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“Many would consider you to be an agent” – Zahraničná Politika, Slovakia

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Here’s an interview about Dining with al-Qaeda that I liked well – and hope that it wins the book many readers in central Europe! It’s from Slovakia’s magazine “Zahraničná politika“, or Foreign Policy.

Hugh Pope:

Západ by mal prejaviť viac zodpovednosti

Lucia Najšlová

20.10.2010

Photo by Vieri Bottazini

V knihe spomínate články, ktoré bolo treba prerobiť, aby boli prijateľnejšie pre americké publikum. Ako editor určí, čo je prijateľné, a čo už nie? Najmä ak je článok o téme, o ktorej čitateľ nič nevie?

Nuž, zjavne je to umenie, nie veda. Popularitu článkov dnes môžeme posúdiť podľa toho, koľkokrát si ich niekto stiahne. Ale stále je tu funkcia informovania verejnosti – veci, ktoré by ľudia mali vedieť, aj keď nie sú populárne. Aj editori môžu byť veľmi nezávislí ľudia. Čo považujem za najzvláštnejšie, je to, že kým som nezačal písať knihu, neuvedomoval som si všetky sily, ktoré na mňa pôsobili. Pretože keď ste novinár, ide vám hlavne o to, aby Vás publikovali. A aby ste sa dostali na titulku, ste pripravení akceptovať, že niektoré veci redaktor škrtne. Za normálnych okolností rátate s tým, že z rozličných dôvodov pôjde von asi 20 % článku, ale zvyšných 80 % za to úsilie stojí. O čom som začal rozmýšľať neskôr, najmä pokiaľ ide o Irak a Stredný východ, je, že v rámci tých 20 % boli veci, ktoré sme vynechávali systematicky. A vždy, keď sme vynechali jeden z týchto nepríjemných faktov, len sme pridávali ďalšiu tehlu do múru nevedomosti, ktorý stál medzi americkým publikom a realitou Stredného východu. [Full text here]

Hugh Pope: The West should show more responsibility

By Lucia Najšlová

Reading your book is also a bit of a journey through technologies available to journalists in the span of the last 30 years. What was the impact of the technological advance on the quality of reporting?

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The quality of the reporting depends on the person doing it. I don’t think that there is less or more of it. Certainly the consumers have now vastly more access to information. At the time I started out, you could be in the Middle East, and even be the person in the middle of something, but you did not understand anything, because there was no information about what was going on. Now you can really know a lot and be much more sure about the background information. Wikipedia for instance is something that is astonishing. I think the challenge comes in – and it’s always been there – in challenging preconceptions. All newspaper articles are based on the idea that you are giving fresh information to the reader. Often I used to treat that as an opportunity to change the prejudices of the reader – and there you face the same problems as you ever did. If you challenge it too much, the reader stops reading.

So how do you know when it is too much?

Normally, when the editor shouts at you. (laughs)

In the book you frequently refer to some texts that had to be remade so that they would be more acceptable for the American audience. How does the editor know what is acceptable for the audience and what is not? Especially if the article is about things which the audience does not know anything about.

Well, it’s an art, not a science, obviously. What is popular in the press nowadays can be judged by the number of times an article is downloaded. But there is still a public information function – that people should know this, even if it’s not popular. Editors can be very independent people as well. Mostly, what I find strange is that all the forces acting on me were not apparent to me until I started writing the book. Because when you are a journalist, you are mainly concerned with getting published. And in order to get on the front page of a newspaper, which was my job, you were ready to accept that certain things would be edited out. Normally you accept that maybe 20 percent of your original article would be lost for all kinds of reasons, but that the 80 percent that goes in would be worth the effort. What I later came to think about, especially as it has to do with Iraq and the Middle East, was that within these 20 percent were certain things that we kept leaving out. And each time we left out one of these uncomfortable facts, we were adding another brick to a wall of ignorance between the American reader and the Middle East reality.

You came to Middle East after studying Persian and Arabic, one of your goals was a bit idealistic – to help to bridge the communication gap. Yet, many would consider you to be an agent.

Portraying me as an idealist is going a bit far – I was seeking a role in life, I was seeking adventure, as well as believing there was a gap that needed to be filled and that I would like to fill it. But I had no clue about what it was all really like. The Middle East is not really well known today but 30 years ago it was even more difficult to get to grips with it. I have described in the book how I resented being considered an agent of the governments that, I began to see, have done a lot of damage to the Middle East and how I had to resist offers from governments to work with them. And then I gradually realized that many of the people I knew were actually spies. And therefore I believe that the Middle Easterners had a reason to believe that people are spying on them.

So, how were you coping with it?

