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The Secret To Improving U.S.-Middle East Relations? More Idol, Dancing With The Stars

Samira Said
Wikimedia Commons
Arabic mega-star Samira Said during her July 8, 2011 performance on the Arabic talent show Star Academy in Beirut.

Media played a significant role in organizing the protests that spread like wildfire across the Middle East in 2011. But as Islamists put a stake in the ground and solidified their claim to Arab society and culture, Lebanon largely remained insulated from the effects of the Arab Spring.

University of Balamand media scholar Ramez Maluf says Lebanon traditionally offers the Arab world entertainment and variety programs, with Beirut serving as a major production hub for shows like Arab Idol, The Voice, and Dancing With The Stars.

“It does not have a station such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, which are news channels. It cannot compete on that level,” Maluf says. “But it can compete on this other level. More than 70 percent of television programming in the Arab world is directly related to entertainment.”


But franchising programs from the West is controversial, and many traditionalists and Arab intellectuals see their identity threatened by cultural imperialism. But even though shows with women in unconventional attire or soap operas featuring Muslims enjoying wine over dinner can be controversial, Maluf says Lebanon hasn’t fallen under pressure from conservatives hoping to stem the tide of exported Western entertainment.

Ramez Maluf’s 2013 Conversation With Weekend Edition Sunday Host Rachel Martin About The Middle East Response To U.S. Debate Over Syria

He also points out both the United States and the Middle East could use this “cultural diplomacy” to repair a relationship damaged after the attacks of September 11.

“The only way you can improve your image is by accentuating another positive image,” Maluf says. “People like Michael Moore should be made more visible by American diplomats. Not because he’s pro-government, but because people put up with him, and he wins Oscars. And I think that’s the strength of the United States: the ability to accept a position to entertain different points of views and not have to go to war over them.”

KGOU produces World Views through a collaborative partnership with the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies,with a goal of bringing internationally-focused conversations to an Oklahoma audience. Help support these efforts with a donation online.


REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Ramez Maluf, welcome to World Views.

RAMEZ MALUF: It's a pleasure to be here.

CRUISE: You're a professor of communications, so I thought I would start by simply asking you about communications in the Middle East. I'm also curious about the use of social media in Lebanon in particular.

MALUF: Well, obviously this is a global occurrence. The development of social media across the world is an amazing development. The older you get, the harder it is for me to understand it. Often I feel that I think that's probably typical for a lot of people in even in, dare I say, the older generation. Your students know more about it than you do. But it's really helped transform society. It's made people able to communicate in ways they never did before. See things they have never seen before, and of course, as I'm sure people have read, it has had a tremendous impact on the political situation.

CRUISE: And this is in Lebanon as well as in neighboring countries?

MALUF: People have said, and I think in an exaggerated way, that the Arab Spring, if that's the right name for the developments in the Arab world of the last three years, a lot of it was caused by social media. I think it's probably an exaggerated statement, but in fact social media did play a role.

CRUISE: You mentioned the Arab Spring. We have heard a lot since then, particularly about Egypt, and about Syria, and of course Joshua Landis is here with us today. We hear a lot about those two countries. What is the situation in Lebanon? What do we need to know about that country?

MALUF: It's fragile. Obviously Lebanon, because it's a society split into three major sects - the Christians, the Sunni, the Shi'a Muslims - and because of the tension between Sunnis and Shi'as today, the situation is fragile. But it's holding. I think recently a government was formed after 10 months of haggling over the issue, and I think that Lebanon will come through. Of course it will depend on how bad the situation gets in Syria. If things improve in Syria, then I think Lebanon is ready to go back to its old days. If not, we're going to have to deal with that.

LANDIS: What role is Lebanon playing in media for this Arab Spring? We've seen Islamic parties come to the fore in almost every country after the Arab Spring. Dictators have been brought down, and Islamism, Islamic parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, have really put a stake in the ground and said, "We're here" for the first time. Lebanon, the multicultural, multi-religious, long-time-dominated by Christians, has the most extraordinary variety shows. Singing, talented, very un-Islamic in many ways. What effect has the Arab Spring had on Lebanese culture and the way Lebanon sees its position in the Arab world?

MALUF: Well, this is a difficult question to answer briefly. But let me suggest the following: Lebanon has traditionally, in its media, offered the Arab world exactly what you are mentioning. Entertainment, variety shows, programs like Arab Idol, The Voice, and Dancing with the Stars. Obviously programs that were franchised from programs in the West. It sees its role in that perspective. It does not have a station such as Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya, which are news channels. It cannot compete on that level. But it can compete on this other level, offering this other side of media, which is dominant, in fact, in the Arab world. More than 70 percent of television programming in the Arab world is directly related to entertainment. That's not assuming that, for example, even news are often entertainment as well, or talk shows are entertainment. So Lebanon plays that role. Of course, that's a controversial role, because a lot of Arab intellectuals see their identity and culture threatened by cultural imperialism, and messages from the West showing women in attire that are not conventional. Or even, for example, Turkish dubbed novellas where people with Muslim names sit across a dinner table and enjoy a nice bottle of wine, and so forth. So there has been a lot of controversy about these programs. But Lebanon continues to play this role, and I think it has been doing this unabated. It hasn't faltered back. It hasn't fallen under the pressure of more conventional or conservative groups.

