The BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Kevin Connolly has recently been on the road in order, he tells us in one of the resulting reports, “to find out what governments and peoples in the Arab world are doing to push back against violent extremist ideas”.
In Connolly’s written report about his travels – “Battle of ideas at heart of fight against Islamic State“, BBC News website, March 17th – readers found the following assertion:
“Back in 2011, when the street protests of what we used to call the Arab Spring still appeared to represent an irresistible pulse of democratising energy, no-one foresaw that the violent Islamist extremist movements which had long been part of life in the Middle East would be among the main beneficiaries.”
That paragraph is of course very revealing – and inaccurate. In fact there were people who at the time cautioned that the uprisings the Western media so enthusiastically and unquestioningly embraced as heralding the dawn of democracy in the Middle East had the potential to turn out rather differently. One of those scholars was the late Professor Barry Rubin who in February 2011 wrote:
“…the conclusion that the usual rules of Middle East politics have disappeared is greatly exaggerated. If you think that democracy cannot lead to violent Islamists taking power, consider the Muslim-majority country in the region with the longest tradition of democracy: Lebanon, where Hezb’allah and its allies now run things. Consider Algeria, where free elections (you can blame it on the military if you want) led to a bloody civil war. Think about Turkey where, though the regime still operates basically by democratic norms, the noose is tightening (though there it may well not be irreversible).”
In May 2011 Connolly himself conducted an apparently forgotten interview with Israeli minister Moshe Ya’alon who, whilst discussing the prospects for Israeli-Egyptian relations in the light of the ‘Arab Spring’ noted that:
“…what we have to be aware of is that it [a future Egyptian regime] might be the Muslim Brotherhood – might change the course of Egypt.”
Even some BBC journalists recognised the possibility of an Islamist ascendency at the time – as documented in the Mortimer Report on the corporation’s coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’.
“Presenters and correspondents at times appeared almost obsessed with the possibility, if not likelihood, that Islamists – and the Brotherhood in particular – might turn out to be the main beneficiaries of the upheaval, especially if it resulted in a “power vacuum”. The probability of this happening, and the implications if it did, were the points routinely put to every Western expert and policy-maker; and there were many interviews with members of the Brotherhood itself – some rank-and-file, some described as leaders. All of these stressed that their movement favoured freedom and democracy, and did not seek to impose an Islamic order on people against their will. Some of the expert commentators accepted these statements more or less at face value, stressing the Brotherhood‟s evolution towards pragmatism during its long years in opposition and semi-clandestinity, while others were more sceptical. Conspicuously absent in this phase of coverage, however, whether as subjects or objects of commentary, were the “Salafists” – Islamists more rigid and conservative, though perhaps less organized than the Brotherhood – who later turned out to have widespread popular support and ran second to the Brotherhood in the elections.” [emphasis added]
As reflected in Edward Mortimer’s words, part of the reason why Connolly is able to convince himself today that “no-one” foresaw the rise of Islamist extremists five years ago is because he and many of his colleagues had bought into the notion of ‘moderate’ Islamists. That approach is demonstrated in an interview given by one of the BBC’s Middle East correspondents at the time – Wyre Davies – to ‘Wales Online’ in July 2011.
“Asked to what extent in Syria it was ordinary people wanting a voice and to what extent it was Islamic extremists, he said: “I think people over-play the role of Islamic parties. Yes of course in Egypt and Tunisia, these are Islamic countries so you would expect the Muslim Brotherhood and political parties who take some of their moral guidance from Islam to play a role. […]
“It is ironic that Israel for so long has called itself the only democracy in the region, and yet when democratic movements arise in countries like Egypt, Israel was basically against it. Israel wanted Mubarak to stay in power.
“The West is aware of this. What happens if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election in Egypt? Now I don’t think they will, but there are some pretty moderate members of the Brotherhood. I don’t think there’s any danger that these major Middle Eastern countries are going to be overrun by Islamic extremists.”” [emphasis added]
In an article written for the Guardian in 2012, Magdi Abdelhadi – who was a BBC Arab affairs analyst at the time of the uprising in Egypt the year before – told readers that:
“It’s true that notorious jihadi groups have been inspired by the teachings of Qutb – namely that modern society is pagan and ungodly and that true Muslims should reject it and take up arms against it.
But the Muslim Brotherhood of today has distanced itself from such ideas and is committed to normal politics.”
Were BBC correspondents less preoccupied with the promotion of a political narrative which requires the framing of Hizballah and the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas as ‘resistance’ groups, they might have been better placed to view Islamist ideology in all its manifestations in a more informed and objective light. That in turn would have allowed them to listen at the time to the voices Kevin Connolly now erroneously claims did not exist.