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Can Obama woo the Muslim world?

Obama went to Cairo to woo the Muslim world. But one lofty speech won’t stop America from being loat

Ever since the attacks of 11 September 2001, Muslims whom I know, both in Britain and abroad, have taken an almost morbid pleasure in telling one particular joke about George Bush and Tony Blair. It seems that the two leaders are sitting at a White House dinner, whispering to one another in the corner, when a diplomat from a friendly nation walks over to them and asks what they are discussing.

“We’re finalising our plans for World War III,” says Bush.
“Really?” says the diplomat. “And what are the plans?”
“We’re planning a war which will kill 14 million Muslims and one dentist,” answers Bush.
A look of confusion appears on the face of the diplomat. “One . . . dentist?” he asks. “Why? Why would you kill one dentist?”
At which point, Bush turns to Blair and smirks: “I told you no one would give a damn about the Muslims.”

Some might argue that such black humour is illustrative of the paranoid and distrustful modern Muslim psyche. Perhaps it is – but, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Eight years of disastrous invasions and oc­cupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, belligerent rhetoric towards Iran and Syria, and absolute US support for Israel’s bombardments of Lebanon and Gaza have incited hatred among the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims.

From the very outset, Bush’s so-called war on terror alienated and radicalised Muslims around the world and exacerbated levels of anti-American feeling. According to a Zogby poll, for example, between 2002 and 2004, the proportion of Egyptians with negative attitudes towards the United States jumped from 76 per cent to 98 per cent – that is, almost the entire country.

Egypt is where Barack Obama delivered his much-anticipated set-piece speech to the Islamic world, at Cairo University on 4 June – less than two months after a similar address to the Turkish parliament in Istanbul, where he pronounced that “the United States is not and will never be at war with Islam”.

Where getting a fair hearing is concerned, Obama benefits not simply from not being Bush, but also from charisma, background and a reputation as a calm, moderate politician.

“In the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, [US poll] ratings took a sharp dip after the invasion of Iraq,” says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies and co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. “They never permanently recovered anywhere during the Bush years. Now we’re seeing them recover in 2009.”

Such is the weight given to her views and insights into the Muslim mindset that Obama appointed the 33-year-old Mogahed to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighbourhood Partnerships, making her the first veiled woman to gain a position in the White House.

In the run-up to Obama’s speech in Cairo, Mogahed reiterated to reporters the importance of the president conveying to his global Muslim audience “the idea of respect, co-operation, and a demonstration of empathy”. Her own polling suggests that one of the most important things the US can do to improve relations with Muslims is to refrain from seeing them as being in any way inferior or backward.

For my part, however, I don’t think Mogahed goes far enough. Poll after poll in the Islamic world has demonstrated that, above all else, Muslim anti-Americanism is shaped not by cultural, religious or ideological factors, but by US policies, chief among them support for Israel and, more recently, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

When asked, “What is the first thought when you hear ‘America’?”, Muslim respondents to the 2004 Zogby poll of six Arab nations overwhelmingly answered: “Unfair foreign policy.” And when asked what the US could do to improve its image and rebuild relations with the Islamic world, the most common answers were: “Stop supporting Israel” and “Change your Middle East policy”.

This is not new. Over half a century ago, in 1958, President Eisenhower described “the campaign of hatred [in the Arab world] against us, not by the governments but by the people”. His own National Security Council concluded that the “majority of Arabs” saw the US as “opposed to realisation of the goals of Arab nationalism” and interested only in protecting “its interest in Near East oil by supporting the status quo and opposing political or economic progress”.

Yet, bizarrely, in more recent years, the Bush administration and its acolytes in the media refused to concede any link at all, not even the slightest, between its policies in the Middle East – often intrusive and militaristic – and the consequent terrorist blowback, preferring instead to push the simplistic, almost childish, formula: “They hate us because we are free.”

What often goes unmentioned is that the Bush administration’s own independent advisers disagreed – and did so publicly. The Defence Science Board is a little-known 40-member federal advisory committee to the Pentagon, staffed by civilian experts from a variety of diplomatic, military, academic and business backgrounds. The board’s voluminous and usually technical reports have a tendency to focus on rather abstruse and recondite issues such as “Achieving Interoperability in a Net-Centric Environment” or “Logistics Transformation Phase II”.

In recent years, however, the one exception to this rule has been the scathing, if not devastating Report of the Defence Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication, produced in 2004, examining the effect of Bush’s various wars on America’s allies and enemies.

