In a region where the media biz is often more noted for being polarized, the atrocious actions that have brought ISIS global attention have unified the vast majority of decent moral Arabs across sectarian and political divides against the exceptionally brutal terror group.
President Obama and dozens of countries are rushing an emergency plan to eradicate ISIS on the ground, and the world is getting to know this organization because of the horrific beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and last night’s atrocity against married British aid worker and father of two David Cawthorne Haines. The Arab world, however, was already all too aware of the group’s murderous tactics, as thousands of Arab civilians have been killed in recent months in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS has created an unprecedented amount of upheaval that has manifested itself in different ways. Journalists who cover the region have no precedent in terms of the brutality depicted against both Westerners and Arabs.
If the desire of ISIS is to convey fear and numbness, however, it doesn’t seem to be working. Ordinary people are expressing their revulsion against the abominable gang in their millions.
While ISIS have proven adept at utilizing social media to spread its message of hate, the fight back has already begun in terms of viral activism.
One group of Lebanese youths, inspired by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, launched its own spinoff, #BurnISISFlagChallenge, that sees participants burning the ominous black flag of ISIS before nominating others to do so. The campaign has gone viral across the Arab world, with Muslims and Christians alike uniting against a nightmarish foe. One young contributor even nominated “the whole world.”
Elsewhere, people are exercising their emotions in a number of ways, as reflected by the fact that the region has also seen record-breaking movie ticket sales, surging TV ratings for entertainment and a rush by filmmakers to get their projects into production. Sometimes the simple act of going to the cinema can become a subversive act of defiance against a group such as ISIS that would ban all film, music and general entertainment if it had its way.
“The only revolution that has really succeeded since the start of the Arab Spring is that of freedom of expression,” says Syrian producer Orwa Nyrabia. “This new generation is so motivated to engage creatively through writing, film, music, cartoons. This is something that even ISIS cannot stop.”
Nyrabia, who was imprisoned by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces following the start of the Syrian revolution, has been at the forefront of the rise in citizen filmmaking and journalism by those who refuse to be beaten into silence by the extremists. He co-produced Return To Homs, which won the Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for documentary earlier this year, as well as Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait.
Both films exemplify the huge number of documentaries and short form content now being produced from areas virtually inaccessible to many mainstream journalists.
Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, for example, was co-directed by exiled Syrian filmmaker Oussama Mohammed and young Kurdish activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan. The film was crafted from thousands of hours of footage secretly filmed by Bedirxan while under siege in Homs, and edited by Mohammed in Paris. The finished film received its world premiere in Cannes and its North American premiere at Toronto.
All of this is enough to remind you of Orson Welles’ quip in The Third Man about terror, warfare, murder and bloodshed in Italy under the Borgias giving us the Renaissance — while 500 years of democracy and peace in Switzerland gave us the cuckoo clock.
“It’s been very difficult to keep up,” says one Cairo-based news producer who in recent months has covered Syria, Iraq and Gaza. “You’re not sure what’s going to happen next and everything is genuinely possible. The parameters keep shifting and we seem to have defining events happening on a daily basis. Every time you think an event is impossible, it actually takes place.”
Those in the Arab world have become accustomed to levels of violence in the region, but ISIS’ genocidal tactics in Syria and Iraq, and other violence in the region seems to have become a catalyst for stirring thought and outrage.
The initial hope and optimism that first emerged in the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, when Tunisia and Egypt largely peacefully saw entrenched dictators overthrown and the Libyan revolution began at grassroots level, has long since given way to frustration and anti-climax. This past summer, however, has left many commentators breathless by the speed and extent of the Arab world’s seeming implosion.
From a personal point of view, being both British and Arab and having spent years covering the region’s film and TV industries, what I have witnessed over the past few months has bordered on the surreal. And this is from someone who has conducted interviews with subjects everywhere from hospital ICU waiting rooms to bomb shelters and mountainside bunkers.
Beyond the rise of ISIS, the deadly Israel-Gaza conflict left more than 2,000 people dead, including over 1,000 Palestinian civilians; civil war in Libya has seen the capital, Tripoli, fall into the hands of Islamist militias; and Egypt has witnessed a clampdown on press freedom under new President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi that culminated in the imprisonment of three Al-Jazeera journalists. Their sentences, which provoked international outcry, ranged from seven to 10 years for allegedly aiding terrorists and spreading false news. The charges are widely believed to have been politically motivated.
Al-Jazeera is owned and bankrolled by Qatar, a major backer of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamist movement that was thrown out of power by the Egyptian army in the summer of 2013 and subsequently declared a terrorist organization by Sisi’s government.
Most recently, two dozen Lebanese soldiers were abducted by members of ISIS from the border town of Arsal. Two have been beheaded.
The sheer carnage available to view on news channels — polarized and ever-dependent on the political affiliation of their deep-pocketed owners — has sent audiences flocking to their cinemas instead in search of some relief.
In Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest theatrical market, two local summer releases are claiming bragging rights to the biggest-grossing film of all time in the country: director Marwan Hamed’s The Blue Elephant, a psychological thriller, and director Ahmed Al Jundi’s World War 3, a comedy with a similar premise to the Night At The Museum films. Both movies have grossed more than $4 million at the Egyptian box office and continue to draw large crowds.
“It’s been a record-breaking season,” says leading Egyptian producer Mohammed Hefzy. “People want something different, to be entertained. On TV, there’s also been a switch away from political talk shows to dramas and lighter programs.”
The acknowledgement of audiences’ hunger for escapism is well illustrated by the launch in August of a new sports channel by MBC Group, the Arab world’s dominant TV network. MBC is reputedly investing up to $1 billion over the next decade to broadcast the Saudi soccer league. Previously the group invested tens of millions of dollars in its Al-Arabiya news channel; sports is now where it sees its future in these uncertain times.
In terms of news coverage, many journalists — seasoned staffers as well as the huge number of freelancers who flocked initially to the region to cover the momentous events of Tahrir Square in Cairo only to stay and bear witness to the descent into violence in Libya and Syria — are struggling to come to terms personally with the tragedies of Foley, Sotloff and, now, Cawthorne. All three men were hugely liked and respected by those who knew them and worked with them.
One other common thread amongst those journalists is the need to stand their ground and not be cowed by the myriad threats to those covering the region.
“It’s a terrible sadness and I’m still struggling to make sense of it,” said one freelance reporter who has covered Egypt, Libya and Syria. “I don’t think you can simply say that it’s no longer possible to cover the situation in a certain country. Journalists obviously need to think very carefully about the work they are doing and how they do it in places like this but these stories still need to be covered. What’s the alternative?”
Despite the encouraging signs of cultural and artistic resistance across film, TV and the news, no one is under any illusions about the challenges that lie ahead. “The truth is we’re seeing a huge acceleration in the confrontation between extremist Islam and the moderate, secular role,” says Hefzy. “There will be a big change either way over the next two to three years. It’s not going to be an easy fight and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Few doubt that the forces of light will prevail over darkness eventually, even if it takes a generation.
“We need to take a brave stand against these strange men with beards who slaughter innocent people,” says Nyrabia. “As strange as they are, however, they didn’t come from Mars. Also, we cannot allow them prioritize the debate. We, as filmmakers, artists and citizens, have to help the cultural put the political back into context. We have to shine a better light on moderation because that is where our hope really lies and that is how we can build a better future.”