A Generational Mission: Arab Liberals and the Role of Media
Amid civil war, failing states, and terrorism, Arabs face a daunting struggle to roll back hostile forces and rebuild and revitalize their societies. It calls for a military effort to take back and hold territory. It requires a diplomatic campaign to broker cease-fires and settlements. It also entails a new mission: displace extremism with a culture of tolerance, conciliation, and progress. That mission is the Arabic-speaking world’s defining generational challenge.
Among the range of Arab actors who have emerged to pursue it are a group of people who identify as liberals. They believe in personal liberty for all human beings without discrimination or favor, equality of men and women, partnership across ethnic and religious boundaries, a sect-blind legal system to govern human affairs, and personal responsibility to uphold their own rights for others. In their view, the region’s conflicts will not be solved, nor will the region’s institutions develop or survive, unless these universal principles take root in the culture.
To reform the cultural landscape, Arab liberals work through myriad sectors of their society, including government, schools, and some religious institutions. For the time being, their work centers around Arabic media. They value media for its inherent fluidity in a region where school systems are unusually calcified, religious institutions are exceptionally rigid, and many governments are brutish and dysfunctional. They rely on media, as well, to send a message across borders in a region where much of the terrain is too unstable to sustain a long-term project. They also prize media—particularly television—for its distinctive capacity to reach people from all walks of life, in all sectors of society, and catalyze change within them.
This book argues that the cultural approach to change that Arab liberals now pursue, though difficult and fraught, shows great promise—and belongs prominently in any broader strategy to heal the region.
Podcasting Reason: Saudi Teens Promote Critical Thinking Online
In 2001, ten-year-old Omar al-Enezi, a native of the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, discovered critical thinking. Some prominent Saudi clerics had issued a religious edict against Pokémon children’s games and playing cards, then an international fad. They alleged that the franchise promoted “Zionism.” “Everybody was throwing away their Pokémon toys,” he said. “I had a lot of those cards and didn’t understand why I had to give them up.” He went online and researched the meaning of the purportedly subversive names and symbols on the cards. He found all of them to be benign, he said, and resolved to hold onto his collection. “But I noticed that a lot of my friends didn’t think the way I did,” he said, “and so I kept my head down—for years.” The essential problem, he said, is that an “ignorant movement” advanced by extremist clerics, reactionary media, and schoolteachers has strived to suppress logic and reason.
Many Saudis who shared Enezi’s discomfort with groupthink in Saudi Arabia gravitated to the sciences and gained courage to express themselves by discovering that they were not alone. As a twenty-two-year-old, Enezi entered the Department of Medicine at King Abdelaziz University in Jeddah and fell in a with a group of liberal students. They included Bahaa Orabi, a computer engineering student minoring in philosophy; Rakan al-Mas’udi, a self-described “humanist and enthusiast of equality” born in Syria; and Mohammad Al-Hamrani, a medical intern and amateur musician. The young men supplemented their studies by reading together in a range of fields and vented to each other about their frustration with the impositions of religious elites. They reached a conviction, Enezi recalls: “Progress in this country will not be achieved without inculcating the values of critical thinking and rational argumentation in the next generation of Saudis. . . . When people talk to each other here, too often they make arguments based on logical fallacies, impossible to resolve. It’s detrimental to the country to leave them that way.”
Enezi and his friends felt that the problem could be addressed by teaching the principles of critical thinking and the scientific method and by instilling a fascination with the many branches of science and technology that these techniques had birthed throughout history. If more Saudis learned how to apply critical thinking, they could talk and reason with each other empathically and compromise over irreconcilable differences. “You have to be able to do all of that if you are going to work through conflict.” The students doubted that Islamist higher-ups at the Ministry of Education agreed with them. So they resolved to create their own multimedia project to help Saudis fill the gap in learning.
In developing their project, they drew inspiration from random sources, including essays by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, foreign university coursework in philosophy and science, and an Australian website called “yourlogicalfallacyis.com,” which pinpoints everyday errors in reasoning. They listened to American comedian Joe Rogan’s weekly podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, from which they tried to figure out what made people laugh. In July 2013, they bought computer animation software and a microphone and built a home recording studio with echo-absorbing fabric. They began to create their own podcasts, YouTube videos, and blog entries to share what they had learned about logic and science in humorous, Saudi-inflected Arabic. They designed a website to aggregate the content and named it Asfar (Zeroes)—both a self-deprecatory title and a nod to the world-altering numeral, which happened to have been conceived next door in Iraq.
