Friday, October 29, 2010

What do we talk when we are talking about the Middle East

At the beginning of this week, I had the wonderful occasion to participate to the conference Qantara Conference organized in Berlin, by Deutsche Welle and the German Federal Foreign Office. Under the motto "Troublemaker or facilitator? The role of the media in intercultural dialogue", there were brought together media executives and journalists from the Middle Eastern region or with connections - included family ties - in the area.

It was very interesting to watch the perceptions from both sides of the world. During the Cold War, we had the East versus the West, now the poetry is to use the dichotomy "Middle East versus the West". There are strong connections between the two perceptions, as the Middle East used to be, as Africa, a playground for showing off the geopolitical muscles between US and the Soviet Union.

The general situation of the media in the region is far of being clear: there is no country for free media and the political regimes are imposing their lines without limits - one example is the rule to use anti-Semitic and stereotypical descriptions of the state of Israel. I was familiar with this situation of intensive repression against the critical thinking and serious journalism before attending the conference. But, I was extremely surprised by the position of some journalists originally from the region living in the Western world, as it was the case of Abdelbari Atwan, editor-in-chief of Al Quds Al Arabi (Arab Jerusalem, in English) from London, a town where he lives - as he outlined several times during his interventions - for decades. The cartoon "crisis" was portrayed incessantly as an example of the "hate", "animosity", "misunderstanding" of the Western world towards the cultural sensitivities of the Middle East. But such a presentation in itself is an example of misunderstanding: in the West, media are free and any direct involvement of the state - including by creating codes of conduct against attacking religion, as it was proposed on various occasions during the conference. Hate speech of any kind might be prosecuted - I wondered how nobody asked bluntly about the high volume of anti-Semitism and xenophobia you might read and watch in the Middle Eastern media - but it is very important how and who is setting the terms of the journalistic discourse.

As long as we have to deal with journalists respecting their works and, implicitly, their readers, you don't need laws and censorship. The heritage of the Enlightenment in Western Europe is that the human beings are perfectible through education and culture.

The issues of interest for the journalists from both parts are similar: the social influence of widespread 2.0 world - it was interesting, for example, to discover how in Egypt, the division between Sunni and Shi'a become of public interest following the various debates held on forums, during the war in Iraq, how to educate the public opinion by writing positive news. Each time the discussion was moved at this level, the ethnic and geographic origins don't matter. But, once it was pronounced the word "Palestine" and "Israel", the normality was down. And this is the situation we are facing now.

Case in which, the Western media have to continue to behave professionally, with high concern for check-and-balances, in dealing with the Middle East, including by going through a proper documentation before reporting about the region. There are encouraging examples, as most part of the reports from Spiegel online and Deutsche Welle. But, equally, it is a need for improving connections with the journalists from the region, also by offering them possibilities to understand the critical thinking and the need to separate your inner beliefs from the naked facts. And, talking with people and exchanging ideas is the first step towards a long waited change.

If this conference disappointed me a bit and confirmed my pessimistic prospects for a prosperous, democratic and peaceful Middle East, my optimism was rescued at the end of the week, while watching the interventions at TEDxHolyLand. Palestinian and Israeli women, outperforming in their domains, shared their journeys. When politics are put aside, the future have a sound, other then the sound of the guns. I don't expect too much to be achieved in the area of peace from the part of the politicians, but I truly hope that free minds think alike.

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