First of all, I was always very insistent that I was not a spy. I thought it was very important, because it gave me the right to ask. If I knew I was innocent, I had the right to ask questions from a broad range of people. I could look them in the eye and say I have no government agenda, I’m just writing about the situation. And I think this protected me a great deal, especially when I got into a situation when I was actually dealing with someone who thought that I should be killed, because he thought I was out there to kill him. To persuade somebody like that, you have to be able to radiate innocence.

That does not seem to help in every situation.

It lasted pretty well until I reached the Iraq story, which was 25 years after I started. There I began to realize that it was really dangerous. Danny Pearl, who worked with me in the newspaper, was never a spy. He was only trying to plug the information gap. But because he was Jewish, they did not believe him and cut his head off. That was one strike against my sense of invulnerability. The other strike was seeing the US and Britain going into war with Iraq, a war which appeared to have only a cotton thread of legitimacy, and which would do a great deal of damage to Iraq. Seeing how traumatized the Iraqis were, and realizing that working for an American newspaper that supported the war, carrying a British passport, I had no protection anymore, I felt I had run out of innocence. And why was I doing it anyway? I was the only reporter for the WSJ going to Iraq before the war, they published all my stories, but I could never get through,  I could never break through and explain, in my relatively short stories from Bagdad, why it was mad to invade Iraq. And yet at the same time big stories were going every few days on the op-ed side, explaining, why it was a wonderful idea.

Let’s get back to the Middle Easterners’ fears – you say it is understandable that Middle Easterners are mistrustful of foreigners, because some of them are agents, and Western governments did a lot of damage to the region. But is it not the same stereotyping, as when the Westerners think of all Muslims as terrorists?

You are right, I hadn’t thought of it like this, it is a mutual prejudice, and, how prevalent is either prejudice is a good question too. I’m not sure if I was aware of it in the early years, but certainly I came to the position that I would almost refuse to use the word Islam in a report, because I felt that anyone reading the report would understand the use of the word Islam differently. It’s not a good analytical tool. There are all kinds of different ideas about it. I would get calls from my editors saying ‘what does the Islamic world think of this or that’ and you are kind of forced to construct an artificial Islamic world that is thinking about 9/11 or some other attack. And the other thing is the way the Western world tries to view the world as blocks. They are always trying to fit Turkey into bloc – is it in Europe, is it in in the Middle East? Eurasia?

Is that only Western thinking? Do not people here view the West as a unified bloc?

Yes, the bloc perception is also here, but I do think, that the richer, more powerful, better educated countries have the responsibility to set an example.

You mentioned Danny Pearl. In the book, you write about his funeral, where the speakers would be mentioning how nicely he played violin, but no one mentioned the part of his struggle for East-West understanding that might be critical of the West. In popular imagination, the job of a foreign correspondent is a one of adventure. In reality though, there is as well a lot of danger and inconvenience and often the work goes under-appreciated. How were you digesting this?

I was not aware of it. You know, as a working person, you always try to do your best, if it does not work out this time, you try again and … as I said the Journal was a great newspaper. You could get most of the stories in. The frustration is when you realize is that there is a pattern of things you are leaving out and, you are able to change peoples’ ideas a bit, but it’s frustrating to always have to be dressing up the information, as if it’s entertainment. And then, the turning point was the Iraq war.

I was very depressed and very unhappy during that period. Mainly because I felt that there was no trust left between me and the people I was going to report on.

If you compare working for the Journal and now working for ICG, a newspaper and think-tank. Do you feel you have more influence now?

Absolutely. But firstly, I could not do the work that I do now for the ICG if I hadn’t spend 25 years as a journalist learning about information processing, learning about writing, learning about what makes people think. Because I knew nothing when I graduated from university, I was hopeless, I really didn’t understand anything. I learned it all from other people. The most depressing thing for me, and illustrating my complete naïveté, was, that when I left journalism and became a think-tanker, some diplomats started inviting me for lunch saying ‘Oh, Hugh, at last I can talk to you, you are not a journalist anymore’. I was was shocked. Thoughts ran through my head like ‘I never realized that. I didn’tt know you were “not talking to me” when I used to come and see you!’ And then, we’d have lunch, and they would tell me the same thing that they would tell me as a journalist, but now with a very different approach, because they would listen to me, what I was saying. That’s also new.

So you see the direct impact of your work now?

Yes. Our reports for the Crisis Group can take 3 to 6 months to produce, and we talk to 50 or 100 people for each one. They are field-based. You really are empowered by the number of people who you have talked to – you can see the direction where the trend is going. When you communicate it to a government official, who is usually dealing with lots of stuff, you can say very convincingly ‘Look, A, B, C means D, here. Look how it works’. I have seen government policy change. And I have seen when governments do things because we were pushing it. And it is something I don’t think I ever saw with journalism. I mean, you could expose torture by Israelis in South Lebanese prison camps, I remember doing that, thanks to some friends who leaked information to me. As far as I know, it made no difference whatsoever.

