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Regulating Religious Expression in MENA

For the United States, the first amendment’ freedom of religion and the separation of church and state are two of its many fundamental beliefs and values. The MENA region however, has the highest percentage of nations with an official religion, most Islam, and is known for its strict regulation and censorship of religious expression. In these countries with an official religion, governance and Islam are combined: citizens are required to be Muslim, public worship by religions other than Islam is forbidden, and the distribution of non-Muslim materials such as the Bible or the Torah are illegal.

While doing my research, I was especially interested in how high or low levels of the population following the official religion affected the validity and reasonableness of the country’s level of regulating religious expression.

Let’s look at Algeria for an example. Algeria’s official religion is Islam, and the country is dominated by Muslims. In a country where 99% of its population is Muslim, I personally find it logical for the country to have high religious regulation in regard to preserving and following Islamic law. Naturally people wonder about the 1% of religious minorities? Is it fair for them that the country heavily censors religious expression?

Religious Affiliation in Algeria 2020 (Source: PEW Research Center)

Maybe the reason the country has such a high percentage of Muslim population, is because the high religious censorship has pushed other minorities out. Why live in a country where the entire state is based on a completely different religion than your own?

Sources:

83 Nations Have Official State Religion or Favored Religion – Good Faith Media

Saudi Arabia – The World Factbook (cia.gov)

Religions in Algeria | PEW-GRF (globalreligiousfutures.org)

Religion in Algeria – Wikipedia

Anthony Borden’s ‘Journalism in Conflict: Reporting from Ukraine and Beyond’

I really enjoyed the Clarke Forum on ‘Journalism in Conflict: Reporting from Ukraine and Beyond’ with Anthony Borden. He discussed his experiences and the obstacles he faces as a journalist and war correspondent in conflicts such as the Gulf War, Iraq War, and the current war in Ukraine.

During the Iraq War, Borden talked about how his ‘Institue for War and Peace & Reporting’ (IWPR) trained Iraqi officials to become journalists, working to build a network of local voices across Iraq. Where instead of shutting down extremists, the Iraqi journalists would present a different view of the conflict.

In Ukraine, there are many obstacles for journalists; the main challenge being Russia’s disinformation campaign, or its’ “big lie,” where the government readily lies to dodge any responsibility during the conflict. However, with the current digital age, specifically social media, war correspondents are able to cover events through nontraditional media sources and platforms like Twitter and TikTok. In fact, as we have seen in a lot of authoritarian countries, individuals in both Ukraine and Russia are also able to post images and videos during the conflict.

Another major challenge is data; some information is there, and some is not. On the one hand, the CNN effect means people around the world can see soldiers being killed in real-time, influencing how both citizens and policymakers interpret and respond to the war. On the other hand, a lot of information is not there because the government doesn’t allow for its collection; information such as gender, etc.

Thank you, Mr. Borden, for coming to Dickinson and talking with us! From now on, I will have a better understanding and appreciation for journalists and war correspondents!

The 2022 COP27 is in Egypt? The Same Egypt with Heavy Censorship and Thousands of Political Prisoners?

The COP27 is currently being held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Egypt is the fifth African country to host the COP; Africa being especially significant as one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change. Amplified by its role as host of the conference, Cairo has situated itself as Africa’s climate leader, with its main goal being to secure funds for helping developing countries’ adaption efforts.

At the same time, Egypt is still a relatively strict police state under the Sisi military dictatorship. In fact, many critics argue Cairo is using the summit as a “rebranding exercise” to deflect and distract from its authoritarian censorship and societal crackdown. Since 2013, Egypt has increasingly blocked independent news outlets and now holds approximately 60,000 journalists and activists behind bars.

Image result for egypt cop27

Entrance to the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (Source: HP News https://hoshyarpakistan.com/world/egypt-human-rights-cop27-climate-activist-hunger-strike-rcna55405/)

Now, as the host of the Cop27 climate summit, attendees have already faced the country’s heavy censorship. For example, the conference internet connection blocks access to important news websites, such as the global rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty international, needed for the informational talks. Ironically, both the HRW and Amnesty Interntional are supposed to lead panel discussions at the conference but are unable to access their own websites. The extensive list of blocked websites, about 700 sites, is creating trying difficulties for the talks; one activist argues that, “there is no climate action without truth and information.”

Sources:

Egypt Is Hosting COP27. Can It Become Africa’s Climate Champion? | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org)

What is COP27? Everything you need to know about Egypt’s landmark climate conference | Euronews

Egypt human rights record under fire as it hosts COP27 climate conference – HP NEWS (hoshyarpakistan.com)

Regime Change in Lebanon: which Medium is Reliable?

