I recently visited the office of the radio show where I was an intern several years ago. The day’s show had already been recorded, the staff meeting was over, and producers were hard at work preparing stories for the following week. I briefly chatted with one of them, asking him what story he was working on. He replied that he was trying to write about Russia’s role in Syria and what it means for the United States, but in a way that goes beyond the typical Washington narrative.

I remarked that journalists, politicians, and people in general often fall back on certain narratives and frameworks because a) it is easier than breaking the mold and digging deeper to find the real complexity of a story, and b) we are programmed to understand unfamiliar people or places in a specific way, to place them in one or two easily-digestible categories, because otherwise it gets way too complicated and tiresome.

This is especially true when it comes to a place like the Middle East.

Pick up any of the dozens of books about Muslim women entitled “Behind the Veil” (or some derivative thereof), and you will see what I mean. As these narratives go, Middle Eastern women are defenseless victims of an oppressive patriarchal culture and religion; conflicts in the region rage on for decades because it is a stagnant place whose people are inherently resistant to democracy and diplomacy; jihadis are medieval barbarians who are hateful by nature and hellbent on violence. Even stories that have some sort of nuance (“some women wear the hijab because they actually want to, apparently!”) are often still based in cliched, stereotyped, and, frankly, lazy generalizations.

This was a topic of vehement discussion at last weekend’s “Alternate Narratives of the Middle East” conference at Columbia School of Journalism. Held on October 17, the conference consisted of two morning panels with journalists and journalism teachers whose work focuses on the Middle East, followed by an evening conversation with the Lebanese alternative band Mashrou’ Leila, and a concert to kick off their debut U.S. tour.

There Are No Easy Answers

One of the most initially striking and notable aspects of the conference was that both panels were entirely female. The gender composition of academic conferences has been the subject of debate and controversy, highlighted by a recent Quartz article arguing that, if gender truly is not a factor in the selection process, it is statistically nearly impossible to randomly end up with an all-male speakers’ lineup. All-male panels do not “just happen,” as conference organizers claim.

In his opening remarks, Steve Coll, Dean of Columbia’s Journalism School, set the tone for the conference. Coll spoke of the “internal diversity” in the Middle East that often “falls victim to the Western instrumentalized narratives of state conflict.” In pursuing an alternate path as journalists, he continued, journalists may start with the opposite of the top-down, elite and state narratives and framings – “narratives of families and neighborhoods and civil society organizations and religious institutions and the voices that shape society from the floor up.”

However, he also warned students to be weary of the false dichotomy between the bottom-up, culture-based “peoples’ narratives” and those of the state political and religious authorities:

Sometimes these choices are really just an attempt to chronicle secular alternatives to contested political and religious discourse. So it’s great that there is a really vibrant – secular is the wrong word – but, non-politicized space in many of these Arab societies…But the point of going from the floor-up is not to simply record the fact that there is this diversity and that there are resilient, surprising sectors of society and culture that have a “recognizable” character if you’re a westerner. The point is actually to chronicle the floor in all of its aspects, and some of that can be quite disturbing, and actually a source of violence and of intolerance.

To me, it’s a little bit of an asterisk. That the purpose, as a journalist, of going to the floor and wandering in a sampling way through civil society institutions is not to prove a hypothesis, that there is a better society than Western governments recognize. It’s actually to chronicle, in all of its fullness and sometimes in its ugliness, what the bottom of the social and political structure sounds like and looks like and who’s there.

His message was clear. As panelist Alia Malek would later remark, there are no short or easy answers.

The first panel, entitled “Beyond Perpetrators and Victims,” featured Souad Mekhennet, a correspondent with The Washington Post whose work focuses on jihad, Alia Malek, a senior staff write with Al-Jazeera America who recently returned from covering the Syrian refugee crisis, and Shahira Fahmy, a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. They debunked prevailing narratives about ISIS and the refugee crisis, and unapologetically critiqued the failures of most mainstream journalism coverage of the region.

Speaking about her recent experience following a refugee boat in Europe, Malek gave credit first and foremost to the refugees themselves, who have wrested their narrative back from the media, forcing people to hear their stories and engage with the Syrian conflict in ways that go beyond the brutalities and recruitment strategies of ISIS.

She spoke about the unprecedented access journalists now have to different types of people, in terms of class, gender, sect, political opinion, age and geography. “In a raft you might have a housewife from Homs with a female engineer from Damascus with pro-regime people from Latakia…folks who would have never known each other inside Syria,” she said. “The thing with the migration story is that the people themselves have forced onto the journalistic agenda a reexamination of who they are and the places they come from and why they left. That’s something I’d much rather focus on than the journalism that’s come out of it.”

