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Near Eastern Center Provides Diversity Training for MTV Staff
Left: Munir Shaikh, MTV's Tabithah Totah, and Fariba Taghari. Right: David Hirsh playing music from ArabRap.net

Near Eastern Center Provides Diversity Training for MTV Staff

Discussion of Islam, terrorism, and the Palestinian problem highlight visit to UCLA. Session ends on light note with a look at Arabic music sites.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

In response to a request from cable television and internet music giant MTV, UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies organized an afternoon of diversity training to promote understanding of contemporary Islam for eleven members of MTV's international sales staff December 9. MTV is a subsidiary of Viacom, the owner of CBS Television Network. MTV Networks itself owns and operates 21 cable television channels including Music Television, which reaches some 377 million households worldwide in 166 countries, and Nickelodeon. MTV also operates an extensive internet music network at www.mtv.com.


The visitors to UCLA came from MTV's division of Affiliate Sales and Marketing. The group was led by MTV staffer Tabithah Totah. The Near Eastern Center arranged for a lengthy session with a panel of three doctoral students who are specializing in the Middle East and Islam. The three were Fariba Taghari and Munir Shaikh in Islamic Studies, and Nezar Andary from Comparative Literature.

"What Provoked September 11?"

One of the MTV staffers raised a question that kept coming up over and over throughout the afternoon: "What provoked September 11? Why is there an anti-American escalation now?"

Fariba Taghari suggested that anti-Americanism in the Islamic world varies with the experience people have with their own governments. "It is presented in the American press that Muslims are innately anti-West," she said. "In Iran official government policy has been anti-American for twenty years. But it was in Iran that we saw the only people in the Middle East who had candle-light vigils for the victims of September 11. In other parts of the Middle East there was rejoicing. In some parts of the Middle East the United States is held responsible for poverty and for repressive government, but not in Iran."

An MTV staffer asked how true it is that the United States supports dictators. Nezar Andary replied that he believed it was widely true, not only in the Middle East but also in Latin America. He pointed out that Al Qaeda had been initially financed and built up by the United States as a weapon against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. "U.S. foreign policy gave these groups strength."

Andary said he felt that the two big issues that have enraged Muslims have been "the Palestinians, who have been oppressed for a long time" and American support to the repressive Saudi Arabian government.

Taghari said that if there was to be a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict it was necessary to pay more attention to the differences within the Palestinian movement and not see it as of a single piece. "Palestinians are a national liberation movement containing groupings that demand different settlement boundaries. Some propose 1967, some other dates, and some, mainly Hamas, 1948 [i.e., complete eradication of the state of Israel]. I don't think that destruction of the state of Israel is reasonable. The core of the issue is that the [Jewish] settlers [outside the borders of 1967 Israel] are the problem of Israel; Hamas is the problem of the Palestinians." She added that she found "religious intolerance on both sides depressing."

Munir Shaikh said he regarded Al Qaeda as a different kind of movement entirely than the Palestinian movement, despite Osama Bin Laden's public support for the Palestinian cause. "Al Qaeda is a terrorist messianic organization. Bin Laden is using the Palestinian cause to further his messianic aims. There is no proof of an Al Qaeda connection to either the Palestinians or to Iraq. Iraq is run by the Baath Socialist Party; it is a secular state, not an Islamic one."

The panelists concluded by asking for respect and tolerance for all religions, and saying they were alarmed at denunciations of Islam as evil and inherently violent coming from sections of the Christian right, particularly from Pat Robertson.

Some Rollicking Arab Music in the Library

Following the panel discussion the MTV staffers met with David Hirsch, Middle Eastern Librarian at the Young Research Library. Hirsch gave a presentation on Middle Eastern music, film, and television websites, playing samples of Arabic music from several Middle Eastern countries and a number of well-known performers such as Abdel Halim Hafiz, Um Kulthoom, and Amr Diab. With obvious relish he called up a number of singers and groups from sites such as www.cairovoice.com, www.umkulthoom.com, and www.4catsonline.com. He translated the lyrics of a children's song in Arabic for the MTV group, played some traditional Arab pop and some contemporary rock. "Some of these sites are really cutting edge high tech," he said while demonstrating some fancy Flash animations at www.cairovoice.com. Then he asked ebulliently, "How about some Arab rap?" With that he logged in to www.arabrap.net.

The training session closed with the showing of a film vignette of a young woman in traditional headgear and dress singing the "Star Spangled Banner," a mix of cultural symbols that could not help but expand conventional images of what is an American.

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