I am really getting fed up with most Arab reactions regarding the election of Barack Obama as America’s 44th president.

 

Until this day, all I hear about is that “Americans have finally made the right choice” and that what has happened was a “victory for democracy and reason”, yet what is most interesting is listening to people in the Middle East talk about how beautiful it is to see an African American immigrant, who otherwise may have not had a chance to survive, become the President of the world’s number 1 superpower.

 

Now, I won’t claim this argument is my own as I have heard it over and over here in Europe, especially during Obama’s tour of Europe last summer. It goes something like this: People in France in general backed Barack Obama and urged Americans to vote for him…But when the time comes, would they themselves vote for a North African immigrant for example to sit in their prestigious Élysée Palace ?

 

And if this question is raised in France, one of the world’s oldest democracies, one only has to wonder what would the true Arab feeling be regarding a similar situation in a Middle Eastern country.

 

For the sake of argument, let us take The Gulf region (the name itself is the cause of an ongoing racial issue, as many are divided between calling it The Persian Gulf and The Arab Gulf) as an example.

 

GCC countries are uniquely distinguishable by the massive numbers of immigrants that are imported to fill huge gaps that locals can’t or choose not to fill in the labour market (particularly blue collar jobs such as: construction workers, janitors and drivers).

 

Indeed in a country like Saudi Arabia with a population of more than 28.5 million, there is an estimated foreign population of more than 8 million. These expatriates reportedly include 1.6 million Indians, 1.5 million Bangladeshis, 1.2 million Filipinos, 1 million Pakistanis, according to the International Religious Freedom Report 2008 published by the US Department of State.

 

 

In the United Arab Emirates, another Gulf country which is famed particularly for its ‘out of this world’ projects such as man-made islands and skyscrapers that make New York City look like a miniature park, the locals forms only 20% of the total population, again with massive numbers of the immigrants being imported to join the workforce needed to build and maintain these humongous developments. 

 

So how would an Arab feel if a young, well educated and charismatic descendant of one of these immigrants decides to run for Presidency in an Arab country?

 

This perhaps could be an interesting basis for a large scale opinion poll in the region; I would be very keen on finding out the results, if such a poll was allowed to be conducted, of course.  

 

In the mean time, one indicator of what could be the general mood lies in the comments of the Dubai Police Chief in a recent Emirati ‘National Identity’ conference which was held last April in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s capital.  

 

According to the London based Asharq Al Awsat http://www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=10732&article=467144&feature=

Dubai Police Chief – Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim said that “in 70 years time, we will be well off, if the sons of our Emirates Crown Princes maintain their rule”.

 

Tamim also said reportedly: “If Obama can run for President and he is of Kenyan origins, what guarantees do we have that Koti (a common Asian name that indicates to immigrant workforce according to Asharq Al Awsat) won’t come and compete for Presidency (in the UAE)?”. 

 

 

Such statements might push you to start thinking that perhaps it is a good thing that most Arab countries aren’t democracies; I for one would be ashamed to have a democracy where people are elected on the basis of race, color or religion, rather than political program and agenda.

 

In fact we do have one of example of this in the so-called democracy of Lebanon; where a President ‘has to be’ a Maronite Christian, a Prime Minister ‘has to be’ a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the Parliament ‘has to be’ a Shiite Muslim.  

 

The conclusion is if we, Arabs, want to praise Americans for doing what we think is that the right thing… that is fine by me, but let us not give others a standing ovation for overcoming racism while we ourselves are sitting on piles of it, not to mention not having a true democratic process to start with!

 

This whole situation reminds me of a sad joke: An Arab visits the US for the first time; so he goes to Washington DC to see the White House and ends up arriving on the day of a massive protest against President Bush by Americans who disagree with his policies.

The Arab stops and laughs, so one of the American protesters asks him what he finds so amusing and the Arab replies: “I just discovered that it turns out we don’t lack democracy as you people claim…we are no different than you”.

The American asks how this is so, and the Arab replies: “Well, you are allowed to protest against your president anytime you wish, right?’, so the American replies “Yes, and?”.

“Well, we have the same rights! We can protest against YOUR president anytime we like”, concluded the Arab.   