If Lebanon were to undergo a regime change, which media channels would I turn to, to understand the situation?

I would first try to find news sources completely detached from the direct control or influence by the Lebanese state. Under a newly established regime, these channels would be disorganized and unreliable in their ability to provide accurate and neutral information.  However, with the majority of the media belonging either to political parties or powerful Lebanese families, finding an active and nonpartisan Lebanese news outlet is nearly impossible. Instead, it is safer to look outside of Lebanon for news content.

On a similar note, I would also try to avoid most of the western media sites such as BBC, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, etc. As we have seen before during the Iraq war, the West, invested in advancing their own interests and beliefs, often portrays a different situation that what is truly happening. If I were to use a Western source, I would use a U.S. military news site such as the Early Bird Brief from the DefenseNews. The site provides daily stories discussing military, defense, and national security issues to the U.S. around the world. Obviously, the site would present an American and military perspective, however I believe it would provide concrete information on the military and overall internal affairs of the country.

Overall, the sites I would most rely on an are international Arab media outlets like Al Jazeera.  Although often criticized for its sensationalist and argumentative content, Al Jazeera is an active actor in the media, devoted to covering Arab news for the Pan-Arab sphere and the rest of the world. Yes, Al Jazeera is funded by the Qatari Royal family; rarely criticizing or reporting on the affairs in Qatar. In other countries however, Al Jazeera is aggressive and blunt, unafraid to condemn and critique problems in their state. Al Jazeera would critically analyze the Lebanese situation and report all important information and stories they believe the world needs to see. International media sites in the Arab region are detached enough from the state that they are free from its influence, but are still geographically in the region, reporting as members of the Arab community, sharing in the communal sense of anger and worry, and devoted to bringing all people, especially fellow Arabs, the truth.

 

Sources:

Middle East News Sources – Middle East and Islamic Studies Guide – Research Guides at New York University (nyu.edu)

Early Bird Brief – Top military, defense and national security headlines. | Defense News

 

Reflecting @ the Midterm Point

I will admit that I came into this class with a narrow perspective and western assumptions. Without any real knowledge, I had already clumped all MENA countries together as conservative states with strict censorship systems and weak medias. Even after studying abroad in Jordan this past summer, I was oblivious to the different mediums available to me and the public, as well as how private news channels and the state used the media. Frankly, this class has made me extremely frustrated in myself for not taking advantage of the mediums around me to explore the limits and gray areas within the media. Now, more than ever, I am excited to learn more in the next half of the class and better understand the true intricacies and pressure points that go into the relationship between the media and politics.

The one topic that has surprised me the most so far is:

How the emergence of satellite TV, not only deteriorated the government’s monopoly of information, but created a more competitive media market, where both international and domestic news outlets and states vied for viewership.

What originally drew my interest was the role of CNN in providing the world 24-hour news on the Gulf War from 1990-1991. Naturally, the Arab countries did not want citizens relying on American TV and thus, begun creating their own 24-hour news channels. As the number of channels grew, consumers now had channels upon channels to choose from.

There were two results:

  1. The deterritorialization of TV stations:
    1. States created replicas of popular channels from other countries; by doing so, the TV sphere consisted of many channels with very similar content (9/29 class discussion)
  2. Improving channels’ entertainment values
    1. With the increase in channels, states were encouraged to improve the quality of their channels; specifically, by making them more interesting with additions such as more journalists and more news stories (9/20 class discussion)

Thinking Differently?

Honestly, this class has so far made me act more carefully, especially online, in regard to what I say, what I do, and even what I “like.” Censorship is a serious thing especially in the MENA region, where one post or one tweet could cost you your life.

I feel as though I have also become more attentive to the different news channels and their content; asking questions about whether it leans towards a certain political ideology, who owns it and how are they funded? etc.

Lebanon Migrant Boat Tragedy

I wanted to use this blog post to discuss the migrant boat tragedy in Lebanon. On Wednesday morning, September 21st,  more than 150 people were aboard a small boat fleeing crisis-ridden Lebanon in hopes of a better life in Italy. The passengers were mostly Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian, some of whom were both children and elderly. 

Four hours after leaving Lebanon’s shores, the engine quit, and the boat capsized off the Syrian port of Tartous.  Almost immediately approximately 100 people died; bodies were floating everywhere, while survivors clung to the overturned boat. Despite Lebanese authorities refusing to help and threatening to kill anyone who returned, 20 people were rescued, either swimming to the Syrian shore or picked up by Syrian and Russian boats. Currently, the survivors are either still recovering in Syrian hospitals or have been returned to Lebanon. 