Its conclusions are as stark as they are damning: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’ but rather, they hate our policies.”

“The overwhelming majority,” says the report, “voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states”.

How did the Bush administration react to the report? By burying it. Despite being completed on 23 September 2004, the report was quietly shelved by the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, until after the November presidential election that year – thereby denying it the maximum political impact. Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House adviser under President Clinton and consummate Washington insider, pointed out at the time that the report was “silently slipped on to a Pentagon website on Thanksgiving eve, and barely noticed by the US press”.

Frustratingly, in the lone story in the New York Times which covered the report, the author quoted from the paragraph that began: “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’” – but then omitted the crucial following sentence about what Muslims do object to: “. . . one-sided [US] support in favour of Israel and against Palestinian rights” as well as support for Muslim tyrannies. The Times did, however, include the sentence that immediately followed the missing one, suggesting that the author or his editors deliberately removed the crucially revealing yet controversial middle sentence from the paragraph.

It is no wonder that the 22-year CIA veteran and former head of the agency’s Osama Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, believes there has long been a conspiracy of silence among political and media elites in the United States about the real reasons for Muslim hatred of America. In his acclaimed book Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror, published in 2004, Scheuer argued that “while there may be a few Muslim militants out there who would blow up themselves and others because they are offended by McDonald’s restaurants, Iowa’s early presidential primary, and the semi-nude, fully pregnant Demi Moore on Esquire’s cover, they are exactly that: few, and no threat at all to US National Security”.

Rather, he wrote, “the United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific government policies and actions”.

Five years on, Michael Scheuer says that he has no faith in Barack Obama’s ability to turn the tide of hatred, or to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world. Obama has “no intention of leaving Iraq or Afghanistan”, Scheuer told me. “In other words, his foreign policy in the Middle East is the [same as the] Republicans’ but with a softer voice.”

I am not so sure.

Obama may indeed have intensified the US war in Afghanistan and extended it to Pakistan, and he may have remained shamefully silent during the Israeli assault on Gaza in January, when he was president-elect, but in other areas policy seems to be changing – even if only very slowly. The Obama administration has, for example, belatedly demanded that Israel freeze its settlement-building activities in the occupied territories, made diplomatic overtures to Tehran, forbidden torture and pledged to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

There have been small yet not insignificant changes in other areas, too. As a victim of what one liberal commentator once called the “preventive war on innocent tourists” at US airports during the Bush era, and having been detained by Homeland Security for several hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, in 2006 simply for having the terrorist-sounding surname “Hasan”, I can testify to the changed atmosphere in the Obama era. In May this year, on my return to Bush Intercontinental, I was welcomed by a smiling immigration officer who waved me through passport control.

As countless commentators and analysts have noted, Obama is the change that he promised. This applies at home and abroad, and especially vis-à-vis the US and its fraught relations with the Muslim world. The mere presence of Obama in the White House begins to address the “fundamental problem of [US] credibility” highlighted by the Defence Science Board report of 2004. “Simply there is none,” it concluded at the time, adding that “the United States is without a working channel of communication to the world of Muslims and of Islam”.

This is emphatically no longer the case. The fact remains that when America’s new president stood up on 4 June to deliver his speech in Cairo, his sceptical, distrustful and largely disillusioned global Muslim audience was confronted by not a swaggering Texan cowboy with a tendency to talk of war, crusades and Islamic fascists, but a black man, with the middle name “Hussein”, born to a Muslim father and raised in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, by a Muslim stepfather. Obama, in and of himself, embodies America’s “channel of communication” to the Islamic world, and it is his name, his heritage and his appearance that will help him to begin breaking down the barriers between the two cultures.

But it won’t be enough.

Fundamentally, the likes of Michael Scheuer and the Defence Science Board are correct. If Obama cannot pledge and deliver on meaningful and long-lasting changes to radicalising US policy in the region, if he cannot bring himself to confront the Muslim view of America’s actions as it is – and not as he and predecessors assume it to be – if his actions don’t speak louder than his words, then no amount of lofty rhetoric or stentorian intonation in Cairo, or, for that matter, Istanbul, will make even the slightest bit of difference. Nor will his appearance, background or “Islamic” heritage.

On the contrary, as Scheuer put it to me, rather bluntly: “Muslims are not stupid. They will demand that President Obama’s words be matched with deeds – and if he fails to deliver, his looks, name and ethnicity will make the negative Muslim reaction even worse.”

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman’s senior editor (politics)

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile