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Vital Questions

To a considerable extent the success of democracies depends on the flow of “good information”. Without it one cannot have an informed electorate and hence an electorate equipped to make good choices in a complex and confusing world.

Traditionally that has been the task of the media which is why the role of a free and unfettered media is considered one of the necessary prerequisites for a functional democracy. Of course with the Internet and the proliferation of media sites the world of communication has become much more open, more difficult to control and manipulate and, of course, much more diverse.

Despite the ugliness and lies that creep into an unregulated and open communication system, these developments are bad news for dictators, would-be dictators and all those with an interest in controlling and manipulating the flow of news and opinion.

In the Darwinian Universe we live in (and I do not use those words glibly) and with the opening of the public square, we have a new arena of contestation – which in some instances is a polite word for war. It is an arena we need to take seriously and that is why I think this recent interaction with Business Day is important.

Business Day, as most South Africans know, is a locally prestigious, sober daily newspaper considered to have broadly enlightened views without undue ideological bias. It publishes columnists with a high public profile but varying political views on most topics. That possibly is broadly true but I wonder whether those high standards are applied to the Middle East?

I have noted that by-and-large it seems more receptive to a stance which directs a highly critical gaze on Israel but coyly avoids a similar scrutiny when it comes to the Palestinians or to the Islamic world more broadly. For instance one fails to find any serious attention to the closing of the tunnels to Gaza from the Egyptian side which is inflicting considerable hardship on its population.

From Russell Mead, a noted political analyst, in American Interest “Ever since the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s military has been wreaking havoc on the lives of Palestinians in Gaza. The 1.7 million residents of the Gaza Strip rely heavily on trade through a network of tunnels on the Egyptian border for their livelihood. But with the Muslim Brotherhood out of power, the Egyptian military has been happy to crack down on the tunnel trade and smother Gaza’s economy, depriving the Palestinians there of jobs and income.

It is hard to imagine a similar silence if Israel had instituted an equivalent blockade.  Or as Hussein Aboobakr, an Arab-Muslim by birth, writes “Ramadan is supposed to offer Muslims a month of spiritual reflection, self-restraint, an opportunity to give charity and empathize with those who are less fortunate. Yet because of those who make decisions on Arab TV networks, this year’s Ramadan offers another dose of unchallenged hatred and historical forgery, planting deeper seeds of Jewish hatred that is all too often becoming an expression of Arab identity in the modern age.

Now doubtless both these perspectives can be challenged but that is hardly the point. Both are supported by considerable evidence and a powerful segment of informed opinion. Israel has been roundly condemned on far less substantial grounds. But this is not something that you will find in the “sober, non-ideological” pages of Business Day. Why not?

This is a backdrop to the following interchange I recently had with Janet Parker, Opinion Page editor on that newspaper. You should read through to the end if possible.

It started with an article by Pallo Jordan on the “coup” in Egypt which studiously avoided reference to the less salubrious aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood and ex-President Morsi himself. So I submitted the following article to Business Day’.

To BD from Mike Berger

Pallo Jordan (business Day, 7 July “Egyptian coup could set stage for Arab winter” says much that one can agree with and little that provokes vehement rejection. In fact, even the headline subtly misrepresents his position which never unambiguously claimed that the “coup” per se was the likely tipping point.

Nevertheless, his piece is a subtle whitewash of the Muslim Brotherhood and indirectly suggests that military intervention will be to blame for the likely collapse of the democratic project in Egypt. He praises the African Union for their rejection of the “coup” – we can agree on the use of the word, even though it represented the will of a vast number of Egyptians and was necessary to avert the collapse of an economically desperate country into violent chaos. In so doing Jordan implies that, absent the military coup, Egypt was on track towards a pluralistic democracy; somewhere along the lines of European Christian democratic nations.

