Throughout my career, I have heard preachers from all sides ranting about the “clash of cultures”, or debating whether “Islam” has a place in Europe, or if Jews, Christians and Muslims can ever coexist.
At the same time, for all the supposed clashes, I have seen many more examples of people from various religious backgrounds living together peacefully. I have very often found that women play a crucial role in this, though they have done it in a more subtle and quiet way than men.
Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I have been constantly on the road, covering one conflict after another. I have interviewed members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the War on Terror’s torture victims, and travelled to Waziristan to interview victims of drone strikes. A colleague and I broke the story of Khaled El Masri, a German citizen of Lebanese origin who had been seized, imprisoned and tortured as one of the rendition victims. Later, the US government confirmed that authorities had arrested the wrong man.
Listening to all actors but also asking all sides critical and difficult questions is not always accepted, but it is necessary and crucial. It is important to show readers and viewers that situations and conflicts are often not as black and white as certain groups would like to paint them.
Since the so-called Arab Spring broke out in 2011, I often think back to the mistakes journalists, politicians and leaders made in the case of Iraq in 2003, when we saw the situation then as “black and white”.
We know today that politicians, journalists and the intelligence services were fooled by false information about weapons of mass destruction. Reporting in Iraq, I saw how an occupied nation slipped into civil war, with its people suddenly focused on what their differences were and not what they had in common. Being Iraqi was no longer how people identified themselves; instead, people starting asking whether one was “Shia”, “Sunni” or “Christian”.
Some Armenian Christian friends then living in Iraq had no choice but to leave, after radical militias – no matter what sect they had been from – set up new rules in the neighbourhood.
One of my first articles back then was about the fact that women were no longer able to leave their homes. At the time I thought, “What are these politicians – mainly men – talking about, when they say, ‘We freed Iraq?’ when practically half the population is now in jail?”
In a recent poll, the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that in Iraq, women’s living standards are worse now than under Saddam Hussein. “The US invasion has left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi widows without income and with little prospect of employment,” says the report. In the ranking of the worst countries, Egypt was followed by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
Looking back at 2003, I think the problem was that we as journalists didn’t do enough reporting about people’s daily lives in Iraq. We followed the information that self-styled exiled Iraqis were spreading and we listened to a certain media elite who spoke our languages and studied in the West. It seemed all the media outlets spoke to the same people.
It is very easy to cover conflicts in black and white – the “bad dictator” and the “poor population”, or since 2011, when the Arab Spring broke out, the “bad dictator” and protestors for “democracy”. But like in Iraq, the uprisings in Arab countries have not been black and white situations.
It is a challenge for sure for journalists to break with existing views on these events, especially in the West, where most politicians and other journalists see things the same way.
That is why it is so important to listen to the stories of women – those who suffer a great deal in conflicts, yet fight to keep their societies together. One of them is Suzanne Abittan, who invited Muslim and Jewish neighbours and friends during Ramadan last year to her home two floors above a synagogue in Casablanca, where they broke their daily fasts together.
Another is Avichayil Hindi, who describes herself as an Orthodox Jewish girl, and Palestinian Muna al-Ayan, who would have likely never spoken to each other had they not met and became friends at their workplace, the Hadassah hospital. This hospital in Jerusalem is one of the few places where Palestinians and Jews confront the bloody side of conflict, immediately and together. Both sides admit that this is not easy.
Women like Nancy Khedouri and Alice Thomas Samaan in Bahrain are another example. The former is Jewish and a member of the upper house of parliament, the latter is Christian and Bahrain’s ambassador in the United Kingdom. Both women act in the interest of a nation where the majority of its nationals are Muslims. Their government cracked down on mainly peaceful protests in 2011 and is now facing the challenge of an increase in bombs and attacks. A dialogue, initiated by the king and crown prince, is ongoing.
All the women I mentioned above fight in their own way to build bridges and at the same time teach us that we need to listen to their stories. It may be difficult for some to accept that these women are able to reach high positions of power and influence in countries that aren’t Western-style democracies.
But the Thomson Reuters poll found that overall, women in Arab League countries are faring better under a single ruler than their sisters in the region’s democracies.
Writing about these perspectives is not always well received. Verbal attacks, attacks in writing and even death threats have all been part of my professional life for many years. But sometimes it’s surprising how those who claim they want democracy and freedom of press actually mean “you either write the way we like or we will go after you”. This has happened to several journalists in Bahrain, Libya and Egypt.
Leadership, no matter if in journalism, politics or business, requires the courage to step back, look at the broader picture, and not listen to just one side.
“If you want to measure how good a country is, then you have to see how the situation of women and minorities is,” Suzanne Abittan said last Ramadan while she was eating Harrira, the traditional Moroccan soup, which she had cooked for her Muslim neighbours. “See, people in the West often cannot believe that for ages we have been like brothers and sister – we eat, laugh and cry together.”
Image: A Tunisian woman fleeing the unrest in Libya in 2011. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
Author: Souad Mekhennet is a journalist, author and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
Image: Residents of the Arabaeen district in the Syrian city of Hama, gather around a journalist as they talk about their conditions during the United Nations observers’ visit to Hama REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri