Ahmed Shihab-Eldin: Not willing to play the 'angry Arab'
By Ben Cohen: Regardless of whose side you take in the Israeli Palestinian crisis, there is no denying that the Jewish state has been far better at the public relations game than the Palestinians have ever been. There are many well funded pro Israel groups in the US that have sophisticated media strategies and employ them brilliantly when faced with criticism of their behavior towards the Palestinians. As a consequence public opinion is solidly in favor of Israel in the US, making it an anomaly in comparison to the rest of the world. The Palestinians have done an awful job of bringing attention to their plight, and despite the shockingly one sided nature of the conflict between themselves and Israel, they continue to be portrayed as the aggressors.
While Jews have been incredibly well represented in the US mainstream media both in management and on air, Palestinians have never had anyone in a position of real influence, and this has clearly had a major impact on the way the crisis in the Middle East has been portrayed.
Up until now, that is. In a forward thinking and (at least by American media standards) brave move, the Huffington Post hired Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a Palestinian American to host and produce segments for their recently launched ‘Huff Post Live’ video platform. A former producer and and co-host of Al Jazeera English’s Emmy-nominated social media show, “The Stream”, Ahmed is no rookie, but his position within a large mainstream media entity is a novelty in America’s media establishment.
Ahmed regularly draws attention to the plight of the Palestinians, bringing on guests rarely seen on other mainstream media outlets like Palestinians from the Gaza strip and critics of Israel who are usually confined to academia or obscure foreign policy websites that have little reach. Ahmed, an extremely likeable and articulate character, refuses to play into the ‘angry Arab’ role the media likes to pick up on, despite facing intense criticism from all sides of the political spectrum (just check some of the comments on youtube to get an idea). Ahmed represents a new breed of journalist in the digital age, where an ability to connect with an audience trumps ethnicity, age or social background.
The Daily Banter spoke to Ahmed about his thoughts on the latest outburst of violence in the region, the Palestinian’s inability to draw attention to their cause, Obama’s indifference to Israeli aggression, and why Arianna Huffington took such a big risk in hiring him.
(NB: The answers have been lightly edited for brevity)
TDB: What was your immediate reaction to the overwhelming support for Palestinian statehood in the United Nations?
ASE: My immediate reaction was that a lot of people are going to try to break down an deconstruct what this actually means and I think that the sad reality is that it means very little. And so the people who have been saying that are right. What I think is most significant about this, even the way it played out, the fact that Israel switched their tone as they often do 180 degrees by saying that this is you know, a threat against peace and then as soon as it looked like the Palestinians would probably win, switching and saying that this is insignificant and downplaying the significance of the vote.
Also, the US was really exposed as a weakened power, one that’s reputation in the Middle East, that is quickly changing, but also in terms of the international stage is becoming increasingly less significant, especially unilaterally, especially as a leader.
When I heard about the bid, my first logistical reaction was ‘great’, now eventually Israel will be pursued in the international criminal court because now they can. And I think that’s great because Palestinians for far too long have not had any cards in their pocket to play when it comes to the games Israel plays regarding the conflict. This both really undermines Americas power, both soft and hard. And I think most importantly Europe realizes that they have to go it alone…..so I think Europe is starting to realize that it no longer has to fall in step with the US. Which I think is great because the US, more so than Israel believes that there is no resolution to the conflict.
TDB: Why do you think the Palestinians have had such a hard time drawing attention to their plight, particularly in the US?
ASE: I think it’s a lot of reasons. Perhaps first and foremost I am actually going to place the blame on Palestinians, ironically. I think too often we blame the press, we blame the West, we blame America, and I think those are all valid concerns, but I think the Palestinians have allowed divisions about our own identity to get the better of us. I really think that if the Palestinians were more unified in terms of their leadership, but also in terms of their ideology and in terms of their demands, I think they have allowed Israel and others to divide us in that regard. Of course another thing is AIPAC and the Jewish lobby and the fact that the way that American politics works – the two party system – you have to pledge allegiance or blind support to Israel’s right to defend themselves. Israel has created this really great narrative that Israel deserves the right to defend itself against all reason or rational, disregarding international law, and America bows to this for many reasons.
TDB: Do you see anything to be positive about in terms of US attitudes towards the conflict?
ASE: I really do. And I wish people didn’t ask me that question, because admitting to that – because it has been such a slight change and if we all talk about this change and celebrate the change, people tend to forget. People tend to have short attention spans. But to answer your question, yes, there is a change. Partially because of the internet, because things go viral and people are connecting of social media, but also because of other platforms – Indie GoGo and Kick Starter, because people based in Gaza being able to document and live tweet events and it adds to the effect that Palestinians are actually, you know, humans. The whole notion that Palestinians have been dehumanized by Israel’s aggressive policies, that’s one thing, but I think that the media have portrayed Palestinians very simplistically and I think that that has done a huge disservice to our plight. I think the shift is coming, in that there are people who are more influential, because as you know the Huffington Post is one of the most read news sites in the US, and for eight days, we covered it – and it wasn’t biased.
