Lecture by Mohamed H. Heikal at St Anne’s College

Oxford University on October 29, 2007

This was the inaugural Reuters lecture and was chaired by Lord Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University. It was interesting to hear one Egypt’s most distinguished journalists and the summing up by Lord Patten was a masterly exercise.

It is both an honour, and a pleasure, to have been asked to deliver the first memorial lecture of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, not least because the institute is itself the child of a concurrence between Reuters and Oxford.

The collaboration between an institution as venerable as the University of Oxford, and a news agency as celebrated as Reuters, cannot be chalked up to coincidence. It represents a convergence of interests that – certainly from my standpoint – is as significant as it is right.

For I believe journalism, however diverse its media and mechanisms, continues to have three basic approaches by which it can strive to fulfil its most vital functions in free and advancing societies.
Ä The first of these approaches is to keep all written, audio and visual channels open for the transmission of political decision-making across the policy spectrum – domestic and foreign, social and economic, military and strategic – acting as a bridge between decision-making centres and the wider public.

In so doing the press affirms the public’s right to information and reinforces the public’s ability to appraise the rationale and purposes of policy decisions, assessing whether they conform to the public and what their costs and impacts are likely to be.

Keeping channels of communication open safeguards the right of citizens to oversee policy-making, furnishing a means to judge the constitutionality and legality of the actions of governments and other public actors and, if necessary, redirect policy.

Ä The second approach is to keep channels of communications open between vital centres of thought – from universities and research centres to theatres, galleries and other venues of creative expression – and the wider public.

Ä The third approach is for the media to stimulate, and act as a conduit for dialogue, between the general sphere of political decision-making and current affairs and those centres of intellectual and cultural activity capable of inspiring and refining a greater understanding of the issues involved. In facilitating such an open dialogue the press helps to reaffirm both human aspirations and values.

Within such an overall perspective, the collaboration between Oxford and Reuters is not only desirable, but timely.


The three approaches by which journalism might fulfil its basic mission are, of course, far less simple to accomplish than to state.

Decision-making centres do not act in some hypothetical ideal space but in one constrained by major conflicts; they must negotiate diverse and often conflicting interests, many of which might be deeply rooted in history, unrestrained in their aims, and violent in their exercise.

Political decisions, in short, are conditioned by factors that are far from ideal.

Neither do the sciences and arts formulate or project themselves in an ideal space. They, too, are subject to pressure – often of a type that finds it convenient to conceal in order to monopolise, to withhold in order to augment their stock.

We may aspire towards a model in which ideas and information are transmitted without inhibition or distortion but it would be wilful to confuse aspirations with reality.

The channels of communication available in the various media are not as open, nor are they as clear, as we would like. News, ideas, voices, dialogue – are not transmitted unadulterated. Rather, the channels on which we rely are replete with obstacles. Between the source and recipient news and information are subject to forms of intervention and bias determined by the nature of events they seek to report and by outside pressures, by the different agendas of interest groups, and often by the moods and whims of fashion.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We hear a great deal of talk about one world. Geographically, of course, we all inhabit the same globe. Yet the notion that our world comprises communities that overlap seamlessly is at best wishful thinking. The globe is fractured, and among its many divisions the most alarming is the one that separates North from South.

There is no point in being delicate about this and varnishing the truth, however much we might like to focus our attention on the globalised elites of the South and ignore the vast swathes of population that stand behind, and apart from these elites.

There are two worlds, North and South, and the gap between them is wide.
And the wider the gap becomes the greater the dangers it poses as facts fail to make the leap across the growing chasm and obsessions weave their way into our understanding of the complex realities we face. Obsession is no basis for policy; is, indeed, its nemesis.

When channels of transmission become blocked, when the free flow of information reaches gridlock and the gap between the North and South gapes wider is the moment the written message becomes a landmine, the picture becomes a bomb.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Honoured to accept your invitation, I feel the responsibility to be frank and open. I trust that you will accept this and, if necessary, forgive me.
I am, after all, from the South, and the concerns of the South are part and parcel of my life.

