday 14th September 2006; Venue: St Brides - Fleet Street, London EC4; Session two: Drawing the line between Xenophobia and legitimate comment
George Pitcher: ‘Islamic terrorists’ is a phrase widely used in the media. George W. Bush recently stepped up and described ‘Islamic fascists’. I asked myself, if the label was ‘Christian’, would I be offended? I’d more think it was an oxymoron. More hidden are patronising attitudes, though these are often also unwitting. Islam is often seen through two different paradigms – the ‘terrorist’ paradigm, or the ‘backward’ paradigm which should be reformed. I’d like to hear more about these two issues.
Sharif Nashashibi: I would like to start by saying some things that, while unpleasant to hear, need to be said. Those who know me may think the following words out of character, but recent events have changed my perceptions, and I feel the need to speak out because most people are too afraid to.
Israeli life is cheap, and Jews loathe the Muslim world and all it believes in and stands for. We can either capitulate and grovel, or fight back. A moral relativism between the two sides does not exist. It is a matter of values. Jews are a despotic grouping which promotes a religious war against the Arabs through terror. When it comes to suicide bombings, Judeonazis are sophisticated propagandists and they know they'll find a gullible audience in the civilised world for their carefully-strewn teddy bears, children's shoes and wailing widows. Credulous Western reporters fall over themselves to sign up for the Israeli government guided tour of the ruins. After all, who can trust people who pronounce Hamas as Khamas and Hezbollah as Khezbollah. Jews would happily see the Arabs wiped out. Political parties should stop pandering to the Jewish vote. A platform hostile to Judaism would be neither incongruous nor immoral, because a virulent hatred of Jews can no more be racism than a virulent hatred of Marxists or Tories After all, millions object to the black heart of Judaism which, in my opinion, is a wretched religion which is imposing itself on this country. What far-right Muslim has ever proposed or endorsed anything as horrifying as what the moderate Jew regards as normal? We have come to expect menacing behaviour and a bullying ingratitude from Jews. Passivity in the face of Jewish narcissism and aggression is nothing new. The 9/11 attack was simply an attempt to retrieve lost Muslim lands. So what if the US and Israel were destroyed? They are hardly shining examples of civilization. Why should we respect them and be careful of their sensibilities? Who says all cultures are morally equal?
Now a question to the audience and panelists: who found what I had to say offensive? Well if you replace the words Jew, Jewish and Judaism with Arabs, Muslim and Islam, I have just quoted from the BBC, the Express, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph.
And this brings me right to the subject of my talk, which is where to draw the line between xenophobia and legitimate comment. It is a tough one, and I do not think anyone can say hand on heart that they know the answer. I spoke with numerous journalists, the Press Complaints Commission, Ofcom, the Commission for Racial Equality, the police and lawyers about some of the more odious things said by some media commentators during Israel's recent invasion of Lebanon, some of which I quoted at the beginning of my talk. All agreed that this was a grey area, and because of this, there was a tendency to not want to delve into the issue. Indeed, the PCC generally only deal with complaints from those specifically maligned, and the CRE only deal with issues of individual racism, rather than racism directed at an entire people. This, to many, leaves these organisations largely redundant. While there is no clearly defined line to cross on this issue, I believe the lack of such a line is allowing racists to get away with it, and from my experience monitoring the media, it seems that Arabs and Muslims are fair game today in a way that no one else is.
If you look at the broadsheets, while the Guardian, the Independent and the FT will field commentators with differing views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, one generally finds only shades of pro-Israeli sympathy in the Times and the Telegraph, the highest-circulation British broadsheets.
If one looks at the tabloids, whose circulations are higher than their broadsheet counterparts, you would be hard-pressed to find positive portrayals of Arabs and Muslims. These people, in those papers, are synonymous with the likes of Abu Hamza, Omar Bakri, Osama Bin Laden. Is it any wonder, then, that we see polls and surveys revealing fear and hostility towards Arabs and Muslims?
Incidentally, now that I am on the subject of the tabloids, the Sun's Trevor Kavanagh recently claimed that "anti-Semitism in the liberal media is hard-wired," and he cited the BBC. My subsequent research found that Jews are in fact well represented in the BBC's Board of Governors, while there are no Muslims or Arabs. Indeed, its chairman and vice chairman are Jewish, hardly the hallmarks of an anti-Semitic outfit. I was told by a broadsheet editor that saying this in public would get me into trouble. It seemed that I would be crossing some sort of line, while Kavanagh could get away with a baseless accusation of anti-Semitism.
The more extreme in the media hide behind the shield of freedom of speech, as was the case with the Muhammed cartoons, Robert Kilroy-Silk and Harry Cummins. But no freedom is absolute, and the press is not free to do whatever it wants. There are rules regarding privacy, accuracy, representation, public interest etc. One would never see a European or American media outlet denying the Holocaust, justifying peadophilia or saying black people are inferior to white people.
