As I mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to expand my discussion of the Department of International and Area Studies’ annual symposium into two posts. This post will address the other lecture I attended, one on the role of Turkey in Middle Eastern and international politics, with a particular emphasis on the idea of “Neo-Ottomanism.”
This lecture began with a discussion on the history of Turkish foreign relations following World War II. In general, Turkish foreign policy seemed to revolve around allying with the West for various security reasons, especially during the Cold War. To the West, Turkey seemed to represent what they wanted the Middle East to be like: secular, democratic, capitalistic, and willing to work with the West. This so-called “Turkish Model” was supposed to be the ideal, spread across the Middle East. It also did not hurt that Turkey was on relatively good terms with all of its neighbors.
However, following the end of the Cold War, the interests of the West and Turkey began to diverge, and the AKP was elected to power in Turkey. This political party sought to invest in a more economically-driven foreign policy, specifically looking to invest in countries that were once part of the Ottoman Empire, hence “Neo-Ottomanism.” This party also defined Turkey’s stance in Syria, which led to the relatively more rocky relationship between Turkey and the United States that we see today.
The University of Oklahoma’s Department of International and Area Studies hosts an annual symposium to discuss Middle Eastern politics. This past week, I was lucky enough to attend two of the talks. This post will be dedicated to the first one, and I will soon upload a second post addressing the other lecture, as they were both detailed enough for their own reflection!
The first lecture centered on a discussion of why al-Qaeda failed in the fertile crescent (principally Syria and Iraq). The speaker, Cole Bunzel of Yale University, began with a detailed account of the historical interactions between Syrian rebel groups and al-Qaeda, particularly focusing on Jabat al-Nusra. He then broke down what we know of the individuals involved and their roles, not an easy feat considering how secretive most of these groups are, especially with their leadership positions. He detailed the communications between the various groups, highlighting the disagreements and eventual breakdown of the relationships.
Primarily, Bunzel found that al-Qaeda’s failure in the fertile crescent region was a result of organizational and structural flaws, especially within al-Qaeda’s ranks. However, he noted that stark internal ideological disagreements (particularly about how to handle the Syrian Civil War) and the primacy of local concerns drove a wedge between al-Qaeda and the various groups in both Syria and Iraq. Bunzel ended the talk with a powerful and important contention: that al-Qaeda is not necessarily a movement like it claims it is, but rather it is simply another organization.
As part of the Arabic Flagship program, I am required to participate in a culture-focused club. I pretty much always join Egypt Club, for a lot of reasons: I am fascinated by its history, I learned its dialect of Arabic, it has a huge impact on Arabic media and cinema, and I love the people who run it and are in it. Every semester is such a positive experience, and I always come away feeling like I learned more about the culture and the experiences of Egyptians.
While every meeting is informative and a lot of fun, I think the most interesting was a collaboration with the Arabic Film Club, as we were able to watch a screening of Bassem Youssef’s documentary Tickling Giants. For those who do not know about Bassem Youssef, he is essentially the Egyptian John Stewart, and believe me, he would love that moniker! He was originally a doctor, but began hosting a small, satirical program called El-Bernameg (which is literally “the program/show” in Arabic) around the time of the Arab Uprisings in 2011. He is a huge admirer of John Steward, so his show is basically The Daily Show, but in Arabic. Fun fact: he was actually a guest on The Daily Show once, and later John Steward guest starred on El-Bernameg!
The documentary was incredibly informative (and funny!) and followed Bassem Youssef’s experience of starting El-Bernameg, trying to keep it on the air in spite of Egypt’s harsh censorship, and fleeing from Egypt. If anyone is interested in Egyptian politics, satire, and great people, I would certainly recommend this documentary!
Earlier this semester, I was able to attend a screening of Frontline’s documentary on the Rohingya crisis (“Myanmar’s Killing Fields). I wanted to attend this event in particular, as I know some about the situation in Myanmar, but I was hoping to learn more. The documentary certainly helped with that. However, as a warning, it does have some graphic depictions and the survivors explain in detail the horrors they endured. If you would like to watch it, the link is here.
The documentary did a good job of explaining the background of the situation, including its political, ethnic, and religious roots. The film largely focuses on the survivors and the experiences of the Rohingya–which I greatly appreciated. I feel that the news we hear about the Rohingya crisis is often very sterile and devoid of actual experiences and stories. While this could be because of Myanmar’s current stance towards journalists and the media, I appreciated that Frontline was able to take such a focus.
The event also included a discussion at the end of the screening, where we could all give our reactions to the film and debate the issues surrounding the crisis and our thoughts on why they persist. This part was particularly rewarding, as I got to learn from others and share my own thoughts on the matter. The conflict is so complex, it was incredibly useful to break it down with other people and try to better make sense of this horror. After watching the documentary, I feel that I came away with a better understanding of the situation and the current crisis of the Rohingya population.
The “Future of the Middle East and Democracy Promotion” discussion focused on democracy and its future in the Middle East, particularly following the events of the Arab Spring in Syria and Palestine, as the two speakers had experience in those regions. The talk began with Rami Khouri detailing several issues that he believed plagued the Middle East and made democracy promotion difficult: the Arab-Israeli conflict, virtually continuous military intervention by western powers, incompetent and oppressive governments, widespread poverty, and colonial/imperialist intervention. I thought this discussion was especially poignant, as it touched on many issues that we focused on in class, from the conception of poverty to western intervention. I appreciated that he mentioned not only outside forces (such as western intervention) that posed a barrier to democracy, but also internal forces (such as authoritarian governments). However, there was never a discussion about whether democracy was really the best option for the Middle East or if there are any other forms of governance that might fit better with the population. The panel assumed that democracy was the best and most desirable option. While that may be true for the individuals present, I would have appreciated a comment addressing this belief.
