We need to start telling our own stories
The Arab News/YouGov poll on US attitudes toward the Arab world confirms a suspicion that I have harbored for a very long time: When it comes to issues pertaining to Islam and the Middle East, many mass media consumers in the US and Europe have been systematically misled over a period of many years.
Fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Poor journalism and lazy fact checking, combined with an unhealthy addiction to sensationalism, have massively distorted the facts when it comes to reporting on the Middle East. This is a very important poll and I am glad Arab News commissioned it. Many of its findings are surprising, yet hugely informative.
Perhaps the biggest statistic, the one that truly left me dumbstruck, was that 21 percent of respondents identified the “Sultanate of Agrabah” (from Disney’s “Aladdin”) as part of the Arab world, and 38 percent would impose a travel ban on the cartoon city if its “citizens” posed a threat.
Those of us who work on trying to break down cultural barriers have clearly not been doing enough. I believe many of us have had an overreliance on the reach of liberal media to convey facts about the region while overlooking the important role played by the tabloid media in this regard.
This ignorance about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East, whilst laughable, has contributed to the massive ruptures in the West as we know it. Fear of the “other” massively contributed to the tumultuous political events of 2016.
These events were a manifestation of various factors, anchored by a sense of fear that had been building relentlessly over many years. Trump’s victory, Brexit and the march of right-wing parties across Europe are, to a large extent, driven by fear of the other.
Many of us have had an overreliance on the reach of liberal media to convey facts about the Arab world while overlooking the important role played by the tabloid media in this regard.
According to the poll, 65 percent of Americans surveyed said they do not know much about the Arab world. Where such ignorance exists, the stage is set for fake news, the whipping up of divisions and the rise of populist political leaders.
Where do we go from here? Well, the poll provides some answers. Half of the respondents to the poll said the US media does not provide enough coverage of the Arab world. So there is an opportunity here for media institutions from the Arab world to start operations in these markets and to start telling stories from the region in an accessible, compelling and relevant manner.
We also need to do more to reach out to media in southern US states and in small towns and cities across the US. I actually led a project to do this last year. While we only had funding for around three months, we were able to place accurate stories about Arabs and Muslims in diverse publications such as the Miami Herald, Michigan Chronicle, Florida Times Union and Charlotte Observer. It was an incredibly useful exercise and one that should be replicated across Europe and North America.
In this information age, we have no excuse not to tell our own stories and it is encouraging that 35 percent of respondents to the survey stated that they were keen to find out more about the Arab world. We have a duty to try to fulfill this desire.
I also hope we will see more creative investment in public diplomacy by many of the states in the Middle East to reverse this trend. There is an urgent need to fund citizen-to-citizen initiatives, interfaith groups, public diplomacy efforts and general public information campaigns.
More work needs to be done with Hollywood to reverse the stereotypical regular casting of Muslims and Arabs as the bad guys. It is not impossible to change Hollywood’s mindset, however; it requires sustained, coordinated and long-term investment in the industry. Organizations such as the LA-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), through their Hollywood bureau and media awards, are already doing some excellent work in this area. However, more can be done.
I have spent a large part of my professional career trying to bridge cultural divides by working in the media, civil society and politics. I always felt that not enough was being done and this poll confirms my worst fears. We are actually losing the battle for moderation, accuracy and respect for diversity in the West. This evil genie that is now out of the lamp has already led to some incredible seismic shifts in the political leadership of the West. If left unchecked, it will lead to an entirely different world to the one we’re accustomed to. Thank you, Arab News for commissioning this poll and kicking off this very important conversation.
• Muddassar Ahmed is managing partner of Unitas Communications Ltd., a London-based strategic communications consultancy. He tweets at @unitascomms.