The Arab widely spread media are imposing a blackout on the progressive voices in the Arab world and pushing sectarian divisions to unprecedented levels that threaten the multisecular inter-confessional peace that has reigned between Muslims, Shi’i and Sunni, on the one hand one and between Muslims and other religious groups on the other hand. In the midst of the media uproar we hear neither the voices of the progressives nor about their continued struggle against the residues of dictatorship. This total media blackout is intended to take the clout from the people by making them believe that revolutions are over. People were asked to vote, the turnout broke the records, “new regimes” are established, and the mission was accomplished; and the revolutionary euphoria has to die down. This is the gist of the media message that is being sent out to the millions of Arabs every day.
They are not short of excuses to justify their stance. Their widely cited excuse is that the new regimes should not be diverted from their crucial mission of building post-revolution institutions and ameliorating people’s living conditions. The Tunisian president and long time dissident, Moncef El Marzouqi, asked his people to afford him a six month social truce to put the country back on tracks. However, the airwaves, opinion columns and television screens—of the powerful and widely followed Gulf financed media—remain open for religious clerics and hardcore conservatives to unfold their political programs and spew their dangerous sectarian discourse in front of millions of Arabic speaking people every day. Powerful Gulf media, audiovisual and print, are providing political entities with Islamist leanings with continued media coverage and pulpits whence they expound day in day out their political programs and tout the electorate in their long term fight over hearts and minds of Arab citizens. In addition to constituting a morally and legally questionable practice because it breaches the national legislations that organize the electoral campaigns, these actions constitute a dangerous politically motivated inimical intervention in internal affairs of sovereign states. It is tantamount to corrupting the political life in the post-revolutions states.
It is a staggering reality that Islamists have benefited from their long term doctrinal and political affinities with the owners of powerful channels in the Gulf. They received more live coverage than any other political trend in the Arab world during critical electoral times during which a minute on a widely watched channel like Aljazeera is priceless. Islamist gurus, both political and spiritual, have become fixtures of these channels. Many Egyptian, Tunisian and Moroccan observers complained about the special attention dedicated by these media to Islamist parties, and about the double standards in their coverage. Moreover, it is easy to see that the Islamists are not “grilled” during these interviews. Observers agree that inviting specific guests during high television viewing times is strategic and constitutes an act of favoritism which is detrimental to the interests of other political groups, namely the progressives.
Many an observer speak about a media shift in the coverage of the uprisings in the Arab world. This shift started during the lead up to the Libyan war against Qaddafi’s regime (March 2011). We noticed how traditionally serious and highly independent media outlets—Arab and Western—slipped slowly into news fabrication by featuring dubious content from social media and inauthentic sources or even from unverifiable “eye witnesses”. This media strategy stemmed from three main reasons: 1) absence of correspondents on the ground because the dictators decided to ban foreign media and 2) the prevalence of national foreign policy agendas which imposed a multi-dimensional coverage of the uprisings in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, 3) the establishment of a variable geometry approach to the same core issue (struggle against dictatorship) in consistency with the national interests of the owners of Aljazeera and Al Arabiyya channels for example. Uprisings against enemy regimes were prioritized (such Libya and Syria) while people’s struggle in friendly regimes’ territory was overlooked (Yemen, Bahrain).
This practice reached its peak with the Syrian people’s uprising. Flouting the right of viewers/readers to impartial and authenticated information cannot be tolerated under the pretext of supporting civilian people against dictatorship. This practice is even more harmful to the interests of the protesters and their peaceful action to overthrow the loathed regime. Once people exposed to all these floods of misinformation find out from independent sources that what they heard was not true due to the exaggeration of the numbers of victims, the results can be harmful to the people’s cause. There is no stronger bitterness than feeling that your intelligence as a reader/viewer is disparaged by the media. The Syrian case illustrates this stance clearly. Every major Arab media is reporting on this uprising from sectarian point of view of the government, the owners and their foreign policy agendas. The Syrian people’s struggle against dictatorship is relegated to second degree importance. Hundreds of articles and news stories are being run repeatedly every day to vilify, dehumanize and delegitimize a specific Musilim group (Shi’a). Sunni-Shi’i sectarian polarization is not the smartest way to push forward a people’s longing for genuine democracy.
This sectarian polarization reached its height when the Shi’a and the Sunna are presented in binaries of evil and good. This does nothing but exacerbate the dormant historical political inter-Islamic animosities that made their way into religious discourse. It is intriguing to watch, over the course of almost a year, how the Syrian people’s legitimate uprising is gradually cloaked in the religious struggle between two radically opposed visions of Islam and the Middle East. Moreover, the baneful language used in popular programs like the “Opposite Direction” illustrates the existence of an intention to divert the Arab uprisings from their initial goal of change. This democratic overbidding and the push towards the sectarian militarization have one hefty goal, defeating the Arab people’s aspirations for change. The bloody end of Qaddafi’s regime and the harbingers of a long term sectarian civil war in Syria do not only intend to scare people in the “stable” countries but also aim to recreate a culture defeatism whereby people “fear for what they have” and propagate the idea that they do not want their countries to be “like Libya or Syria”. Many of us must have heard this rhetoric, time and again, from our co-citizens who praise our national exceptions.
