Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 64: Social Media and Revolution — with Adel Iskandar

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Adel Iskandar

Fiorella Pinillos  0:06  
Hola oyentes. Mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos, y esa es Below the Radar and a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar our host Am Johal is joined by Adel Iskandar, Assistant Professor of Global Communication at SFU School of Communication. His work involves media identity and politics. And he is the author and co author of several works such as Egypt Influx: Essays in an Unfinished Revolution and Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism. Enjoy.

Am Johal  0:51 
This week on Below the Radar, we're excited to have Adel Iskandar. 

Adel Iskandar  0:55  
Thank you so much for having me Am. It's a pleasure to be here. 

Am Johal  0:56
Well, I've been meaning to interview you for quite a while because a number of years ago, you gave a talk at the Vancouver Institute for Social Research, but I was wondering what research work you're doing now? I know, you've been working on a couple of writing projects. But if you could talk a little bit about what you're working on these days? 

Adel Iskandar  1:14  
Uh, sure, absolutely. Can I first and foremost, just thank you for having me and also sort of express both my gratitude and my incredible appreciation for the podcast, I'm now becoming hooked on it like I'm a fairly addicted listener of the podcast, I'm enjoying it tremendously. But as far as the work that I have been doing, as of late, I would probably say that I have two ongoing research projects that are sort of fomenting and transforming in different ways. One of them pertains to the way in which propaganda is being re articulated and reimagined in the 21st century, particularly from the centers of power, like centers of imperial power. So how does the United States mass produce outreach, the so-called, you know, battle for hearts and minds, in countries that are perceived as adversarial? How to win over publics in other nations because the days of Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Voice of America have now changed. But also there's a significant deregulation and outsourcing of this type of work. So that's part of this project, sort of imagining and thinking about the trans cultural turn in Imperial knowledge production. It's a book project that I'm essentially finalizing. At this point. The second area of research that really sort of compels me as of late are resistance narratives that grow out of social mobilization online. So cyber dissidents in the form of satire, humor, sarcasm, sardonic kind of output. Those are the things that really intrigued me, particularly in the form of memes, and how young people are using memes to express their disgruntlement, dissatisfaction, their aspirations, and how they challenge authoritarianism on one side, in some instances, whether that authoritarianism manifests in the household, family, kin, social environment, work environment, but more importantly, also on the political level, how it manifests and translates into political vision, and, you know, a political utopia, if you will. And at the same time, I'm interested in how that might translate into meaningful social organizing, not just kind of like singular expressions of, you know, virality, and trending excitement, but rather something that is a little bit more meaningful as far as political outcomes and behaviors. So my case study there is focused on the Egyptian revolutionary movement, and how it went from being sort of an anti authoritarian, anti police brutality movement that utilized you know, online technology and innovations. But moving beyond the sort of techno determinism that rendered the discussion very kind of singular and simplistic and called the revolution, like a Facebook revolution, and things like that. So it became more about the social media platform, and less about the political impetus behind it. So. So that's my other kind of project. Those are the two kind of, you know, wings that I'm trying to fly with, but sometimes they're out of sync with each other. 

Am Johal  4:24  
You know, way back in the early 20th century, when people like Walter Lippmann was writing or Edward Bernays this sort of close relationship between propaganda and advertising. You know, Edward Bernays used to write something that, you know, propaganda has a relationship to truth. So if there's different versions of the truth it's important to get your version of the truth out there. And this is where this sort of scrambling and dissonance begins to emerge in some of the writing but in terms of your framing, of looking at kind of the Neo Imperial implications of how this work lands down in particular parts of the world and how to read it. What has come up in your research? 

