Emphasising the importance of the role of the media against the backdrop of national and international developments, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi recently called for the development of a constructive national media policy that would keep pace with these developments.
This has led me to consider the role of the Arab media in the US and the need to stimulate it and improve its efficacy in helping to safeguard Arab national interests.
Among the most important challenges Arab media faces in the US are the need to rectify the prevailing negative image of the Arab world, and the need to find ways to encourage Washington to adopt more just policies on questions of concern to the Arabs — the Palestinian cause above all. The Arab League, soon after its creation, realised the necessity of establishing Arab press offices in the US in order to address US public opinion, advocate Arab outlooks and contribute to the development of constructive, mutually beneficial Arab-US relations.
The first Arab League diplomatic mission to oversee Arab media relations in the US was opened in New York in 1954, which added to the league’s presence in New York in the form of a permanent observer delegation to the UN. It subsequently opened four more missions: in Washington, Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas. Some of these eventually had to close for financial reasons, but the missions in New York and Washington remained because of the centrality of these cities in US and international affairs.
In my capacity as an ambassador for the Arab League and the head of its missions in both Washington and New York, I had the opportunity to participate in many of the activities organised by and for the Arab media, and I was in a position to closely observe how Arab media organisations and their representatives handled operations in the US and responded to many formidable challenges over the years. Foremost among these challenges was the US’s unmitigated pro-Israeli bias and support for Israeli views and actions over Arab demands and interests.
The 11 September 2001 attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Centre and caused hundreds of casualties, had a huge detrimental impact on Arab-US relations, precipitating a sudden rise in anti-Arab suspicion and hostility among the American public who saw the perpetrators of the attack as an expression of Arab extremist anti-American hostility. The Bush administration’s war against an Arab country — Iraq — on the pretext it possessed weapons of mass destruction further intensified Arab-US tensions.
It helped little that the bulk of US media is heavily influenced by Israeli outlooks due to the powerful pro-Israeli Jewish lobby and the Arabs’ inability to bend that media’s ear to Arab concerns and viewpoints. Among the unfortunate consequences of that anti-Arab climate is that the rights and freedoms of many Arabs residing in the US and, indeed, many Americans of Arab origin were abused. Moreover, visiting Arab delegations and resident diplomatic missions were subject to legal harassment.
For example, certain anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian quarters in the US brought suits in order to have the Arab League missions in Washington and New York closed on the grounds these missions were supporting Arab/Palestinian extremism. Naturally, the suits failed to hold up in court since their allegations were entirely unfounded.
To confront such anti-Arab campaigns, Arab diplomatic missions in Washington teamed up with Arab American organisations which have become an invaluable stay for the Arabs and their causes. This collaboration gave rise to a pro-Arab lobby as a means to counter the influence of the pro-Israeli lobby. At the same time, more and more Americans were becoming eager to learn more about Arab positions on developments in the Middle East and our perspective on the US’s role in that strategic region.
As a result, I was given the opportunity to express Arab viewpoints on such matters to many and diverse forums in universities, research centres, chambers of commerce, military academies, as well as churches and synagogues. I was always warmly received by audiences in these places.
Out of awareness of the role culture plays in bringing peoples together and how favourable an impact a successful cultural activity can have on US attitudes towards the Arab world, the Arab League in Washington organised, in partnership with the Kennedy Centre for Arts and Culture, the first Arab culture and arts fair in the US capital.
Featuring arts and culture exhibitions and performances from 22 Arab states, the fair attracted a huge turnout and widespread press coverage. The event was attended by prominent international and American figures, including former Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa, former US first lady Michelle Obama and many members of the US administration and Congress.
Our collaboration with Arab-American communities also gave rise to periodic economic encounters between US businessmen and their Arab counterparts, leading to trade deals, joint economic projects and other collaborations that work to expand the realm of shared Arab-American interests.
Bearing the foregoing in mind, when considering the causes of the low impact the Arab media has in the US, we realise that it is primarily due to its failure to address decision-makers and the greater public in a language and logic tailored to the way they see and understand things. In large measure, this is because Arab media mostly pitch their messages to audiences at home in the Arab world.
As for the role of Arab Americans and their organisations, as much as they share the concerns of the Arab world and understand its needs and aspirations, their efficacy in expressing and advocating Arab positions is often hampered by divisions between Arab countries and the effects of these divisions on Arab American organisations and their members.
Another problem is that, when addressing the US, Arab governments and Arab media focus their message almost exclusively on official circles and ignore the many sectors of the public and civil society that influence decision makers and shape foreign policy, such as research centres, chambers of commerce, political party associations and religious groups, including moderate Jewish groups that call for peace with the Palestinians.
Similarly, when Arab officials travel to the US, they generally restrict their visits to officials in Washington, rather than including visits to other parts of the country in order to meet with circles that influence US outlooks. The importance of such circles is not to be underestimated given how some of them influenced the outcome of the last presidential elections in favour of Trump.
Arab countries, today, are more acutely aware than ever of the need for a media strategy that will enable Arab media to overcome the shortcomings in how it performs its role in the US and to make it a more effective instrument in the drive to safeguard and promote Arab interests. One way to stimulate and improve the performance of our media is to encourage the media to become a vehicle to address decision-makers in the US directly.
This would reduce the need to rely on public relations firms, which are exorbitantly expensive yet are unable to communicate directly with decision-makers. Another means is to promote “people’s diplomacy” by, for example, fostering regular exchanges of visits between Arab parliament members and US Congresspersons.
In addition, Arab governments need to be more proactive in contacting representatives of the US press directly order to furnish them with complete and up-to-date information and analyses on events in the Arab world, thereby ensuring that the US media have reliable sources of information. Towards this end, Arab government agencies and organisations must upgrade their official websites in a manner that makes them an easily accessible and abundant resource of information and a reliable alternative to social networking sites.
An effective Arab media strategy will also include a publicity plan for showcasing all the positive facets of the Arab world and its contributions to human civilisation. One of the most effective ways to familiarise others with the Arab world and its cultural heritage is through professionally researched and written articles on the subject, the dissemination of Arab fiction and non-fiction literature in translation, the production of films on Arab history and, of course, touring exhibitions of antiquities, such as the Tutankhamen exhibit that caused a sensation when it toured the US many years ago.
Another important avenue to explore is the community of Arab students abroad in American universities and other academic institutions. Already their interaction with others on college campuses has contributed to opening the eyes of younger generations of Americans to Arab points of view, especially on such questions as the rights of the Palestinian people.
Ultimately, an effective media strategy is one that promotes intellectual and cultural interactions between peoples, fosters mutual sympathy and understanding, and bridges the culture gaps between our world and theirs. Such a strategy will engender a media with the power to put paid to widespread biased and misleading images of the Arabs and disseminate true, undistorted and dynamic images of Arabs as live, three-dimensional human beings, as opposed to two-dimensional stereotypes.
*The writer is member of the UN International Law Commission.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.