 

Of Men and Mice

September 24, 2008

 

 

In case you have not heard yet, Sheikh Mohamed al-Munajid (a Saudi cleric, who is said to be from a Levant origin) has labelled mice as ‘agents of Satan’, calling for the extermination of them all. He has also made it clear that this includes famous cartoon mice, such as Mickey Mouse and Jerry (of the popular cartoon series ‘Tom and Jerry’) in particular. 

 

I assume this should call for an urgent meeting of ‘Rodents Without Borders’ and the CMCA (Cartoon Mice Characters Association), had they both existed, to discuss recent threats against fellow members, Mickey and Jerry.

I personally think that in light of these recent threats, all ‘mouse shaped cartoon characters’ should be forced to have supernatural powers for the purpose for self defense; following the ‘Mighty Mouse’ and ‘Danger Mouse’ models.  

 

I am of course blabbering because there isn’t much one could say regarding this situation.

 

Even the Shiekh’s justification (that mice are dirty creatures and that by creating popular cartoon characters based on them, kids might grow up liking this unclean animal) is ridiculous.

  

I think one of the best reactions was that of many American news anchors, who couldn’t help laughing at the matter. You could watch a few clips here http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=qO3TqDS1XHE (unfortunately, another MEMRI instant hit).

 

Some relief came to me when a number of Arab ‘liberal’ writers and an Egyptian Muslim scholar ridiculed his views.   

AFP reported today that Suad Saleh, a woman preacher who hosts a popular television programme on fatwas, or religious edicts, told the English-language daily Egyptian Gazette that Munajid’s ruling “tarnishes Islam’s image.”

“An edict should be based on knowledge, logic and reason,” she said. “Yes, mice should be killed when seen according to Islam’s teachings. But it is illogical to deal with a cartoon character as a live mouse and kill it.” (my reaction: …you don’t say!!)

As much as it was painful to see someone who is supposed to be a respectful member of the clergy being mocked, I can’t find any sympathy in me towards al-Munajid.

 

You see, one must understand how clerics are regarded in most Muslim societies, they have great influence and most of the time, and their opinions are not questionable. (As the case was during the show which al-Munajid was a guest on when he said what he said, this was on al-Majd TV by the way, an Islamic station that many regard as fundementalist).

 

What is interesting is that earlier this month, another Saudi cleric said owners of satellite television channels that broadcast “immoral” content deserved to die.

The point is, when you have so much authority over people, you must be very careful regarding what you say…. It also goes without saying that when wearing a clergy robe, you ought to be a role model of tolerance, love and peace. (almost a no-brainer, isn’t it?)

Many people might not know this, but back in 2005… the ‘big thing’ in the Arab world was reality television shows, such as ‘Big Brother’, ‘Star Academy’ and the Arab version of ‘Pop Idol’ came under attack for their attempts to ‘strip away the virtue of Arab youth’.

 

Star Academy in particular was dubbed “Academiat Al Shaytan” (Satan’s Academy).

 

Why… you may ask? Well, so that it would be named after its founders, the “evil devils in our world” as one Islamic ‘awareness recording’ suggests.

 

And who may that recording be made by… why, it was non-other than Shiekh al-Munajed himself !  

 

Honestly, this is not a desperate attempt to market my previous articles, but you must read the full story I wrote back then http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=344  to understand the impact clerics could have on the youth.

 

One teenager actually told me he was s convinced that “Star Academy” is “part of a huge plot planned many years ago to strip away all virtue from the Arab youth”. The 18-year-old proceeds to explain that this scheme is also “proven” in a website, where he read that it is “part of Zionist plan which goes back to the year 1935”.

 

Another Shiekh, Ali Al Shahrani, produced a similar recording called ‘SARS Academy’, in which he uses a long list of insults that are commonly used against prostitutes and homosexuals to describe the way he feels about participants in reality shows.

 

“If some people don’t like these words, perhaps it is because they haven’t heard them before… or maybe they are living on a different planet,” the Shiekh told me back then.

 

What can I say? I for one would like to be living on that different planet, where my kids could watch Mickey, Minnie and Speedy Gonzales without feeling guilty… But mostly a planet where men don’t pick on mice (especially while ignoring extremists, occupying forces, corruption and poverty to name a few issues they could chew on).

