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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Palestinian by blood, American by birth, Kuwaiti by nationality, Egyptian by upbringing, Austrian by adolescence, curious by nature. That’s the autobiographical Twitter profile of our guest today, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, senior correspondent for AJ Plus, the online destination of Al Jazeera and former HBO Vice correspondent. Shihab-Eldin is also adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and co-editor of the white cloud press volume Demanding Dignity: Young Voices from the Front Lines of the Arab Revolutions. On his daringly authentic Vice reports, Shihab-Eldin has chronicled a heart-wrenching refugee trail from the Syrian border to Europe, embedded reporting of the crisis with intimate interviews of the dispossessed. Shihab-Eldin has covered extensively the generation coming of age in the Middle East, most recently on the young Palestinians and Israelis who’ve grown disillusioned with ongoing violence in the West Bank. Welcome, Ahmed, it’s a pleasure to have you here.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: It’s a pleasure to be here.
HEFFNER: We’ve had a lot of beautiful, casual conversation off-camera and I want to continue that now. What would you say is the most enduring impact for you as a reporter of the Arab Spring, in covering this multitude of challenges at the intersection of press and freedom and democracy?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Well because you bring up the word democracy, uh, you can look at the Arab revolutions and the uprisings that happened as a potential decentralization of power. It almost felt as though not just the Arab world had the potential to be more democratized but that there was this simultaneous democratization of media that was happening, uh, primarily, you know, in certain countries like Egypt and other countries, uh, which kind of garnered the world’s attention. So I think there’s been a lasting effect at least in terms of the perceptions and possibilities in terms of challenging authority, whether that means political or even, you know, the media establishment, uh, and they’re often connected in that part of the world. Now of course for me, uh, you know, I have been working in the US and in the west and even though I cover that part of the world I think for me kind of the lasting legacy, uh, of the so-called Arab Spring which you know, in and of itself is a problematic term but uh, for me it’s been, you know, the, the struggles of trying to convince editors and cover stories that don’t necessarily fit into that narrative that became all too familiar, even though the Arab Spring was once a narrative of hope, you know, it was ultimately crisis reporting. Uh, and I think, you know, it’s important to pay attention to stories part, primary in that part of the world when there is a crisis, uh, I think it’s been hard and, and unfortunately difficult since that kind of you know, moment, that momentous chaotic moment where there was a lot of interest and a lot of coverage of that part of the world. Um, unfortunately I feel like it’s hard to convince people to cover stories that are not inherently about a crisis or you know, violence or sectarianism. Uh, you know, which is how we’re so often accustomed to viewing that part of the world through this lens of the other, something to be uh, feared, something that’s inherently violent.
HEFFNER: I do want to explore the currents and the political currency of xenophobia in this country, Brexit and,
HEFFNER: The ongoing nativism that you see manifest in Europe. First though, why is Arab Spring problematic as a construct? Obviously the ultimate outcome in Syria and elsewhere was genocide. Fair?
HEFFNER: Is that a fair [
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Yeah, arguably certain people would call it genocide. That said, genocide I think is usually, you know, uh, for your specific beliefs and you know, that of the other which you know, there’s a lot of that so yeah, it’s about division, um, but…
HEFFNER: But why, why is it in the beginning a misnomer to characterize it as an Arab Spring?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: I think it’s a misnomer, uh, because it’s not constructive or productive. Uh, it gives you this illusion that there was this moment in history, uh, which it may have seemed that way but there was a gradual lead-up to uh, what happened and what unfolded long before the spring, you know. Uh, I was working on stories for uh, Al Jazeera back in December when everything started to unfold and I think it just creates a false hope and false expectation so in terms of the terminology but also the way for example what has been happening in Syria now for more than five years, uh, has been described as a civil war, as a proxy war and you know, it is very much those things today. But that’s, uh, I think the result of kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy and kind of a series of circumstances wherein there was this popular uprising, this moment of rebellion that wasn’t a civil war and that wasn’t as polarized as it’s now become and you know, that didn’t have as many regional players and perhaps to a certain extent that couldn’t have been avoided but I think that’s why it’s important what we call these things, you know? Very early on, a lot of people started referring to what was happening in Syria as a civil war, including Bashar al-Assad himself. You know, talking about terrorists coming in and kind of foreign entities, this you know, vague abstract term that a lot of Arab leaders have used, uh, you know, in order to try and quell and you know, you know, kind of control, uh, the people if you will. So yeah, terminology is obviously important but it goes far beyond that.