This deadly smuggling operation forces necessary attention to the underlying problems forcing both Lebanese citizens and other asylum seekers to attempt such a dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. The most prevalent issue in Lebanon is the endemic and crippling poverty exasperated by the 2019 financial crisis. 

As we have discussed in earlier blog posts, Lebanon is also the temporary home of a massive group of refugees from Syria and Palestine who the majority, live in cramped and thrown together camps across the country. Unfortunately, these refugees, specifically Palestinian refugees, are denied basic rights; without citizenship and no access to healthcare or education. Even if one tried to make a living in Lebanon, most are marginalized and disenfranchised, barred from owning property and from entering fruitful professions. 

Sad to say, this situation is not unusual; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that “approximately 3,500 individuals attempted to make the journey this year alone.”

New Line Magazine’s ‘Bank ‘Robberies’ Are a Symptom of Deeper Crises in Lebanon’

Lebanon, Sept. 19, 2022 (New Lines Magazine)

This past week, there have been numerous incidents of people breaking into banks and demanding the money in their bank accounts. Since Lebanon’s economy crashed in 2019, banks regularly and are currently undergoing a period of freezing their assets and locking depositors out of their accounts. Not only are citizens unable to withdraw money from their accounts, but the economic situation continues to regress; the Lebanese pound continues to decrease and more than 80% of people now fall under the poverty line.

While there is an extensive list of contributors to the crisis, ranging from decades of war and a burdening public debt, the main reason the condition of the Lebanese economy continues to worsen is the greediness and inaction of the government. The Lebanese people have tried to get the government’s attention by years of peaceful and violent protests as well as politically by the use of the ballet box; each ending in failure and without support from the government.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the leaders of the Lebanese government are more focused on keeping their wealth and power, than creating an economic recovery plan. The political leaders are untouchable; they do not have a plan to help the people, nor will they allow others the power to do so. 

With what feels like no other option, the Lebanese people have taken matters into their own hands. On the one hand, the people are providing their own self-help; they can no longer patiently wait for the government to help, but must go and reclaim their money themselves. On the other hand, people are now contributing to the crises by not only committing crimes, but are taking money from other people who wish to draw their funds as well. 

Source (CNN)

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After reading, I now have a better understanding of the existing political and economic conditions in Lebanon. Economically, the economy has been in decline for decades and will continue digressing unless the government actively tries to find solutions; this is very unlikely. Politically, numerous leaders sit at the top of the political order, freely committing injustices without punishment, ignoring the disastrous economy, and dismissing the cries for help from the common man. 

With these understandings, one may wonder how the government will handle the media; specifically, the news coverage of the crisis, as well as the potential for the public using the media as a platform to share their grievances and further spread the ‘self-help’ initiative. In the next couple of days, we will see if the government will try to censor the media; both preventing reporting on their, rather embarrassing, economic situation and in regard to the people, whether the Lebanese government, threatened by the spreading public civil disobedience, will constrict the citizen’s ability to use the media. 

Finally, I am left thinking about what the public will do if the robberies prove ineffective and fail? What will people turn to next; a coup, a wide spread movement of robberies, or just pure chaos? What else do the Lebanese people have to lose?

Ownership of Mass Media in Lebanon

In general, the Lebanese media is controlled by a handful of individuals either belonging to political parties or local dynasties. Compared to its neighbors, Lebanon technically has more media freedom; however, it has the highest rate of political affiliation, with most of the media outlets being state-owned or owned by current or former politicians. Specifically, elite families such as the Daher-Saad, Khayat and Murr families, own several of the most prominent media outlets like LBCI, Al Jadeed, and MTV. Owning these media outlets allows the families to directly control the news content as well as advance their own partisan message. Hezbollah also owns an extensive network of media outlets from Al-Manar TV to Al-Nour Radio; platforms where they typically spread disinformation targeting Lebanese and international audiences.

In regard to these organizations global reach and audiences, most are either focused on the larger Arab region or just Lebanon. For example, the LBCI, literally meaning Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International, has launched international versions of its network targeting Lebanese citizens in diaspora countries. Other organizations such as Al Jadeed, have also launched in countries like the United States, Canada, South America, and Australia in order to reach Arabic speaking immigrants. Hezbollah and its television outlet Al-Manar, on the other hand, have been either banned by countries or are simply unavailable outside of Lebanon.

