There was some serious soul searching done in the 10th edition of the Arab Media Forum held in Dubai this week under the auspices of the Dubai Press Club. It covered issues from the battered image of Arab citizens to the state of the Arab media, from the impact of WikiLeaks on Arab rulers to the role of social media in recent uprisings in the region. More than 2,400 regional and international journalists as well as media professionals from 40 countries followed debates at the forum.
I was invited to speak on the perception of Arabs in the Western media in a panel discussion attended by Agence France Presse (AFP) Editor Jacques Charmelot; President of the Arab American Communication & Translation Center Farah Atassi, who is of Syrian descent and a US citizen; independent journalist Joe Lauria, who dropped a bombshell on Turkey last year with a Wall Street Journal interview with Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen who resides in the US; former CNN anchor Octavia Nasr, who when sacked for “admiring Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah,” went on to form Bridges Media Consulting; and Philip Seib, professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California.
First of all, Arabs are not the only ones who have suffered from a negative perception problem. To varying degrees, Americans, French, British, Latinos, Asians, Africans and Turks all have image problems of their own. What is bizarre in the Turkish case, however, is that the media in Turkey, the landmass of which stretches between the European and Asian continents, has for a long time displayed the same characteristics of Arab perception as the Western media because it chose to get information from Western sources. In a way, we inherited problems from the West. Despite being located in the Middle East region, Turkey’s media establishment pretty much ignored what had been happening in the Arab world.
Most narratives about Arab citizens were translated from Western media outlets and published in Turkish for the domestic audience. Therefore, the negative image of Arabs as violent, backward thinking, nomadic and women’s rights-snubbing was boosted in the Turkish media as well. What is more, the political discourse mimicking the West throughout much of modern Turkish history also reinforced the image of “betrayal” of Arabs who are not trustworthy. The bipolar system of the Cold War and the close alliance of Turkey with the West at the expense of its immediate neighborhood made the perception of the Arab world worse.
It may be premature to say whether the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have changed the negative image of Arabs on a sustainable level. A survey taken while the events are still unfolding may not tell the true tale of where we are headed. We have to look at the root causes of the problem, which I think go beyond the state of current affairs. I remember we had similar debates in the post-9/11 period as well. For me, the main issue is the failure to understand one another, and this feeds back into stereotypes, biases and prejudices. Of course political leaders who used “reconstructed images” as a way to advance the goals of the nation-state also exacerbated the problem.
It is true that recent anti-regime protest movements unfolding in the region revealed that Arabs have the same admirations and expectations as everybody else. They want a representative government that is transparent, accountable and respectful of human rights and freedoms as well as a provider of economic opportunity. Will that be enough to dramatically change the perception problem in the Western media? Hardly. As anti-Muslim campaign platforms make headway in Europe and the US, the image of Arabs as well as of Turks will continue to suffer. The rising Islamophobia on party tickets has now become “institutionalized” with xenophobic far-right parties set to take part in coalition governments. The minaret ban in Switzerland and burqa ban in France pushed the anti-Muslim agenda into becoming a part of national law.
Then why do media in Turkey have similar problems to those in the West when it comes to the perception of Arabs, even though the country is predominantly Muslim? Again poor knowledge and a lack of information would be the immediate answer. According to a study done by a Turkish think tank, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), last year, one-third of Turks have positive image of Arabs, which is very low. If you look deeper into responses with respect to individual countries, you realize the fundamental problem is caused by simply not knowing enough.
For example, when respondents were asked their view on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) 28.9 percent said they had a positive image, while 22.5 percent had a negative one. A staggeringly high percentage of the people said they were either undecided (28 percent) or had a neutral view (20.6 percent). That means close to 50 percent of people had no idea about the UAE. The appalling results should galvanize us to immediately develop partnership programs with a special focus on youth. The survey also revealed that the young have a much better view of Arabs than their elders. Therefore, we have much reason to be hopeful for the future. But youth must be supported with projects such as student exchange programs, internships for young journalists, business partnerships, etc.
Nobody can deny the power of media in shaping perceptions. In the last couple of years we have seen popular Turkish soap operas shown on Arabic channels, which helped boost the positive image of Turks in Arab public opinion. According to a study done by another Turkish think tank, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), on seven Arab countries, 75 percent of respondents said they had a positive perception of Turkey. In contrast however, we do not have a single Arab series being aired on any Turkish station. Al Jazeera is set to start broadcasting in Turkish soon, and it may help repair the image problem of Arabs in Turkey.
It is commendable that the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) has been tasked to review the history books of 22 Arab countries and of Turkey to make them more scientific and free from stereotyping and biases. Syria and Turkey did this in 2008, and a similar project is being conducted between Turkey and Iraq. Unfortunately, the political and ideological factors that shaped modern history fed into these prejudices with notorious references of each other’s history. The cleansing of textbooks from these “reconstructed images” is very important in eliminating the bias in young people in the early stages of education.
Increased mobility among countries may be another panacea for the image problem as well. We have seen how the visa liberalization agreement between Turkey and Syria, which was signed in 2009, boosted the positive image in the countries’ respective public opinions. Turkish tourists going to Syria more than doubled to 1.5 million in 2010, a year after the two countries abolished visa requirements between them, while 750,000 Syrians visited Turkey. Similar negotiations for visa-waiving agreements are also going on between Turkey and the UAE.
I am optimistic about the possibility of changing the perception of Arabs in a more positive way in Turkey in the coming years. As Turkish foreign policy has become much more engaged in the affairs of the Middle East and Africa, we have seen increased interest in the media with Arab-related issues as well. A variety of Turkish-Arab forums — be it academic, professional or business-wise — are being held at different venues. We send reporters to cover breaking news in the Arab streets or keep bureau chiefs in important Arab capitals to take the pulse of the region. Turkish media have become fairly diversified in the last decade and no longer just rely on Western sources when reporting on Arab events.