HEFFNER: And in terms of the post-spring, uh, or the post-emergence of rights-based movements…
HEFFNER: That might be a better way to characterize it, the hope and the promise of a rights-based society…
HEFFNER: For citizens of countries in the Middle East. In the aftermath of that, you were on the ground and have been on the ground and for all those familiar with Snapchat or other portable electronic social media…
HEFFNER: With which we, we dabble as sort of older, outdated, obsolete Millennials…
HEFFNER: Um, your reports on Vice are basically that intimate that you feel like you’re carrying it on your phone, and I suspect you’ll continue to do that…
HEFFNER: For Al Jazeera. What is the experience of a journalist who covered the plight not from a New York City office building but from the frontlines, what was that experience like?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: It, you know, being on the frontlines is not only important but it provides you with nuances and context depending on how long you’re there that inform how you frame the story and what you include and what you don’t include, and obviously there’s a million limitations. Uh, I say that mindful at the same time that you know, in terms of the media landscape today and kind of the reality of business, a lot of people are closing offices and bureaus and reporters aren’t there as long and so there is this notion of parachute journalism which to a certain extent, you know, the work I, I did in Vice, you know, fits into that category so to speak, that said I am very familiar with the region, I’ve grown up in some of these countries, you know, I’m, I’m intimately familiar with it so being on the ground I think just allows you to be more accurate in conveying voices that otherwise may not have necessarily factored so heavily into this kind of coverage, especially from a western perspective. And that’s where I think you see this symbiotic relationship between the role of social media in terms of empowering people to tell their own stories on the ground in a region where not only is there censorship, there’s self-censorship, there’s fear.
HEFFNER: You use the term parachute journalism. There’s always been an ethical dilemma associated with the idea of embedding yourself.
HEFFNER: And the challenges that poses. How did you find embedding yourself in this media environment? Did you have accessibility to Wi-Fi and some of the technologies that you were importing, in essence, to this population so that they could speak truth to power as well as you could on HBO but they intermittently in the lead-up to your segment could also be part of a story.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Yeah, I mean you know, access is, is really important and I think we, uh, pride ourselves and I think it’s quite obvious that at HBO and Vice for getting to the heart of a story, getting to the characters that are, uh, really living the reality of whatever the story is that you’re covering and you know, that’s been one of the most rewarding parts of this job in particular. Um, and as for the technology, you know, it’s already there and you know, we, you know, I feel very fortunate to have been able to work, uh, and start working and work on my career at a time when this connectivity was happening between journalists, between citizens and their state, between, you know, politicians and journalists, between everyone who uh, is you know, interested in seeking social change or political change on one level because it’s, it’s definitely enhanced my reporting and now I feel as though my entire Twitter, uh, feed, uh, for example is a rolodex of sources whose work I’m familiar with now on an ongoing basis whether I’m there or here, and so it just makes it easier once you go on the ground to really identify those voices that um, you know, deserve to be heard and that can I think uh, challenge people’s perceptions.
HEFFNER: When we think about freedom of the press and importing the values of American journalists into that region,
HEFFNER: Uh, it’s a catch-22 and…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Of course.
HEFFNER: In, in essence I, I would present this rather simplified reality for Americans who were cautious in the wake of the Libya experience and Egypt to some extent but there is this pull, gravitational pull and this sense that the result of the spring as it, as it emerged in Libya, Egypt and…
HEFFNER: And now even Turkey with more repressive rule is that Americans are led to believe that the strongmen are instrumental in providing that firewall against terrorism.
