Robert Fisk has reported on major conflicts in the Middle East from his post in Beirut, Lebanon, for over 30 years as an international war journalist, 25 of which have been as a writer for British newspaper The Independent. He has covered the 1979 Iranian revolution, the first Gulf War, the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003 and the ongoing Syrian conflict — events where international media often only skim the surface.
On Feb. 1, Fisk gave a lecture called “Arab Awakening: but are we hearing the truth?” at a sold-out event at UVic’s Flury Hall in the Wright Centre.
He is one of the few journalists who interviewed Osama bin Laden in person, and did so on three occasions after the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden requested the interviews and even tried to convert him, saying Fisk is a true Muslim.
Fisk is one of the most renowned and celebrated foreign correspondents, earning more journalism awards than any of his colleagues. He has received the British International Journalist of the Year award seven times and the Amnesty International U.K. Press Award twice, and he has authored five books on the Middle East.
Fisk’s Victoria lecture was part of a cross-Canada tour from Jan. 21 to Feb. 2. UVic’s social justice studies program and the Victoria chapter of Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) brought Fisk to town.
Even moving the lecture to a larger venue couldn’t accommodate the number of people hoping to see Fisk speak on the Arab Awakening. People were turned away at the doors and extra chairs were brought in.
At 66 years old, Fisk has lost little of the energy that drives his stripped-down, on-the-ground reporting: he plans to visit Syria and Egypt, among other countries, after lecturing in Canada. He spares no actors blame. He critiques Western leaders, the international community and mass media as much as he does repressive Middle Eastern dictators. Stephen Harper and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were the brunt of Fisk’s biting sense of humour as he criticized the ineffectiveness of international players in the Middle East.
Fisk’s perspective pervades his work down to his use of “Arab Awakening” rather than the popular “Arab Spring” moniker. “Springs turn into bloody summers and infinitely more horrible winters, so don’t use the word ‘spring,’ ” said Fisk.
He dismissed the idea that a spark or singular incident set off the uprisings in Egypt in December 2010, saying that it was a combination of a population that is newly educated and has new understanding of the world outside Egypt through travel and technology.
From countless interviews with Middle Eastern citizens during their respective uprisings, Fisk has found that people there demand dignity and freedom rather than governance by democracy, as the West promotes.
“Democracy, to the protestors, is the West that supported their dictators,” said Fisk, emphasizing the U.S. and the UN supporting leaders like bin Laden and legitimating decades of fraudulent elections across the region.
He was heavily critical of Western media that aim to simplify and generalize the wars in the Middle East and, as a result, have de-contextualized the conflicts.
In a recent article that dismisses the ability to determine an accurate number of casualties in the Syrian conflict, Fisk wrote, “[t]he UN, after all, is not a committee of wise men, but a monumental political beast, not unlike a giant donkey. Give it the carrot of a bigger mass grave and it might plod a little faster.”
However, he clarified he hasn’t lost faith in the UN or other international organizations like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch when UVic student Quinn MacDonald asked Fisk his opinion on the UN member states’ Responsibility to Protect (R2P) human rights initiative during the question period. Fisk said enacting R2P raises questions about who should be protected and how they should be protected that need to be addressed.
Some audience members came away from the talk feeling disappointed by Fisk’s pessimism about the prospects for resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria. Still, after four decades of experiencing relentless uprisings and violence first-hand, Fisk retains hope and encourages people to not only support groups like Amnesty International, but to visit countries in the Middle East themselves and not rely on media that offer a fragmented view of the region.