Turkey`s new “Arab” politics officially hits Al Jazeera Forum in Qatar

Sitting yesterday at the keynotes morning session of the sixth Al Jazeera Forum would have given you a quick glimpse into the Arab world (and Qatar, of course) current foreign policy. Former Brasilian President Lula was here, applauded by the youth and social media activists that Al Jazeera has gathered from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Yemen, Morocco. Lula spoke about how Brasil has underwent a democratic process over the years, a process which didn`t stop when he left. On the contrary, he felt he should leave and don`t run for another term, he said, in order to apply the democratic principles of transparency and alternation  of power that he has been preaching over the years. Arab youth applauded and asked enthusiastic questions.

But the real “rockstar” so far has been Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoğlu who focused his speech on his  Zero problem policy” , a theory according to which it is possible to leave in peace if the other political actors and neighbors respect local values and will.

He called upon the re-assessment of “abnormalities” in the Middle East Region, two of them being colonialism and cold war, both bearing devastating effects. Colonialism has impacted on local populations by cutting ties between cultures historically close one to each other, like for example Iraq and Syria, condemned to be ruled one by UK and the other by France. Same happened during the cold war, which severed ties between Turkey and Syria, one falling under the NATO umbrella and the other under the former Soviet Union one.

He pointed out how the current uprisings shaking the Arab world, particularly the Tunisian and Egyptian, have contributed to re-establish these ties and bring populations in the Region closer again one to another. Uprisings are restoring balance in the Region, since the “old” regional order was the one imposed by foreign powers and not by the will of people or by the “natural flow of history” , as Davutoğlu named the process which  bringing revolutions to the Arab homeland.

But in order to keep circulating  the “good vibes” generated by this phenomena, we should follow some principles, says the Foreign Minister.

The first one is to keep self-confidence going. “Few days ago at a meeting, I told EU members that we want dignity.. we have been humiliated for too many years, now ordinary Arab wants to get their history back proudly”.

The second one is to keep always a balance between security and freedom, as none of them can be ignored in favor of the other.

The third one is no foreign intervention, as “the guarantee for the stability of the country is its people”. “We should trust our nation…the Cold war era was when other people where mediating for us. when we could not talk to each other…Now this time is over and have to discuss more, hold more meetings, prepare common strategies”. “No foreign intervention should be allowed, we should decide for our own future, but we should show wisdom to carry this process on”, said the Minister  in front of a young crowd totally fascinated by his energetic words of hope.

He stressed on how some words -tension, violence- have always being used by Orientalists to the describe the Middle East “but we are the land of civilization”. His “feel-good” self-confident theory is perfectly matching with this new empowered Arab youth, armed by the weapons of self-expression version 2.0 (smart phones, social networks, etc). They strongly believe that the future is in their hands , not in anybody`s else.

