The West and the Arab World: The Case of the Media
This article was originally published at daoudkuttab.com, and is an example of the kind of work readers can expect from Daoud Kuttab's Byline column in the future
This is the BBC from London, Voice of America from Washington, Deutsche Welle from Germany, Monte Carlo Radio from France. According to Reuters, AP wire service, UPI news. This is CNN. You are watching the Disney Channel, Hollywood channel, History Channel. Tonight’s feature is The Terminator. Follow the latest episodes of The Bold and the Beautiful, Dallas, Friends, The Practice, NYPD Blue, Law and Order.
The above is a small sample of the barrage of media outlets and programs that fill every moment of every day for Arabs and Muslims. The powerful media outlets provide us with the news, chosen, directed, and spun by western media practitioners in New York, Washington, Atlanta, London, and Paris. Open any newspaper in cities like Cairo, Casablanca, or Islamabad and you will read more news and see more photos coming from western wire services than from any other.
We are also drenched with entertainment written and produced by creative talents from places like Hollywood and Orlando. These shows receive awards with names like Oscars and Emmys from cities like Los Angles, California and Cannes, France. View a television station in Riyadh, Algiers, or Manila, and you will no doubt see programs originally written in American English, about people living in American cities dealing with issues of interest to Americans. Attend any cinema hall in Amman, Beirut, or Jakarta, and you will see a flick staring blue-eyed, blonde white men or women crushing bad guys with black hair and brown eyes.
Western media in all its forms is a major import item in the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is not restricted to powerful media carriers (CNN, BBC, and Monte Carlo). Western media is also a major producer of fiction, as well as non-fiction content.
In a region that is very young (the majority of the population in the Arab and Islamic world is under 25), this modern cultural colonialism has created a huge desire to emulate the West. News and analysis from the western world is taken at face value, film stars are bigger than life, and fashion trends seen in movies and television quickly become adopted by a young, hero-less Arab and Muslim population.
What has happened to us? How did we find ourselves on this slippery slope? Where are the alternative media outlets, films, and heroes that reflect this region’s rich culture and traditions?
To answer these question we have to recognize that we are not in this problem alone. Western media hegemony is not restricted to the Arab and Muslim worlds, but is global. But where other regions, nations, and communities have realized this problem and have attempted to remedy it, our region continues to consume western culture without any reservations, hesitations, or efforts to look for other sources of strength within our own societies.
Part of the problem comes from political and military defeat. Many defeated nations are fascinated with their victors, and often study them ad nauseam. Blacks in South Africa knew their oppressive white minority government much better than the whites understood the majority black population. Palestinians know more about Israel and Israelis than the other way around. A look at how many people around the world speak English and how many English speakers speak another language supports this assumption.
To change this imbalance an extraordinary effort must be exerted to change the flow of information from the present flood of west to east, to a more equitable two- way relationship. There is no doubt that both east and west have a lot to offer each other. Lessening this asymmetry requires a multi-layered approach. The present western hegemony must be balanced with a serious attempt to get the peoples of the East to better represent themselves in the eyes of the West.
The twentieth century’s colonial policy of divide and rule has left its effect on media consumption. With the Arab and Muslim region divided and weak, the West has not only ruled it politically, but also in the media field. The media industry (and we should never forget that it is an industry) is expensive. Erecting powerful transmitters, creating quality programs, and supplying firsthand news is an expensive operation. Small countries are unable to compete with these multi-national conglomerates, thus leaving powerful media carriers a virtual monopoly on both media carriers and media content.
Arab and Muslim peoples have not only been divided and splintered, but they have also been cursed with undemocratic political regimes that have confiscated the popular will of their own people. These autocratic regimes have hijacked media and media content, forging it to fit their own political desires and ambitions of staying in power. Media ownership in the Arab world, has been almost totally in the hands of the ruling powers. Cultural production and other creative endeavors have also been hijacked to the degree that these artists have become mere cheer leaders to kings, emirs, presidents, and prime ministers.
The hegemony of western media has reached dangerous proportions and requires a strong, unified, and serious strategy. This strategy needs to work on two tracks. It must provide the peoples of the region with credible and independent media outlets and, at the same time, a unified effort must be exerted to begin the hard process of creating alternative media content that can be taken seriously by an ever skeptical public. Arabs have a major advantage over many other nations. All Arab nations speak, read, and understand the same language. For an independent media to develop, attention to professionalism is paramount. The success of the Arab network al-Jazeera has as much to do with the professionalism of its staff and their ability to work independently than any other factor.
The success of networks such as al-Jazeera, MBC, LBC, and al-Arabiya is also the result of smart Arab media entrepreneurs using modern technology and proven international media standards to produce quality television. Our search for a unique and independent media from that of the West need not reject the latest internationally available techniques and technologies developed in the West. We are not obliged to reinvent the wheel to produce genuine Arabic media.
A strong Arab media also needs to pay attention to everything that is local and indigenous. When Arabs start looking inwardly in a critical way, the rest of the world will take both the Arab media and Arabs much more seriously. We can’t expect to participate in a serious dialogue with the West unless we first develop a genuinely independent media that pays attention to our own issues. Only when we have the courage and willingness to dialogue with each other, can we succeed in organizing a dialogue with the rest of the world.
Cover image: Mike Fleming 2008