Once when they expelled you from Iran they literally accused you of ‘reporting that glass is half empty when in fact it was half full’. You suggest that many of the actions of Middle Eastern governments are a reaction to feeling being bossed around by the West, feeling as a loser. Humiliation is a powerful emotion, widely present in the Middle East. At the same time there are a lot of irresponsible people ruling countries in this region, abusing this feeling of humiliation. How can one solve this puzzle?

Middle Eastern governments get away with that, because they are all little islands, not interacting with the others. And within those autarchic universes, people continue to emigrate, you have coups and revolutions as your only method of real changes of power, and each time you have a revolution, the country goes 20 years back. But Turkey is coming along and saying hang on, this is not doing any of us any good. Let us try and integrate more. And let’s travel between each other more. This is completely new, this never happened. The Arab league was a joke, it never addressed fundamental issues, and it was always dealing with high political issues, like confronting Israel.

On the other hand we see where the Turkish-Israeli relations are at the moment

But let’s not give all the blame to Turkey for that. Turkey didn’t kill anybody – Israeli commandos boarded the ship and killed nine people.

Even before the Mavi Marmara affair the relations were not at their best.

Sure. But Turkey’s main interest is to have working relations with Israel and I believe that most Turks understand that. The main dynamic of change has been the current Israeli government. And the one just before has authorized extraordinary measures against the Palestinians. Operation ‘Cast Lead’ against Gaza killed 1400 people. Against 13 Israelis. This is not a balanced policy that will make nearby states like Turkey feel comfortable with Israel.

Of course, Israel can be considered its own worst enemy sometimes.

Well, yes, but there are consequences to that. Everyone presents Turkish-Israeli relations as if they were natural allies, which the AKP is now undoing. That is a wrong analysis. Turkish-Israeli relations were strategic during the Cold war years, because Turkey faced a big threat, from Syria especially and sometimes Iraq, and it was its obligation under NATO to be with the strategic ally Israel. It didn’t matter that Israel was Jewish, or Buddhist, it was just on the team, right? After that ended, in the 90s it seemed as though Israel was making a genuine attempt to make peace with the Palestinians. That is when Turkey sent its first ambassador, in 1992. In 2002, when Israel occupied the West bank, we had the ultra-secularist leader Ecevit in charge in Turkey, and he accused Israel of genocide. It is not AKP – the driver of what is happening is Israeli policy. And I am certain that the moment there is a genuine Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, everything will become easy with Turkey again. And one has to say that the onus is on Israel now.

I agree that what we see now in the Western media – “Turkey is moving towards the East, and away from the West” is a simplification. At the same time, Turkey wants to be a regional power and a mediator. But distancing Israel is not helping this ambition.

It’s clear that his has been a setback for Turkey. The Turkish decisions that led up to the sailing of the Mavi Marmara are quite questionable. They thought they had a deal with the Israelis, they thought they had a deal with IHH (organizer of the flotilla, ZP note), the Israelis thought they had a deal with Turkey, and then something went very wrong. The main responsibility has to be with the Israelis. They are the ones who started shooting at apparently unarmed – in terms of guns – people. But if Turkey wants to have the image of a neutral player in the Middle East, it should have thought through the consequences of allowing that flotilla to sail.  And the way in which they have talked about Israel went outside of the international consensus of what is proper to say and that has cost them enormous leverage in Washington. And America is still a very important country. I think Turkey is trying to find a way back to where it was but they have a new mountain to climb.

North Korea is also a large open air prison but you rarely hear about efforts to send a ship and save the people. So if the Gaza issue is not something that has to do with being a Muslim and forging some type of Muslim solidarity, to channel out the frustrations, then what it is about? Because if it is about humanity, why don’t we go to the larger open air prison?

Yes, and Sudan, and Syrian human rights violations as well. There has to be a more globally integrated vision of what they are doing, at least certainly in presentation terms. Turkey can no longer act as if its idealist agenda is separate from its pragmatic agenda. Turkey used to be a very cautious foreign policy player, because it lives in a very difficult region. And I think that the AKP leadership is perhaps over-idealist in what they hope to achieve in the Middle East, because there are some pretty unpleasant governments. Turkey should be a bit more honest with itself about the nature of the countries it is dealing with, but still I think that the way they are going about the job is better than how the West has been approaching these countries, that is, a mixture of force and very high-minded lectures, which kind of ignore the West’s history in the region.

