Q&A: Jamal Rayyis

If you’ve been following coverage of the war in Ukraine as it’s unfolded, you’ve likely heard several reporters expressing shock and dismay at “Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours,” and that the violence is happening in “relatively civilized” cities, dehumanizing those in the Middle East and Global South who continue to contend with violence in their countries. 

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That coverage, framing, and language is unacceptable, leading the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) to release a statement on Feb. 27 addressing and condemning racism and orientalism in coverage of Ukraine.

“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America,” the statement reads. “It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected. Newsrooms must not make comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another — civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine.” 

The organization, founded in 2005 and formalized as a nonprofit in 2006, also has previously published a statement urging for the protection of journalists in Afghanistan, along with guides on covering Palestine and Israel and the 20th anniversary of 9/11

The Objective sat down with AMEJA’s vice president and one of its founding board members, Jamal Rayyis, a writer specializing in gastronomy and the social and historical factors that go into gastronomic cultures. He talked about the organization’s growth, the strategic role of making statements and more. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

In your statement addressing coverage of Ukraine, you all mentioned the way people talked about the war in Ukraine as “civilized” when compared to other wars and conflicts in other places in the world, specifically the Middle East or the Global South. I appreciated the statement because I felt it also addressed the double standard for reporters from communities in the Middle East and other places when it comes to deciding who gets to cover a situation.

What is AMEJA’s thought process when writing statements?

Yeah, I mean, that’s fundamental. I don’t like comparisons and competitive suffering, comparative victimization, but we are also aware there are communities or their interests who really don’t want us to exist. I mean, maybe not literally to kill us [or for us] to die, but they want our perspectives to be gone. Obviously we’re a very broad community, so someone who’s potentially coming from Saudi Arabia might have a different perspective from somebody who comes from Gaza or from Iran, who has suffered from the corruption and the violence of the Iranian regime, might not be so thrilled about, say, a Palestinian organization that expresses solidarity with Iran in some sort of way. Because Iran is in conflict with Israel, right, so it gets very complicated. 

We’ve had people who really try to undermine us, and the way we approach it is to be very clear about our path of trying to be inclusive. To try to take people and organizations to task when they are not reporting back or applying their blinders, when reporting in ways that are prejudicial to certain communities, but not necessarily stepping into conflicts. 

I’ll give you an example: Some of our members were arrested in Iran and some media organizations were very explicit in their denunciation. But in our calls for release, we had to be more careful. Because, one, we do have members working in these countries, we don’t want one of our statements to be used against them to say, “Oh, you’re a member of AMEJA, therefore … we can make you a target.” That’s the other thing. Sometimes statements work to the contrary of the effort that we want. There was an Iranian journalist who was arrested over a decade ago … and we were asked specifically by the family and people who were negotiating on her behalf, “Don’t make a statement, it’s going to get in the way.” So we deferred from doing that because we said, “Okay, our responsibility is to try to facilitate a good end to this.” 

It’s a matter of being very cautious. You know, there’s injustice, unfair coverage all over the world. A lot of issues, sometimes we’re itching to say something, but we have to ask “What is the impact? Who might be affected by this?” In the case of Ukraine, it was just so blatant. If you read the statement, it was very measured, it was very to-the-point. 

Backing up: Tell me a little bit about how AMEJA got started. How has it been watching the organization grow and expand?

One of the impetus for AMEJA was that a lot of us who were of Middle Eastern or Arab, or SWANA, Southwest Asia and North African heritage — which includes multiple peoples with different ethnicities and different religious identifications — who felt that views that were important to us regarding our communities were not being well-represented in the media. 

A few of us had, at times, done some media advocacy work with some other organizations, more on a civil rights-oriented side. We also felt that was “talking from the outside,” and it was really important for us to be able to speak from the inside. And to help raise our numbers represented in the media, being the people who are the creators of media, the creators and framers of the message. 

When I first started in the world of journalism, I was working at the New York Times in the early ‘90s. I was in graduate school … and there were some important things that happened, like the Oslo Accords, which were a supposed peace treaty, or agreement, between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And really, the explanations were coming very much from an Israeli point of view, or sort of … an establishment Jewish American position, in which the default was toward being supportive of Israel, almost to the point of uncritical support.

