The passing of veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk this week prompted a mixed reaction from the public. Some celebrated Fisk’s award-winning career and varied life, while others saw him as an orientalist who ended his career as an apologist for Bashar al-Assad and the rest of the anti-Western dictator club.
Fisk, who died aged 74, had acquired his fame covering the thorny and often dangerous politics of the Middle East, a career that led him to rub elbows with a range of leaders and often dictators of the region, ranging from Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to al-Qaeda leader, the notorious Osama Bin Laden. For the Lebanese in particular, Fisk was someone who had covered the 15 years of their civil war (1975-1990) and was one of the first to uncover and publicize the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian camp massacres that were carried out during the Israeli invasion of 1982.
As a young boy growing up in West Beirut during the last stretch of the Lebanese civil war, I read Fisk’s book “Pity the Nation” passionately, his work helping to direct my interest onto the field of Lebanese history and the civil war specifically. Yet my childhood fascination with Fisk would soon fade as he lost his glitter, revealing a journalist whose reporting became influenced by his anti-Western and anti-American beliefs.
One of Fisk’s major lapses was his overreliance on his Shiite driver “Abed,” his Druze landlord, and his Muslim grocer, whose daily conversations informed Fisk’s understanding of the region. It was appealing to the Western audience, but it was nothing short of reductionist orientalism at best. While his informants are indeed entrenched in the local politics of the country, a mere conversation with them over coffee does not constitute basis for generalization, but rather is a sign of laziness, which Fisk tended to exhibit at the end of his career.
While Fisk initially reported from the frontlines of conflict in Belfast, Sarajevo, Beirut and Baghdad, in his later career he was allowed by his editors to cover the region without leaving the luxury of his seafront apartment on the Beirut corniche, a few meters from the American University of Beirut. A suicide attack in a market in Baghdad cannot be covered by a correspondent living thousands of miles away, even if this journalist has four decades of experience.
This poor judgment by editors is perhaps permissible, but Fisk’s work has deeper problems.
Fisk became an ardent defender of psychopathic dictators like Saddam Hussein, and produced excuses to keep him and his comrades in power. While his rejection of the US invasion of Iraq was logical, especially considering his background, he went beyond and became an advocate for archaic authoritarian regimes.
This was true toward the end of his career when Fisk was accused of being an apologist for the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Fisk insisted that the opposition to Assad were all Islamists who were not a suitable alternative to the secular Baathist regime. Fisk accepted an invitation to embed with Assad’s forces as they were joined by Iranian and Russian troops and leveled and decimated – rather than “liberated” – a number of Syrian cities from their inhabitants.
Fisk, just like some of the genocide deniers in Cambodia in the 1970, maintained that the Assad regime did not use chemical weapons to attack civilians, and famously presented the Douma attack, a chlorine gas attack that killed around 70 people, as an attempt by the Islamist rebels to frame Assad. The fact-checking website Snopes analyzed his reporting on Douma and found that Fisk’s claims that he didn’t speak to anyone who had experienced the gas attack did not match up with other crews on the tour who did.
If Fisk wished to deny the death of thousands of innocent Syrians, he could have at least clearly acknowledged, or at least written on article on the death of over 139 journalists who were killed in Syria, including Marie Colvin who was killed in Syria by regime forces while covering the attack on Homs.
Although Fisk was exposed over Douma and other similar unethical acts, he was allowed to continue his charade and lecture the people of the region over the futility of their attempts to overthrow the ruling establishments.
Fisk will surely be missed by those who respected him as they will continue to quote his works as absolute truth in support of their demagoguery.
In reality, however, Robert Fisk was not a real friend of the Arabs and the Muslim World, and he leaves behind a mixed legacy. While his early works continue to be admired, the impression of Fisk will be tarnished. Where he once was on the front lines reporting the world’s biggest stories, toward the end of his career he retreated to the comfort of his apartment and opted instead to defend the Middle East’s many fiends and demons.
Makram Rabah is a lecturer at the American University of Beirut, Department of History. His forthcoming book Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press) covers collective identities and the Lebanese Civil War.