After Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor for the Guardian, gave a talk for the Arabic and Middle Eastern society left many students enraged and disappointed, Charlotte Littlewood responds to some of the controversial topics tackled on the night.
A talk on the ‘real’ problems of the Middle East, organised by the Arabic and Middle Eastern society, filled three lecture theatres last week and unfortunately revealed little ‘reality’ at all. Many students left feeling enraged, some confused and others simply misinformed.
Brian Whitaker began with a clear and appealing title, ‘The real problems of the Middle East,’ but sadly that title was the best bit. He began with the proposal that the problems within the Middle East are owed to an Arab tendency to refuse the depletion of their sovereignty when they are faced with covenants/declarations that they envisage are a disadvantage to them. How, I ask does this differ from any other states treatment of international law? His answer: “Middle Eastern states often apply a blanket reservation disallowing any laws that may impinge on their Islamic culture and religious beliefs.” How does this differ from the USA’s ‘blanket’ refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court, nothing is more ‘blanket’ than a point blank refusal to come under the jurisdiction of the ICC. His first tenet that the Arab nations are worse at international law than the rest of us falls at the first hurdle.
He went on to suggest that there is an inherent tendency among Arab’s to favour dictatorships. This was not received well. Hands shot up across the Newman A lecture theatre as offended Middle Eastern students protested against such a sweeping generalisation. He responded with “Arab nations make sweeping assessments about Brits having a ‘stiff upper lip’ so what should stop us from making the same.”
Unfortunately it only got worse for Mr. Whitaker. My early outrage started to transform into an uncomfortable feeling of pity for the man. His argument that the Middle East is obsessed with a need to combat diversity and that states aimed to eliminate diversity within Islam, within their states and across the Middle East, did little to calm the audience. Again outrage erupted amongst students who protested against this supposed dangerous lack of diversity, contesting that there are vast variations of Islamic sects and culture differences within and across the middle east. But the worst was yet to come.
On account of Whitaker’s tenet that Arab people prefer an authoritarian regime a young student posed: “You have suggested that there is an inherent immorality amongst Arabs, are there any psychological studies into this and how it can be countered?” Cue sharp intakes of breath around the lecture theatre. We all waited, the tension in the room becoming palpable; ‘Please correct this false assumption’ rings through our heads. Does he not know how trashed Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations has been for making such comments? Has he not heard of the innate desire for basic rights and the Arab Spring that took place on account of young people realising their rights were not being upheld? Apparently not. He runs with her assumption and talks about re-educating families. Eugenics we fear is not far off his options for a better Middle East!
He then, thankfully, made a valid point but sadly it was not his own and a little too late. He supported Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swan theory that artificial stability enforced by the outside (aka the USA and UK stabilisation mission in Afghanistan) do not work and in the long run create greater instability. Too bad this wasn’t his own theory and too bad the audience had already made their decisions on Brian Whitaker’s authority on the issues concerning the Middle East.
Finally he topped it all off by responding to a students question referring to Kurdistan’s struggle for statehood with “Is that something they really want?” OH DEAR. I later press him on this issue and indeed he is not even aware that the Kurds are pushing to become a recognised state of their own known as Kurdistan. The audience by this point has truly given up on poor Brian Whitaker. What a humiliation for the Guardian and journalists nationwide. We will wait with baited breath for the Middle Eastern societies next speaker event, anything will be better than the former Middle East editor of the Guardian.
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