But I also feel I can address the North, not least because in the course of my life I have been afforded the opportunity to pursue my journalistic career in both our worlds. I have written about the Arab world in the Arab world, in newspapers, books and on television.

I have also pursued my profession in the North, beginning, I would point out, in the United Kingdom, where newspapers and periodicals, including The Guardian, The Independent and The Observer, have published my articles and interviews, and where many of my books have been published as well as serialised in papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, the Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have said that as an inhabitant of the South I am aware of its troubles and concerns, and as a frequent visitor to the North believe, or like to imagine, that I have at least some insight into what makes it tick. I have also said that the distance between the two worlds is growing.

From the vantage of my position at the brink of these two worlds there appears an urgent need to find ways of bridging the widening gap.
For if we do not start building these bridges soon there is every possibility our two worlds will collide, setting off a series of explosions that could prove cataclysmic.

The spectre of such a cataclysm is very real and the chances of it occurring will only increase unless we put our heads together and work hard to ward it off. In order to do so we must first be frank with one another, regardless of how uncomfortable such candour might make us feel.

I will begin with a generalisation. In the South it is increasingly felt that decisions taken in the North are done not only with a callous disregard of how they will impact on our lives but seem at times to relish the violence they unleash with such shattering effect. Against this backdrop the South has come to feel that calls for dialogue are at heart hollow and that the North is barely interested, if at all, in our participation.

There is also a growing perception in the South that the realm of ideas, the world of the sciences and the arts, is not as open or as welcoming as we once thought. Invitations to dialogue, if they are extended at all, are too often tainted with bias if not outright hostility.

I would like to offer three observations for your consideration, points that are not intended as an airing of grievances and that I trust will not be written-off as the obsessions of a Southerner. If they seem to stray from the subject I beg your indulgence, since to me they seem to lie at the centre of the problems we face.

Ä My first observation is that there is no such thing as a clash of civilisations, and furthermore, that it is pointless to seek ways in which supposedly divergent civilisations can seek to reconcile themselves.
History offers ample testimony to the existence of a single human civilisation to which all cultures have added during times of their own fecundity and from which all cultures have drawn in times of drought.

Each corner of the globe has, at some time or another, contributed to filling this vast reservoir, generating over time a natural partnership and a collective storehouse that should be available to every society that has the desire, and ability, to tap it.

Peoples and nations have poured their cultural acquisitions, accumulated through interaction with the environment, through the pursuit of knowledge and the benefit of experience, into this common reservoir. This flow has been rich, continuous, and as generous as it is spontaneous.

This process was set in motion at the dawn of mankind, lent impetus by the development discovery of agriculture and the emergence of alphabetics and numbers, and invention of tools, branched out as trade and crafts became more sophisticated, as the arts of architecture were refined and roads built, seafaring vessels constructed, the position of the stars charted.

These activities, and a great many more, led to a rising cultural tide that overflowed into adjacent areas. Streams and rivers merged and broadened, feeding these rich waters as they poured into civilisational basins some of which – the most obvious example being the Mediterranean basin – seem almost to have been created by design.

Nor did the process stop there. In different regions of the world these basins also overflowed their shores, merging into a vast civilisational ocean, one that remains capable of spreading, and still able to transcend considerations of time and space.

Think merely of the Mediterranean basin, and survey the course of cultural development around its shores, the flow of civilisation from source to sea and from sea into the vaster ocean: even the most cursory glance is enough to allow the spectator to sense – and sense in a tangible way – the development of cultures, the way they ebb and flow, fill a common storehouse and then draw on its contents.

It is almost possible to trace with a finger the line that connects the temples of Babylon and Memphis to the arcades and pillars of Athens, and from there to the ancient Library of Alexandria, to Dar Al-Hikma – the House of Wisdom – in Baghdad, to Damascus and Cordoba and Sicily and Italy, northwards to Germany, France and Britain, and then across the Atlantic to America where, on the other side of the Pacific, the constantly rejuvenating and dynamically expanding cultural overflow from the Mediterranean basin converges with another deep and vital sea, the Hindu and Chinese civilisational basin.

