When I first started this blog, I did a weekly report on the Al-Jazeera talk show Al-Itijah Al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), the Arab world’s most popular political talk show, known for its intense debates. For example, in February, it was hosting raucous debates between former officers in the Egyptian Mukhaberet and Algerian intellectuals over the question “Do Arab security serve serve the people or the regimes.” But because of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Al-Jazeera’s host), there now seems to be some kind of limit on the scope of topics that can be discussed and so the show has become boring. Maybe its just me, but a discussion of the threat posed to Arab culture by foreign soap operas just isn’t as interesting.
However, yesterday’s show was a notable exception to this unfortunate trend. Guests debated the general question “to what extent is Britain responsible for the major disasters in the Middle East (such as Palestine, Iraq because of her colonial policy)? “100% responsible,” said Nour Ad Deen Al-Farjani, an Arab intellectual who lives in Germany. Taking a cool diplomatic position, was Dr. John Wilkes, a representative for the British government, who argued that its not useful to dwell in the past. Instead, we should move on and focus on the future.
I have a special interest in watching non-native Arabic speaking Western diplomats, especially those from countries whose foreign policy is not welcomed in the region (US and UK) go on Mid Eastern TV programs to defend their government’s policy. Wilkes gave a textbook lesson in how to successfully execute public diplomacy.
First, he spoke perfect Arabic. Its one thing to “speak” a foreign language, amongst friends, taxi drivers, etc when there is no pressure. Its a whole different level of linguistic skill to go on TV, under pressure, being watched by millions of viewers who mostly will disagree with everything you say. Wilkes made almost no grammatical mistakes during the 50 minute session in which he was always on the defensive, under pressure, responding to difficult questions and accusations from his opponent. He also spoke very good formal Arabic. Grandmasta is a big believer that, in formal situation, US or British diplomats should speak in Classical Arabic, as it brings with it a sense of prestige, which is important in diplomacy. Speaking in colloquial Arabic on tv, especially a program on Al-Jazeera, which some diplomats do is degrading. For those who aren’t familiar with Arabic, speaking in Colloquial would come across as only slightly more prestigious than the way Ali G interviews Boutros Boutrous Ghali. Maintaining prestige is huge.
In these types of situations, there is no way a British diplomat is going to “win” the debate. He is operating on the “road” in a hostile environment. Right off the bat, the question was posed to the audience; 85% said Britain is responsible. And from an objective historical perspective, Britain can be blamed for Palestine and Iraq so it would be dumb to even try and challenge the question. Therefore, the best strategy is to sit back, be modest, and maintain a defensive argument, focus on the present and future, and gain Arab “street respect” for use of good language skills and being willing to go on the such under such hostile conditions in the first place. All of this he did very well.
Al-Farjani’s central argument is that Britain was directly responsible for the disaster of Palestine. Without her colonial intervention, ie allowing Jewish immigration to Palestine in the decades before 1948, Israel’s foundation would not have been possible. He was especially angered with Britain’s alleged failure to formally apologize in comparison to Germany which quickly owned up to its transgressions after WWII.
Wilkes, clearly an experienced diplomat, refused to get caught up in historical details, saying we need to focus on the here and now. The most he would say is that the British government has an obligation to the Palestinian people, and is working hard to find a solution to the conflict. His central them was “get over it – its time to move on and stop dwelling in the past.” He noted how the US and Brits used to be bitter enemies; In 1812 the Brits even burned down the White House, but shortly after they reconciled and became the closest of allies. Relations between Germany and Britain, especially at the popular level were extremely bitter after WWII, but they moved on.
Farjani constantly lost his composure, at one point saying Iraq under Saddam was “50 million times better” than it is now. Wilkes responded by saying “you live in Germany, with all these freedoms of speech, religion etc and you speak of Iraq being better under Saddam… what are you doing to help the Pals from Germany?” This point was repeated several times which seemed to really strike a sensitive spot in Farjani.
Wilke’s only technical mistake was to try and (respectfully) cite passages from the Quran to back up his argument. Unless he is a Muslim convert, or unless his grasp of the Quran is so good his point will be clearly understood, this is something that should probably be avoided as it sounds patronizing. It definitely riled up Farjani.
In conclusion, it was a very good performance for Wilkes and the British government. To be fair, he was helped out by his opponent’s general lack of composure. Several times throughout the show, host Dr. Faysail Al-Qasem, had to stand to calm him down. Everything Wilkes said was completely predicable, coming from a diplomat, but Farjani seemed to be shocked, as if he didn’t expect to hear these arguments. Surely, Al-Jazeera could have found someone better to debate the Arab view? A more composed debater would have made it alot tougher for Wilkes. It almost seemed as if Al-Jazeera was trying to do Britain a favor……