29 Jun 2010
I was at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina two weeks ago for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Collaborations for A New Beginning conference. The expectation was that some history would unfold over the three days, with a global audience assessing what Obama's historic 'New Beginnings' speech had begotten. In spite of the very inspiring setting of the Bibliotheca and the equally inspiring projects described by the Director of the Bibliotheca, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, I am sorry to report, one year on, that New Beginnings has a translation problem. And if you think I am setting up a plug for Meedan here, you are mistaken. The translation issues were not linguistic, rather, they involved the crossing between actions and perceptions; the disconnect between the words that fell like rain to the desert on Arab ears one year ago and the actions since then which are perceived by the vast majority of those in region as inadequate.
But, contrary to the easy and popular assessment, I do not feel the perception is fueled by bad marketing on the part of the US gov; that the Muslim world is simply not aware of the many efforts which the Obama administration has undertaken. There has in fact been a great deal accomplished. Rashad Hussein offered a compelling list of achievements over the past year: Polio eradication, Science Envoys, Entrepreneur's Summit, Mitchell's efforts on the Peace Process, and Global Pulse, to name a few. Farah Pandith also offered a convincing overview of the administration's commitment to building new relations with Muslims inside America and around the world.
Unfortunately, America has moved from the country that said the wrong things and did the wrong things to being the country that says the right things and does some very good things, but neglects to change the wrong things. As a Greek Tragedy in which fate moves countercurrent to the protagonists' actions and history repeats a generational error, it seems an echo of the 'mission accomplished' banner was unfurled in Alexandria. The conversations I had in the hallways and in the cafes have hit home the only truth the White House needs to know about improving relations with the Muslim world: as long as policy (read Palestine, Iraq, Drones, in that order) remains stagnant, any efforts to improve access to capital, or dialogue, or knowledge that comes from the US government will be viewed in relief as evidence of capacity ill-applied. In this scenario even good works will generate ill-will.
Here is the newmedia flavored analogy: last week I talked to a colleague who was angered over a deliverable he did not receive on time. He received an apology and a lengthy excuse--too much work, no time, he was told. He also received 200 tweets from the overstretched engineer over the course of that week. Good tweets, but...their effect was to infuriate my colleague who otherwise would have excused the delay. OK, so envoys aren't exactly tweets, but you get the point. The most powerful government in the world should be getting the peace process on track and leave the work of re-building citizen to citizen and scholar to scholar bridges to the vast network of NGOs, Universities, and Institutes who have ideas, the people needed to implement them, and who don't have other, more significant, 40 year past-due deliverables.
What many of the conference goers did not know at the time is that Alexandria was in that week holding another, less subtle, tragedy one year from New Beginnings. While some facts remain unknown, a young Alexandrian named Khaled Said was dragged from a popular cafe and beaten to his death by undercover police just before our the gathering began. (Meedan put up a piece on Huffington Post with reactions across the Arab web.) In yet another marker on the time-line of new media fueling history, a single horrifying image of Khaled's broken face circulating the internet and a Facebook group that has grown to 242,000, has touched a nerve in Egyptian society. Khaled has, in the past two weeks, become a symbol across Egypt and the Arab world, with a protest rally in Cairo on June 13, and another led by Mohammad El Baradei, the opposition presidential candidate leading a protest with several thousand people in Alexandria on June 26.
Meedan, as many of you know, tries to walk a middle line; we are trying to be from no country, against no country and working on technologies and platforms to weave together a more linguistically diverse set of thinkers and sources to create richer, more complex narratives in media, inter-faith, and education. We are simply trying to connect people, links, ideas, and data that might not otherwise be connected. But underneath this very even-keeled mission statement we go about our work with a great deal of hope and idealism. And when we see the hope which the world so deserves, hope held equally in a president's speech and a mother's dreams for her child, broken and failing, we have to admit to taking part; we have to (again) unfurl the small banner that reminds us that this is not what success is supposed to look like. Much work remains.