This week Palestine Report Online interviews United States-based media observer Ali Abunimah on American activism, Palestine and a war in Iraq.
PR: As someone who watches the media, what kind of trends are you observing these days?
Abunimah: I have just come back from Jordan, where I was watching a wider array of global coverage. Coming back to this country feels like coming back to a very isolated bubble. There is intense hysteria and I think that the media is abdicating their responsibility to examine major issues.
I think the most shocking example is the total failure to hold the government, represented recently by the person of Colin Powell, to account for so many misleading and false statements on Iraq in an attempt to drag the country and the world into a war. Things that are being challenged and exposed every day in the British press and the French press are being more or less ignored here. There seems to be complete deference to the government on foreign policy issues.
PR: What is the most successful method you have found to undo the myths prevalent in the American media?
Abunimah: Unfortunately, the work that we do as activists is not terribly glamorous in the sense that it mostly involves repetition. The main strategy is to keep repeating the message and to be very clear about what the message is. This is a situation where anyone with clear knowledge of the facts can see that Palestinians are suffering a terrible and grievous injustice, which is why the pro-Israeli side spends so much time trying to obfuscate the facts, trying to reinvent the facts and trying to disguise the facts. All we need to do is get the facts across.
That is not always easy. The reason that I have spent so much time in building up the Electronic Intifada as a resource and a voice is because we need to create our own supplementary media because we are not able to break into the mainstream media the way the pro-Israeli side is. Having said that, we do get our voices across in the mainstream media sometimes and we have to take advantage of that whenever we can.
PR: The demonstrations against a war in Iraq are getting a lot of play in the media here. Are there any concrete examples of officials having to address the public or change their tone due to these demonstrations?
Abunimah: For the past few months, I have been bristling whenever I hear someone say “war is inevitable.” I don’t believe that. If this war was inevitable, then it would have already happened. Just think how much worse a place the world would be right now if millions of people were not coming out into the streets to oppose and reject this war.
George Bush said that he didn’t care how many demonstrators showed up in the streets and Tony Blair is saying similar things, but they do care, they have to care, and I believe that our efforts are important. If we have any chance at all at stopping this war, we have to do that. I don’t believe that our efforts are insignificant. If we believe that then we are disempowering only ourselves and we are handing all power to the warmongers and to the governments who support injustice or tyranny in Palestine and colonial war in the Arab world. We can never allow our minds to be conquered in this way.
If we look at the reaction to the demonstrations, to what happened in the Security Council where there was overwhelming rejection of the pro-war message, the United States’ rhetoric in recent days has been less belligerent. I don’t think that they are less determined, but they are on the defensive. That is certainly true in the UK, where because of popular opposition and a much more responsible media, Tony Blair had to say that he would not go to war without a second United Nations resolution. You also have seen politicians in Italy, which had a very pro-war stance, backing off and the same in Spain.
PR: Can you explain what the numbers of demonstrators at the February 15 demonstration meant or put it in context?
Abunimah: These numbers are like nothing in my experience. These are perhaps some of the biggest global protests ever, certainly since the 1960s. Some of those who are old enough are saying that, even in the Vietnam war, they weren’t this big. What is significant is that these protests are happening before the war starts, before an attack starts. That is very significant because the Vietnam anti-war movement took years and years. We have to take heart from that and realize that we who support peace and support justice are in the majority.
PR: At times there has been great criticism of Arab-American activism in the US. People have said that it is not unified, not vocal enough, even elitist. How would you characterize the movement in this time of crisis?
Abunimah: We can always do more, and we should always do more. But there is no community in the United States or anywhere in the world that holds the same opinion. It is a very diverse community and I think that is a strength. I think that there are some issues where we are more unified than any other community. This is a community where, whether you are secular or religious or rich or poor, there is very broad agreement on issues like Palestine or Iraq. Not completely, but there is a lot of unity there. Many people rightly admire the American Jewish community for how well organized it is. Still, there are some very serious disagreements, different trends and internal battles there.
I have been to dozens of college campuses all around the country and I have been hosted by student organizations who are organizing some of the most exciting political events. Arab-American and Muslim student organizations are working with other communities and setting the agenda on their campuses. These are things that we should be proud of.
The above interview with EI co-founder Ali Abunimah was published by Palestine Report on 19 February 2003.