The New York Times wrote three pieces in three subsequent days, I believe, about Jewish American reactions to the Oslo Accords. A couple of us in the newsroom, one of us who was not of Middle Eastern heritage — I think I was probably the only person of Arab heritage working in the newsroom at the time — we were like news assistants and clerks. The other person was of Jewish American parentage. And we asked the editors, “So this is all good and well, but what about asking Arab Americans what they think about this?” You could see them go, “Oh, that’s a good idea, we should do that.” 

It seems kind of incredible that it didn’t occur to them. And I think that as a matter of fact, we were really invisible, that the idea there were Arab American perspectives that might be worth considering was kind of beyond them. It showed the importance of having voices from our community present within newsrooms.

Anyway, move forward 10 years or so: The landscape had changed quite a bit, and increasingly … but we didn’t have a community. Oftentimes, it would be one or two people in any given media organization and they felt sort of isolated, so we thought we would come together and provide a mutual support group, and also help each other with career development. Those of us who had recently had some more experience in our careers would help direct younger journalists and also just let each other know about job opportunities, about mentorship possibilities, and all the rest. 

We were very active at the beginning, we were full of enthusiasm, the board members were mostly New York-based at the time … I think we recruited an initial cadre of about 10 or 12 people who wanted to do this. We started off as being an Arab-based organization, although we were very open to everyone else. And then the Iranian Journalists Association came to us and said, “We’d like to participate as well.” We merged with them, they merged with us and we grew our numbers. 

Early on, we had lots of events, a lot of mixers, a lot of people getting to know each other, but also lectures, and we’d issue certain statements on certain matters to try to get our voice out through our website, mostly, and just through word-of-mouth. Social media really didn’t exist so much back then, so getting the word out was not so easy. Within the first year or so, we probably had recruited about 100 or so members. People had to apply for membership, there were criteria, we would vet people, but we never charged a membership fee. (Soon to change, by the way.) That made joining the organization fairly easy.

But then the organization kind of went — it still remained, it still existed — but it went relatively dormant. Part of that was just the difficulty of recruiting people to do the work. Our board members who were very enthusiastic, overwhelmingly, we were single, and time changed that. So people started families, and of course, they were advancing their careers. They had other responsibilities and all the rest, so there wasn’t really the energy to continue in a really active way. We still did a few things here and there … and it’s interesting that other core board members, they remained on. People didn’t tend to leave. We thought … we all believe this is a very important mission.

I should step back slightly. Our decision about the issue of representation in the newsroom and how news is framed, it’s not surprising, but sometimes you really see the direct effects. So one of our board members was working for the New York Daily News, he was on the police beat, a man of Egyptian heritage who grew up in Queens but spoke good Arabic and all the rest — a man with vision and purpose and some courage. During the Israeli attack, invasion of Lebanon in 2006, news coverage of this was universally — well, near-universally biased to a pro-Israel position. A lot of it was that people were basically just relying on statements from Israeli military commanders or State Department briefings or people based in Jerusalem or just relying on Israeli sources.

This member asked his editor, he said, “I’d like to go to Lebanon to cover this. I have the skills and I have the language.” They said, “Okay, go.” And really, from the moment he arrived, the tone of the coverage changed 180 degrees. It wasn’t that he was beating a drum for a particular position or anything, but the difference was that he could travel to the communities that were being attacked, being traumatized, and being impacted. He could talk to the people, he could witness with his own eyes what was going on, he could report distinctly the situation on the ground from a very, very direct level, from an Arab perspective, somebody who actually could speak to people and not rely on some interpreter … That was really an incredible demonstration of the power of what we want to do.

I should also say that we are a community that doesn’t just focus on issues around the Middle East or North Africa. I write about gastronomy, we have people who write about business, people who cover local issues in their communities, people who give the weather reports. Of course, when it comes to weather, ethnicity hopefully doesn’t have a great impact on what you’re reporting. On the other hand, if you are a news editor and decide which communities who’ve been impacted by flooding or storms should be paid attention to, then of course, it does make a difference.

