Date Posted: 24-Jul-2006
JANE'S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST - AUGUST 02, 2006
Understanding Arab media analysis
The Arab media's focus on issues of prestige, unity and sanctities brooks little opposition. When this preoccupation with Arab identity is challenged, the author's arguments are evaluated only to the extent of his own identity.
There is also a preoccupation with an eternal conspiracy. Not just a matter of intellectual laziness, as a false pretence to analysis it points to a fascistic spectre lurking behind the scenes.
The Arab media is failing to interpret events and cultural concepts. Above all, it persists in maintaining the identity agenda over pluralism. In doing so it is leaving its readers ill-prepared to compete culturally and economically.
Arab media analysis is preoccupied with issues of prestige, unity and tradition, which are most often expressed in terms of unalterable 'sanctities' (national or at times religious). Under such absolute intellectual conditions, the processes - of doubt, criticism, opinions and cultures in progress - that are familiar in Western media coverage are very swiftly translated onto the level of undermining the whole.
The concept of a generic absolute, and the means by which it is defended, offer an interesting insight into popular Arab thought. Such a sanctified culture will have an equally unchanging view of other cultures, which is why intellectual debates usually resort to labelling and affiliations: who is saying it, where is he from and what is his agenda?
Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a professor of Sociology at the American University of Cairo and a leading commentator on Egyptian political affairs, highlighted this habit in an article for the liberal journal Shafaf al-Sharq al-Awsat. In The crisis of Arab intellectuals and Arab culture, he recorded the impressions of the EU parliamentarian Emma Bonino, who attended a state security court trial relating to Ibrahim's controversial work at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, for which he was charged with defaming the image of Egypt abroad. Meeting with Arab intellectuals, she was startled by how many dismissed the professor's views on the grounds of specific differences they had with him rather than the merits or flaws of his theories. She said: 'Some [dismissed Ibrahim's views] due to this or that political issue, some due to disagreements on his democratic inclinations, or his position on the US or the West, or due to his defence of the Copts and minorities, since he was opening the door to discord and foreign intervention, or for his being a 'Nasserist'.'
This is an all or nothing approach. In this case, either the professor's ideas fit precisely or they were rejected. The right to difference or nuance is absent. Ibrahim sums it up succinctly: 'The values of liberty and human rights in expression and diversity has not taken root among the majority of Arab intellectuals. Instead, they are still governed by values steeped in identity and tribalism, centring on the 'collective ego'; on those who are 'like me' (in family, tribe or party).'
By searching for the label or the tribal affiliation, rather than addressing the integrity of the reasoning behind a particular argument, Arab media can avoid dealing with the discourse. Any analysis extends to little more than uncovering the personality and the badge of the individual.
This labelling of the 'other', those who lie outside the absolute sanctities, forms what is perhaps the most recurring and intriguing facet of Arab media analysis: the conspiracy theory. There has been much ink spilt by Arab journalists on this phenomenon, but so far it is proving very hard to shift. It appears often as a ghost preoccupation, often not overtly stated, but lying somewhere in the background, commonly prefaced with comments such as 'certain powers whose interest is to promote disunity' or similar. It is based on the perception that other societies are engaged, instinctively, in some form of eternal cultural sabotage.
Under this scheme there is a titanic struggle to defend Arab culture against a conspiracy constantly reinventing itself. It is a position lampooned by Hazem Saghiyeh in Al-Hayat. He says: 'Whoever follows the news coming from Egypt and the positions of most Egyptian intellectuals, journalists and politicians begins to think the world wakes up every morning, rubs its eyes, and exclaims: 'Oh my goodness, it's seven, I'm late, I have to start immediately to conspire against Egypt'.'
Of all the short cuts, the conspiracy is the most effective means of making pretensions to analysis while instead closing it off. Most of all, it prevents introspection. The number of articles an average Arab citizen will read deploring an incident of terrorism will be at least equalled by the number searching for a complex conspiracy theory depicting the Arab world as a victim of outsiders. There will be virtually none on internal factors that may be contributing to the phenomenon.
For example, take the issue of development. Here again the preoccupation with prestige soon becomes wedded to the preoccupation with conspiracy. Abdul Rahman al-Habib describes the phenomenon in the Saudi daily Al-Watan. He writes: 'When we, Arabs and Muslims, ask ourselves why we are behind in development, the answer is always satisfactory: because of the West and its agents, of course. And when we ask ourselves why the West is developed and advanced, the answer is always satisfactory: because the West stole the sciences of our ancestors and they are still plundering us to advance themselves.'
These preoccupations of prestige, unity, sanctities and conspiracy hover like a ghostly template behind much of the Arab media commentary. If not explicitly stated, their invisible presence - 'Al-ghayb' - is assumed and assented to.
The spectre of fascism
Far from an innocent cultural quirk, this lazy resort to preoccupation habits contributes to the fostering of what can only be interpreted as a fascist turn of culture.
Italian author Umberto Eco explains how such a culture manifests in his essay Fourteen ways of looking at a blackshirt, where, referring to the European experience, he spelled out the features that he considered were typical of 'eternal fascism'. Among these 14 features, Eco highlighted the cult of tradition, the rejection of modernism, the cult of the hero and fear of difference and diversity, all of which we have seen represented in the preoccupations of the Arab media. Ominously, Eco features 'distrust of analytical criticism' as another part of the mix. He notes: 'In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For [eternal fascism] disagreement is treason.'
Perhaps more central to his argument is the cultural obsession with a plot whereby 'to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity... the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies'. In which case, life must be 'a permanent struggle'.