Adel Iskandar  5:06  
Well, I'm really glad you brought both Lippmann and Bernays into the conversation because I think what has transpired from that day and age was a real sort of conciliatory agreement, if you will, that propaganda is propaganda. And in some instances, it's necessary to promote a particular ideological stance, while at the same time making a case for why that positionality can be objective. So as problematic as that kind of notion and approach happened to be, it was sort of self reconciled. But over time, what's happened is we've moved away from the ability to recognize what constitutes propagandistic knowledge production. And we began using sort of euphemistic language like public diplomacy and you know, sort of government PR and things of that sort. So I would say, there have been about 60 some years of that type of sort of obfuscation of what is otherwise propaganda and the assumption that it is truth presented to us in a manner that is agreeable with realities on the ground, you know, that this is justifiable, and universalize, double and totally parsimonious. But now, I think something really complicated kind of unfolded. And I'm not suggesting that we should give into or accept the sort of the fictionalized and mythologized American descriptor that what happened on 911 changed the world. But in terms of like knowledge, production and propaganda, it did, in some ways, shift the priorities within the centers of power as far as what type of outreach needs to happen. Who are these audiences? What does it mean to be a public? Who are citizens? So that significant re-articulation is what I've been increasingly curious about. And the argument that I'm making is that during the early Bush years, in the United States, there was a concerted effort to shift the approach to outreach to the Muslim world, or the Arab world, or, you know, communities that were perceived to be adversarial or have a very sort of staunchly unfavorable view of the United States, and to bring them into the fold what was then described as the battle for hearts and minds. And you'll remember how incredibly dichotomous and binarized the whole discussion was, at the time, “you're either with us or against us”. This is language from George W. Bush in many of his speeches, and the axis of evil, those sort of diametrically opposed view of the world. And during that point, there was the assumption that what resonates with publics at large, you'll recognize how incredibly PR oriented this kind of modality is, what is appealing to people around the world, particularly young people who are the ones perceived to be of a direct threat to the sovereignty and control and perhaps the power of the United States moving forward. What they found most attractive and interesting about the West and more specifically, the United States was popular culture and entertainment and music, they wanted to listen to their Beyonce is and you know, and Akon and all that type of stuff. But at the same time, they were politically at odds with the United States and its projects in the region. So how do you reach out to these communities? And the quick answer, the quick and dirty answer, if you will, is to move away from, you know, producing political discourse and focus on producing cultural discourse. And so that cultural turn began in the early 2000s, shortly after 911, where all of a sudden, hundreds of millions of dollars were immediately transformed, or sort of re-channeled in the direction of programming of music and popular culture. So if you can imagine, like, in a post 9/11 moment, the United States begins to reach out to audiences around the world, not with political discourse from the center of power, but rather with Arabic popular culture music, and sort of like top 40 hits, combined with like the Billboard Top 100. So you would listen to all these kind of radio shows, and they produced six different streams, targeting different communities around the region, an Iraqi Stream and North African stream, a stream for the Gulf and basically playing top 40 hits, not unlike what you might listen to on what is it what are some of the, you know, Virgin radio, and you know, what is it like for I don't even remember the names of the stations anymore. But anyway, that model is a highly corporatized model. It also translated into a complete deregulation of quote unquote public diplomacy, programming. It meant that all of a sudden Voice of America Arabic, which is an existing institution that produced mostly political discourse, had to be effectively uprooted or excised from the existing structure and moved off campus. So outside of it even in in the structural sense

Adel Iskandar  9:59  
moved outside of the centers of news production, the journalistic kind of arms of the Broadcasting Board of Governors of the US government, and moved to another facility in Springfield, Virginia, where they could do their own thing. And they're not in any way beholden to the same rules and regulations. And that meant that something different had to happen. The person who was hired to oversee the project is sort of a venture capitalist whose investments were mostly in radio programming across the country, I think he ran a company that owned at least 2400 different radio stations in different markets across the US. So this is a very, very sort of private model of broadcasting of, you know, radio content, most of which is just straight music. In fact, he would go into some of these offices of these various radio streams, and the only people, there were no people there, there are people just kind of managing either logistics or trying to figure out accounting and finance department. But as far as actual, like, you know, individuals like yourself sitting in front of a microphone talking, there was nothing like that there were just switchboards and, and music that's on loop. But that's all, that was the model, or at least the beginning of the model. And then we began to see that becoming the sort of the regular state of affairs where outreach to the region was anchored on shifting cultural identity or demonstrating the extent to which the New America, the American, that the Arab world, or the Muslim world needs to become acquainted with is an extremely multicultural, progressive part of the world that that doesn't see, that basically goes against the president's speeches, so there isn't an us and them. In fact, there's a togetherness, the radio station itself was called Radio Sawa, which in Arabic translates into radio together. The idea that we're kind of like merging cultures, merging discourses, merging political destinies, in such a way that it becomes appealing to the Arab world. 

Am Johal  12:02  
I wonder if in you know, in some extent, when we're looking at Western influence in the regions who are more specifically American, there's a kind of hangover that comes from the kind of Cold War approach that they took vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, and you go over from the Helsinki Accords in the mid 70s, to the types of strategic investments they're doing in terms of Cold War politics. And when the wall does come down, it's interesting visiting certain parts of the region, because it's tied to a certain moment when Western music is all of a sudden available. And so there are when you're traveling to the region, you know how often you hear Bon Jovi, or Guns and Roses and music of a particular moment that's being played by these baby boomer bands in the thing, or it still plays on the radio faintly in the background. So to some degree, these are approaches that were tried or utilized in a particular way in a kind of Cold War fight and in the particular circumstances of the US in the Middle East in a post 911 environment. To what extent do you think that Cold War approach applies or doesn't apply? You know, you hear all these other stories as well about you know, the use of Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers by the Pentagon others in training methods to understand resistance and these types of things and trying to capture out of popular culture previous moments and trying to re ascribe a way to utilize it in the region. 

Adel Iskandar  13:29
I mean, I'm really glad you're bringing those examples because in more ways than one, a lot of the contemplative analytical frameworks that are being used today very much speak to or hearken back to those particular moments, those are considered like tried and tested approaches to shifting, you know, societal perceptions of the United States through popular culture production through music, whether it's, you know, Bon Jovi, or jazz or, or the blues, for instance. I think, in a very fundamental way, it has more to do with the political project designed for those respective locales. So for instance, in the aftermath of 911, the objective of the United States government is to ensure that, you know, communities in these societies do not perceive the United States as a political adversary. So it was more of a pacification of audiences, which meant that most of the content being disseminated through these platforms was very sort of placid in its approach. These are not like, you know, discourses of dissent. And there's no attempt at sort of mobilizing people against the local authority, which is, you know, is a source of contrast to the Cold War programming, which was meant to agitate the publics or at least, you know, hypothetically speaking, demonstrate different genres of music that were perceived as prohibited and those locales. In this case, the United States government was not broadcasting anything that was in any way prohibited in those regions.

Adel Iskandar  15:00  
So there isn't the uniqueness. It is rather the reclamation of these cultural productions as American. So it's basically like America rendering, the country's cultural production of which most of it is, in no way consistent with the American foreign policy or is, can be governmental eyes in any functional way. But it is rendered proprietary. Basically saying, Here's a flag, an American flag on the cover of every album you'll ever listen to that is produced in the United States, that's us. That's who we are. And if they were, you know, artists of like Middle Eastern descent, or from, you know, Latin America, or originally from Southeast Asia, all the better so as to showcase America's quote, unquote, multiculturalism and plurality. And the idea here is to basically rebrand the United States, rather than shift any existing political discourse. In fact, to the contrary, the United States was not interested in broadcasting, let's say hardrock, or heavy metal, or sort of hip hop or you know, r&b, I mean, there was, you know, a fair amount of r&b but not sort of hardcore underground hip hop, or anything that's coming out of the inner city that sort of challenges the status quo, in any functional sense. And so in avoiding those types of discourses, everything becomes quite safe. And so that was the model. Of course, fast forward a few years it didn't take long between 2001 and well, 10 years and 2011, we have massive uprisings in the region, the young people are very agitated, and they're protesting and regimes are being toppled, institutions are being re articulated, bureaucracies are collapsing, and and authoritarianism is being held to task. And most of the authoritarian regimes in the region were extremely staunch allies of the United States. So where does that leave this sort of discourse, and content production, that's where I think the US government and you know, generally speaking, but more specifically, by extension, their broadcast kind of instrumentation, begins to pivot in such a way so as to try and appropriate which is exactly what I think you were getting at. It's like trying to sort of appropriate discourses, and perceptions that come from the region that have kind of like a dissonant dimension to them. So all of a sudden, the United States has to become the champion for democratization movements in the region. So if you're, you know, an artist in Egypt, or Libya, or Yemen or Syria, and you're advocating for, you know, a shift in the governmental structure there. If that is not at odds with America's project, or the United States project in that region, then by all means, you're welcome. You're welcome to the studios, you're welcome to be interviewed, we'll play your music, all those types of things. So there was a functional litmus test to determine which discourses were seen as acceptable and which were not. But for all intents and purposes, the model itself was in no way unique. As far as audiences were concerned. In due course, I would say the vast majority of countries in the region ended up having bilingual, you know, top 40 hits radio shows within a span of two years from the launch of this network. So the competition became very staunch. People have access to the internet, the internet access is skyrocketing and increasing dramatically, not just since 911. But since the uprisings. So the brand itself kind of fell on deaf ears, and the United States has to begin to re envision itself. But the Obama era, I think, became very characteristic of this view that, you know, there is no us and them. We're all kind of in this together. You know, the first speech, first major speech that Obama gave was in Cairo University that's supposed to re articulate and redefine the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world at large recite, it sounds like a really hefty thing, or like a lofty expectation, if you will. But having said that, the argument that I'm making in this research, I mean, this is a singular case study, the argument that I'm making this research is that for American for Pax Americana, to continue moving forward, it needs to be re articulated along with a new parameter or a new sort of metric, which is the culturalist parameter, like how can the United States continue to re articulate itself and continue to be influential with publics that perceive it as deeply problematic? So it has to shed its sort of Imperial monocultural, kind of like the cowboy motif, and sort of adopt motifs that are by extension an appropriation of all the different cultural contexts and, and socio-cultural kind of enclaves that exist in the world. If you want to be a successful musician from Sub Saharan Africa and have international reach beyond the territorial region within which you're situated. You have to make it big in the United States. So the US becomes the the point or the intermediary between sort of local cultural production and transnationalism and that, I think, is where things get really tricky. And I think, in essence, you know, the this culturalist turn was largely interrupted by, you know, the rise not only of the Tea Party, but also of Donald Trump, and his assumption to the presidency, because if anything, he has become sort of the caricature of an America that is by no means multicultural, that is largely bigoted and disinterested, in you know, subcultures or communities of precarity, has little to no interest in what might seem as advantageous to other societies and other nations a real sort of isolationist kind of policy and anti globalization narrative. And that is a real interruption of what would have otherwise become a trend towards further cultural appropriation, a world kind of knowledge production within the United States. And, you know, it should come as no surprise that even in the academic sense, the vast majority of research produced about the world, arguably, is produced in the United States, or that the the way in which we have internalized or the hegemony of academic research is such that we privilege research that comes out of the United States, or has in one way or another been accredited or valorized, or rubber stamped by American institutions. The largest Anthropological Association is the American Anthropological Association, the same is true of most disciplines that we know of in the world. So if you want to be taken seriously, you have to make your way through the United States. In fact, even in terms of the Middle East, the largest community of scholars of Middle Eastern Studies, is the Middle Eastern Studies Association, with offices in Arizona. So such as what the US government during the Bush years, decided to invest in. And of course, the same thing is true of various other initiatives. The US embassies have allocated budgets to promote, you know, women's singing competitions, not unlike, you know, American Idol in various countries around the region. cultural diplomacy has become like the catchphrase and the Washington beltway. How do you produce this type of stuff, sending Harlem Globetrotters, you know, with its really interesting, and compelling kind of history of challenging the institutions such as the NBA under like Howard Stern, and all of a sudden finding them traveling to various parts of the Middle East, under the banner of the United States. This is like an American cultural export. So the way in which the United States is exported, and how the Imperial project is being re articulated in the United States appears to be interesting or exciting, because it's, it appears to be much more plural, but I would consider it a lot more ominous, because in a sense, it forces many of these communities to turn to identity politics, and discussions around authenticity, and, and loyalty and trader ships and things of this sort. So when an Egyptian artist were to travel abroad, and decide to seek refuge because of local kind of infringement on their freedoms, let's say in Sweden, or the United States or the UK, and begin to produce content against their governments, the manner in which they then become appropriated by sort of a colonial project that has objectives of shifting, you know, the way in which societies are run in those respective countries. That becomes deeply incriminating. And then, you know, we have so many artists 1000s of artists, in fact, whose work has now been appropriated by the United States. And as a result, they no longer are able to do what they want to do or reach the communities that they want to reach. And they become persona non grata. And they end up leading a life of exile simply because of their perceived ideological proximity to the United States. But if the United States continues to behave as a cultural black hole, that absorbs all the cultures that exist in the world, fast forward 20-30 years, what then becomes territoriality, locality, indigeneity? And, and I think those are the questions that I'm hoping to raise moving forward. 

Am Johal  24:23  
In your other writing project you're taking a more theoretical approach. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about that project?

Adel Iskandar  24:30  
Yeah, so the other project is interested in online resistance, and I wouldn't say that the two are so distant or far apart, but I'm interested in how young people define their own kind of language and discourse. And this particular project was inspired by Jean Baudrillard and the notion of, of hyperreality. how that translates into the way in which young people can imagine themselves vis-a-vis power, and in many instances, the power that is in there that affects them or impacts them in an immediate sense is the political circumstances that translate into structures of governance that infringe upon their day to day lives. And the experiment or not the experiment, but I should say like the case study that I've been most interested in is young people in in Egypt, and how they're using and utilizing online humor to challenge a far more muscular sort of military regime that took over power, after the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled in the summer of 2013. And, Egyptians are, you know, without being, you know, without succumbing to kind of stereotypes about the Egyptians, but because of, you know, decade's worth of comedic content produced over a long period of time, the Egyptian sort of disposition around politics is often about humor. So, for instance, Egyptians would joke very frequently about their presidents, but they would use like code words or figures of speech and euphemisms to do so. Former President Mubarak, he had a fairly peculiar laugh, and most Egyptians knew him as the laughing cow. And you'll remember those like triangles, the cheese triangles, La Vache Qui Rit, so they would call him La Vache Qui Rit. And it was sort of a known thing, but you couldn't say it in public, you would say it in private circles. Or if you wanted to talk about the president, you would say, Can you pass me the La Vache Qui Rit? And that kind of was a way of sort of code switching to suggest that you're talking about the president, but this type of humor has since proliferated quite significantly, after the protest movement in the revolution of 2011. With the young people all of a sudden taking to the internet to express their quams and, and their reservations. And my initial sort of observation of, you know, taking over the National Security Agency, for instance, or burning down of the National Democratic Party, in each of the headquarters of the party that had been reigning for 30 years, all happening in a manner that appears to be very sporadic and very intuitive. But in essence, what had been happening all along is that these political messages had been fomenting through a combination of both political organizing, but also humor. And in time, as the government began to shut down many of those platforms and pursue many of these revolutionaries and young people in an attempt to bring back the status quo of 2011. What continues to happen unabated are these online expressions. And so one of the interesting things that I noted was how cacophonous this space was, which really sort of resembled Mikhail Bakhtin's, you know, notion of the carnivalesque both in its ability to create spaces for expression whereby the profane is not surprising, where individuals can sort of shed their personhood, the personhood that they perform in their day to day lives to become these incredibly powerful avatars of themselves. And it just became very interesting because all of a sudden, the sort of canonical and what is otherwise considered sanctimonious began to crumble. So not just in the political sense, so but also religious authority began to fall apart, you have young people who wouldn't dare challenge their own parents in the household, all of a sudden choosing to take down the seat  of  as her the oldest institution of higher learning for Muslims, or to challenge the Mufti of the country who is the person most responsible for releasing religious edicts in the country, or challenging the Muslim Brotherhood and their sort of discursive narratives and what their vision for political reality might be. So all of a sudden, symbols of authority began to fall apart, and attempting to bring those back has been very, very difficult for most of the institutions that they represent even the President himself, the president of Egypt today Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who is I would say that there's no exaggeration in a statement, but he is probably the most tyrannical you know, and draconian leader, tyrannical leader Egypt has had in its modern history. He is probably the most criticized online of any president that preceded him. In online spaces, he's known as the pimp, his body parts are ridiculed all the time, including his genitalia. I mean, this is stuff that I can sometimes blush as I read some of this stuff online. And these are young people who are situated inside Egypt, whose lives are in great precarity for simply doing just that. But these are spaces where they've chosen to turn to bricolage to turn to virality creative content production, and the mixing and matching of discourses that connect Egyptian folklore with contemporary politics.

Adel Iskandar  30:00  
And all of it is extremely resonant. Egypt has per unit population, Egypt has some of the highest membership in meme generating platforms of any other country in the world. Which means that the amount of content being generated is absolutely dizzying given how small the population is. Now, nobody ever talks about Egypt's population being small. But given the percentage of people who are online, it is in no small measure a major feat. It's also the reason why the most threatening political figure that the regime is now facing is a young man called Muhammad Ali, who's now based between Spain, and London and Istanbul, former contractor of the Egyptian military, someone who's very, very close to the regime. And he basically started posting videos where he sarcastically called out the government for corruption and describing the incredible economic reach of the military establishment, and just his mannerisms or his disposition, which involves him like joking, and being sarcastic, and using sort of profane language, which does not render him very statesman like. But nevertheless, that is exactly what is resonating with people because it fits into that disposition, that it is all done in good faith. And it's all part of a good joke. But the joke is not really a joke, what underlies the jokes, and the humor is a real sort of political project. So that's been my, my interest. So it combines Bakhtin and Baudrillard, but I'm also interested in how Saeed and the notion of Orientalism fits into the way in which these narratives and discourses perform self Orientalism as a form of self critique, and various other sort of theoretical threads. But having said that, it is a very immediate project, as much of these discourses continue to unfold to this day. And I'm interested in how they are culturally situated, like how do young people produce humor that is resonant with members of different generations? How ageist is this discourse? How resonant is it with those who don't have the same sort of privileges, whether with their use of digital innovations? How do they go from online to offline? When you know, a particular sort of meme that is created online turns into a mural. Or work of graffiti in an Egyptian suburb or Cairo suburb? What does that mean? And what does it mean for the state to be more successful at shutting down kind of analog platforms and they are able to securitize the online platforms, so they can take down I mean, within a span of like 48 hours, they can paint over, you know, wall that has graffiti, but they have this incredible kind of Tom and Jerry chase, after like these memes online, you know, one of those memes, for instance, simply had a photo of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the President, with Mickey Mouse ears, laughing, that's it, there was nothing more to it. And the person who first shared that particular image was sentenced to jail in Egypt. But the moment that that happened, this photo went viral. It was a newspaper article outside of Egypt, it traveled so far and wide, that it basically rendered the sentence not only ineffective, but just entirely laughable. You know, the objective is to basically hold the mirror up against these institutions, and demonstrate how incredibly ridiculous they are. And that ridiculousness is both a source of humor, and probably Egypt's greatest hope for future through descent. 

Am Johal  33:59  
Now, oddly, a long time ago, you wrote a book on Al Jazeera. I mean, it was so long ago, you were probably like 12 years old when you wrote it. But what was your route by getting to academia, and also talk a little bit about the book as well, because I think at the time that you wrote it, Al Jazeera, or at least in the West, wasn't as well known as it was post 911. And later when it had a lot more visibility. And of course, it's much more widely followed now. 

