Academics and analysts generally focus their time and effort trying to understand certain events and issues, and then positively impacting discussions around those events and issues.
At least, that is what I have been trying to do for most of the past 20 years. I have worked on issues ranging from terrorism and extremism, since I served as deputy convener of the UK government’s working group on the subject. I also dealt with foreign policy in the wider Arab world at American think tanks such as Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But, every so often, the difficulty in doing so becomes rather onerous to ignore or, forgive the pun, displace.
Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirical comedian who shot to fame in the heady days of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, expressed that frustration rather poignantly in an interview he did with Piers Morgan earlier this week. But before considering that, consider another event that took place within the broader western media and political arena.
Earlier this week, it was reported that a number of staffers and officials in the Biden administration were considering resigning. The common critique was clear – they all felt their viewpoints on the current crisis in Palestine and Israel were not welcome, and that expressing any critique of America’s closest ally in the Middle East would be dangerous to their careers. Unsurprisingly, most of the staffers seemed to be of Muslim and Arab backgrounds, and many of them appear to be considering resignation. One, not apparently of those backgrounds, Josh Paul, who spent years in the State Department engaged in arms sales, did resign, claiming: “It was clear that there’s no arguing with this one. Given that I couldn’t shift anything, I resigned.”
A person unsettled with how the Biden administration has proceeded thus far, in terms of discussions within it, put it quite plainly: “One reason to want a diverse staff is to have a variety of inputs into your decision-making, not just to check a box on a little quota sheet – you want to benefit from the more informed decision-making that happens from a broader set of experiences having a seat at the table.”
It’s a sensible approach, and I daresay our media and political establishments in the West, particularly in the UK and the US where I am most familiar, have deeply benefited from the presence of wider diversity within rooms that make decisions. But there is a danger here, and the danger is that we tend to see this as giving less common voices a “seat at the table”. It’s not about having a seat at the table as much as it is helping to design the table, set the menu, arrange the programme of the evening and decide where the meal is being hosted.
That’s the backdrop behind Youssef’s interview with Piers Morgan earlier this week. Morgan wanted to have a voice that would, no doubt, be entertaining, stimulating, and, let’s be honest, increase ratings and views. He certainly got that. But Youssef wasn’t interested in simply playing the part of the “angry Arab”; from the outset, he wanted to change the part he was supposed to play.
There is a difference between being a voice of “dissent”, and being a “disruptor”. The former is a negative actor within the game in play. The latter has opted to change the terms of the game. And in the current crisis, there are many “disruptor” points that are direly necessary, if we are to have an honest conversation.
Take the call for Egypt to receive refugees from Gaza. The conversation is mostly about why Egypt doesn’t take in Palestinians, which it has done before, and criticising Cairo for not doing so. But what about the conversation of why Israel, which is the current occupying power of Gaza, refuses to take in a single Palestinian refugee, even temporarily?
On a France 24 interview earlier this week, I made this point, and the Israeli guest became incensed at the suggestion that Gaza was still an occupied territory. Indeed, it’s not spoken of in the media often any more as such, but it remains occupied territory according to the United Nations and international law.
But, again, this is part of the context of Youssef’s interview. It was the deployment of unavoidable facts that have become avoidable, which made for such an uncomfortable conversation with Morgan. It’s the same frustration that has led so many in the Biden administration to consider resigning; it’s the same frustration that led to one of them actually resigning, because the reality of facts on the ground can be so distant from the discourse.
Morgan himself spoke at length about Israeli civilians – rightly, he opposes their targeting. But considering that several times more Palestinian civilians have been killed in Israeli airstrikes in the past 10 days, his concern seemed less than proportionate.
It is tempting to see Youssef’s interview as a funny and satirical attempt that is entertaining. But the truth is, it points to a massive frustration that is felt not simply among Arabs writ large, but people from within the mainstream of western media and political establishments such as myself, who simply want the conversation to be more honest. It will help all of us if that is the case.