Friday, December 4, 2015

Quotable: Y. Feldner on sectarian animosity in Middle East broadcasting

Friday, December 4th 2015
The role of the media in the Middle East in aggravating Sunni-Shi’a tensions was the topic of Y. Feldner’s December 1, 2015, report, “Fitna TV: The Shi'ite-Bashing Campaign On Salafi TV Channels And Social Media,” on the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute. It reviewed Sunni-Shi’a tensions, violent rhetoric, and provocative commentary. Among his observations: “The Salafi TV channels broadcasting from Egypt and the Gulf have provided an ideological foundation for the murderous practices of ISIS and other Jihadi groups.”

Let me add an editorial comment on Public Diplomacy.  Feldner’s article is an example of reporting that helps an officer see the “forest” as well as the “trees.”  At one time, Public Affairs Officers and Information Officers at American embassies and consulates spent a great deal of time in face-to-face interaction with “the press.”  The interaction was not limited to press conferences and backgrounders.  A great deal of social interaction and mingling was necessary to develop rapport.  Time spent with journalists and editors allowed the Embassy to have not only a good view of opinion trends.  It also enabled evaluation of the status of journalism and media groups.  The time logged with journalists also gave the Public Diplomacy officers standing if they had to refute (or fend off) erroneous or tendentious news reports or columns.

My sense is that this social interaction has lessened over the years.  More and more demands on Public Diplomacy officers keep them at the Embassy.  Security concerns make travel, even within capitals, less frequent.  Dealing with the social media crowds out meeting with people at newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.  When the internet allows Washington to read every local article, and when the administration frowns from any off-message comment, meetings with journalists at the local Press Club have a potential down side for the American officer.  Fewer insightful Embassy reports on media trends are one result.  End comment.

Some bullets from the MEMRI report:

  • The 2000s witnessed the escalation of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in the Middle East, with virulent rhetoric fomenting on both sides of the sectarian divide. The anti-Shi'ite campaign has clearly been the more pervasive and acrimonious.

  • The first decade of the 21st century witnessed the development of three major hubs of extreme anti-Shi'ite discourse: 1) Egypt; 2) Saudi Arabia and the Gulf; and 3) North Africa. From there, the vilification of Shi'ites has spread to other parts of the Arab world and beyond.

  • The growth of sectarian animosity on broadcast media was facilitated by the proliferation of TV channels in some Middle Eastern nations in the 2000s and the rapid development of social media platforms.

  • . . . Osama Bin Laden was not keen to stir up this sectarian antagonism. He was entirely focused on the Jihad against the West, while maintaining some sort of modus vivendi with Iran and its satellite governments. . . . Al-Zarqawi departed from Bin Laden's hands-off approach vis-à-vis the Shi'ites. He declared "a total war of Sunni vengeance" against the Shi'ites . . .

  • While these events were unfolding, the rising Shi'ite-Sunni tensions were reverberating in Arab media across the Middle East, especially among Sunni Islamists. Many of the brutal practices for which ISIS has become notorious were being discussed approvingly by Salafi clerics on Arab TV channels.

  • In the mid-2000s, Egypt became an oasis for fanatic Sunni TV networks. During his last decade in power, President Mubarak endorsed a relatively pluralistic media policy, allowing the emergence of private TV channels, including Salafi Islamist channels.

  • Mubarak's liberal media policy did not extend to criticism of his own regime, but the private Islamist TV channels enjoyed much latitude in their violent incitement against secularists, homosexuals, and religious minorities.

  • . . . Egyptian Islamists were giving a voice to the same ideology of "Sunni vengeance" that Al-Zarqawi's successors were implementing in Iraq.

  • The massacre [of a Shi’ite congregation in Abu Musallam] enraged many in the Egyptian media, but the inciting sheikhs viewed it in a festive light, refusing to reflect about the consequences of their inflammatory rhetoric.

  • Wahhabi sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have served as the ideological and financial engine behind the anti-Shi'ite discourse throughout the Arab world. However, throughout most of the 2000s, Saudi authorities did not allow the establishment of private TV channels on Saudi soil. Saudi entrepreneurs were forced to establish their networks elsewhere – in most cases in Cairo . . .

  • North African Salafist clerics, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, have played a pivotal role in exporting the message of the "Shi'ite threat" across the Mediterranean Sea. While the issue of Jihadi, anti-Western, and antisemitic discourse by European Islamists has been extensively debated in the Western media, much less attention has been awarded to the growing anti-Shi'ite sentiment in European mosques and Islamic centers.

  • Sectarian incitement in the Arab media has not been one-sided. Over the past decade, numerous Shi'ite religious and political TV channels have emerged in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, the Gulf countries, and elsewhere, many adopting hyper-sectarian chauvinistic discourse. However, while the Salafi clerics have made no attempt to conceal their violent anti-Shi'ite hostility, the Shi'ite media has consistently employed a cleaner, more politically correct, rhetoric.

  • As eccentric and stinging the rhetoric of individual Shi'ite scholars has been, it does not compare in magnitude and malevolence with the Shi'ite-vilification movement that has risen in the Middle East, spreading to Europe and elsewhere. The Salafi TV channels broadcasting from Egypt and the Gulf have provided an ideological foundation for the murderous practices of ISIS and other Jihadi groups.

  • The efforts of Arab authorities to curtail this incitement have been inadequate in most countries. Despite the occasional chastising of rogue TV channels – usually induced by a random terror attack – the authorities have done very little in this regard. The Arab regimes have always appeared more eager to police their anti-blasphemy laws – a euphemism for offending Sunni sensitivities – than to protect religious minorities from the public and the media.

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