Adel Iskandar  34:23  
Yeah. So the book process itself grew out of my curiosity as a graduate student. In fact, in Al Jazeera, which was a fairly adventurous and bold sort of television network. During the early days of satellite television in the region, it came into being in 1996. But in a span of three years, it was doing things that were considered anathema anywhere else. So you know, inviting political dissidents from different parts of the region. Most of the time governments in the Middle East will support one another. There's a really nice kind of like cohort, you know, relationship between the various heads of state in the form of the Arab League where they convene, and they, they settle their quams amongst themselves so that they don't air out each other's dirty laundry. But this station began to do things that were considered impossible at the time. So inviting political dissonance, literally from every part of the region, inviting members of the public, publics don't appear on TV, you know, individuals in the streets don't appear on TV to talk about, you know, whether their education system is working, or whether their healthcare system is making them healthier or sicker. Like nobody talks about these things. And so Al Jazeera took a huge plunge in disrupting or sort of ruffling feathers or, or the, you know, kind of like creating ripples in these very stagnant waters, which very quickly drew significant amount of attention in the region, but also drew the ire of many of these states and their respective governments. So they began to challenge the network, shut down its bureaus, arrest its journalists, and that sort of increased their visibility, and they made a name for themselves in that light, that they were not prepared to succumb to the existing kind of status quo. So this is all late 90s, early 2000s 911 rolls around. And before you know it, AlJazeera is in the right place, you know, right time, right place. And they have extremely deep pockets that are supported almost entirely by the government, which is an emirate, an oil rich, kind of extraction based Emirate of Qatar. And so then, Emir of Qatar, proceeded to bankroll the station. And since this was an entirely state owned operation, there was no need for them to court advertisers. So there was no advertisement, it was like 24 hour round the clock news and coverage of circumstances and conflicts around the region, and internationally. But they were the only station because of their reach, they were the only station with functioning well staffed Buros, both in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Baghdad. And so when the two wars ensued in 2001, and Afghanistan in 2003, when the United States launched kind of like a, you know, two locale war simultaneously, and then a couple of years later in Iraq, as well, wherever there was a conflict AlJazeera happened to be there. And so they got exclusive coverage, they were also the go to source, or the go to broadcaster for Osama bin Laden's messages to the world at the time. And Al Jazeera would broadcast those not in support, but rather to kind of like demonstrate that there's another perspective besides that of the US. So they immediately became immensely popular, and the Western kind of journalistic establishment was really kind of disrupted by the existence of Al Jazeera, there's been very little history of a substantial broadcaster or from the global south that challenges the way in which the West produces news and information about conflicts in the global south. So Al Jazeera very quickly became a model for how to produce news for large audiences transnationally and not give into or submit to the dominant sort of paradigmatic approach of the former, you know, colonizers and now imperial powers, with all of its ironies, because Al Jazeera, as I said, is, you know, run by an ally of the, it's run and funded by Qatar, which is a top ally of the United States. And even though they broadcasted extremely critical coverage of the US, military misadventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, simultaneously, most of these two wars were orchestrated literally from Central Command, the US Central Command, and US Central Command is just a few kilometers away from the headquarters of Al Jazeera, in  Al Udeid base in Qatar. So this is the complexity of the situation. But having said that, my initial curiosity with Al Jazeera and specifically in that book was driven by an interest in the journalistic model that they represented. The political economic kind of dimension was one that I was curious about, but it was so opaque and impenetrable, it was impossible to know how much money was being spent, who was being staffed, why they're being staffed, the gatekeeping role, the agenda setting role was quite opaque as well, it was difficult to penetrate. And such as you know, such are the conditions of deeply entrenched, centralized authoritarian governments. So here's an authoritarian government, producing a network that challenges the authoritarianism of other nations and its immediate surroundings as well as challenging American primacy in the world, but relying heavily on that American primacy. So it was full of absurd contrast, but I became very curious about how they defined objectivity, not unlike the questions around sort of Walter Lippmann and what journalism means. So became really drawn into the discussion about whether or not what Al Jazeera was doing was journalistically, credible or appropriate. I mean, this is a time when US media were basically saying Al Jazeera's supporting our nemeses.

Adel Iskandar  40:00
Al Jazeera's you know, adversarial, Al Jazeera's all for the terrorists and attempts. I'm like, wait, let's take a step back. I mean, you know, these are two sort of contending narratives. What does it mean to be in the middle? Is there such a thing as a middle? Is it a spectrum? What are the constellations of possible perspectives that exist? And that's where this term called contextual objectivity, sort of came into being? What does objectivity look like if it becomes embroiled with context? And so that was the initial sort of curiosity about Al Jazeera, are they contextualizing realities on the ground? And in doing so they become perceived as problematic, because that is sort of a composite of all the different kinds of subjectivities? Are they arbitrary in the way in which we see reality? I mean, arguably, all media organizations do precisely that; they act as arbiters of reality, as well as presenters of those realities. So what is the difference between Al Jazeera and CNN and Fox News, since they're in the same sort of realm, they're all competing for audience's attention and trying to win people over and shift their perceptions, and they're all being utilized and exploited in one way or another by various kind of governments and ideological perspectives and what have you. And in conclusion, this wasn't the conclusion of the book, because the book is so incredibly dated. Now with the benefit of time and all these different transformations. I would probably argue that Al Jazeera is not so different. Its adversaries, you know.