HEFFNER: Is there a xenophobia attached to that point of view or is that plainly a reality?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: It’s a great question because you brought up the fact that Americans believe that, but the reality and the sad reality I would add is that there’s many people in the Arab world, for example I just came back from Egypt, who have traded in that possibility for you know, challenging for the status quo, for not being afraid to speak out, uh, for security and that the only way they could have security is through a strongman like Sisi who is now the president of Egypt which, you know, is much more repressive and you know, there’s been new forced disappearances and it’s, it’s, it’s something that I think is a perception and that is not necessarily a reality. So I don’t think it has to be that way, I think unfortunately the way things played out, um, people had so much hope in a very little period of time and there was this, um, misunderstanding perhaps which is I think very natural and I can relate to this both personally and professionally that change might come relatively quickly in the region. Uh, and that hasn’t happened, in fact I think the situation has devolved. And I hate to be a pessimist. There are still signs of hope and you know, lasting changes that came out of it. But um, all things considered, uh, I think that also triggers then this xenophobic perception that exists, uh, largely in the west and really sadly very much in America, uh, that again, you know, Arabs and Muslims are something to be feared. Uh, something that is inherently complex and violent and most regrettably, something that is incompatible with American or western life and values. And, and it’s that, it’s all connected, you know, it’s that paradigm that motivates me to do the kinds of stories I am passionate about covering, uh, you know, this idea that Islam is monolithic or that you know, there is moderate Muslims and then there’s extremist Muslims as if, you know, those same realities don’t exist in all faiths and you know, it’s, it’s um, it’s troubling, you know, to see that play out also in terms of how Muslims perceive themselves. Because extremism exists on both sides and so that xenophobia you were hinting at I think is very much largely a product of this idea that we should trade in our freedoms for our security.
HEFFNER: And how would you capture the temperament animating the Millennial refugees…
HEFFNER: Most of whom probably don’t speak English…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Even without the language, uh, skills, that language barrier, uh, isn’t as restrictive as one might think in terms of uh, two different people, one person from Syria and maybe one person from Texas finding commonality. So that’s something that I think also the media, whether intentionally or not, tends to overlook.
HEFFNER: Right, I think that of course the perpetual clickbait is driven by conflict and, and bigotry more so than problem-solving…
HEFFNER: And healing.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: And, and also division. I mean you know, this idea that these people are other-ized or Orientalized and you know, that term itself could seem like a relic from you know, 19th century or 18th century Europe but that’s the reality of, of you know, how we’re living and it’s all connected to the media for better or worse. You look at Trump and his candidacy, this idea that we’re gonna have some punitive national policy of discriminating and banning an entire population, whether he meant it or didn’t mean it, the fact that that’s been able to kind of dominate for so many weeks the media narrative around, you know, this election and immigration for example or national security I think is, is really troubling.
HEFFNER: Did the absence of a vibrant fourth estate and civil liberties in these countries pre-spring, Turkey, Syria, Egypt…
HEFFNER: Do you think that contributed to this failure to recognize the commonality inherent in uh, the Israeli and or the Jewish and Muslim experience as the religions that were demonized and historically had been demonized. Do you think it’s an absence of literacy?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: It definitely exacerbates it. Um,
HEFFNER: And certainly you could say the same with respect to Israeli propaganda which has…
HEFFNER: Which has reached a zenith in the Bibi administration, Bibi Netanyahu administration.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right I, yeah, you know, it’s, this polarization that you’re seeing even in Israel, of course not a country that was, you know, going through an Arab Spring, not an Arab country at all but still a country in the region, you’re seeing this polarization across the region and it’s largely, uh, a product of how things are being framed. Um, and you know, for better or worse, it, it seems almost futile I think to, to imagine that doing the same thing over and over again is gonna lead to a different response just generally so I think that also applies to how…
HEFFNER: What do you mean, doing the same thing over and over?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: In terms of how the media covers stories in that region and how stories are covered also…
HEFFNER: I see.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: You know, you’re talking about technology within the region in terms of the stories that they choose to tell about the region…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: And also vice versa.
HEFFNER: And what about the history they choose to tell?