 

 

 cover of ‘Satan’s Academy’ – Al Munajed’s 2005 recording. (asharq al awsat photo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sex On The Beach

July 27, 2008

It was interesting to see how the British media treated the recent ‘Sex on The Beach’ row, which involved two Brits who got slightly too intimate at a popular Dubai beach resort.

Now, as much as I like the pun with regards to the name this issue was given,  its amazing to see how some papers here refered to it as a ‘clash of cultures’… 

Obviously, one can understand how convenient labelling it in this way is: Dubai is in an Arab and Muslim conservative country (mind you, it is not a country on its own, as some fellow journalists think)!.. while Westerners are used to a liberal way of life, and occasionally like to have sex.

Well… you know, we Arabs like sex too, in fact we are known for liking it too much… and despite the UK being quite a liberal country, its very rare to see any of us having sex in public, as it happens to be  unallowed over here.

As a matter of fact, the last time I checked you would still get arrested if you get cought in the act in a public place like Hyde Park.  

Even in the trendiest London bars or lounges, you often the odd ‘Get a room!’ shout when a couple fail to resist the urge of getting slighly too intimate.

In fact, I can’t think of a public place that actually allows people to have sex in most places around the world… so, I can’t really see how this could be a ‘culture clash’ issue.

Dubai is one of the exceptions in the Arab world, yes.. booze is allowed, prostitution is tollareted… but it still has laws… one might think that 6 years is too much for such a trivial issue, but hey… its up to the local authorities to decide on its punishments… just as the case is over here.

So, next time you are in Dubai and you want Sex on The Beach, stick to the drink.. and if things go well, then ‘get a room’.. or at least go behind a palm tree.

OH, COME ON!

July 2, 2008

A new storm of controversy seems to be emerging today, as the police force in the UK apologised after complaints that an advert featuring a German shepherd puppy might have been offensive to members of the local Muslim community.

British media has been consumed with the story ever since Tayside Police used a picture of 29-week-old black puppy Rebel on postcards promoting the force’s new non-emergency telephone number, and then apologized after the choice of image was questioned by a Dundee councillor who said it would “not be welcomed” by some communities.

First of all, I must say I keep on getting impressed with how tolerent this country is, I mean for the police to first of all consider such a trivial matter, and then actually apologize for it… that says a lot.

I also appreciate the fact that after a certain series of events that happened lately, including particular ones which involved Danish cartoons, a certain teddy bear in Sudan and a controversial debate about the veil,  one should be very careful with what many of us might consider as ‘trivial matters’, as what might seem silly on the surface could cause serious unexpected harm in the end of the day.

Any how, I can’t seem to stop myself from shouting: COME ON!!!

Am I the only Muslim who is wondering what could possibly be offensive about a picture of a puppy?

I am not blaming the police force or the long-lasting traditions of tolerance and fairness in this country, especially when it comes to cultural sensitivities… and I really can’t blame it on people being ignorant when it comes to Islam as well, as one can’t seem to know what is considered offensive and what isn’t these days!

I can only blame the ‘members of the Muslim community’ who have reportedly complained about the picture, the British media went on to explain that a”Muslims consider dogs unclean and Islamic tradition warns Muslims against contact with dogs because they are seen as impure”.

I have to say, I am quite familiar with the texts and  religious teachings relating to dogs; I do know they are considered ‘unclean’ and in fact I do agree that they aren’t.

This is probably why we are urged to wash our hands 7 times after getting in contact with a dog (that was however before the invention of sprays, shampoos and a whole set of accessories that are used today to clean dogs, I would like to read what modern day Islamic thinkers’ take on the issue would be).

However, there are no teachings that consider images of dogs offensive to Muslims. Not only that, but there isn’t anything that considers images of even the much dreaded pig as offensive to Muslims as well (only a teaching that prohibits eating its meat).

So, I think everybody needs to relax… if indeed members of the Muslim community have complained about this incident, I think they should re-examine their priorities.