Mekhennet, who covered the refugee crisis in Austria and Germany, added that while the vast majority of those arriving in Europe are fleeing desperate situations and war-torn home countries, reporters should also be cautious about a narrative of victimhood that paints everyone with the same brush. In her reporting, she encountered those who claimed to be Syrian when they were in fact North African, those who were pro-regime, and some who were ISIS supporters.

She spoke about the black and white lens Western media used at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011. These outlets portrayed the uprisings as a power struggle between young, liberal, Westernized, democracy-loving protesters and corrupt regimes, when the reality was much more complicated. For instance, some of those calling for democracy wanted only electoral democracy, but did not care for things like women’s or minority rights. As a result of the prevailing reductive framing, Mekhennet said, journalists miss some of the most important nuances:

If we go into countries with certain narratives or sympathies because we live in a system, and many of us believe it’s a good system to live in, and some of these opposition figures or groups, they know that. They have been trained, they know exactly what words to say, they know exactly how to get the sympathies of journalists. And I would wish or I hope that people would start to look beyond that, and to be a bit more critical also towards the side that we often see as the right side.

These examples prove the importance of being critical and, as Coll said, document everything, “in its fullness and in its ugliness.” This also applies to coverage of jihadi groups like ISIS. Dr. Shahira Fahmy, who recently conducted extensive research on the extremist group’s messaging and media production, pointed out that we have only been presented with a very one-dimensional portrayal of the group, through the lens of brutality.

Shahira Fahmy ISIS presentation

Dr. Shahira Fahmy presenting her research on the propaganda, messaging and media production of ISIS. (Source: Sarah Moawad)

Upon examining the group’s English-language magazine Dabiq, Fahmy found that content focused on brutality and violence comprised only about 12% of the stories and visuals that ISIS produces. The magazines are more concerned with conveying the ideal, utopian Islamic caliphate – one that includes social services, hospitals, and schools. Images of brutality are also always placed in context, juxtaposed against images of Muslim children killed by American drones or Israeli bombs.

Embracing Complexity

While Western media uses simplistic and reductionist frameworks to discuss the Middle East, nothing about the region or its people is simple. As Mekhennet explained, “nobody is born a jihadi.” The job of a good journalist is to look for motivations, ask why and how and what led this person to make the choices they made, dig deeper to find the real story.

Instead of asking “what is it about Islam that drives people to radicalization,” says Alia Malek, why don’t we ask:

What is it about masculinity, what is it about the American occupation of Iraq, what is it about the failure of assimilation and belonging…we are able to have some more intelligent conversations about other topics. We do have the bandwidth. But we don’t want to ask the questions that implicate Western society and violence and masculinity, or the American occupation of Iraq, which is where Daesh or ISIS initially comes from, these are ex-Baathists. It’s much easier to focus on their recruiting product than it is to look at the systemic and historical reasons that might actually implicate us.

Even the members of Mashrou’ Leila, in their Q&A with VICE journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, refused to embrace the labels that mainstream media has imposed on them. When asked how he felt about being called “the voice of a generation” and “the voice of the Arab Spring,” lead singer Hamed Sinno had no qualms about telling it like it is, shutting down the assertion that they can somehow speak for an entire region of young people:

I find both [labels] extremely problematic…when I see it in Western media, I think it fits right into a very long tradition of Western media trying to create an extremely simple version of the Arab world and more so, the Arab. To start with, the “Arab Spring” as a term is something that was coined by Western media to try and lump together a bunch of very different political events that were happening around the same time. To try and look at this one thing, so that a “failure” in Egypt (and I quote “failure”), would also mean a failure of the entire thing thats happening with Tunis and Algeria and Beirut and everywhere else.

It’s also, to some extent, I feel like it rubs that fantasy of one particular Arab person, and the Arab World, like any other world, is an extremely complicated place with very different societies and microcommunities and class differences and age differences and gender differences and gender trouble and sexual differences and, you know, it’s a community like any other. So then to single out one band of five middle class men from Beirut and decide that is the voice for an entire region is absurd. I mean, it sounds like racism.

It is crucial to ask the difficult questions, and to confront the uncomfortable truths. It should never be easy, or uncomplicated, or static, and if it is, it should be questioned. We must shatter the lens through which we have been programmed to see the world, and be critical of even those we trust or sympathize with most. As Alia Malek very eloquently and succinctly put it, “Journalism is a balance of empathy and skepticism.”

Watch Alternative Narratives of the Middle East, Panel 1 here and Panel 2 here.

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