HEFFNER: I mean do you think that, that the Ahmadinejad notion of the Holocaust being a fiction…
HEFFNER: Reverberated in a way that had staying power in the Middle East.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Yeah. Of course, I mean he is simply tapping into a narrative that however obscure existed in terms of how Muslims perceived, um, Israel. Uh, you know, whether that means that a lot of Muslims would have agreed with him before he said it, I think you can liken a lot of what Ahmadinejad used to say with what Trump says today. You know, a lot of people in the media seem surprised, and I, I can relate to this as well, I’m not trying to you know, point fingers here and suggest that I understand it better, but you know, there was some surprise that you know, how is Trump’s political messaging, you know, being received so, you know, how, how are there so many supporters and people, you know, liking his “real talk”… quote unquote “real talk”… and you know, people seeming surprised that Americans would want a ban, you know, a majority of Americans would want to ban Muslims. I think he was simply tapping into perceptions that already existed and that preceded him and Ahmadinejad was doing the same for better or worse and you know, neither, uh, neither politician in this case I think is, is helping the situation.
HEFFNER: Well in this case, American journalists are fearing the potential ramifications of a Trump presidency…
HEFFNER: Uh, when he talks about messing with the libel laws…
HEFFNER: Do you, how much did you fear and how much do you fear in autocratic regime’s reporting, um, because I’m, I’m trying to see if you link…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: When I’m abroad you mean.
HEFFNER: When you’re abroad. I’m try—I’m trying to understand, um, if, if there is an experience you can relay that would enable advocates of free press in autocratic countries to develop a blueprint for how they build rights and uh, and, and what can inform that is your own experience and it may be different, it may be actually a more privileged experience as an American…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Of course, yeah.
HEFFNER: With HBO.
HEFFNER: Than a home-bred newspaper.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: You have to always assume that you are being tracked. Um, whether you’re working for a western media company or a local one, if you are saying things that could be construed in any way, shape, or form as criticizing those in power explicitly, inciting, uh, you know, a revolution, and you know, the connection can be however vague, uh,
HEFFNER: It can one tweet away, right?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Un—unfortunately as it needs to be, yeah, or you know, and the proof doesn’t have to be much because um, there is now this equat … you know, this equating essentially, they, the, the region’s leaders are now equating, um, challenging authority, uh, with terrorism. Uh, there are these quote unquote “counter-terrorism” measures, in the same way in the United States after 9/11 with the Patriot Act, you know, there were a lot of concerns around civil liberties just for ordinary citizens but also for, um, mainstream media here and you know, how many programs have covered, you know, the failures in, in reporting with the Iraq War and look at the consequences of that, hundreds of thousands of people that have lost their lives. Uh, the strengthening and exacerbating of this perception that you know, the Muslim world is uh, at odds with the west, that there’s a civilization, you know, a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam or you know, the west and the east, uh, and yeah, it’s um, I don’t know how to even, it’s um, it’s something you always have to be aware of but I don’t necessarily think that, that experientially when you’re on the ground, because there are people who are locally on the ground now speaking out, whether it’s a blog post, whether it’s on social media, it’s like a catch-22 because at the same time the laws are tougher and, and the governments are coming down harder and the targeted phishing operations are continuing and lots of western technology is being used, uh, to track people on the ground whether, you know, western journalists or local journalists uh, who are again trying to report on some of the truths that the mainstream media might be missing. Um, I think it’s, it’s, it’s uh, I, I experience—experienced it more, most heavily when I was I would say in Egypt, um, where, where in even sources, you know, just don’t want to speak out and there’s a lot of kind of again self-censorship which makes your job that much harder. So from a security perspective, you know, being worried about getting taken to prison or, or what-not, um, for what you were reporting on isn’t as big of a I think frustration in terms of the reporting process as having sources who have compelling stories to tell be, be you know, scared into silence.