What I think is truely insulting is the standard of living many of this community live in, the lost opportunties and the continuous ammunition we are giving racists and extremists to attack us with (just have a look at some of the tabloids today… this story beautifully complements previous ones about Muslim doctors who refused to see female patients in need, and a Muslim taxi driver who wouldn’t allow a blind man to enter the cab with his dog, which are both very shameful incidents and require urgent action to see why some people could interpret religion this way, if the reports were true of course).  

On the other hand UK institutions shouldn’t be apologizing for such a silly thing, but for allowing a part of its people to live in a condition whereby they feel they are always being targeted, to the extent that they feel threatened even by a cute and innocent puppy.

I received many comments regarding my previous piece “On Building Bridges and Winning Hearts”, mostly of readers accusing me of being “Pro-Western Media” and turning a blind eye to the many biases and inaccuracies that occur in American and European media.

To those I say please go back and read what I wrote again, I never said that ‘Western’ media is flawless or argued that biases or mistakes don’t occur.

In fact I am a fierce critic of any mistakes or imbalanced reporting, whereever it happens.

I would also like to invite you to read my opening statement of “The Truth Behind The Myth” which was story I wrote last year for Asharq Al Awsat after visiting a number of media outlets and meeting with top journalists in the US (as part of an International Visitors Programme that coincidentally carries the name of American journalism icon, Edward R. Murrow).  

If you have read that piece ( available on http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=9052) you would have understood that I am with the school of thought that argues that there is absolutely no such thing as completely unbiased media to start with.  

However, where Western media is at an advantage is that is exists in a democracy, which in theory means that the media is there to serve the public interest and that it is subject to accountability on what it reports; which also means you can ultimately correct an inaccuracy or shame a bias once spotted and proved.  

Of course democracy has its flaws, I agree, especially when mixed with capitalism.

One could argue that this has resulted in many media outlets serving advertisers’ and owners’ interests rather than the public’s, and that spin doctors and pressuare groups will always find ways to sway you away from the truth. (and one should also mention that the West itself realizes these issues and debates them all the time).

Having said that, there are two points to consider here, first: what is the alternative? and the second is the fact that with all the plagues that Western media is infected with, it still is able to produce ‘breakthrough’ journalism.

We have to admit, although I know many might not want to, that  Watergate and Abu Ghraib were not a work of fiction… and that those were real stories written by real journalists (who are still alive) and have achieved real results.

But the issue doesn’t end there, the interesting part is that the reporters who have worked on those stories weren’t later banned from writing, labelled as traitors, arrested or suddenly killed in a car accident (or a car bomb for that matter!) as the case was several times in the Arab World when journalists sought to challenge authority.

Once we have admitted that the above is true, we could discuss Western media’s biases and inaccuracies all you want… and the beauty of it is that in theory; we can actually do something about it… that is the advantage of democracy.  

 

I really can’t help being skeptical every time a European or American broadcaster announces that it will launch an Arabic channel, mostly because of what I see as the combined failure of most similar projects.

It almost seems to me that many broadcasters forget that the trick is not to simply get the channel on air, but to become an influencial voice in a very cynical region.

Amina Khairy, a fellow journalist working with Al Hayat newspaper in Cairo, summarizes the situation in a very simple and straightforward answer; when asked recently by The Washington Post about her opinion in the American Al-Hurra channel, she answered: “Nobody ever says, ‘Did you see what al-Hurra did yesterday?’ ”, and I could add that the same can be applied to most of these recent ventures, such as Russia Today, France 24 and BBC Arabic Television.

But if you are one of those channels I just mentioned, please don’t be offended with what I said, as a person whose job it is to monitor Arab and international media closely, I can safely add  that the situation is similar with even the Arab owned news channels, such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera.

It could be that I’ve become so involved in the news-gathering business that everything I see on screen seems dull to me, but the truth of the matter is I am looking for a channel that reveals another Abu Ghraib or gives us a talk show that ‘grills’ guests for honest answers as the original ‘Hard Talk’ did.

Sometimes, I even dare to dream of our own version of Frost Vs. Nixon or better yet, our own Watergate!

However, if Arab media is excused for not being able to achieve these honors, due to political and ownership issues, what is the Western media’s excuse? I don’t think it should have one.