Egyptian liberal intellectual Kamal Ghabriyal illustrated this psychology succinctly in an interview in April 2005 broadcast by Al-Jazeera television. Far greater than the 'smaller catastrophe' for the Arabs of global Zionism, he argued, is 'the greater catastrophe of Arab fascism' that has brought them low - the fascism of the Baath, the fascism of Nasserism, and the fascism of pan-Arabist nationalism and fundamentalism. He says: '[These fascists] are battling forever. They have nothing to do but fight.'
For Ghabriyal they are heirs to Arab culture. He says: 'Whose blood? That is of no importance. It could be the blood of enemies as we imagine them, or it could be our own blood. It is very easy for us to find justifications for this. The important thing is that we shed the greatest amount of blood.'
It is, he argues, a cultural legacy that despises intellectuals, a culture where 'the sword is more truthful in giving information than books'.
Failings of the Arab media
Needless to say, with such a cultural spectre in the background, and in its predilection for re-enforcing pre-conceptions unsullied by doubt, Arab media analysis performs a weak job in translating for its readers the cultural concepts and vocabulary of the outsiders. Habib says: 'Many columnists resort to criticism as a form of attack, against each other, against the West, against the US. It is rare when we find a thoughtful attempt at understanding others and their views that come, just as ours do, from their cultural, political and social backgrounds.'
This failure of cultural understanding can come down to individual words. Just as Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian liberal thinker, lamented the lack of understanding of the term 'compromise', he illustrated the hermeneutical failures by taking the example of the English term 'fair enough'. Speaking on Egyptian Al-Mihwar television in February, Heggy stressed the need for understanding how, in Western and particularly Anglo-Saxon political discourse, absolutisms are absent. He said: 'The English say 'fair enough'. In the Arabic language this does not exist. Why? Because in Arabic it is either 'fair' or 'unfair'. However, 'fair enough' is a relative concept, meaning 'fair as far as it can go'. This is how the Anglo-Saxon mind operates... a pragmatic mentality, based on pragmatism, utilitarianism and interests.'
This failure to translate culturally can have serious consequences. Perhaps the most famous and familiar failure is the case of US President George W Bush when he used the word 'crusade' in his September 2001 speech following the terrorist attacks earlier that month. While the use of the word was a clumsy momentary slip that could have been avoided, given the political context, any journalist who had lived more than six months in an English-speaking country would have noticed its metaphorical use entirely denuded of religious or historical reference, and employed to denote a good cause and nothing more.
The pre-primed starting points of the Arab media analysts never once adopted the famous 'Hanlon's razor' law which states: 'Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.' On the contrary, it is repeated even today by self-respecting Arab journalists who do not criticise the use of the term 'crusade' as an act of tactless silliness, but as some form of Freudian slip revealing the true conspiratorial, long-term nature of Western plots against Islam.
Perhaps the only way to see what can be concluded from this failure is to wait for the next one to happen. What will it be? Perhaps it will be the term 'Mecca'. Here is another word that has long been integrated into English idiom, and denuded of its historical or religious context in such phrases as 'a Mecca for heavy metal fans' or 'a Mecca for aficionados of origami' and so on. Perhaps an Arab journalist will seize on this as yet another example of Western disparagement of Islamic culture, another indication of some deeply rooted, innate Islamophobic instinct, instead of what it really is: a perfectly acceptable employment of metaphor, born of the impressive notion of vast numbers of people attracted to one place.
New tasks with obsolete tools
This lack of challenge of the conspiracy, if unchecked, is clearly dangerous. It can be manipulated and extended, as we see in the numerous videos of Al-Qaeda spokesmen regurgitating the 'global crusade' line. Lack of challenge implies the message of consent. But it is about more than the conspiracy predilection. It concerns all the preoccupations of prestige, unity and sanctity that prime writers to re-enforce their readers' preconceptions.
The Arab media will surely be best tasked at campaigning against these preoccupations since they constitute fake analyses and should not be allowed to continue as any form of journalistic currency. If the promotion of democracy might pass uncontested as one of its functions, the Arab media would do well to put more concentrated efforts into being part of what gives this aim more than a superficial underpinning.
As the advent of satellite media channels hold up the promise of contrasting voices and opinions beyond the ability of Arab governments to control, the Arab media is in a position to create a culture of pluralism as never before. But if the physical barriers are falling, there remain some intellectual patterns that stand in the way of progress. Eco noted how under the cult of tradition 'there can be no advancement of learning [since] truth already has been spelled out once and for all'.
While the fear of difference and diversity continues to expel the contaminating influence of outsiders and their culture, the ability of the Arab world to engage and compete with the world outside will remain curtailed. Ali Ahmad Said (also known as Adonis), a now deceased Syrian critic and writer of great renown in Arab culture, argued: 'This is our real intellectual crisis. We are confronting a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that has passed away. We must make a complete cut from that context on all levels, and think up a new Arabness, a new culture, a new Arab society.'
It is the function of the Arab media to confine this attitude to the past. Chief among its functions should be the breaking down of the absolutist mindset and the promotion of doubt as a virtue. It is this satisfaction with the state of doubt that is the one distinguishing feature of Western journalism whenever it rises above the average.
The faultlines in Arab media analysis
Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst
23 June 2006
'The values of liberty and human rights in expression and diversity has not taken root among the majority of Arab intellectuals. Instead, they are still governed by values steeped in identity and tribalism, centring on 'the collective ego', on those who are 'like me'.'
Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a professor of Sociology at the American University of Cairo
'Many columnists resort to criticism as a form of attack, against each other, against the West, against the US. It is rare when we find a thoughtful attempt at understanding others and their views that come, just as ours do, from their cultural, political and social backgrounds.'
Abdul Rahman al-Habib
© 2006 Jane's Information Group