I would argue that when a freedom is taken as absolute, the result is anarchy. European newspapers said they were free to express themselves as they pleased regarding the cartoons. An Iranian newspaper responded by running a competition for satirical cartoons about the Holocaust. What all sides descended to was the law of the jungle, where anything goes.
When I did my MA in International Journalism, the first thing I learned was that with press freedom and freedom of speech come responsibility. Publication of the cartoons was totally irresponsible, and could only have been designed to inflame passions in an already inflamed world stage.
Responsibility comes from bearing in mind the context and period in which a journalist writes. With Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Palestine under occupation, Lebanon shattered, and US threats against a number of predominantly Muslim countries such as Iran and Syria, it is easy to see how passions can become inflamed, and how this plays into the hands of those who fear, and even espouse, Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations theory.
I am convinced that the cause of much of the anger in the Arab and Muslim world came not just from the portrayal of the prophet or its negative connotations, but from a sense of double standards and hypocrisy, that it is OK to insult Muslims while others’ beliefs are sacred and should be respected.
Take the Danish paper which published the cartoons, the Jyllands Posten. Another Danish paper reported that the Jyllands Posten refused in 2003 to publish satirical cartoons of Jesus Christ because they did not want to offend Christians.
The paper's editor in chief said: "Jyllands-Posten will not publish any Iranian Holocaust cartoons, and it will not establish or seek to establish co-operation with any Iranian newspaper on such cartoons. Nor will Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten publish any anti-Christian or anti-Jewish cartoons."
He added: "Readers can rest assured that the ethical standards of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten remain intact."
London Mayor Ken Livingstone was threatened with suspension for the month of March for calling a Jewish reporter a Nazi guard. Also this year, historian David Irving was sentenced to jail for Holocaust denial, and cleric Abu Hamza was charged with inciting hatred. Last year, the EU banned Lebanon's Al Manar TV station because it was deemed to be anti-Semitic. One could ask: "where is their freedom of speech?" The answer is that there seem to be limits, but they do not seem to extend to Muslims and Arabs.
Also last year, Andrew Alexander of the Daily Mail wrote in the newspaper that he believes Islam is "a wretched religion." I wrote to him accusing him of the same intolerance that he was condemning. He replied that he had said similar things about Christianity. I responded that widening his intolerance did not make things better, but in any case I asked for examples. To this day, and after five requests, I never heard from him again.
The Telegraph published four commentaries by Harry Cummins, who compared Muslims to dogs and said Islam has a "black heart," among other things. The Telegraph staunchly defended his right to say such things. In the six years that I have been monitoring the Telegraph, I have never seen such disparaging comments about any other religion.
And we are all aware of the Robert Kilroy-Silk saga. He wrote in the Express that Arabs are morally inferior, that they are women-bashers and limb amputators, that they do not care for their children and dead, that they have contributed nothing to civilisation, and that it would not matter if Arab countries were destroyed. He had actually been saying such things for years, for instance that it was in the nature of Iraqis to loot. Have you come across such a tirade against any other people? Certainly not in the Express. No action was taken against him, or Cummins, by the authorities.
"People happily write and say racist things about Arabs that they would not dream of saying about blacks or Jews - and usually they get away with it," said the Guardian's Middle East editor, Brian Whitaker, at the time.
This is on top of decades of negative stereotypes in Hollywood, and feelings of political double standards aimed at Muslims and Arabs, particularly where freedom, democracy and human rights are concerned.
Muslims feel under assault, in the Muslim world and the West, by people who know little about them, and what they do know often lies in the realms of fantasy and propaganda. This is why it is so important to balance freedom of speech with responsibility. In this day and age, the public interest is best served by building bridges, not burning them.
It will always be difficult to draw a distinct line between what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of freedom of speech and the media, but there must be real attempts to apply any rules universally so as to avoid double standards, hypocrisy and resulting anger. Otherwise we can neither claim to live in a moral nor multicultural society.
I would like to end with another apt quote by Brian Whitaker:
Today's Muslims and Arabs are yesterday's Jews, who were themselves yesterday's blacks. Who will it be tomorrow? This grim spectre should unite us all, because prejudice is often blind and generic, and its results can be catastrophic. The media should play no part in this. Our role should be to inform, not demonise, regardless of the presence or otherwise of defined limits.
We know there is no one Islam – yet it is narrowly defining itself. You have to learn much to distinguish between different sects. For example, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown identifies herself as a Muslim. However, because she is Ismaili some see her as a heretic.
Mahjoub Zweiri: The question is whether Western media is reflecting or informing public opinion. We have to deal with these problems in different ways. Western media is affecting politics in the Middle East. Last year, the day before Ahmedinejad was elected, they were convinced it would be Rafsanjani – they wanted something to happen and it was reflected in their writing. With the election of Hamas, the opposition of the Western media increased their support. Therefore the Western media is involved in the changes happening in the Middle East.