And when he says that “we can create a new economic and cultural order based on young people”, the applause and the enthusiasm are contagious. Yes, we can! Davutoğlu is the Arabs` Obama.
Behind this legitimate enthusiasm, this speech can tell us more on what`s currently happening in the Region. Turkey is now a super-power in the Arab world, and  Davutoğlu `s Turkey is definitely looking at a young Arab world instead of looking at an old Europe.
Why should Turkey be the last EU country when it can be the first country in the Middle East? That`s in fact what it is doing, turning its back to an ungrateful European Union which has never welcomed this Muslim country to join the EU selected club; and looking at a new young promising face.
Turkey is enjoying an incredible amount of soft-power in the Arab world, a combination of shifting its foreign policy (remember Prime Minister Erdogan walking out of Davos meetings in 2009 as a protest towards Israelis attack on Gaza?) and starting a sort of “cultural colonization” to the Arab world (the Troy horse being the Turkish TV drama, which was dubbed in Syrian dialect and was so successful to push Turkey to open a dedicated channel in Arabic, where all Turkish  musalsalat are being broadcast). Recently, Turkey has waived the entry visa for many Arab countries, including Syria, and it has become one of the most famous tourists` destination for Arabs (just watch some Syrian musalsalat and pay attention at where the characters go to honeymoon).
It seems to be a new axes of alliances in the Region and Turkey is definitely there, together with Syria and Qatar, of course.
Turkey has been very clever on building a momentum on its new status vis-a-vis the Arabs, who seem totally to have forgotten that Turks were colonialists, too, and not less harsh on Arabs than Europeans, but of course Muslims, which makes the issue different.
This Turkey that speaks of “zero foreign intervention” is the same Turkey which allowed US to lead a war on Iraq from its lands, or maybe it is not. It is a new Turkey.
A Turkey which speaks a new language, and which has probably much less an EU priority now, and much more a Middle Eastern strategy to perform.
And it does it in a beautiful way, by appointing a fine academic like Davutoğlu as    Minister of Foreign Affairs, somebody who was able today to address the Arab youth in fluent Arabic without hesitation.
Where does Europe stand in all this? Where is our European Union, which has totally lost the contact with the Middle East and doesn`t know this youth at all?
And why is it not calling  upon its many scholars, its anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists who know the Arab world, its language, culture and societies?
We do have the resources, we just don`t know how to use them. Or maybe we are too lazy to use them, or not interested at all to look at this issue and invest in it. Either ways, that`s bad. Wake up Europe, and come to meet the new Region, otherwise you will become obsolete..

source: @aljazeeraforum

(Al Jazeera`s  cameraman Ali Hassan al Jaber was killed on Saturday in eastern Libya. Deepest condolences to his family, friends, and all the network employees who loved and respected him for the way he carried on his difficult work..)

Creative Commons at Al Jazeera Forum

Creative Commons was at Al Jazeera Forum on the 14th march. There was a co-hosted day featuring a panel on “Building successfull projects on open networks”. Joi Ito, Creative Commons’ Ceo, moderated a debate with Mohamed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera presenting the CC Al Jazeera repository case study; Helmi Noman from Harvard University talked about Arab content on the web; and a nice delegation from European Broadcasting Union headed by Nicoletta Iacobacci, Head of New Media was there to discuss the issues, together with blogger and media activist Danny Schetcher from Mediachannel.org.  New media is getting more important than ever, even from a TV news channel perspective as Al Jazeera, and it was interesting to discuss all those issues in the framework of the Forum. Plus, it was great to see a very active Arab world CC group forming, putting together people with different backgrounds and skills, from lawyers to IT experts from bloggers to language experts. This was a great beginning that should hopefully have a follow up on many topics that are core to be developed in the Arab world, like having more content in Arabic over the web, enhancing the new born web 2.0 communities and fostering sharing and cooperation among Arab youngsters.


Al Jazeera Forum just over in Doha

Al Jazeera Fourth Forum (14-16th march) is just over in Doha, Qatar. Three days of debates mostly focused on geopolitics from a middle eastern perspective: the strategic importance of Turkey and Iran as neighbouring countries, but also of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China. This is the “new world political order” the Al Jazeera way: not only US, not only Europe, not western centered. The Forum agenda seems to reflect perfecly this emerging perspective, which is also interpreted on a TV level by the English channel.

But for the Arabs the debate that first counts is still the Middle East and particularly the Palestinian issue.