Please don’t get the impression that I am against European and American governments attempts to  ‘win the hearts and minds’ of Arabs and Muslims through the media, on the contrary I say to them in all honesty: please be my guest!

In fact, the mixing of the two cultures would have tremendous value… Western journalists need to understand the region and its people better, and Arab journalists need to get exposed to Western methods of investigation and reporting… the way I see it everyone is a winner.

Even though the notion “winning hearts and minds” that we keep hearing may blow a channel’s intergrity and claim to unbaised reporting, I still respect the fact that many countries are trying to reach out to my region of the world and try to build bridges, despite the fact that the traffic on these bridges goes one way.

Sometimes, I really think things should be the other way around, we are the ones always complaining about being misunderstood, about the West turning a blind eye to our causes and agonies… thus, we are the ones who should be launching channels and getting spokespeople out there to explain and re-explain over and over again.

Al Jazeera International would have been a great tool and it still could be, if it manages to pull its act together that is. Whereas one of the most praise-worthy attempts to reach out and explain the realities of Arab and Muslim views came as a personal effort from non other than Queen Rania of Jordan.

If you haven’t checked out Her Majesty’s YouTube page http://www.youtube.com/queenrania , I really recommend you do so, simply because it portrays what a true debate should look like: opinions from people living in the West which includes even criticizing and even insulting Islam and Arabs, and postings by others (including vlogs The Queen herself) to clarify and set the facts straight.

All this is happening on YouTube, while a Western broadcaster that recently launched an Arabic channel was hesistant to report on homosexuality , because one of its Arab producers thought that the topic “didn’t fit the culture and traditions of our region”… I really wonder what is next, perhaps not report anything at all? You know, because one could argue that corruption, abuse of power, crime, rasicim and secetrianism for example are not relevant to our culture as well.        

    

On the 6th of June, I revealed through a story written for the leading international Arab daily, Asharq Al Awsat, that EuroNews – the pan European broadcaster, will be re-launching its Arabic channel on July 12th at an event held at The “Institute Du Monde Arabe” in Paris.

http://www.asharq-e.com/news.asp?section=5&id=12998

This was confirmed by EuroNews’s Managing Director, Michael Peters, in an interview which followed a recent event the European multilingual broadcaster held in London recently to launch its new look and brand image, which evolves basically around the concept of being “Pure”.

EuroNews doesn’t spend its money on studios, presenters and reporters” but on “being available in various languages” Peters said.

Also, he defended the channels’ unique point of differentiation… which is having no reporters on the ground, explaining that reporters bring a certain bias to a story by default.

Peters also gave me another exclusive piece of information in my interview with him for Asharq Al Awsat:

EuroNews will have a roaming reporter for the whole Middle East based in either Doha or Dubai.

Now, regardless if you think the concept is genius or not… it does provide a different offering to what is currently available in the market, be it the one provided by the well established Arab news channels, namely Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya… or the foreign new-comers such as Al Hurra, France 24, Russia Today and BBC Arabic (as a television channel).

However, the million dollar question (at least for EuroNews which unlike its western counterparts IS in the region for adversities money despite securing funds from the European Commission for the first 5 years), will the so-called “Purity” win over Arab viewers?

The Middle East isn’t your average region, its an area with a lot of “pollution”: wars, division and a population which has complained from being misunderstood for decades.

Michael Peters himself admits to this by saying “most of the time the viewers themselves are part of the story”, however he argues that EuroNews’s approach is that it treats it’s audiences “as adults”, which he says means that the channel doesn’t seek to impose views on them and leaves them to come up with their own opinion.

The other thing Peters explains is that the channel is also targeting Arabs living in Europe.

Two things to say here:

One of my favourite quotes which became almost an automated response that I get whenever I ask a Western news channel about bias and accuracy is “at times of crisis and wars, emotions run high and balance may be seen as bias”.

What this means is despite that EuroNews might think its approach is “Pure”, many Arab viewers might still consider it to be not so.

The other thing is: Arabs in the Middle East and Arabs in Europe are completely different “target markets”; despite many similarities there are huge differences between the two… at least I sometimes think so, when I see a lot of Arabs in their own countries communicating in English or French and talking about the latest trends, while many who have long migrated to the West are still unable to speak in anything except Arabic.