Source: Media Ownership Monitor-Lebanon 2018

Lebanon’s current economic crisis which began in late 2019, has also led media organizations to increasingly fall prey to international and political influence. The few independent news outlets that still exist now commonly accept bribes from politicians in exchange for supporting and advocating for their partisan message, especially during electoral periods. In fact, foreign entities such as foreign embassies and companies often provide these smaller media outlets that are typically low on funds, financial assistance for editorial control and influence. With the current financial crisis, the Lebanese media realm is extremely vulnerable to increasing control by transnational capital.

To help imprint how politicized the Lebanese media is, below are some statistics of the current media system:

Print – 9 out of the 10 print outlets are directly politically affiliated.

Radio- 7 out of the 8 radio stations are directly politically affiliated.

Television- All 9 TV stations are directly politically affiliated.

References:

“The Myth of Media Freedom in Lebanon.” 2013. Arab Media & Society. May 12, 2013. https://www.arabmediasociety.com/the-myth-of-media-freedom-in-lebanon/.

“Lebanon: Freedom on the Net 2021 Country Report.” 2021. Freedom House. 2021. https://freedomhouse.org/country/lebanon/freedom-net/2021.

“Media in the Political Maze.” 2018. Media Ownership Monitor. 2018. http://lebanon.mom-gmr.org/en/findings/political-affiliations/.

Introducing Lebanon

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lebanon was referred to as “the Riviera of the Middle East,” the prestigious tourist destination where people from all over came to sit and sunbathe on the beautiful coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. However, in 1975, Lebanon quickly switched from the place to be, to the place to avoid. With an already religiously diverse public, surge of Palestinian refugees, and the ending of the Cold War further dividing the public politically, a wave of multi-faceted armed conflicts arose between Lebanon’s Christian and rising Muslim population, which itself was divided between Shias and Sunnis.

Also fighting, in what is now known as the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, were Lebanon’s neighbors Syria and Israel; first, entering the war in regard to protecting their own territory and later, using Lebanon as the “perfect playground” to settle the growing hostilities between the two. The 15-year civil war eventually ended in Syrian military occupation intended to assist the new government and with the formation of two major political parties: the March 14 Alliance, led by Maronite-dominated groups with an anti-Syrian stance, and the March 8 Alliance, led by the Shia-dominated terrorist organization Hezbollah with a pro-Syrian stance. The two alliances were dedicated and named after the Cedar Revolution in 2005, a series of peaceful demonstrations aiming to and successfully forcing the withdrawal of the Syrian military from Lebanon.

Today, Lebanon maintains a parliamentary republic where each high-ranking official must be a member of a specific religious group; for example, the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime minister a Sunni Muslim.  While the U.S. follows the idea of a separation of church and state to prevent religious conflicts, Lebanon, with its extremely diverse religious population, uses this system as a way to fairly represent the 18 religious groups in the government.

Lebanon_Map.jpg

Religious Demographics of Lebanon in 2006

Although a national census has not been conducted since 1932 due to the sensitivity of demographics and diversity, 95% of the Lebanese population is either Muslim or Christian, divided among various sects and denominations. The two largest religious groups being the Maronite Christians, one of the two original founders of Lebanon, and Sunni Muslims. For ethnicity, Lebanon is mainly composed of Arabs and a small portion of Armenians; however, the Arabs themselves originate from many different Arab countries where today, a large majority of refugees are from Palestine and Syria. Arabic is the official language of Lebanon with Lebanese Arabic as its spoken dialect. In addition, due to Lebanon’s history as a mandated country under France, French as well as English are also taught in many Lebanese schools.

In regard to the Human Development Index, Lebanon is a developing country ranking 112nd out of the 191 countries worldwide. Due to an ongoing financial and economic crisis, it is estimated that 82% of the population lives in multidimensional poverty. Other factors include its unstable political system, high GDP ratio, unreliable internet services, and proximity to conflict-ridden Israel/Palestine and Syria. Despite its low ranking on a global scale, Lebanon ranks as one of the highest Arab states in the Middle East, not counting the oil-rich gulf countries.

References:

“Lebanon Ranks among the World’s Best Countries.” 2019. Usnews.com. 2019. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/lebanon.

Science, Christian. 2015. “Lebanon’s Paradise before the Civil War – the Christian Science Monitor.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor. April 26, 2015. https://www.csmonitor.com/Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Lebanon-s-Paradise-Before-the-Civil-War/(photo)/903384.

BBC News. 2018. “Lebanon Profile – Timeline,” April 25, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-14649284.

‌“Human Development Report 2020 the next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene Briefing Note for Countries on the 2020 Human Development Report Lebanon.” n.d. Accessed September 12, 2022. https://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/Country-Profiles/LBN.pdf.

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