HEFFNER: What are the toolkits that you bring to your interviews, uh, besides what I can see is a trademark empathy and sense of community, um, that you exhibit? Um…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: You mean technologically or do you…
HEFFNER: Technologically or inter-personally, what, what do you find to be uh, for these striving citizen-journalists to be the most useful techniques to, to entice your source into telling the stories that you have sometimes anonymously, sometimes publicly on Vice?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right. Emphasizing the importance of context and the importance of misperceptions, um, works wonders in a lot of ways because again, this is a region where a lot of people on all ends of the spectrum, whether religious, political, social, feel misunderstood. Uh, feel misrepresented. Um, for a majority of reasons. So particularly when I’m working in the Middle East, uh, you’d be surprised how far just a very candid, direct conversation can be about expressing my own motivations and intentions behind wanting to share their story. A lot of people worry, um, that regardless of what they say, their words will be misconstrued again to fit into this very reductive, narrow, uh, narrative, uh, and story which is we are at, at odds. We blame the west. The west blames, you know, Muslims for being inherently violent and all these things and it almost, you know, I, even as I’m speaking to you now it’s, it can seem like kind of a broken record but it’s, it’s really uh, incredible to me how there is this idea that a story in the Middle East is only a compelling story if it somehow involves ISIS, for example, or if it somehow involves terrorism or if it somehow involves crisis. And then we keep asking the same questions, how did this happen, why does this continue to happen, how can you ever stop this? Um, and even though it’s important to be asking those questions both here and the US and in the west but also maybe even more important in the region, uh, it’s also important to provide the context, uh, for constructive cultural stories so that people don’t only assume, um, that people who live in that part of the world are, you know, monolithic. It’s the homogenization of this region that I think is underlooked in terms of how significant it plays a role in mutual understanding and in terms of you know, um, even counter-terrorism, national security, uh, and you’re starting to see more and more people I think take risks in terms of push to, to cover stories that have for too long not been told. And I’m not just talking about positive fluffy stories. This is a complex region with people with very diverse views and you know, you can be uh, not only a moderate Muslim or an extremist Muslim, there’s a hundred other kinds of Muslim that you can be and that do exist, so um, the dehumanization of this part of the world hasn’t done a favor to those who are trying to tell stories from it, whether from the inside or from out.
HEFFNER: There doesn’t seem to be an ownership from the American perspective that the terrorist incidents that we’ve experienced of late were inbred.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: These were Americans. The Boston bombing,
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: The horrible episode in Orlando, in which,
SHIHAB-ELDIN: For, sorry to interrupt but…
HEFFNER: No, please.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: In which both cases the FBI had already been tracking those individuals, uh, who committed these, you know, murders and, and you know, the reason I want to say that is that clearly we have a system that is not foolproof and that’s not working and I think a big part of what’s not working is that there’s a disconnect between the real threat, not just that Muslims, uh, impose, you know, you know, pose to Americans and our way of life, but the real threat that terrorists pose because there have been countless studies done by, uh, you know, reputable organizations that say that Muslims and religious, uh, terrorism or you know, is, is uh, not the biggest threat that we, we face here in the US or even in Europe, but there’s again this perception that it very much is and these lo—lone wolf attackers, uh, don’t get the, the proper attention that they deserve even when they’re already being tracked, even if they are in fact Muslim, that only goes to show how can you inter… interview someone two to three times and then he gets away with this crime? That means the system itself isn’t working and the system does focus far too heavily on surveilling mosques, uh, and you know, trying to turn informant… it’s, I think it’s just a sign it’s ineffective.
HEFFNER: I think that you made an astute observation. In fact, Muslim, when you refer to lone wolfs because the majority of lone wolf episodes in this country are domestic terrorism.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right, right.
HEFFNER: Dom—domestic house calls, families…
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Right, environmental terrorists, there are right-wing extremists. I know it seems, uh, almost hard to believe that they pose a, a bigger threat than, than Muslim terrorists statistically but, but it’s empirically true.
HEFFNER: How do you assess and correct the reporting that misperceives the threat as Muslim?
SHIHAB-ELDIN: Again, I think it’s uh, complicated ‘cause it’s something that comes down to things as simple as terminology and, and how quickly we’re willing to use the term terrorist and you know, all these appellations and how they, you know, manifest in your mind as a consumer of media. On the flipside, I think the more important thing is to not continuously portray Muslims as something to be feared, whether in media in terms of news coverage or in media in terms of entertainment and uh, TV programming. Uh, you know, I think there’s a, again an unfortunate, um, consistency in terms of this, this narrow lens that we continue to rely on.
HEFFNER: It’s a pleasure to have you here.
SHIHAB-ELDIN: It’s been great, thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website @Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.