Battle In Doha

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……

9 Responses

  1. It was a superb performance by Wilkes. He even managed to get a bit sarcastic in formal Arabic. A very impressive skill. His teachers must be very proud of him. Al-Faraji really did get himself exited! I can’t remember ever seeing Faisal al-Qasim actually leaving his chair to calm a guest! I thought of GM while watching, and was hoping he hadn’t entirely despaired of the program. I don’t even watch it that much any more, but it seems I manage to catch the good ones by sheer luck! I don’t quite think AJ was remiss in its choice for the Arab defense (and I’m sure FQ as well has a large say in the matter); the more animated the guests become, the better the program. I used to tech for a radio show very likeالاتجاه المعاكس (it came on right after my drive-time mix, so I would stay to work the board for the host) and it was part of the announcer’s programming strategy to get two rabid enemies across a very small table from each other and provoke them to shout things out. If you want to read me taking Fouad Ajami to task for his choleric objections to AJ (and I contend precisely for programs like IM); go here:

  2. thanks for your comments.

    I check the programs website beforehand and if the topic seems interesting ill try and catch at least the beginning. Thats how I happened to catch this one.

    I just felt that if there was someone more composed he would have made it alot harder for Wilkes. True, its about getting viewers, but I felt such an uncomposed person repping the Arab p.o.v. played into negative stereotypes about Arabs.

    Thanks for the link to your article. I very much enjoyed reading it.

  3. I quite agree. We all would love to see composed, well-spoken advocates tearing into their adversaries with cool, clear logic. يا ريت

    By comparison, watch al-Manar which hosts long long staid and serious discussions every night, sometimes between agonistic points of view. It is much less compelling television, even if we policy critics might find the discussion more enlightening.

    What al-Jazeera’s viewers have always enjoyed about IM is the cat-fight, and the sublime satisfaction of watching their regimes roundly denounced in the broad bluelight of the small screen. So Al-Faraji’s performance was expected, part of the theatrics. Here, the spectacle would have been the خاواجة speaking such fluent Arabic. I remain in awe of his performance. The US has two such people in its stable, only one of which can actually deliver in such smooth tones; what is more, I have only ever seen them on satellite feeds; we don’t know how they would fare in actual conversations, face-to-face with real Ayrabs. One is now in the Sudan and one is Dubai; neither place particularly important to policy (noises about Darfur and Somalia notwithstanding). Britain has at least half a dozen. The Russians and other East Europeans have them by the hundreds. I once watched the mayor of Kosovo interviewed in Arabic on al-Arabiyya; I thought he must be a native speaker. But eventually it became clear that he wasn’t. The maddening thing is that United States has had at least thirty years to invest in producing speakers of Middle Eastern languages (since at least the Iranian revolution), and has not done so. Now it is trying desperately to catch up. In another five or ten years maybe it will; but imagine the lost opportunities!

  4. […] Public Diplomacy Posted on August 25, 2008 by Grandmasta A few days back Grandmasta had a post on this week’s episode of Al-Itijah Al-Muakis which featured John Wilkes, a British diplomat, […]

  5. […] 23, 2008 by Rob A couple weeks back, British diplomat John Wilkes went on Al-Jazeera and cleaned_house  on Al-Itijah Al-Muakis.  It was the best performance I’ve ever witnessed by a non-native […]

  6. […] an Arabic speaking British diplomat.  See a MediaShack report on his last extremely impressive appearance.   Anyone studying Arabic should have a  listen to see how good this guy is.  …. Expect […]

  7. I am studying Arabic which at 40, is a challenge for me. When I start to get discouraged, I play this segment. Thanks. It is impressive, and I am just starting to understand what an accomplishment it is. Like the site.

  8. I understand Farjani’s position as he is living this situation. No one here at the forum can imagine the hell the Palestinians are going through. And his message essentially is correct. The English like the Americans or Israelis cannot be trusted. However, as a Muslim who has memorized the Quran he should not insult Wilk’s people in this way. He should know the rules of proper debate. The Prophet said الحب لله والبغض لله . He does lose it but I think there is a lot of blame to go around including the Arab leaders like Abbas and the institutions he represents.

    Wilks is intelligent and debates with adab. But who knows what the guy really feels. As a representative of the British government, he has to maintain a position. Concerning his Arabic, it’s pretty good. I would even say he’s more controlled than Alberto Fernandez when debating.

    What I find strange is that Farjani blames the English (the English government) and not the Zionist Jews for the situation in the Middle East.

  9. Concerning other non natives who speak Arabic fluently and a lot better than Wilkes there is Dr. Umar Abdullah, Abdulhakim Murad from Cambridge, Hamza Yusuf and others.

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