In the course of this summer I had occasion to look upon the Library of Alexandria and climbed the Acropolis, walked through St. Peter’s in Rome and traversed the bridges of Venice around the Piazza San Marco. As I surveyed these wonders I could not help but recall a remark by Stefano Carboni, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The waters of the Mediterranean basin, he said, are liquid frontiers.

How accurately this quote describes the overflow of cultures from source to civilisational basin to a vast ocean.

Of course the growth of this ocean has been divided into phases, and it is convenient to refer to the Pharaonic, Hellenic and Roman, to the Byzantine and Islamic, the European and the American eras.

A similar reduction occurs in terms of language, as epochs are described in terms of the dominant tongue – Greek at one point, Latin at another, Arabic at yet another, English now.

But historical eras come and go. And it would fly in the face of history to suppose that the dominance of any political power lasts forever. Our shared cultural storehouse, that reservoir of civilisation, outlasts the ephemera of empire, resists the passing dominance of any one language.

My second observation concerns a highly significant development we have witnessed in recent years. This lies in the cynical exploitation of a human tragedy, the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001.
It has been exploited in a way that resembles, if anything, the sleight of hand of a stage magician, turning catastrophe into a protracted optical illusion, a series of special effects. Suddenly the world woke to a new image of the Muslim, Arab and non-Arab alike. They were now lumped together as fanatical terrorists.

In perpetuating this insidious image the entire story of terrorism has been rewritten. In this revamped version the North is depicted as innocent, the Far East as too far away to be involved: Islam, alone, became synonymous with suicide bombing and murder in the minds of the general public in the North.

Last year Pope Benedict XVI stood before a German university to offer his reflections on Islam and civilisation. A learned and respected figure, the Pope nevertheless delivered a message that the North is “civilised” while the – mainly Islamic – South is essentially barbaric, the inference being that the West has been able to extract from Christianity and Greek philosophy a humanitarian ethic which others are somehow congenitally unable to comprehend.

Many at the time cringed. Certainly one might have hoped that the occupant of the throne of St. Peter would recall that Christianity was born in the East. Jesus himself was born in Nazareth and Peter, upon whose remains the Vatican is built, was from Jerusalem. St. Mark, whose splendid church stands in one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, was a native of Upper Egypt. He was buried in Alexandria and his remains were smuggled to Venice in the 9th century.

Christianity germinated on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean before overflowing its oriental banks and spreading to the occident. Not that these eastern origins prevented Renaissance artists from portraying apostles and saints with white skin, blue eyes and blond hair.

As for the influence of Greek philosophy on Western civilisation, few can be unaware of the eastern Mediterranean context – from Athens to Alexandria
– in which such thought floursihed, or of how the legacy of Classical thought was preserved, developed and elaborated so that it might eventually be assimilated by Europe via the great Arab Muslim philosophers of Andalusia, foremost among whom was Mohammed Bin Ahmed Bin Rushd Al-Andalusi.

But Ibn Rushd – or Averroes as he was known in Europe – along with the other illustrious Muslim philosopher-scholars of the time, was not just an intermediary; he interpreted Greek thought, expounded upon it and augmented it with wisdom of his own.

The frontiers of the Mediterranean are fluid indeed.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I hope to have couched my third observation delicately: I have spoken at length about history though my subject is journalism. The point I wish to make is that the two are hopelessly intertwined, and one result of this intrinsic connection is that the Muslim East is currently being penalised on two fronts.

It is paying, firstly, for the progress set in motion by the revolution in science and technology. It has had no time to catch its breath, let alone keep pace. While the Buddhist south has largely succeeded in grabbing the moment the Islamic South, for reasons that are both numerous and complex, has not.

But the Muslim East is also penalised by the fact that the spotlight – and the thousands upon thousands of cameras that follow in the wake of the spotlight – are trained on it at a critical stage in its attempts to make the transition from the old to the new, as it struggles from a position lagging behind.

It is useful to remember that the birth of modern Europe, which lasted for nearly four centuries, took place behind closed curtains whereas the labour pains of the South are taking place in a theatre that is surgically lit.

Europe’s birth pangs must perforce remain muffled, heard only at a distance, sanitised on the pages of written history. The agonies of labour in the Arab Muslim South are broadcast to the world live, moment-by-moment, in lurid colour and gory detail.