One of the the biggest challenges for Turkey today is the Cyprus question. The whole international community is trying to foster reunification. The field research however shows that for Cypriots themselves that might not be the most preferred option.

I think when it comes to negotiations, this is the last chance. Time does not stand still. You can’t turn the clock back for instance on the property question in North Cyprus. I mean, you can’t suddenly say that all these people have to suddenly uproot and leave. Turkey will never agree to it. Just like you can’t say to Greek Cypriots ‘you’ll never get your money’. Turkey will never get in the EU unless it compensates them or does something that the Greek Cypriots are satisfied with. Things should have been sorted out in 2004. It was a huge mistake for the EU to take in Cyprus after the Greek Cypriots refused the Annan Plan. Even if it is perhaps understandable because then Greece might have vetoed the East European countries getting in.

It showed the EU is not able to implement its own strategic interest.

There are a lot of people hiding behind Cyprus. Germany and France especially. Europe and the international community have to find ways to deal with it but they should find ways of removing it from the EU-Turkey relationship. Of course Turkey must eventually withdraw its troops, and both sides must sort out compensation for properties that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have lost, but Ankara is supporting the UN process at least as much as the Greek Cypriots are, if not more, so there is no overwhelming moral argument about a need to punish Ankara any more. Because Turkey is being punished, half of its chapters are being closed down by the Cyprus question. And if Germany and France have a problem with EU membership for Turkey, well, let them say it through other channels than hiding behind Cyprus.

Some time ago, Turkish Newsweek asked psychiatrists to analyze Turkey’s soul, and one of them arrived to the conclusion that Turkey wants to be liked, especially by those who don’t like her. So it does not focus so much on, let’s say, Swedes, or Czechs, who are supportive of its EU process, but is obsessed by Sarkozy and Merkel, who oppose it.

The European leaders have to be more responsible and not seek cheap votes by presenting their policy as, for example, ‘I am opposing Turkey’s membership in the EU, therefore I am going to solve your fears about immigration, jobs and Islam’, whatever Islam is supposed to be. And if tomorrow Sarkozy was to come to Turkey and say, ‘Oh My God, this is Turkey? I didn’t understand. I’m sorry, I’m going back and I’m going to tell my government that from now on we’re going to lift those blocks on those chapters and we’re going to be back behind your EU accession process. It’s great that I came, I now see the light.’ within two weeks you would see the pro-EU ratings in Turkey changing. I think the public opinion is quite emotional about it.

What about Turkey? Does it still want to join?

I do not believe that Turkish leaders have taken that decision. I make a hobby of it, I ask: ‘Imagine you get the treaty, everything is done, you just have to sign. Would you?’ I still have not met a Turkish leader that would say he’d sign. Most say ‘then I’d see’. Even Turkish president Abdullah Gul said it the other day – ‘Maybe we wouldn’t, maybe we would like to be like Norway’ – NATO member, close to the EU, but not a member.

So Turkey itself might want to opt for a sort of privileged partnership?

Turkey already has a privileged partnership. TUSIAD (industrialists and business chamber, ZP note) has pointed out that 50 percent of business decisions in Turkey are made on the basis of what has to be done in order to be in line with EU standards. And already, ¾ of the foreign investment, more than half of the trade, more than half of tourists are from the EU. Turkey cannot ignore the EU. Europe has to find a way to include Turkey. Turkey has also been slow to prove to the Europeans that it is really fundamentally serious about its negotiations. It has been slow to persuade the Europeans ‘C’mon, we’re trying our best’. It was more of ‘Oh, Sarkozy said something rude, therefore I’m not going to do any work on my harmonization process’. Anyway, I remember the times when Italy and Spain were viewed as fundamentally un-European by my parents’ generation. And now no one questions their Europeanness.

Bio: Born in South Africa, a UK citizen, and having spent almost 30 years as a reporter covering the Middle East and Central Asia, the last ten as a WSJ correspondent, Hugh Pope’s perspective on the countries and conflicts he writes about is unique in Western media and policy circles. That is a pity, since the engagement of people who know the region would save the EU and the US many resources, not to mention the negative emotions. In his last book, Dining with Al-Qaeda, Pope recounts his journalistic beginnings, joys and ultimately, the disillusionments of working for a newspaper, which, although having one of the highest standards of reporting, helped to build  consensus for a war he considers illegitimate – the operation “Iraqi Freedom”. Since quitting the WSJ, he has worked for the International Crisis Group, world’s leading independent think-tank. Starting our conversation with media, progressing through “Eastern” and “Western” biases, we ended up talking about the region’s frontrunner and one of biggest enigmas– Turkey.

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