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Stateside with Rosalea: War and Peace

Stateside with Rosalea

War and Peace

I am so embarrassed. Could it really be that I yelled out ''Right on!'' at an event on the Berkeley campus, like this was the sixties or something?

It was during the most energetic applause of the evening, given to Robert Scheer, a columnist for the LA Times, who had just said to Leroy Sievers, the executive producer of ABC's Nightline program, that the major networks were given the airwaves for free in exchange for providing a public service, so how dare Sievers argue that what and how the media reports is legitimately driven by market forces.

Sievers really got on my goat when he said that the US media was superior to that of other countries by virtue of the fact that it's not run by the government, so doesn't have to toe the government line. Has the man never heard of the BBC?

Based on my experience of having worked for one, it seems to me that when media outlets are owned by the government in democratic countries, they make a special effort not to be toadies. Much more scary is the eviction of Michael Eisner from the board of Disney, which owns ABC, and his replacement with George Mitchell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

When Siever said that in all his career in television news, he'd never been carpeted for any of his reporting or told how or whether to cover certain stories, Scheer countered that that was because Siever had never pushed the envelope in his reporting. Instead, Siever was tacitly conforming to what was expected of him without having to consciously think about it.

By golly, it was a delightful bunfight I attended last Wednesday night - a panel discussion entitled: Did we get it right: the media at war in Iraq. The other panelists were Maher Abdallah Amad, a correspondent for Al Jazeera; Linsey Hilsum, from ITN Channel 4 News; Martin Smith, a correspondent for Frontline; and Hania Mufti, senior Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, who was added to the panel when events in Iraq precluded the return of NY Times correspondent John Burns.

Burns did, however, phone in his thoughts from Baghdad at the beginning of the panel discussion. It was an uncomfortable sensation sitting in a comfy concert hall listening to a satellite phone call from a city where a car bomb had demolished a hotel earlier in the day, and where that night - we later learned - two Arab journalists were shot by US troops.

The panel moderator was Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor for National Public Radio. I'm not sure why there were no newspaper correspondents on the panel, but they were well represented at other events on other panel discussions during the War and Media conference held here last week.

I made only a few notes of what people said on the panel I went to, but reviewing them I see that the two women - Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 and Hania Mufti from Human Rights Watch - both emphasised the lack of complexity that US journalists afford their reporting.

Hilsum - who has reported from places like Rwanda and Kosovo - was in Iraq in the months before the war, and she said that her experience was that people both cheered AND wept when the US troops arrived. Cheered to have Saddam Hussein gone, and wept to be an occupied nation. The US media reported only the cheering.

Mufti commented that she was disappointed by what stories journalists chose to cover and how they covered them. She felt that he Iraqi perspective was completely ignored by journalists who were intent on Bush-bashing, and - despite the human rights issue being one of the reasons given for invasion -no one has followed up on that story.

A search for war and media at the website should lead you to webcasts of the events.

Turning my attention to the P word instead, on Saturday I went to a panel discussion called In the Spirit of Fez: A Vision for Peace, which took place in conjunction with a performance scheduled for later that evening.

The imperial city of Fez, in Morocco, is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, and is known also as the Jerusalem of North Africa, where Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived in peace with other. (Though without much cultural exchange at a personal level, if the comments of one of the audience members, who grew up there, are anything to go by.)

In 2001, the creator of the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music was honoured by the United Nations as one of the seven "unsung heroes of dialogue" the organisation uses as examples in its promotion of dialogue between nations. According to the handout I was given at the panel discussion, the Giving a Soul to Globalization Colloquium that accompanies the festival is "a new world forum that focuses on building a foundation for a humane globalization" and "derives its strength from advancing the cause of respect for a plurality of cultures and peaceful coexistence."

The participants at our mini-colloquium included two of the performers from the Fez Festival tour, a local Imam, a teacher of liturgical dance, some ethnomusicologists, and the festival's director for North America, Zehba Rahman. Rahman's involvement with the festival came about after watching one of the twin towers collapse from her apartment roof. She had family and friends working there, and another friend, who worked within a minute's walk of the towers, later challenged her by saying, "Well, what are you Muslims going to do about this?" Rahman sees the festival as a way of wresting the West's perception of Islam back from the association with terror to an understanding of its positive cultural values.

She, like all the participants, also saw cultural exchange - especially music, with its universal appeal - as one of the major bridges that can be used to establish peace and understanding in the world. Another panelist, Imam Yassir Chadly, a native of Morocco, distilled all spiritual teachings down to two concepts: love and respect.

"If you have love and respect, you'll never harm anyone," he said. But he was no starry-eyed optimist, and his was the most lively contribution to the discussion by virtue of his frank and often un-PC comments. He's also a musician, and he conveyed beautifully the role of auditory sensations in his life and the place of music in Moroccan society. In all Muslim society really, because in the Koran the emphasis is on what is heard rather than what is seen.

The two young folks on the panel were part of the performance I saw later. >From Galilee, Gaby Meyer is the son of a rabbi and Yacoub Hussein, from the West Bank, is the son of a Sufi sheikh. The two create musical works together that incorporate both Jewish and Arabic sensibilities.

Meyer is also the founding director of the Sulha Peace Project, which will be holding its fourth gathering in Israel from 17-19 August this year. According to its website at, sulha is an indigenous middle eastern way of reconciliation. Its goal is to rebuild trust among neighbors, Arabs and Jews, people to people, as a grassroots contribution to peace in the Land of the Prophets.

The singer and activist Holly Near happened to be in the audience, and she was passionate in her plea for people to form really strong grassroots movements in whatever country they live in to counter the way religion has been co-opted by local power structures to drag people down. By turning groups of people against each other, those who wield either corporate or religious/political power deflect any examination of their motives and methods, and weaken the ability of people to resist domination.

As so many of the panelists said in different ways, a grassroots change in people's attitudes can only come about one heart at a time.


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