Moussa: BBC does the work of the Arab League
- Al Ahram Weekly
26 July - 1 August 2001
Speaking her nation's mind
Hanan Ashrawi is the Arab League's new Commissioner on Information and
Public Policy. But she is not about "apologising, rationalising or
doctoring" official Arab policies. Credibility, she says, is gained only
"when you express your people's reality without distortion". Graham Usher
spoke to her in Jerusalem
"I am not the new spokesperson of the Arab League," drills Hanan Ashrawi, as
she pulls another cigarette from her purse in the neat surroundings of her
offices in Jerusalem. She is the League's new "Commissioner for Information
and Public Policy". And what is that? "Let's say it is a modest Palestinian
contribution to help us work together with a collective Arab will and voice.
And an attempt to bring the Arab League into the 21st Century," she adds,
with a smile.
"I've taken on quite a challenge," she admits. She has, but Ashrawi is
probably one of the few Arab politicians able, if not to meet the challenge,
then at least appreciate its scale. Ever since her starring role as the
articulate Palestinian spokeswoman at the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, she
has been beating the Israelis at their own game on such "home" venues as CNN
and the BBC.
It is a skill the Arab League's new secretary-general, Amr Moussa, covets.
He, too, wants the League to become a "young, modern and proactive"
organisation and a player in a conflict where it is more often an observer.
Nowhere has this passivity been more felt than in the League's "major
failure" to present the adequacy of the Palestinian case in the Western
media, says Moussa. "The work is often done for us," he laments, citing the
BBC's recent Panorama programme on Ariel Sharon's role in the massacre of
Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatilla in 1982. Ashrawi's immediate job,
therefore, will be "to reformulate Arab media policy," he says.
What does Ashrawi think is the cause of this failure? "There are many Arabs
who understand the West," she says. "But the question is how to transform
this understanding into mechanisms of engagement and a sustained effort to
change Western public opinion." Part of the difficulty is because this
transformation is part of another.
"The Arabs need to realise they can use their power collectively and not
just individually to influence Western decision-making. Then they can make
clear to the US that its policies have been extremely dangerous, since it is
now perceived in the region as the blind ally of Israel and so in collusion
with Israel's behaviour toward the Palestinians."
But how, realistically, can the Arabs affect influence? "I'm not talking
about oil. Contracts," she muses. "Suppose the Arab states decided to shift
their official defence contracts from one country to another on the basis of
that country's policies on Palestine. It would show the US could no longer
take its interests for granted in the Arab world. Look at Turkey. Turkey
decided to withhold one or two quite minor contracts and the US suddenly
became silent about the Armenian massacres."
But whatever the means "until we make the shift from lip-service to action
the US and Europe will continue to treat the Arab world -- leaders and
public opinion alike -- with disdain."
She cites as a case in point Ariel Sharon's recent trip to Europe. "I find
it amazing Europe is still prepared to give Sharon the benefit of the doubt
and allow him to wreak havoc in the region. This is unheard of and is
happening before the eyes of the world: first you imprison a whole nation
and then you shell, shoot and assassinate its people. Anyone with any moral
fibre would stand up and say these acts are against international
humanitarian law. These are things no civilised state can do."
The fact Europe does not do so is because there is no collective
"countervailing Arab force" to pressure it to do otherwise, she says.
"Europe still views Israel as above the law, worthy of preferential
treatment, even to the extent of whitewashing Sharon. In any civilised
country Sharon would be facing a tribunal."
Beyond the cause of Palestine, "which is also the Arab cause," Ashrawi views
her new position as a bridgehead in another fundamental struggle. "The issue
of distortion and racism against Arab culture."
"We are perhaps the only race, nation and identity against whom racism is
still permissible," she says. And the cause is not simply the Arab-Israeli
conflict but the wider "Huntington perception that there is a clash between
'Judeo-Christian' culture and 'others'. These 'others' are Islamic hordes
that are threatening 'our' civilisation.
"This perception comes from ignorance, racism and stereotyping. I am not a
Muslim. I am Christian. But for me Islam has always been an inclusive
religion, built on the heritage of Christianity and Judaism, whereas
Christianity denied Judaism and Judaism denied everything else. Of course we
have our extremists and fundamentalists. But the danger I face -- and every
Palestinian faces -- is Jewish fundamentalism in Israel in alliance with the
Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals in the West."
Ashrawi has been fighting this "mythical, fictional creation of Arabs and
Islam as 'the enemy'" all her life. It is "the major threat" to her cause,
people and nation, she says, "because through such racism you can justify a
priori everything that is done to and against the Palestinians, Arabs and
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