By Campaign Agent Luke Walpole
In over a decade of tumult in the Middle East, Jeremy Bowen has been a constant. Since becoming the BBC’s Middle East News Editor in 2005, he has witnessed the region wrangle with religious warfare, internecine strife and the fledgling footsteps of democracy. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t short of a story or two. Perfect, then, is his 25-part Radio series ‘Our Man in The Middle East’, created for BBC Radio 4.
Available in short, sharp podcast format, the series uses the BBC’s Middle East News Editor’s 25+ years of experience as a launch pad from which to discuss the contours of social change in the area. Bowen’s accounts range from human interest stories through to major events, and even include the details of the day which he has since referred to as “the worst” in his life.
Arresting, gripping, and often poignant, the series makes the Middle East accessible in ways that few have been able to accomplish. Talk Politics spoke to Bowen about the state of the Middle East currently, how the region has changed, and the lessons he has learned along the way.
TP – Firstly, congratulations on the podcast! It really has been incredibly engaging. I was just wondering, why now? What has caused you to take stock after 25 years?
JB – Well, you know, it’s a rather arbitrary number; it wasn’t like ‘I’ve come to 25 years working in the region, therefore I should look back on it.’ I didn’t really realise it was that length of time until we were trying to find a structure. Radio 4 asked me if I wanted to do a history series, and I gave them a couple of suggestions. My favourite was the one we seized on in the end. Something where each episode kicks off with a story about people, or a personal story, and then broadens out into the wider, bigger issues.
The idea was that it would be a way of telling people things that they probably wanted to know but were too scared to ask, perhaps. All the questions about the Middle East that you wanted to ask, but were too afraid to… It’s my belief now that people are well aware of the proximity of the region - of the way that the issues and dangers and troubles of the place affect the way people live their lives in Europe - and would like to know more about it. Viewed from the outside, it’s all a bit confusing. It’s very complicated and it has been intimidating. So, I wanted to do a non-scary series of broadcasts which people might, if they stuck with them, emerge at the other end and think ‘Oh really, so this is how it works. That goes here and that goes there, and I see where the dots join now, and I’ve got an idea.’
TP – Having had that time to reflect on a personal level, were you surprised by just how much you’d seen and experienced?
JB – How much I’d seen? Oh no, I always knew I’d seen a lot of stuff (laughs). I’ve been involved in the coverage in most of the big stories in the region over the years now, and I’ve done lots elsewhere. So, across those 25 years, it hasn’t all been in the Middle East. I’ve done a lot in Bosnia, Africa, have worked in the US and Asia, so I’ve done lots of different things. One of the privileges of the career that I continue to have is that it takes me to interesting places at important times.
TP – Of course, and none more important over the last few years than the Arab Spring. In your book ('The Arab Uprising', published in 2012) you suggested that “the old certainties are gone”. We’ve seen how that has caused various troubles, but is there still an optimism despite the bloodshed, or is it a very much a dour picture?
JB – Well, the one place where you get a bit of political optimism is in Tunisia. It so happens that I’m in Djibouti at the moment, but I was talking to a Tunisian last night, who works at the UN. He said that ‘it wasn’t an Arab Spring, it was a Tunisian spring,’ because that was the only country in which they’ve actually managed to engineer a political proposition. Elsewhere, you just have to look at the chaos that has afflicted the region in the last six or seven years.
TP – The most potent example of that has, of course, been Syria. You must be asked this on a daily basis, but, are we still at a complete deadlock, or is there and end in sight?
JB – Things are changing. I think Assad believes there’s an end in sight, which is him winning.
The most dominant people on the rebel side – being the Salafist, Jihadist group – and that other, rather more democracy-loving opposition definitely existed. But for various, complicated reasons, it hasn’t taken off. They didn’t have any military backing from countries that might have encouraged them, or that they wanted… they had some, but nothing really game-changing. As a result of that, what we have now is a Syrian regime which, thanks to the Russian intervention and Iran, is probably stronger now than it has been at any time since the war started. But, it still doesn’t control quite large areas of the country.
