Media is vital in shaping view of Arab world


Journalists need to overcome prejudices in reporting complexity of change in Arab countries, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

THE ARAB uprisings since January last year have changed those countries in many ways, making all due allowance for the diversity and complexity of experience among and between them.

No longer can they be seen as immutable, ruled by authoritarian governments and subject to an Islamic religion that rejects modernity and yearns for a pious past.

But how have these changes altered European perceptions of north Africa and the Middle East after a decade dominated by images of violence, radical Islam and fear after 9/11? Is there a change in the security agenda that prioritised energy supply, protection from terrorism and preventing migration over democratic transformation and intercultural engagement?

How does the economic crisis in Europe affect these changing perceptions of their southern neighbours and the immigrant communities linked to them?

These issues were discussed last week in the Sicilian capital Palermo by a group of journalists, academics and officials from the two regions, under the auspices of the Anna Lindh Foundation.

Based in Alexandria, it is intended to promote better cross- cultural understanding by the 43 member states of the Euro- Mediterranean Partnership.

Two major questions arose that illustrate how important the media role is in representing major events and trends like these by framing public perceptions.

An Egyptian participant raised the basic issue of how they should be described. “How should we cover our own revolution? What do we call it?” She criticised the widespread use of the description “Arab Spring” as a very western and over-romanticised account followed too blindly by Arab media.

Revolutions are not happy picnics but deadly serious events involving many kinds of actors – in this case not only nice middle- class youths using social media, but men with beards, factory workers on strike and armies reluctant to cede power.

Most agreed it is misleading – but media must find ways to report the exhilaration and sense of freedom that became so infectious from Tunisia and Egypt to other states. “Spring” also implies winter.

Orientalism that assumes these societies are essentially against modernity has not gone away, nor has the Islamophobia that sees a perpetual bid for religious domination. Both suspect the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt will prove their fatalism about these societies right in the end. It is a mistake to invite such predictions gratuitously.

In the city of Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, we are reminded this is a question of how to interpret change. His great novel was pessimistic about Sicily, largely because the Italian Risorgimento there in the 1860s was captured by the aristocratic class and the Mafia – caught beautifully by Don Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi’s remark as he joined Garibaldi’s invading force: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

The other major question discussed was how to understand the role of religion in the uprisings. Our Egyptian colleague also criticised the term “political Islam”. What does it mean? Does it not assume religion and politics are inseparable, whereas in fact they follow distinct dynamics?

Coming out of the 9/11 decade, the European participants were equally dissatisfied with the term. Its meaning varies according to different national cultures. In Germany “Islamist” invites in the secret police, in France it raises a host of issues about secularism.

Those who have become used to a society in which religion is privatised and subdued are nonplussed by the apparent desire to bring it back into the public sphere. But just as we have Christian democracy, why not Muslim democracy too? A Turkish participant spoke of the ruling AKP there as a post-Islamic party and acknowledged it could be a beacon for change elsewhere.

Most agreed, however, it is too soon to proclaim the end of “Eurabia”, the apocalyptic vision of a Europe gradually conquered by Muslim immigration and demographic growth that became a fevered part of the 9/11 decades ideology on the populist and neoconservative right.

Fanned by a once prolific literature, it has receded in the face of stubborn facts and changed economic circumstances. Europeans have more to worry about than men with beards and women wearing burkas, as Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen have had to recognise in their campaigning. But their use of stereotypes could return if things get worse. Islamophobia shares much with 1930s anti-Semitism.

A more optimistic view of change was given by an Italian researcher. There is great pride among European immigrant communities about the Arab uprisings, much more news and mobility between them and their countries of origin and a renewed willingness to participate in European public affairs.

Media have much to learn from these changes and need to overcome inherited prejudices in reporting them more accurately and comprehensively.

That is difficult to do when cuts are made in editorial budgets, limiting international coverage.

A younger generation of Arab journalists is keen to learn and much more can be done in common with them by networking, training and translation.