Baria Alamuddin: What Sharif said reflects accurately what Arabs and Muslims feel. We can debate all day long about whether the Mail is fair or not, but we need to see how it is perceived. I’m a unusual case because I have been heavily involved in the West for a long time, but even I feel that Muslims are hard done by. I have been interviewed by the media a lot recently – my experience has been that you cannot say things about Israel and Jews but you can about Arabs and Muslims. We should be here today with a purpose and responsibility to every word we say. I also just wanted to comment on William’s mention of the popularity of Nasrallah in Damascus. Hezbollah are Lebanese and therefore cannot be thrown into the sea, and now Nasrallah is the most popular leader in the Arab world.
Noureddine Miladi: There is a discrepancy between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage of issues, and the diversity has been picked up. We need to look at the impact of the War On Terror. Some academic studies have looked at the impact of coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict on Muslim youth in the UK, and they show radicalisation because of the negative portrayal. Even the secular youth are being radicalised. Nasrallah is even popular in Egypt.
Adel Darwish: When was the last time an opinion poll was taken amongst British Muslims or Arabs? So we know exactly what they think? None of us have an agenda on Fleet Street. When groups call themselves Muslim or Islamic, they are calling themselves that. I agree that Sharif has been selective in his quotes.
Ann Leslie: There have been several polls recently amongst Muslims, divided into age groups. A third of young British Muslims wanted sharia law for family matters, though many women protested.
Baria Alamuddin: I think this poll was mainly done amongst Pakistanis. It is important that the West is seen to be fair – what people want is to live in peace and prosperity.
Chris Doyle: The issue of ignorance is huge. Adel is right – people don’t have an agenda – but people do sit in their London newsrooms and never go to the region. Stereotypes still exist of camels, veiled women, rich fat, sleazy oil sheikhs and so on.
Muna Nashashibi: How can Arabs be polled? We are not acknowledged as an ethnic category on the form.
Bobby Syed: For me there are three main elements to this. Firstly, it’s an issue of language and the term ‘fundamentalist’, which actually means fanatics. Secondly, there’s an image problem which comes from tabloid papers. Thirdly, we need to show that ‘Muslim’ is a cultural rather than religious term.
Mahjoub Zweiri: The issue of image is very important – how the Western media looks at Muslims. Pre-9/11, the Arab world was portrayed as third class nations accepting of authoritarian rule. Post-9/11 they are portrayed as radical. We are organising a conference in Durham next March about how the image of the Muslim world changed post-9/11. This is also important for British identity – where do Muslims fit in? Looking at 7/7, we cannot understand, except through looking at images of Abu Hamza and so on. Young people have conflicts within themselves as being Muslim and British.
Fouad Razek: I’m happy that this session has not been hijacked by discussion of George W. Bush!
Robert Springborg: It’s an issue of balance – the BBC World Service always just opposed an Israeli and an Arab view, which gave the impression that there was one Arab view. Therefore the BBC was perhaps misleading its listeners.
George Pitcher: There is the issue of balance against the issue of misrepresentation.
Ann Leslie: That stupid idiot Robert Kilroy Silk lost his job, quite rightly. Our British media don’t have a huge influence in the Middle East. In Iran, they didn’t want a corrupt mullah mafia elite, it wasn’t because of the Times. We talk a lot about double standards; of course we have them and so do the Arab media, and then they lecture me about it. In Cairo I was reading Al-Ahram in English, which said that a Russian plane with Israeli holiday-makers was shot down in the Ukraine. The Arabic version said that it was the Mossad agents responsible for 9/11 in the plane.
Baria Alamuddin: The discussion here proves my point. We need to make peace with each other in the press. The point is not to blame one another but to correct each other. We need to look into ourselves and confront the creeping clash of civilisations. It is wrong. Also, there are many Arab journalists who do quiz their leaders, and are showing great courage in doing so.
Mahjoub Zweiri: The Muslim media is now starting to challenge Western media. This brings new issues to the Middle East, such as the Guardian employing Arab journalists in Baghdad. We will see more next year on the outcome of these challenges.
Sharif Nashashibi: I don’t imagine the Daily Mail is serious worried about Muslim economic clout – one just has to look at what Richard Littlejohn said about the Lebanon demonstrations. The point is that there are things said about Arabs and Muslims which would not be acceptable about other religions. On the issue of agendas, when the tsunami happened, many papers reported imams who claimed it was a punishment rfom God, but did not report Christian evangelists or former Chief Rabbis saying the same thing. The Haditha massacres were also not reported. I would say most people do have agendas.
George Pitcher: I would like to hear the panel say one thing which they would like improved.
Baria Alamuddin: More justice, and more knowledge.
Mahjoub Zweiri: I would like to see the lack of knowledge improved.
Ann Leslie: I would like more languages – I would love a knowledge of Arabic.
Sharif Nashashibi: Equal treatment and equal respect.
George Pitcher: I hope I can say, without offending anyone, Alleluia for that.