As such, a process that history might eventually have recorded as a one of natural birth became an international scandal.

Some of my colleagues in the North may ask but what can we do about that, it is how things are in today’s world. And in a sense they are right. The media in the West cannot be expected to memorize history every time it covers an event in the South. But there is something it can do. It can appeal to the moral equivalent of historical recapitulation and borrow some elements from the culture of open-mindedness, sympathy and objectivity.

Is it too farfetched to ask what would have happened had such media giants as ABC, CBS, NBC, SKY, FOX, CNN and Al Jazeera been around to record Europe’s feudal conflicts and its religious, national and class wars?

Imagine if hordes of reporters and cameras had been on hand at the St.
Bartholomew massacre, when hundreds of thousands of French Huguenots were slaughtered by their Catholic compatriots, their hatred fomented by their cardinals and rulers.

Or if reporters and cameras had flocked to La Place de la Concorde to film the succession of royalty, politicians and intellectuals paraded to the guillotines from morning till night.

Or if some intrepid investigative journalist had managed to sneak into the Tower of London and revealed the nightmare existence of the Tower’s assorted prisoners.

Imagine the consequences of twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week coverage of the horrors of the American civil war, in which brother turned against brother, fields were razed, homes and villages burned to the ground, and hundreds of thousands were killed.

What would have been the effect had the media had the ability to broadcast live over television and satellite networks scenes from some of the darkest episodes in human history, chapters that remain within living memory, and which were written and produced entirely by the North? I refer here to such twentieth century blights as anti-Semitism, Stalinism, Imperialism, Fascism, Nazism and the Holocaust, with its millions of victims – both Jews and non-Jews.

To home in on just one country during that blackest of centuries: what would the effect have been had the events of the Spanish civil war been aired live in twenty four hour broadcasts, had people around the world been given an opportunity to witness the horrors occurring in Guernica, Valencia and Toledo as they happened instead of having to rely on mediations by writers such as Ernest Hemmingway, Andre Malraux and Hugh Thomas?

The modern media had just been born when World War I ground to a close. It was in its infancy as World War II ran its bloody course. Both these wars were conflicts between Northern powers, though the combatants extended the theatre of conflict across continents, sucking all nations into the carnage and leaving between 60 and 70 million dead.

World War II crashed to a close with the first use of nuclear weapons. It wasn’t covered live. The echoes of the tragedy, though, resounded everywhere and the entire world, North and South, said never again. Yet half a century on and US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were using weaponry containing depleted uranium.

Arrogant, contemptuous, insanely reckless are words that spring to mind when I think about it.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I may have dwelt at length on experiences that are painful but my purpose has been to draw as stark a picture as possible. Nor would it be fair to ignore the other side of the picture, for there are always two sides. The world owes journalism, as it has developed in the North, a sizeable debt.

Thanks largely to the vigilance and good faith of many of its practitioners, and despite the density of vested interests, the seeming impenetrability of decision making centres and the obstacles placed in the pathway of the free flow of information and ideas, journalism has continued to shine a light on areas that are profoundly important to the world’s future security.

For example, and in the face of the best efforts of the Israel and its influential friends, people in the North have learned some of the truth regarding events in Palestine and the cause of a people uprooted from their land and corralled into desolate camps and ghettos.

And in spite of the influence of the neoconservatives, and what we might call neo-Orientalists, the truth about Iraq has been revealed, beginning from the unprovoked invasion of an Arab country on the bases of false pretexts, proceeding through its destruction through an arrogant display of might and appalling display of ignorance, resulting, up till now, in the death of half a million Iraqi civilians and three million displaced persons and refugees.

It is thanks to the vigilance of journalists in the North that we learned about the sadistic practices conducted in a whole string of fortresses, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, from Fallujah and Basra to Somalia.

The media in the North has been able to penetrate the world’s most powerful decision-making centre and expose many of the architects and academic apologists of a global political project that has drawn everything from the folly of empire and learned nothing from its history. As imperial projects go it will prove the most short-lived precisely because it is the most short-sighted.