Gaza is still the hottest potato: and, as remarked by one of the panelists of today’s Gaza session, we don’t have to consider it “history” yet. 3iani, we can’t consider it as a written page but more likely as a still-to-be-written one. There are many individuals and organisations in Europe currently working to bring Israel to the International Court for having committed a crime against humanity, so the page is yet to be written. Moreover, as the world famous journalist Robert Fisk recalls -he is one of the guests of the panel together with Alain Greish from Le Monde Diplomatique and Ahmed Sheikh, Al Jazeera Head of News-, in Western media we also have the problem of facing the past, i.e. to trace back the real beginning of the Gaza crisis which is not on the 26 of dec 2008. He reminds the audience that the crisis started more than 2 years ago, in 2006, and since then the Palestinian population was isolated and suffered a big humanitarian crisis. He sadly adds that the media in general is conflict-driven, the TV channels don’t light their cameras if there is not a “story” (which should be an invasion, a rocket, but not people that are starving and dying).  The problem is, Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Sheikh remarks, that then they started to be very suspicious about why channels like Al Jazeera have access to this kind of stories, while the answer is very easy: because we invested before, we have been there for many years, he said.

Same in Afghanistan: I remember that when Tayseer Allouni, Al Jazeera correspondent over there was the only to get access to Bin Laden for an interview and then the office was receiving the famous tapes everybody was attacking the channel. Why Al Jazeera? Why not another? Well, answer is easy: cause they were there, they invested money, they built a relation with them. Just like CNN did with Peter Arnett in the First Gulf War, but at the time nobody would have found it strange.

I think it’s time to stop asking questions like this and blaming Al Jazeera. I think it’s time that European media, too, invest in crisis zone but not actually only when the conflict is happening. I think it’s time we start to understand places like the Arab world, Afghanistan, and whatever by living there, understanding the languages, making an effort to understand the cultures, too. Otherwise, we will be to blame. And when somebody from the audience asks Al Jazeera Arabic why they haven’t been as “objective” as Al Jazeera English was in reporting the Gaza conflict (I wonder if the guy does actually understand arabic but it is very unlike: most likely he has just watched images on the Arabic channel and then decided they were biased anyway), Ahmed Sheikh has to remind him that they interviewed many Israeli officials, and they gave the floor and the airspace to Israelis, too. Robert Fisk actually adds something very important to the current debate about “objectivity” in the news: what does it mean to be “objective” in such a situation like Gaza?Does it mean we have to give 50% of airtime to Israelis and 50% of the time to Palestinians and let the audience decide by itself?Is it possible to do this for Gaza the same way we do it during an election or a football match by giving the floor to one party or the other, to one team or the other (what we call in Italian TV, borrowing by Latin, “par condicio” which ends up to be a “sandwich news”? first half cheese, second half tomato in equal parts..)? How can we apply this rule in a situation where journalists are prevented to enter where the actual conflict is happening?So how can they actually report the two sides of the story if one side is forbidden by the other side to be watched and told?

Fisk thinks we have to think about justice before thinking about “objectivity” (which by the way doesn’t exist in general terms and particularly in this Gaza situation for the reasons above mentioned) and I actually do agree with him. We shouldn’t be ashamed to have an ethic in our profession, or values that drive us. Values are not only “objectivity” which by the way can’t be applied in such an unjust unbalanced situation. How can the news be balanced and objective if the situation is objectively unbalanced?

This is, I have to say, a very bad Western habit to think that values can be applied in general conditions while there are no general conditions ever. There is always a context.

Having said that, I really wish Western media can understand and move forward. The real point is not how much floor you give to Palestinians and Israelis, the real point is how you frame the context of what’s happening. And how you portay the Palestinians, too. Cause actually there is no such a general thing as Palestinians, there are different human beings that think different ways. There are Palestianians who are against Hamas, others who are against Fatah, and others that are simply against both of them. The issue is much much more complicated than this. The real question is: how can we expect to challenge Al Jazeera -which could be actually be challenged for the way it portays Palestinians and for the way it portrays one part of the Palestianians as it was all of them- if first, we don’t understand it, and secondly, we are always stressing on this “generalisation process”? Palestinians are no more individuals, they become just a collective entity opposed to Israelis in our generalised view. I wish I could see one day a more complex and deeper debate on those issues which concern us as media professionals and as human beings too.


photo by Joi Ito published under Creative Commons license: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/3358743639/in/photostream/