Although, when discussing democracy promotion, I thought it was significant that Qutaiba Idlbi emphasized the importance of any sort of political change coming from the people, perhaps with the support of the international community. Grassroots movements and popular mobilization are incredibly important for sustainable change, so I thought his inclusion of this point was critical to the larger topic of political change in the Middle East.
Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.
However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.
As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.
This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture with the Consul General of Ireland to the Southwest region of the United States. He was speaking on Brexit and the challenges that Ireland is facing as a result. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. To complicate matters, this border has been extremely open for the past 20 years, ever since the Good Friday Accords brought peace to the region. The Irish and British economies are closely interwoven as well with many goods passing the border repeatedly throughout manufacture. Brexit has the capacity to greatly harm Ireland because of this interconnectivity.
Ireland is a small country and therefore a small market. Most of its GDP comes from trade and the bulk of that trade is with the UK, about $75 billion annually. Even as Brexit terms remain undecided, the value of the British pound is falling, increasing the price of Irish goods in the UK. Harsh terms of trade from the EU would make this problem worse for Ireland. Therefore, Ireland supports a soft Brexit, with relatively open borders and low if any tariffs. This would be the best case scenario for the Irish economy.
There is good news for Ireland as well though. The country has seen massive economic gains since its entry into the EU, and 80% of the Irish population favors remaining in the bloc, even after Brexit. To help cement its future growth, Ireland has been expanding its diplomatic presence abroad by opening new consulates and doubling personnel in many of their existing locations. Ireland has long been a small country in the shadow of the UK and the rest of Europe. However, they’ve begun making a name for themselves. Ireland is ready to take a place on the world stage, even vying for one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council for the upcoming rotation.
I really enjoyed this lecture because I know far less about Ireland than I would like. The downside to focusing my attention on a specific region is that I fall behind on the affairs of the rest of the world. I, like much of the world, was loosely following Brexit when the polls were open and it was current news. However, since the negotiations have been unproductive for so long, I fell out of touch with the issue. I enjoyed hearing this new perspective and getting an update on the events since Brexit was decided upon. All in all, it was another wonderfully informative event here at OU.
For the past nine school days, teachers across Oklahoma have been at the state capitol protesting for higher wages and more funding for education. The marches are being orchestrated mostly by the Oklahoma Education Association(OEA). It is easy to see the distinction between the key messages of each opposing group when reading the news originating from either side. The message from the teachers and concerned citizens is clear: it is time for Oklahoma to prioritize education. The response from the state, however, is not as clear.
POLITICO details the general key messages from the teachers quite well. The teachers are asking not only for higher wages, but a dramatic increase in education funding, funding that has been slashed more than any other state in the last decade. In the recent days of the strike, teachers have shifted the focus more towards increasing general funding.
The stark contrast in key messages becomes clear when reading a FOX25 News article which details how the teacher walk-out is supposedly costing the state “thousands” every day. These costs are later detailed to be janitorial and maintenance costs of the capitol grounds, and an estimate for cost for security which the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety refused to endorse. These responses follow the theme of ad hominid attacks the state has had in response to the walk-out, as Gov. Mary Fallin had earlier equated the teachers to teenagers wanting a new car.
The teachers and citizens have had the more effective message, having remained mostly uniformed and peaceful. Supporters of the movement have stormed social media, used creative forms of striking, and argued with logic. The state has been silent, or too quick to attack.
If I were a public relations agent for the side of the teachers, I would suggest that they more heavily emphasize that the walk-out is more about increasing funding for their students than wanting raises. While Oklahoma teachers are certainly underpaid, the funding per-student in Oklahoma has dropped more than 20% in the last six years.
Chart courtesy of OKPolicy.Org
In an event which captures the eyes of the nation, the last response a government entity ought to have for its people is one of mockery. The state ought to accept responsibility for the lack of funding, rather than making excuses and attempting to flip the situation.
Social Media Sites Can Facilitate the Spread of False Information– Image courtesy of NPR
We live in a time when the President of the United States can instantly deliver a message to almost 50 million viewers using Twitter, news agencies race each other to see who can break news faster, regardless of the validity, and false claims can go viral and wreak havoc in a matter of minutes. This haphazardness of news and information has led to an era in which it is some how not that strange for public leaders to be arguing about the subjectivity of facts.
Skepticism, in my opinion, ought to be anyone’s first reaction to news, especially news which is surprising or currently breaking. Because of platforms like social media, where information is reproduced and spread at lightning-fast rates, a dangerous climate has formed of click-bait articles and misleading titles. It has even recently been discovered that on Twitter, false news spreads faster than true news.
Because of this, it is paramount to the success of the modern public relations professional to fact-check and research before relaying information to the public. Ironically, in this day and age, the back lash for being exposed for spreading false information tends to be extremely harsh.
As the team of researchers proved with its extensive fact-checking, true news can still be exciting. When thinking ahead to how I might ensure my client is informative as well as entertaining, there are a few strategies that come to mind. One of them is to lower the frequency of news, as conserving news releases may preserve the luster and excitement of the news itself. Furthermore, there are tactics that I can adopt such as using info graphics and social media tools to remain compelling.
While public relations professionals need to respond quickly, the truth is more important than a race for ‘shares’ and ‘likes’.