A typical Asfar podcast, from Valentine’s Day 2014, was titled “The Biography of Love: Attraction and Human Psychology.” The four boys talked through an online lecture by Yale University president Peter Salovey that examined the theory of the “love triangle”: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Hamrani pointed out that though love is experienced by the brain, “it’s not the same as a headache,” in that it cannot be explained in strictly chemical-neurological terms. “The difficulty of explaining love begins with a problem of language,” Enezi said. “In English there are distinctions between ‘I like you,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘I’m in love with you.’ In Arabic we have distinctions of our own.” Riffing on Enezi, Hamrani pointed out that love between two people plays a different role in an individualistic culture such as Salovey’s than in a traditional society like Saudi Arabia, in which “larger groups, like families and clans, are more deeply vested in a couple’s relationship.” Later the discussion segued from Salovey’s lecture to books the group had read, like Gerald Schoenewolf’s The Art of Hating. Mas’udi pointed out that love and hate are not polar opposites but rather twins in intensity, equidistant from apathy. Sounding a note of optimism, he added, “You might be surprised to see hate very easily turning into love.”
Enezi said that the podcasts were “intended for a more patient and sophisticated audience.” For browsers with a shorter attention span, Asfar’s cartoons on YouTube offered a three-minute educational fix. Take “Critical Thinking,” an animated cartoon introducing philosopher Daniel Dennett’s “Seven Tools for Critical Thinking.” (The Asfar team made a few Saudi-friendly adjustments and invented an eighth tool.) Other cartoons explained the scientific method and the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. One podcast series even introduced—with extreme subtlety—the theory of evolution, an especially controversial topic in Saudi Arabia. All animated shorts were tightly scripted, with a soundtrack, crisp animation, frugal narration, and several laugh lines per minute.
Even as Asfar attempted to encourage critical thinking, others in the country were using much more powerful media to suppress it. Witness the four-part Saudi lecture series “Skills of Thought: Critical Thinking.” It aired on the Salafi TV channel Al-Majd, owned by a Saudi businessman and broadcasting free-to-air in twenty-one Arab countries. It appeared online via the learning platform IslamAcademy—overseen by no less than Salih bin Abdelaziz Al Sheikh, the Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Da’wah, and Guidance. The lecturer, Riyadh-based Murid al-Kallab, defined critical thinking as “arguing with logic,” then explained how not to use it: “The candle of critical thinking must be extinguished, and its light must be turned off, when it contradicts a proof text from the Qur’an or prophetic Hadith. In this situation, there is no place for critical thinking. We must simply believe and surrender. If not, I would be violating logic . . . for logic says that God’s wisdom cannot be understood by humankind . . . [and] you don’t have the right to choose what of God’s wisdom to apply or not apply.”
“Among the many problems with that video,” Enezi told me, “is that the person who is instructing us to stop thinking critically isn’t God; it’s a man. He’s just as fallible as anybody, but he claims to understand what God wants better than we do. He claims a mandate to order us to follow him. And he holds a giant megaphone.”
It was not possible to determine how many people tuned in to Kallab’s free-to-air lecture. But YouTube, which lists the number of views for a given video, provided a glimpse into how well he performed against Asfar on a level marketplace of ideas. The Kallab lecture was one of ten fifty-minute videos on “thinking” that, four years after their release in 2013, had garnered an average of 6,454 views apiece. By contrast, the Asfar cartoon on critical thinking, created on a shoestring budget and with no satellite channel to promote it, had won 8,100 views in less time.
Asfar did not stand alone but rather reflected a growing trend of like-minded independent ventures. A young man named Khalid al-Judi’ filmed himself extolling critical thinking on a webcam and won more than 14,000 views for the clip on YouTube. A group of doctors funded their own, more substantial online platform called “Scientific Saudi” and garnered 100,000 views for their videos and half a million Facebook fans. In other words, while the Salafi pseudo-scientist coasted on his petro-endowment, a grassroots movement of Saudis devoted to reason was gaining on him—and a growing audience craved more.
The Eleventh Plague: Egyptian Anti-Semitism and Its Remedies on Stage and Screen
Previous references to anti-Semitism in Egypt, from Voice of the Arabs to more recent television, spoke to its prevalence but not to the toll it has taken on the country. In fueling the flight of Egypt’s Jewish community in the mid-twentieth century, it robbed Egypt of an urban class that had contributed substantially to the economy, education, intellectual life, and popular culture. As a tool of deflecting blame for local problems—Jews are said to have caused Egyptian drug addiction, poverty, inequality, and corruption—anti-Semitism has clouded deliberation over potential remedies. In normalizing hate toward one group, it has intensified hate toward others: Copts, Muslims with unconventional ideas, the remnants of Egypt’s Isma’ili community. Meanwhile, it has compromised the country’s moral credibility in international discussions of the Middle East. It has blocked a thawing of relations between Egyptian and Israeli citizens and, by extension, the benefits of partnership. Having forsworn friendship with Israelis, Egyptians have also lost the opportunity to influence them as friends. In that respect, anti-Semitism has also reduced Egypt’s potential to help Palestinians achieve a state of their own.