This is patent nonsense. Morsi, even before he narrowly became president by marginally free and fair elections, was no democrat. He was a committed Islamist whose creed was enunciated by al Banna about 85 years ago and encapsulated in the slogan “the Koran is our Constitution”. That slogan has been repeatedly confirmed by its chief ideologues and by its praxis over the succeeding decades. Eric Trager of The New Republic, a progressive American publication, spells out the credo of the Brotherhood: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is our law; the Prophet is our leader; Jihad is our way; and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”

 Only two years before being elected president, Morsi called Jews “the descendent of apes and pigs”, going on for good measure to say they were “hostile by nature” and to oppose any attempt at negotiation or compromise with Israel. He accused the Palestinian Authority of being a Zionist front and rejected aid from America – a stance he subsequently reversed out of dire necessity.

The left-wing analyst,  Alon Ben-Meir, described Morsi’s brief and disastrous reign as follows: “he subordinated politics to religion and succumbed to the conservative and religious branch of Islamists…He worked tirelessly to consolidate his powers while doing next to nothing to save the economy from pending collapse. He placed himself above judicial review and largely appointed fellow Brothers into key posts while allowing Brotherhood hooligans to beat up liberal opponents…he undermined the core of freedom of speech by intimidating the media and failing to build democratic institutions. Moreover, he pushed for a new constitution fully reliant on Sharia law, expanded blasphemy prosecutions, and supported discrimination against women.”

This hardly resembles democracy, Christian or secular, and it is pure wishful thinking to suggest Morsi, either in terms of personal temperament or ideology, was remotely capable of sparking an Egyptian democratic evolution.

If the issues in the Middle East or globally could be reduced to Morsi’ failings it would be indeed good news. But the overwhelming evidence indicates that the Muslim Brotherhood philosophy (of which Morsi is by no means an extreme proponent) has spawned a swarm of ideological offshoots ranging from openly terrorist entities like al-Qaeda and Hamas to ostensibly moderate and even democratic organisations, located in key Western states.

But John Wade in “Standpoint” has written a balanced but damning indictment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in the UK, USA and elsewhere. As he puts it “No, the problem of violent extremism lies with the political and ideological strain injected into Islam by the Muslim Brothers for 85 years — a strain which is not, at its heart, compatible with a pluralistic, open-minded, tolerant, liberal society (my emphasis). Woolwich (the brutal stabbing of a British soldier in broad daylight) was the very extreme end of this ideology: a misplaced grievance narrative, cosmic anti-Semitism, and violently inflammatory rhetoric. To deny that this brew cannot possibly be a product of the political variant of Islam (as distinct from its religious one) is not merely complacent. It is also irresponsible.”

 These extracts are a tiny sample, and by no means the most virulent, of the thought processes and aims of the Muslim Brotherhood, its offshoots and clones. In fact, it is the default position of a considerable portion of the Arab-Muslim street against which genuinely enlightened and democratic forces within Muslim society are fighting, with little help from their natural allies, Western progressives.

 The failure of Pallo Jordan, who I hope would not object being termed a “social democrat”, to unambiguously oppose or even identify such movements can be attributed to a variety of motives. Amongst these is the laudable desire not to be seen as Islamophobic. But such misplaced political correctness simply opens the door to reaction from legitimately frightened Western democrats and to rightwing bigots who hate Muslims, Jews and Blacks with equal vehemence.

 But more sinisterly, I would surmise that Jordan and his camp (pervasive in the media and academia) whitewash such inherently fascist and oppressive movements because they are anti-Western and anti-Israel – when they are not openly anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, a substantial segment of Western progressives (liberals in the American misplaced terminology) have fallen into the trap of a knee-jerk anti-Westernism under the more palatable cover of multi-culturalism, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.

 It takes genuine courage and independence for a Western progressive to unambiguously oppose the fake revolutionary and democratic claims of would be theocratic totalitarians. Jordan is, apparently, not one of them.”

The submission was followed by a deafening silence and since a number of phone calls and e-mails failed to elicit a response I wrote directly to Ms Parker as follows:

Dear Janet,  I have recently submitted two articles for publication. In particular, I hoped to have my own piece published since I believe it adds an important missing dimension to the debate around events in Egypt – and of course, globally.