Am Johal  41:32
Interesting. The question I was going to ask you was, there's of course, a very high profile case of a Canadian journalist that was jailed in Egypt Mohamed Fahmy, who wrote a book I was gonna ask you about your reading of that situation, how it played out also his narrative and critique of Al Jazeera? 

Adel Iskandar  41:49  
I mean, there's so many different kinds of subtleties that I would rather not miss. But you know, I also want to make sure that we don't take up too much of your time. But the the situation with Mohamed Fahmy is incredibly peculiar, because here's this remarkably aspiring and successful journalist who came out of the American and kind of Western media establishment, and had been recruited by Al Jazeera to take over as bureau chief of Al Jazeera English in one of the hottest spots in the world at the time in Cairo. But it happens on the heels of the slow falling from grace of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. With Al Jazeera's parent company which is Al Jazeera English where he was employed. But with the parent company situated in Qatar, a major sort of benefactor and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, and its various instrumentations. All of a sudden, Mohamed Fahmy finds himself at this focal point of a collision course, between a rising anti Islamist Egyptian military state, and an organization that he works for, that is beholden to a different ideological stance. And he doesn't agree with the ideological stance of his news organization, nor does he approve of the growing authoritarianism of the state in which he resides. So he gets swept up by the Egyptian state. And from then on, he needs to prove that he is neither an Islamist nor, you know, nor is he a stooge of the Egyptian government. But he has to be a stooge of the Egyptian government if he wants to leave the prison. And so it becomes this really complicated situation. It doesn't do Egypt any good, of course, it becomes a hugely incriminating and embarrassing story for the Egyptian government. But the Egyptian Government appears to be extremely disinterested in how the world sees it. So they kept him in custody for a very long time like at least a couple of his appeals were rescinded or rejected. And eventually, when he was released, he had to be released on presidential pardon. So he gets to owe his freedom to the president of Egypt. And simultaneously, he must critique his once news organization Al Jazeera, but he had some fairly, you know, interesting critiques of what Al Jazeera didn't do or what they could have done, to protect him to ensure that he has a working license to not exploit his incarceration, to kind of like push their brand even farther, those types of things, in addition to the fact that he felt that their coverage was, you know, considerably problematic on Egypt and was very politically motivated in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood. But having said that, such is the architecture of power in the Middle East today, whereby the United States as a government and as a major player in the region, has its money and its support behind every horse in the race. So it doesn't stand to lose, whether it's Islamist or secularists, or military regimes you know, the US is going to stand to gain in most circumstances. 

Adel Iskandar  45:00
And it is on the public's and the community's shoulders to figure out how they wish to pivot. And what those optics might look like moving forward. So today, Al Jazeera is suffering from a major identity crisis for a network that came into being in 1996. Now we're in the year 2020. In those years, the networks I should say, like now it's a community of networks is shifting and morphing in such complicated ways to be able to figure out how it fits vis-a-vis these tectonic shifts that are happening on the ground. Fundamentally, they cannot be at odds with the United States, given how much support they get from the US, they cannot be at odds with Russia, because Russia is protecting them in the event that the United States were to stop supporting them. They need to align themselves with ideological partners like Turkey, but at the same time, Turkey under Erdogan may not be around the way it is moving forward. And they're at odds with Saudi Arabia, which is another kind of like behemoth power in their backyard. And they're kind of nestled or sandwiched, if you will, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So for a small, tiny emirate that is so noisy, right? All of this comes at considerable risk. But it raises the question as to why does Al Jazeera sound and look the way it does at any given moment? And in a very fundamental level, the realization that took us long time to get at, is that, you know, it's all about the political economy of communication, like whoever funds this gets to call the shots, right. But for a good 15 or so years, the Qatari Government had been able to successfully convince publics and governments around the world that they were at an arm's length away. A beautiful example of how not at arm's length there is that since the commencement of the war in Yemen, Al Jazeera said virtually nothing about the Yemeni conflict. And if anything, they were very much supportive of Saudi Arabia's military intervention in Yemen. And there were many instances where journalists and reporters and members of the public would try to call in and try to talk to assignment editors, please cover the war in Yemen. It is catastrophic. This is the poorest country in the Arab world, you've got entire like there are children dying every day. Cholera is on the rise. I mean, even eradicated diseases are back in Yemen, because of how dire the circumstances are there. There's very little humanitarian aid going to Yemen, I mean, at least compared to other conflict zones, like Syria. So Yemen is nowhere to be found on the international kind of conflict radar. And news media doesn't cover it. Major publications and news organizations are not prepared to either invest in sending their reporters on the ground, nor are they prepared to pay for their insurance in the event that they lose their lives. There's such a high risk locale. So having said that, Al Jazeera, you know, they've been in war zones before they send reporters everywhere, and they have the deepest pockets, but they were choosing, actively choosing to neglect Yemen and the conflict there. And then, lo and behold, in a span of 48 hours, the Saudi government, as well as its allies in the region, choose to begin an embargo against Qatar, for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and various other political matters. And overnight, Yemen becomes an issue. Al Jazeera starts to cover it because now Saudi Arabia is an adversary, and where's Saudi Arabia investing its military might? In bombing to smithereens Yemeni cities. So before you know it, journalists are descending on Yemen. Al Jazeera's journalists arrived, essentially parachuted stringers, they're distributing cameras all over the cities and reporting around the clock, what's going on in Yemen. So it was essentially like a switch had been flicked. And that's it. So when the switch is flicked on or off, depends largely on what's happening, and the hallways of the palace in Doha. And that becomes the ultimate determinant of what constitutes, you know, journalistic coverage in Al Jazeera, which is a very depressing, you know, conclusion to this remarkable journey for a network, but such other realities. 