Fast forward about three and a half years ago — our founding board member, who stuck with it until the end, he passed away. And I think in a moment of his honor, it sort of set a spark that we needed to get this back together and push. We realized that the numbers of people of SWANA heritage in media organizations had really grown, and a lot of younger journalists … they were really interested in this. Social media made things much easier, to connect to people, and so created a certain possibility of really re-energizing the organization. Since then, it’s been pretty great. We’ve recruited several new board members and our membership has grown to over 500. Obviously, we’re getting the attention of people who are not just in our community right now, which this conversation indicates, so that’s pretty gratifying. And we’ve also been able to put out some important statements, the statement on the Ukraine coverage was something that got a great deal of attention. There are also other things we’ve done in the last few years. Last year, we put out a guide to coverage on Palestine. We also collaborated with other organizations for how to cover the anniversary of 9/11. We’ve made statements about the situation in Afghanistan. 

One thing should be clear about the organization — we are a professional organization, we aren’t an advocacy group to push one particular position over another. However, we do feel it’s important to hold people to account when their prejudices are getting in the way of the larger story or when they express off-handed, demeaning comments about people from our community. 

In your mission, you mention connecting journalists to sources based in the Middle East. Has that always been part of the mission, or was it something you started when you all re-energized the organization?

We’ve always done that. We don’t have much money, so our ability to network with certain people and to cultivate certain relationships is limited a little bit for and by that. But of course, we have personal connections, and we know reputations of people, and certainly social media has made it much easier. But that’s always been part of the mission.

What are you hoping people will take away from reading the statement on Ukraine coverage and engaging in that conversation?

Well, there’s an immediate hope and there’s a longer-term hope.

The immediate hope is that we just want reporters and commentators to be aware of what they’re saying and how they’re framing things. I don’t believe that some of the people cited in the statement are necessarily ill-willed. I don’t believe that they have any sort of vicious prejudice against Middle Eastern people, or people in Africa. But it’s that subconscious idea that they’re expressing, that somehow, “Oh, these people look like us. Oh my God, how can this be happening?” Just to have them stop [that].

It’s different from censoring, from self-censorship. Unless they’re self-censoring, you know, cultivated racist beliefs. It’s just stopping the unconscious bias. You know, they’re trying to be well-meaning in what they’re saying, but while they’re well-meaning, they do a back-slap to all the other victims of violence. So to get people to just put on the brakes and not do that anymore. I think that’s fairly easy to do on individual pieces. That is to say, for example, if you’re an editor who’s on deadline letting things go because of time pressure, you can say, “Oh, no, wait a second. Wait, we have to be careful.”

The larger hope would be that there would be training. Sensitivity trainings, I think they’re problematic for lots of reasons, and we know there’s a whole industry that’s been developed for these sorts of things. While I think the idea is a good one, of course, the reality is things become distorted and twisted and people have their own agendas. But it isn’t a matter of that, it would be a matter to perhaps address certain issues, maybe within internal training sessions. AMEJA, this is something that’s not on our agenda to do. I mean, it could if we have got the capacity to do it. Sure, why not. Just to kind of explain how conflicts develop over time.

Too much coverage in the world is ahistorical. People report on Afghanistan, as if all the problems in Afghanistan just happened in the last couple years, with the U.S. deciding to withdraw. They don’t look back at the support given to the Afghan king, or the reactionary elements of Afghan society in the ‘70s. And the overthrow of the establishment of a kind of socialist-type regime … and the United States very consciously supporting ascertain groups against the Soviets not for the purpose of actually making life in Afghanistan better, but for the reason of … stopping an unwinnable war until they [the Soviets] broke. They forget all that. So to be able to give people some sort of perspective about how these things develop, that it doesn’t all of a sudden appear from out of nowhere, that there’s something about hearing about people’s culture that drives them to do certain things. 

The other thing, core to AMEJA’s mission, is to just get people in place who won’t just carry the prejudices, the biases that lead to that kind of framing. Get people who come from more of our backgrounds — our backgrounds are complicated, too. I mean, there are plenty of reactionaries within our communities as well … It’s not sufficient to put someone with a certain background in, but it can be helpful.

This piece was edited by Holly Rosewood.

Clarification and correction (March 15): A previous version of this story said Rayyis was the only Arab working in news during his tenure at The New York Times. He was the only Arab working specifically in The Times’ newsroom. A statement that read “I mean, to kill us, to die” has been clarified to read “I mean, maybe not to kill us [or for us] to die.”

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