 I have not heard from you and as far as I know neither article have been published. My multiple enquiries, both telephonic and via e-mail, have been met with stony silence. Should a commercial firm or a government department act in like fashion, I have no doubt that Business Day would condemn such rude and arrogant behaviour.

 Am I to suppose that journalists are exempt from such basic courtesies?

That did indeed yield the following reply,Hi Mike, Sorry but I am unable to publish either of them. Please feel free to approach other publications. Regards Janet”. That did not seem adequate so I replied with:

Dear Janet,  

You have not answered my last query and I can well understand your reluctance to be drawn into a tedious debate over this matter, but I feel it is of some importance that I understand the reasoning behind your decision. So from my standpoint here, very briefly, are the issues:

 The English-speaking MSM in South Africa follow a remarkably consistent line on events in the Middle East, especially pertaining to Israel, and indeed to global aspects of the role of Islam in the modern political sphere. If I may summarise briefly:

 As far as Israel is concerned, it is routinely cast in a negative light through news selection, the manner of reportage and because of accommodation with an inventive and active anti-Israel industry of which the BDS Project has become the standard-bearer. I have shown this conclusively in the case of the Cape Times, but it is far from the sole culprit. In so doing the MSM has falsified reality and has contributed to what is a de facto anti-Semitic campaign of delegitimisation. This is true even where the conscious intent is not anti-Semitic; there is a substantial serious literature on this topic which cannot be simply brushed aside.

 Concurrent with this is an equally damning minimisation of the dysfunctionality, aggressive intent and human rights abuses within many Arab and Muslim states and the role of the Islamist ideology and organisations in furthering such practices and policies. This again is especially true when it comes to the “Palestinians”, who are routinely cast as victims of Israeli aggression and whose own behaviour goes unscrutinised.

 In consequence of this stance the truth gets swept aside. Phrases such “apartheid”, “occupied territory”, “occupation”, “illegal” and “hawkish” (always applied to Israel and never to her opponents) are used either incorrectly (in most cases) or in a decontextualised manner completely distorting reality.

 My article, backed with facts and informed opinion and couched in clear and restrained prose was sent in to correct the whitewashing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the article by Pallo Jordan. Business Day was the appropriate publication to submit my article since you were the vehicle for the original article. Not only did you decline to publish mine but published another by Jaswant Singh which more-or-less perpetrated the same myth of a democratic (or potentially democratic) Muslim Brotherhood.

 I have no special beef with Business Day. It is a prestigious publication and supposedly more sober and impartial than the popular press. But your refusal to publish my article is not in keeping with such standards. More seriously, it contributes to the ‘big lie” against the only Jewish state. Jews are correctly sensitive to this form of denigration and demonisation whether perpetrated in luridly anti-Semitic language favoured by some or more discreetly and indirectly by the sophisticated and skilled. It has become, in one form or another, a steady background drumbeat in the supposedly “liberal” English-speaking media.

 So once again, I would like you to reconsider your decision or supply me with a convincing reason why you refuse to publish my article. yours sincerely…

All very polite as you can see, but no reply from either Janet Parker of Peter Bruce, the Chief Editor to whom a copy had been sent. So the questions remain:

Why will Business Day refuse to publish an article which sets out a more critical view of the Muslim Brotherhood and a somewhat different interpretation of the “coup” – especially when they published a second article which more-or-less endorsed the stance of Pallo Jordan?

And how does this square with its reputation as I have described it?

But most importantly the lesson is this. All those, whether left, right or centrist, who are impatient with the selectively one-sided narrative of events relating to important issues in the traditional media have a recourse: the alternative universe of the Internet and e-mails. If we fail to use it effectively as possible we cannot complain if others do.

But we must also never cease in getting the mass media to fulfil their journalistic obligation to keep the electorate honestly and fairly informed. If we do not keep an eye on the Fourth Estate, who will?

Mike Berger


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