Am Johal  49:18  
That was so fascinating. And one of the questions I wanted to ask you was around a project that you worked on with Peace Geeks, and we didn't get a chance to talk about that. It would be great if you kind of outlined that project. 

Adel Iskandar  49:31
So this project grew out of sort of a real personal anxiety about what is happening in the region and the rise of ISIS or Daesh and other sort of organizations, but also an attempt to really disrupt and challenge and move beyond the whole sort of language around countering violent extremism, and the appropriation of efforts of, you know, de radicalization by Western States and American kind of militarized approaches. And so this was like a hunch, you know, that the people most capable of challenging the primacy and the convictions of radical groups in the region are the communities from which they come, their families, their relatives, their  neighbors, the people who are dealing with and suffering from the same circumstances from which these sort of radical perspectives are born. And at the same time, there was a fairly clear obfuscation of the efforts that were happening on a community level to challenge these radical discourses, you know, so there were members of the clergy, who are basically saying, No, I'm sorry, this is not the way in which Islam should be interpreted. Young people who are pushing back against these recruitment strategies into these organizations, but they were getting absolutely no attention. There was humor and satire and short films and things of that sort that were circulating among these communities that were not being scaled up. And so the project began with the desire to empower and provide resources and capacities to these existing Indigenous local participatory efforts, so that they can be maximized in their challenge, not just of these radical discourses, but to challenge the structure that reinforces this radicalization, which is essentially Western military intervention. So it's like, we don't need Western military intervention. But we also don't need these problematic answers to Western military intervention. So the funding came through from global affairs. Interestingly, I think it was at a time when global affairs were prepared to take risks and do something differently. So the money came through. And essentially what we set up was an office and our men were all the employees are under the age of 35. They're all young people enterprising, creative, they conducted focus groups and workshops and community building and community cohesion sessions across the country, in different cities, some cases within communities where there's a lot of precarity. Jordan is the second largest contributor, obviously, it doesn't contribute per se, but like the number of people recruited from Jordan to join organizations like ISIS, that makes Jordan the second largest contributor of armed personnel to ISIS, after Tunisia. So this is obviously a real problem like this is a quote unquote, breeding ground of this type of ideology and perspective. So getting to the bottom of why this is the case, and figuring out what young people in these local communities have by way of answers or solutions. That, in my opinion, was the best way to go, as opposed to any sort of imposition or kind of like discursive or ideological perspective that would be born out of like Western interventionism. So we basically gave them an opportunity to do whatever they want. And they created something called the Meshkat Community. Meshkat is an Arabic word, but also like an Islamic word. That means a lantern, or something that brings light in the darkness. So they came up with a name, they came up with a concept, they came up with the project objectives, they began courting filmmakers, animators, artists, and they began sort of dispensing small awards, piece awards and artists in residence programs for content producers in Jordan. And then I think the final part of the project or what culminated was sort of a YouTube based film series, or a sort of multi episode series that is fashioned, I'd say probably similar to Black Mirror that looks at the relationship between technological innovation, social and cultural identity, and what violence means in contemporary society and thinking about tolerance. And all of these discourses were produced locally by young artists, scriptwriters, screenplay writers, filmmakers, and I think one of the episodes of this particular show, I think it's called the box for translation, doesn't translate correctly, but it's called the box. But one of the episodes just won an award at the Sochi Film Festival where it was initially screened. So all of this stuff is driven by the desire to shift the centers of discourse and content production around sort of radicalization and violence from the United States, Canada, Western countries and giving them to the communities that are most impacted and affected by them. So they can define their priorities and come up with solutions that they feel the greatest conviction to address. 

Am Johal  54:37  
Adel, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Adel Iskandar  54:41  
Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Fiorella Pinillos  54:45  
Thanks again to Adel Iskandar for joining us a Below the Radar. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcast. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together including myself Fiorella Pinillos, Paige Smith, Jackie O'Bunga and Kathy Feng. David Steele is the composer of our theme music. Thank you for listening and tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar. Gracias.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
July 28, 2020

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