The Arab media are steering political discourse to a direction totally contradictory to the spirit of the Arab uprisings. Arabs came together, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliation, to overthrow the dictatorships and establish democratic states where individuals are valued and respected as citizens. They wanted to put an end to the culture of subjecthood. But reality is staggering and disappointing sometimes. What we are witnessing these days is a rhetorical shift from the peaceful revolution, which is a patchwork, made of all Arab social and religious fabric, to the revival of old-fashioned confessional, religious and ethnic discords. This latter contradicts the basic principles of citizenship and the elementary right to difference and respect to which every citizen is entitled regardless of their religion or confession. When the Maspero events broke out in Egypt, one of the most influential religious clerics was interviewed on Aljazeera. He used the word “dhimmi”—an Islamic word for the minority status of non-Mulsims—in his call for appeasement between Muslims and Copts. The use of the word dhimmi, with its entire pejorative connotation, contradicts the culture of human rights and broaches all the principles upon which the Arab revolutions were launched. Moreover, singling out a religious group in the aftermath of very bloody events might be seen by some as an indirect incitement to reprisal against this specific group.
The sectarian card is being played in a somewhat differently in the context of the Syrian revolution. We have come across many news analyzes that stress heavily the Alawite vs Sunni nature of the revolution in Syria. This type of analysis is polarizing and dangerous and will result in far-reaching complications for the future of the country and the region as a whole. Depicting the victims of oppression as Sunni and the victimizers as Alawite, and thus Shi’i, fans the flames of hatred between two groups of people that not only share the same space, language, history and faith but they also share the same aspirations for a democratic state. Essentializing the Alawites, and the Shi’a by association, as oppressors cannot be beneficial to the future stability and nation building in the post-revolution Syria. There should be no equivocation that people’s struggle against the Baath dictatorship needs any media coverage it can garner. However, the media should also be aware that regimes are ephemeral but people are not. A sectarian war is and will be disastrous to their future coexistence of the people of this country.
A year ago, every Arab was holding their breath waiting to hear the name of the next ousted president. It was a year of lofty dreams, a year when people thought that they were able to achieve power, regain what belonged to them and everyone, including the writer of these lines, thought that Arabs were finally making their comeback to history. Indeed, Arabs effectuated a great comeback to history, they have been the center of the world’s attention for over a year and they will continue to be the center of more attention in the future. People, in the West especially, can definitely locate more Arab countries in the map. These revolutions showed the brightest side of the Arab people who have been associated with international terrorism for the last two decades. The bright side of peaceful activism, committed citizenship and deeply entrenched belief in freedom and equality and human rights. Universal values that the Orientalist narratives tried with all their rhetorical might to attribute only to Western cultures and stripping Arabs, and Muslims by association, of any human qualities and ability to understand history. Arabs have always been associated with hordes of angry people whose only concern in life is destroying the West and plotting against its people and their security. This type of thinking is certainly buried forever under the feet of the Arab people in the multimillion peaceful demonstrations that the whole world witnessed live from liberation squares.
The euphoria that accompanied the demonstrations in Tunisia, and the ensuing ouster of Ben Ali, the multimillion demonstrations in Cairo, the resignation of Mubarak and the ignition of the first sparks of the Libyan uprising in Benghazi were moving moments that every Arab lived deeply, rhymed with and wished they were “there” to witness them but also take part actively in their crystallization. The “liberation squares” were the shrines where prayers of thousands of citizens were directed. They became hollowed places where a whole people’s future was forming thanks to the efforts of its young leadership whose high aspirations and boundless dreams were only commensurate to the degree of suffering and deprivation whose toll Arab people have been paying for the last fifty years of their existence as independent nation states. Mahdi Ben Berka, the Moroccan opposition leader, who was kidnapped in Paris in October 1965, used to call youth “the yeast of independent Morocco”. It is a very beautiful trope for the way yeast works to ripen the dough. The savagery of dictatorship, the absence of any potential for social betterment and the grim future that was the lot of cohorts of university graduates ripened the dough of revolution even faster. It made the ineluctable change in these countries quicker than what the most insightful of scholars would not have predicted. Dictatorship was sure that its international alliances were enough to protect it from its people, and their international allies, in their turn were confident, that their clients would remain in power forever. Yet, they both forgot that the “yeast” of revolution of doing its work in the dough of society.
In conclusion, we say that the prevalence of Islamist discourse and sectarian rhetoric in the Arab media does not bode well for the long term stability, cohabitation and prosperity of people in the region. Exclusive and sectarian voices cannot implement the dreams of a revolution for they are too shortsighted and deeply mired in their limited understanding of politics to be able to shoulder the hefty responsibility of building post-revolution nations. It is ironic that all the progressives are forced to the backstage and those who rode the revolution from their exiles are being showcased as liberators. It is equally sad that Islamists, now in power, are reproducing the same “wooden language” of finding excuses every time they are pressed to talk about their solutions for the social and economic woes of their people. Arab media need to be wary of the fact that sectarian tendentious and biased coverage threatens the future of millions of people. Sectarian and ethnic cleavages cannot be buried even a hundred years after the success of the revolution. The actual polarization has all the ingredients necessary for this sectarian strife to breakout but none has a ready plan to put an end to it. Therefore, Revolutions YES but please spare the people decades of sectarian bloody wars.
Image: FreedomHouse (cc)