Egypt Club

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!

Rohingya Crisis

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.

Middle East and Democracy

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.

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

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.

Image result for mashrou leila

The Cold War and Beyond?

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.Image result for ou cold war and beyond

Ireland and Brexit

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.

Teachers vs Oklahoma Government

Photo courtesy of KWCH12

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.

 

 

It Might Be Too Good To Be True

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.

This is why it was a relief to read about a team of astronomers from Arizona State University and MIT which spent two years double-checking data which would indicate a huge scientific discovery. It was shocking to me that the team’s immediate reaction was not excitement, but skepticism.

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’.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.

 

Professional Portrait

Taken in Oct. 2017, Lincoln, Oregon. Photographer: Sarah Smallwood

My name is Sarah Smallwood. I am a Norman, Oklahoma native currently attending college at the University of Oklahoma. I am pursuing a degree in public relations with a minor in environmental studies.

Being a junior in college, I have narrowed down my future goals to include working as a public relations agent for an organization working with the environment, either in marine conservation or outdoor gear and clothing. My hobbies include photography, video-gaming, and a multitude of outdoor activities.

My passion for the environment and conservation is what drives most of the fundamental decisions I make. I believe that climate change is simultaneously one of the largest threats to society, while also the most overlooked. I want to advance the cause of conservation and wildlife advocacy by managing the relationship between the public and wild-life related entities, whether that is a conservation firm or a clothing company which sells hiking and camping gear.

As a public relations major, I am expected to combine effective writing and communication skills with research and strategic thinking. In a world that increasingly relies on personal devices for sources of content, the area of design is becoming vital to public relations specialists. Currently, I am a novice to design and all that it entails, still learning how to use an advanced camera and editing tools.

I look forward to attempting to master various design tools and techniques, and learning how to apply these to my career goals.