There is a compelling narrative coming out about people having the right to live in dignity for the right for their leaders to represent their interests. Now obviously these haven’t been covered seamlessly by any means, and we’re still at the beginning process – we’re seeing tens of thousands of protests happening in Tahir Square – it’s still in its infant stages, but in the context of that, that has forced the media, not just the Huffington Post and social media outlets but also the mainstream media to cover the conflict within that context. You can’t avoid that context. Even if the new Arab Spring is more complex, with terrorism and violence, that narrative still exists; of popular revolt and uprising, and you know that has been happening for decades in Palestine. Obviously they are not rising up against their own leaders – they are uprising against their oppressors, so I think you can extrapolate from that – and that’s why we’re partially beginning to see a shift.
TDB: Let’s talk about official US policy. Do you see any nuance in Obama’s position?
ASE: No. I have to tell you I’m very disappointed in Obama. I understand the criticism of him weren’t necessarily fair in the first term given the context of the claims against him – you don’t want to seem anti Netanyahu or anti Israel or whatever, but this is his second term and he hasn’t offered anything during the Gaza conflict to really be a leader. And a leader is someone who leads because he has conviction and because he knows what’s right and because he knows what’s best in his estimation, and I didn’t see any leadership from Obama. Even in calling the settlements illegitimate and making that distinction rather than calling them just ‘settlements’, which of course we know now there’s 3000 more. You know the United Nations – they vote to recognize Palestine – they call the settlements illegal – if they call Gaza occupied even though Israel does not, why Obama feels the need to buy into this notion that we can pretend that the reality on the ground isn’t the reality. And this at a time when he’s seen first hand more than any other President the entire reality on the ground completely shift in the Arab world – like dramatically. And it’s continuing to shift. It’s really troubling to me and I think he thinks it’s not going to affect him or affect Americans, I’m trying to really grasp what it is – or what is informing his need to maintain that status quo.
So do I think Obama has been a leader? No. Do I think he has shown a shift from his predecessors? Not at all. When it comes to that leaked video of Romney saying the Palestinians don’t want peace, we’re just going to kick the ball down the road – implying that all Palestinians want to eliminate and kill all Israelis – I think that all those things that Romney said, largely Obama would not say, but in terms of how those things affect US policy I think it’s sad to say that Obama really isn’t different. I think that Arabs might even be more disillusioned by Obama, given the context in the region and how he has augmented the ‘let me just kill people randomly’ strategy.
TDB: There are many Jews seriously concerned about the crisis – they do not support Israel’s actions and want to see a viable Palestinian state. What do you think they can do to help change public opinion?
ASE: Generally, raise your voice. Try and mobilize and find like minded people that are Jewish or Muslim or Arab or have a stake in the game or are invested in the region or invested in Israel for a multitude of reasons and try and organize and try create a presence online. I really believe that for any change to happen there is going to have to be an overwhelming display or popular resistance, whether it’s online or whether it’s at the UN or whether its petitioning your elected leaders, whether it’s creating a group like ‘J Street’ or a more justice based group for resolving the conflict for exposing injustices. I think it’s going to have to be an amalgamation and accumulation of these types of movements and initiatives that are going to actually bring about some policy changes because Israel is increasingly isolated themselves and I think there’s a lot of Jews that recognize that and who are concerned by that. And if I was Jewish I would be. I think that’s extremely concerning.
TDB: You’re probably the first Palestinian American to be given such a prominent media platform. Do you think your hiring was a risky thing for the Huffington Post to do, or is it a sign of changing times?
ASE: I think both. I know that’s a cop out, but I think Arianna took a huge risk. Arianna probably didn’t even know that when she asked me to collaborate then eventually to leave Al Jazeera to join her, she didn’t know probably that I was Palestinian, I would argue that she probably thought I was Egyptian, because at the time when I was speaking about what was happening in the region without really mentioning Palestine. Arianna really believes at the end of the day – and that’s part of her own political views and the way in which the Huffington Post has evolved, she really believes in transparency.
I think as long as that person is transparent and is accountable to his or her words and their reporting and all that stuff, then that’s what it should be about and that’s what the Huffington Post is about……I’m not particularly ideological or dogmatic when it comes to my beliefs. A lot of my Palestinian friends yell at me and say I normalize things when I talk to Israelis and acknowledge their right to exist.
TDB: Do you feel a lot of pressure with your role?
ASE: Is it a lot of pressure? Yeah. I have so many friends in the Muslim world, primarily in Palestine, who think that I am their outlet for reaching the wider American world and that’s not the case. I can’t just be a megaphone for what everyone wants to say.