And the media in the North has acted as a beacon on another, perhaps more important, level: at its most honourable it has replenished the civilisational store-house on which the South might draw.

The North may have started ahead of the South, developing a media that, with the aid of technology, has become one of the great driving forces of our age, but in its best practice, and in the courage shown by its most redoubtable exponents it provides an inspiration to its Southern practitioners.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is in the nature of things, however, that just as new stages of human progress may open up new horizons, they could also place strict limitations on how much people can borrow or emulate from the experience of others.

Indeed, there are certain areas of human experience that seem impossible to merely replicate. In one way or another, they must be lived, their cost in blood and tears has to be paid, even if it appears that the wheel is being reinvented.

The most important of these areas pertains to freedom, not in any Romantic sense but in the down to earth sense of striving towards a constitutional system and a social contract that imposes the rule of law on all and that respects the rights of others to create a space in which they can exercise their civic responsibilities unhampered.

And the struggle for freedom is precisely one human experience that cannot be replicated by borrowing or through the mere transmission of values and norms across cultural and geographical boundaries. Freedom needs to be made, manufactured from start to finish, and once attained has to be jealously safeguarded by those who seek it. Stages of human development show a great deal of variance and different situation require different approaches.

During the 20th century in particular, the North was able finally to consolidate its own rules and norms of democratic government. This is yet to take place in our part of the world, where rules and norms remain frail and the struggle over enlightenment, freedom and progress rages fiercely, under the most difficult conditions.

” Take, for instance, the fact that in our part of the world this
struggle condenses into a single historical moment a great number of battles that the North fought more or less consecutively, and as such, were classified into distinct ages: enlightenment and freedom – industrialization – social reform – communications and transport – the internet and the digital age.

” Such intertwining of what for the North had been distinct stages of
development was bound to create intense pressures and stresses on national, religious, sectarian and ideological grounds.

These in turn resulted in the confusion of priorities and, on occasion, to recourse to means so immoderate and unrestrained as to lose sight of original aims, and become lost in a wilderness of abandon.

” Take also the pressures associated with a process of birth that is
taking place live, under the glare of the mid-morning sun. The actors in such a dramatic birth were bound to suffer from the symptoms of exposure, including disorientation, exhibitionism and dissimulation.

” Such obdurate conditions include as well the fact that our regimes
have failed to base their legitimacy upon the constit ution or the law, opting instead to resort to coercion and repression. The rudiments of political and social rationalism thus went out the window and crisis management became impossible. All of which distorted further the developmental scene in our part of the world.

” And though I am loath to allocate responsibility to parties other
than those directly concerned, it must be stated nevertheless, bluntly and unabashedly, that the foreign element plays an extremely negative role in our part of the South – specifically in the Middle East.

For there lie, at the heart of this region, three sources of threat to which I might refer in passing, to avoid reiterating what has become a cliché, albeit true. These are, consecutively: the strategic position – the crucial importance of oil, and – the illusion of Israel’s security.

” Thus, internal elements – expressed first and foremost in the
collapse of legitimacy of the contemporary Arab state, and the growing pressures of development, interacted with these external threats to create great breaches which in turn attracted foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the region.

Regretfully, such intervention did not always take the from of unwelcome guests, but was often invited and exploited, for the sake of domestic political manoeuvres and perceived or imagined internal political balances.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Although some of my observations may appear pointed the last thing I intended was to come here and seek to apportion blame.

And if, in other of my observations, I have expressed appreciation for some of your journalistic practices, I do so not to flatter or congratulate.

In touching on some aspects of the situation in the South my aim is not to complain, and even less to incite.

I want only to share a particular vision of the human civilisation that nourishes us both, though our perspectives over that vast ocean, mine from the South, yours from the Northern shore, may seem to differ.

I come as the representative of an institution that by pure coincidence bears my name, an institution whose primary concern is to help meet the aspirations and needs of young Arab journalists.

And I do so in the hope that together we might share in constructing a bridge between different shores of our single human civilisation. The cultural production of all nations has flowed into this vast basin, making at once our shared heritage, and to which access is our common right.

Thank you.

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