Now, that is changing. They’re advancing on Deir Ezzor - the regime troops - and Raqqa is in ruins as this coalition of various sorts is rushing towards it. But then there are huge questions about what happens after that… So, I think the shape of the war has changed, but I don’t think Syria is going to have what can easily be described as ‘peace’, for quite a while.
TP – Obviously it’s been a very tumultuous time for all the Syrian people; what have your experiences been of them? Has warfare just become a day-to-day, or is it still an incredibly difficult place for them all to live?
JB – The thing about Syria is that you can go to some places and feel like the war isn’t on. Even, these days, in the central part of Damascus. Since last summer, in the Christian quarter of the Old City, bars and restaurants have re-opened. It’s a sign of the war moving away from Damascus, and the people are feeling a bit more confident. There are other places, entire towns, which are rubble.
But even in Damascus, the suburbs which ring the old part of the traditional centre, have turned into ruins, because that’s where a lot of the fighting took place and a lot of shelling. A few years ago, if you went to Damascus you’d hear the sounds of war the whole time, and you actually don’t now. Except on quite rare occasions. It’s a very mixed up picture in Syria and clearly it’s a massive tragedy. Half the pre-war population are either refugees or are displaced. Hundreds of thousands are dead… the whole thing is just horrendous.
TP – When you see such horrendous sights as a reporter, does that make your job, and objectivity, more difficult?
JB – Well I try and be impartial, and it’s what we try and do at the BBC. Objectivity is a bit of a False God. I don’t think you can be objective, because even if you really put your own thoughts to one side, the smallest decisions that you make – whether we go North or South to cover a story. Who should we talk to… - all that’s based on the prism through which you view the world. So, I think objectivity is impossible. But impartiality, where you look at all sides and try to come to a conclusion about the way things are going, in a fair way, I think that’s possible.
But is it difficult? No, I’m very used to trying to work in that way. Having been a BBC reporter for a very long time now, I think that’s the only way to do the job. Being impartial doesn’t mean that you say black is white. Or that black is neither white nor black, but maybe it’s a shade of grey. You have to call it, I think, on your reasoning, and your analysis on the story; your reportage, the stuff you’ve witnessed yourself. If all of that is pointing you in a certain direction, you need to say it. I don’t think that’s against impartiality. I certainly try and do that. But it is hard to make those calls, and I think it becomes easier if you’ve got a lot more experience. I certainly couldn’t have made them earlier on in my career in the way I can now.
TP – So just to transition over to the fight against ISIS, is there more reason for optimism there? At least geographically there has been a major push?
JB – Geographically, the Caliphate is heading for the dustbin of history. There’s almost nothing of it left. There are pockets, but all of that is going in one direction. Since these guys are prepared to die, it’s not going to be easy. It’s not proving to be easy, but they will get there. There was a big bombing claimed by ISIS in Iraq last week which killed a lot of people. I think there will be some new iteration of that particular ideology, and that kind of extremism. It may be under the IS name, it be under some new name. ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and there will be a new version of it while those countries in the region which are affected by it remain places which can incubate that sort of ideology, and indeed, while some people in the wider Muslim world are attracted to that kind of ideology. While that it still there, there will be other forms of this.
TP – And on that point, if it’s a case of attacking an ideology, has there been enough of a counter-narrative? Or is the mistake that is always made that we think we can, and have, defeated Al Qaeda or ISIS just by military might?
JB – In terms of counter-ISIS and counter-Jihadist strategy, yes, using force has got to be part of that because these aren’t people you can reason with. But as well as that, States, Muslim communities and others, need to look at the reasons why some people are attracted to that and do something about it. So that is partly a counter-narrative. It’s not enough to simply say ‘this is all very bad, you shouldn’t do it.’ The fact is, there are people in Western Europe and people in Britain – I mean it’s a very small number – but they exist, and they are so alienated from their own country that they don’t consider it their own country anymore, and they’re prepared to take part in terrorism that kills all kinds of different people.
TP – One of the episodes I really enjoyed of the series was on Jerusalem, and the ways in which religion underpins everything in the Middle East. Does that make long term peaceful coexistence impossible, or just very difficult?
