The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Two versions of Fawaz Turki

Fawaz Turki, a columnist for the Saudi-owned Arab News, has written an account for the Washington Post of how he was fired earlier this month because he wrote something negative about Indonesia and East Timor. The circumstances in which he lost his job are regrettable but hardly surprising coming from Saudi Arabia. I hope he gets a new, better job fast. But let us now turn to how we can interpret this and Turki's career. Do you believe Aqoul:

Fawaz Turki, the best English-language author of Palestinian origin (sorry, Eddie Said fans), has been fired by Arab News, a Saudi-based English language newspaper. His account is here. The earlier column that he believes broke the camel's back (assuming that's a permissible figure of speech on a MENA subject) is here, relating Indonesian repression in East Timor. The author feels his Saudi publishers or their patrons or their government couldn't handle criticism or even mention of the abuses of a fellow Muslim state.
Or the Angry Arab?

I don't believe anything that Turki says, on anything. I would even have to check if Turki says that the sky is blue. I lived in DC for years, and never crossed path with him, or I did but did not want to meet him, ever. I never bring up people's personal lives on this blog, and not even for political figures. But Turki is not a credible person period.
The funny thing is that they both in their posts quote the same passage from one of Turki's columns (I am quoting the longer excerpt from Aqoul) to make the opposite point:

Democracy may be a political system, but it is also a social ethos. How responsive can a country be to such an ethos when its people have, for generations, existed with an ethic of fear -- fear of originality, fear of innovation, fear of spontaneity, fear of life itself -- and have had instilled in them the need to accept orthodoxy, dependence and submission? . . . .The Arab world today, sadly, remains a collection of disparate entities ruled for the most part by authoritarian regimes that rely on coercion, violence and terror to rule, and that demand from their citizens submission, obedience and conformity. And that includes those citizens who call themselves "journalists," to whom, by now, responsibility to truth and logic has become irrelevant.
For Matthew Hogan at Aqoul, this is proof that Turki is a critical writer. For As'ad AbuKhalil at the Angry Arab, it is proof that Turki is opportunistically cribbing from the neo-con agenda because he sense the prevailing political wind shifting.

I don't follow Turki's columns, have no idea what he's written in the past (I studiously avoid ever reading Arab News), but just from that excerpt -- full of generalizations and idées reçues -- I tend to agree more with the Angry Arab. Indeed, his post has some interesting stuff about his experience writing for the Saudi media. I hate to say this as a regular contributor to Rupert Murdoch-owned publications, but someone with real spine won't be found writing about sensitive Arab/Muslim affairs in the Saudi media. The generalizations and pontifications quoted above aren't very helpful -- it would be much more effective to write a report about, say, what a typical Saudi school teaches children.

I also don't particularly appreciate this passage of Turki's column in the WaPo:

What Arabs, including those masquerading as their newspaper editors, have yet to learn is that a free press, a truly free press, is a moral imperative in society. Subvert it, and you subvert the public's sacrosanct right to know and a newspaper's traditional role to expose. If the Western democracies work better than many others, it is because to them the concept of accountability, expected from the head of state on down, is a crucial function of their national ideology.

What Arabs have yet to learn, in addition to that, is that newspapers are not published to advance the political preferences of proprietors, or the commentary of subservient analysts who turn a blind eye to the abuse of power by political leaders running their failed states.
This is the kind of lazy writing that is responsible for so much misperception of Arab in the West. How about saying instead that governments, not people, routinely censor newspapers? How about pointing out all those Arabs who are making a difference in the press by establishing courageous, independent publications like Al Destour and Al Masri Al Youm in Egypt; Tel Quel, Le Journal Hebdo and Al Sahifa in Morocco; cartoonists like Dilem and the publications that host him like Liberté in Algeria, Al Ghad in Jordan, the bloggers of Syria and Iraq who print online what they can't on paper, and countless others? It is these people, and not the Fawaz Turkis and Mona Al Tahawys of this world, that deserve our admiration. They're not all progressive secular humanists with fashionable hairdos, granted, but who says they have to be?