None of this is to diminish the role of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the death of Palestinian civilians by Israeli military action as well as settlement construction, in stoking Egyptian anger toward Israel and Jews. All parties and their neighbors need to be primed for a future of compromise and conciliation. The focus here is not that conflict, however, but rather Egypt’s own national interest in building a culture of tolerance for all ethnicities, religions, and nations—including Israel, now home to the largest population of Jews in the world. As hostility toward Jews in general and Israeli Jews in particular represents the pinnacle of bigotry in Egypt, the gold standard for a culture of tolerance in the country is one that extends to all Jews regardless of their citizenship. Anti-Semitism, Egypt’s eleventh plague, is also hatred’s last stand.
Egyptian liberals, in confronting the ideology, face a double problem, in that anti-Semitism in the country enjoys a secular as well as a religious pedigree. Former Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa highlighted the religious component when he affirmed a call for the slaying of Jews which he attributed to the prophet Muhammad himself. Though the statement was recorded more than a century after the prophet’s death, the compilation in which it appears enjoys canonical status. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, meanwhile, informs a modern, secular canon of anti-Semitism in Egypt, imported to the country nearly a century ago by Arabist ideologues and promulgated ever since. As noted previously, Egypt’s secular institutions issue their own equivalent to an edict of apostasy—the charge of “normalization with the Zionist enemy”—to punish Egyptians who befriend Israelis. That is what happened to Egyptian liberal playwright Ali Salem, formerly a well-liked figure who had attained the distinction of writing for comic icon Adel Imam. In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, he traveled to Israel to discover its people and then wrote a book about the experience. In response, Egypt’s cultural establishment declared him a “normalizer” and banned all Egyptian actors from performing his work. Twelve years later, he tried to promulgate his plays independently by making a cassette tape called The Best Laughs, in which he read excerpts from scripts. The dust had settled a bit since the initial ban, so the Ministry of Culture permitted him to give away the tape for free—but forbade him to sell it. Until Salem’s death in 2016, he subsisted largely on non-Egyptian revenue sources, such as his monthly column in the liberal-leaning Saudi-owned magazine Al-Majalla. It was no way to live. The lesson for other Egyptian liberals was that the baseline price for advocating friendship with Israelis is one’s career. Under these conditions, new voices like Salem’s have of course been slow to emerge.
One nonetheless finds Egyptian liberals nudging the discourse forward, sometimes from foreign territory. One example was the late Aly El-Samman. A veteran diplomat and communications specialist who served as foreign media adviser to President Anwar El-Sadat, he died in 2017 at the age of eighty-seven. Retired from government and living in France, he had worked through interfaith dialogue forums to bring Egyptian Muslims together with Jews of any nationality, including Israelis. In 2013, he partnered with Rabbi David Rosen, a British-Israeli national and former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, to produce the book Three Windows on Heaven. It compiles Muslim, Christian, and Jewish teachings in favor of tolerance. In his final months, he was working on a book in Arabic about the lives of Jewish community leaders in Europe who had quietly supported the process that led to the Camp David Accords. “My last book was a message for people of all faiths in any country,” he said, “but my new one is especially for young people in my country. They are accustomed to regarding relations between the Egyptian and Israeli governments as abstract, impersonal, and transactional. I want to draw a connection for them between this historic treaty and the bonds of friendship that led to it.” Senior in stature, financially settled, and based abroad, Samman did not feel constrained in his work by any reliance on the Egyptian system. Other like-minded diaspora figures have waged organizational efforts. In February 2017, Essam Abdel Samad, chairman of the Union of Egyptians in Europe, gathered media and intellectuals from Egypt and six other Arab countries for a panel featuring Koby Huberman, an Israeli peace activist. It was the first time in a generation that an Egyptian government-accredited NGO had publicly hosted an Israeli civil society figure. Samad and his guest called for joint ventures in media, business, infrastructure development, and culture.
Such outside efforts have drawn interest from a small number of Egyptian elites. An attempt to popularize the same values among millions, however, cannot be waged without the participation of powerful voices inside the country. Liberals in the Ali Salem school see a potential role for the country’s storied entertainment industry to foster acceptance of Jews and Israelis. “The characters in a TV show can become part of your life,” observed Alexandria native Mostafa El-Dessouki, Al-Majalla’s managing editor. “If you get immersed in a given dramatic serial on Ramadan—one episode per night for thirty nights straight—you are entering the screenwriter’s moral universe, and it can affect the way you see the world. So the people who create those shows have a moral responsibility.” The problem for those inclined to take Dessouki’s advice lies in the ban on “normalization.”