LANDIS: What about in science and in education? Lebanon, of course, has been the home of the American University. Your family has a long history at the American University. Your grandfather, I believe, went to the American University, became a Protestant at the turn of the century. You openly say "I'm an atheist" when you go on talk shows in the Middle East. You're, in a sense, carrying a banner. Quotes of Darwin on your door. Lebanon has been at the forefront of this bringing the Enlightenment to the Middle East. Do they feel embattled today?

MALUF: Well, there's a lot concern, certainly among Christians, and there's a lot of debate among the Christians there whether they should perceive themselves as a minority in the Arab world, or partners in government in Lebanon. Different Christians see it differently. There's a lot of immigration. A lot of people are fed-up with having to deal with these issues all the time. As far as I'm concerned, I live in a country where I'm bombarded by religion all the time. It's in the political system. It's in the social system. It's everywhere. I have an office next to a church and a mosque, and they compete between each other. The bells ring, so my table jumps. The man chants his religious chant so that the people from the other mosque, the Shi'a mosque 200 yards away can hear them as well. So this is a difficult situation. It's infuriating. I am very respectful, of course, of people's religion. And I expect them to be respectful of my beliefs as well. So I've decided, and maybe this has to do with age, that I am going to be as open about my beliefs as others about theirs'. I have learned to live them. They must learn to live with mine.

CRUISE: Well, when you mentioned cultural imperialism it's a little tough not to think about the United States, where much of this comes from. I know you've written on this topic, but what are the perceptions of the United States in Lebanon from the ground? And do you think those are accurate perceptions?

MALUF: I think it's conventional wisdom that people in the Arab world entertain a love-hate relationship. It's probably a little bit more complex than that. I think that, strangely enough, there has been more enamorment with the United States in recent years than there has been in the past. I think the election of Barack Obama played a significant role in that. That somebody with a middle name Hussein, a black American, somebody who's the direct opposite of what people in the Arab world regard as a war-monger. That certainly played a role. I think one of the virtues of the United States is its diversity. The fact that it's welcoming of people from different backgrounds and so forth. I think there's a greater understanding of that. The major impediment, of course, to better relations with the United States remains the issue of Palestine and Israel. Until that is resolved, I think relations will remain tense. But I think that there's more love than hate toward the United States in recent years. Particularly because Arabs too have suffered from terrorist attacks similar to 9/11 in New York.

CRUISE: Are there ways the United States could better sell itself in the Middle East? If the Palestinian situation, unfortunately, is not likely to get resolved any time soon, but we would certainly like to have better relations with Middle Eastern countries.

MALUF: I think the United States in recent years has done a better job of that. My view of that is that the only way you can improve your image is by accentuating another positive image. Denying your image is showing what else you are, who else you are. I always give this as an example: Arabs that go around saying, "We're not terrorists, we're not terrorists." That's not good enough. They have to show what else they are. I think it's true of the United States. I've written an article in Foreign Policy about this, actually, where I say that people like Michael Moore should be made more visible by American diplomats. Not because he's pro-government, but because people put up with him, and he wins Oscars. And I think that's the strength of the United States: the ability to accept a position to entertain different points of views and not have to go to war over them.

LANDIS: This culture of accepting people who disagree with you. Do you think the Arab Spring is going to end up enhancing democracy and tolerance in the Middle East, or is it going to crush the diversity from a Christian community. You're married to a Muslim woman. You are a living symbol of the diversity of this multicultural Middle East that has been a real big part of the Levantine Middle East. Do you think that is going to slowly disappear, or do you think it's going to be made stronger?

MALUF: Well, it's always too soon to predict the future. It's very hard for me to...I used to believe that history has a linear path. That you could see development and things would work in a certain way. This notion of progress that's inevitable. I'm not sure that I accept that idea anymore, but there's no denying that a lot of the virtues that we see in democracy are really rational, prescriptive virtues. If you want to solve society's ills, you have to go in that direction. You have to use reason rather than dictates. Rather than revelation without respect to religious revelations, Islamic or Christian or Buddhist or Jewish or whatever. But the way to solve problems on Earth is by using reason and being pragmatic. I think that's inescapable and inevitable. I would like to believe that's going to take place. Now whether it takes place in my lifetime or the lifetime of my children, I obviously don't think that's very soon.

LANDIS: Lebanon has been this seat of education. Are you optimistic about the educational institutions? Do you see them growing stronger and people investing in them? Or are they leaving the region to get education?

MALUF: Well, the universities that I work for, both of them are accredited by NEASC, which is the same accrediting agency that accredits Harvard and Yale and so forth. And I think that's a global requirement today if you're offering education, because students now measure you up not to the competing university across the street, or across town, but they want to make sure, because the market demands it, that you offer the kind of education that will make them marketable. So in Lebanon, I can very bluntly say that the level of education at the university where I taught for 30 years has improved tremendously, and that's a Lebanese American university. Because we had to go through accreditation, for one thing, and second because again, we're competing with universities in other countries. The ticket to travel to another university is nothing compared to the tuition you pay these days. So if you cannot offer quality education, you're doomed. I've no fears for Lebanon at all. I think we're doing a great job there.

CRUISE: Well, Dr. Maluf, thank you so much for sharing with us about education, communications, and your lovely country of Lebanon.

MALUF: It was a thrill for me to be back, and it's a very touching experience to be back at the University of Oklahoma after three decades, so I thank you.

CRUISE: We're excited to have you, thank you.


Copyright © 2014 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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