JB – I think it makes it more difficult. If your objective is a deal involving compromises, then I think it’s easier to do that kind of deal when you get a bunch of secular people sitting down in a room and horse trading. But if you have people who believe they are doing God’s will, they’re generally not all that keen on negotiating. You can’t negotiate God’s will. If there are still people around willing to do deals around the place, increased radical religiosity makes it harder to do deals.
TP – So what roles do the Western powers have in brokering peace? In the past, it has caused more problems than it has perhaps solved. So, what is the new role for the US, the UK and European coalition?
JB – Well, as I say in the radio series; first of all, don’t make things worse. Don’t do any harm. Secondly, think long and hard before you intervene. You cannot bomb a country into democracy. I think that’s been proven over the last fifteen years or so, or even before that. Democracy does not come from the barrel of the gun. It’s a slow process that unwinds because the people in a certain country or region want to go that way themselves. We can’t impose it. Western countries that are allies of ones in the Middle East can help out through investment, by perhaps sharing expertise in building institutions. But, generally speaking, all our military interventions and adventures haven’t really helped. In fact, you could argue that some of them have been absolutely catastrophic. Notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its consequences still continue to unwind and unfold.
TP – Is an anti-American sentiment something that’s palpable in a lot of the Middle East?
JB – Anti-Western, yeah. That sentiment has increased. We, the British, tend to be tarred with the same brush as the Americans. There is definitely more anti-Western sentiment and feeling among people than when I first started reporting from the region.
TP – And during your own time in the region, how have you changed as a reporter; what have you learned along the way?
JB – Oh God, it’s a lifetime! Well, I think I’m better at it now. I see the subtleties more, I understand more. I don’t understand everything, but I understand much more than I did. I’ve read a great deal, talked to loads of people over many years, in many places, so I think I have a pretty good understanding about what’s going on. To start with, I think it’s like anybody who wants to find out about the Middle East. When I first started reporting out of the region, I’d studied a bit of it at university. I studied International Affairs at Graduate school, and some of that included stuff about the region. So, I wasn’t totally ignorant. In fact, I think having an academic background helped me. But, I’ve picked up a lot along the way.
As for reporting, I think the essence is always the same. You need to be a guide, you need to help people understand. You need to tell them what’s happened, of course, and you have to be accurate. But as well as all that, I think it’s important to give some of the context. Especially political context. Because, if you just do a story about a poor kid suffering terribly in this big, bad war, yes, it’s affecting. But you need to explain a bit as to why the kid is suffering. You need to use the kid, as well as every man or woman, every boy or girl, to help decode the area. Small stories can be very powerful, particularly on TV. TV works very well on the micro level. But then the trick, if you want to be a better reporter I think, is to try and elevate that and use that micro story to tell the macro story. That’s what I try to do, and that’s one of the big challenges.
TP – Did you always envisage yourself as someone who would be out in the field reporting? Was it always international politics and current affairs which interested you?
JB – Pretty much. I had a few flirtations with other ideas whilst I was at university, very briefly. But no, I think I was always heading to be a correspondent. I should’ve been an investment banker, I’d be wealthy now! I could’ve gone through all those fat years in the 80s and 90s and made a stack, but instead I went for something different. I certainly don’t regret it. I continue to have a very interesting working life.
TP – Do you see yourself continuing to cover the Middle East for however many more years? There’s always news there…
JB – No, not necessarily. I always keep an eye on what’s going on here. I wouldn’t mind putting my tanks on someone else’s lawn… I’ve got plenty of years left in me! I can think of loads of different things to do. I don’t necessarily want to stay in this part of the world forever…
TP – Talking of what you’re going to do next, I know you did a memoir 10-odd years ago, is writing again something you’d be interested in doing?
JB – I’m going to do a book which covers some of the same ground as the podcasts, actually. I’m in the process of talking to publishers about that. Yeah books are – I’d like to write some fiction, perhaps - a definite way forward for someone with my kind of background and my line of work…
TP – You’re not going to struggle for material…
JB - …And they, generally speaking, don’t involve you having to go to horrible places where men with beards poke guns in your chest, which is part of my daily life sometimes. Everyone has a limit about how much of that they want to do…
Jeremy Bowen (@BowenBBC) will be appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Thursday 12th October.
This interview was conducted on the 20th September 2017.
Image by Tushar Dayal @Flickr