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Sultana's Dream
May 2011

EYE WITNESS


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Australia Media and the Middle East:
A Birds Eye View

This year marks three decades since the publication of Edward Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World  (Said: 1981). Written in the wake of the ‘70s oil shocks and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Covering Islam set out to describe ‘Western and specifically American responses to an Islamic world perceived, since the early seventies, as being immensely relevant and yet antipathetically troubled and problematic.’

While ‘the rest of the world’ may have changed substantially in the past thirty years – and the Middle East has changed substantially during the past few months - Said’s analysis of media coverage of Islam is still depressingly relevant. The overthrow of Middle Eastern dictators still has the power to generate English-language (often referred to sweepingly as ‘Western’) media coverage, in which Muslims are depicted as inherently irrational and unreliable - safest when controlled rather than liberated.

Yet despite the resilience of such clichés, today’s media landscape is considerably more diverse that that surveyed by Said three decades ago. Media junkies are no longer restricted to the coverage provided by their local mainstream outlets, thanks to the Internet, satellite television, and the advent of new and social media.

In an era when Australian readers can log onto US and UK publications with the click of a mouse, the local angle remains an important component in the coverage of major international stories. The plight of Australian tourists stranded in Egypt received widespread coverage, as some of those marooned in Cairo airport complained of being “abandoned” by the Australian government; their eventual evacuation and return to hometowns, ranging from Melbourne to Gympie, was also extensively reported.

Journalists themselves became part of the story in Egypt, as Kevin Rudd expressed concern at the arrest of Australian journalists. Other Western correspondents also reported being detained, harassed and/or roughed up. The most high-profile story of this kind was that of CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who suffered, what her network described as, “a brutal and sustained sexual assault” in Cairo’s crowd-packed Tahrir Square on the night of Mubarak’s resignation. The Lara Logan story was reported prominently in the United States and received coverage in Australia as well.

Despite the fact that the evidence indicates that she was attacked by pro-Mubarak thugs, rather than Mubarak opponents, the attack on Logan was seen as a “bad omen” for Egypt’s post-Mubarak era. As media outlets such as the New Yorker and Newsweek reported, women played a prominent role in the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Mubarak. However, women at a post-Mubarak International Women’s Day demonstration were reportedly jeered and heckled by men who chanted the recent political slogan “The people want to bring down the regime” - substituting the word “women” for the words “the regime”.   Women being utilised and then discarded for the purposes of popular revolution is a common story, according to New Statesman writer Laurie Penny.

Notably, the media coverage of the recent political upheavals has included far more reportage and commentary from people of Arab and/or Muslim background. In Australia, Muslim writers such as Waleed Aly and Ruby Hamad provided their perspectives on the overthrow of Mubarak and their hopes for the future.

The views of former Muslims were also much sought-after. Some such former Muslims reinforce long-standing stereotypes in their writing. Hirsi Ali’s analysis of post-Mubarak Egypt, citing her own teenage years in the Muslim Brotherhood in Kenya as the basis for her expertise, was syndicated around the world, including in The Australian. It was “highly likely but not inevitable” that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the forthcoming elections in Egypt, because “they will insist that a vote for them is a vote for Allah’s law”. In other words, Egypt was in danger of overthrowing one tyranny only to clear the way for another.

The role of new media also formed part of the story of the recent political turmoil.  Australian publisher/journalist/public menace (depending who you ask) Julian Assange, claimed credit for the overthrow of Tunisian President Ben Ali, suggesting that information provided by Wikileads on the shaky nature of the relationship between Ben Ali and Washington had given the Tunisian people “the confidence they needed to attack the ruling political elite.” And demonstrators were reported to have made good use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to rally supporters, organise demonstrations, and muster international support. Indeed, one Egyptian couple was reported to have been so grateful for the role of social networking sites in the revolution that they named their newborn daughter “Facebook” in tribute.

In an age of the Internet and satellite television, the Western media no longer has the field to itself. As the New York Times reported, Al Jazeera English hoped that its coverage of the dramatic events in Cairo might provide the network with a breakthrough in gaining access to the US market. Not surprisingly, Al Jazeera provides a more three-dimensional representation of Arabs and Muslims that most Western media coverage. Yet according to an article by Michael Mumisia in the UK Independent, Al Jazeera was among the international networks to reiterate racist scare tactics in the coverage of Gaddafi’s black African mercenaries.

Sadly, Libya is still engulfed by violence as I write these words, with no end in sight. The brutal suppression of the uprising in Libya revived allegations of pro Libyan sentiments in the 1980s on the part of Australian left-wing political figures: Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell, Nuclear Disarmament Party Senator Irina Dunn, and the late left-wing politician Bill Hartley, all of whom had visited Libya at Gaddafi’s invitation. Most of these activists were reported to have “changed their tune” as the Gaddafi regime faced international condemnation from across the political spectrum. There was an international scramble to dissolve any association with Saif al-Gaddafi, from figures ranging from academics at the London School of Economics, to the leader of the Australian Islamic Friendship Association Keysar Trad.

David Burchell, writing in the Australian, saw recent events in the Middle East as an indictment, rather than a vindication of Edward Said’s “child-like” political perspective. “You can search Said's articles in vain for the words now on the lips of young people across the region: democracy, freedom, women's rights.”

However, as shallow reductive media coverage of Muslims and Islam continues apace, Said’s analysis is still sadly relevant. Yet there are signs of hope according to Julie Posetti, journalist, and journalism academic at Canberra University who had this to say:

'… ultimately I expect the new mediums will overthrow reliance on traditional media, displacing their narrow frames and enabling more diverse portrayals of Muslim women that start to cut through to the mainstream. One moment that gave me hope during the Egyptian Revolution came via the Facebook page of the legendary New York Times foreign correspondent, Nicholas Kristoff (http://www.facebook.com/kristof). He returned from Tahrir Square to post a status update in which he confessed to being forced to confront ingrained prejudices about veiled Muslim women who raise fists in protest...against despotic regimes.'

Although in the years since 9/11, anti-Muslim voices have become ever more pervasive and shrill, the good news is, that in the years since the publication of Covering Islam, alternative perspectives have become far easier to locate… for those who choose to seek them.


Shakira Hussain

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