Soon after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush declared that the terrorists “hate our freedom…. They can’t stand the thought that people can go into the public square in America and express their differences with government.” I recently spent a hot day in October at the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, which is a virtual public square, giving voice to Arabs who challenge their governments, and ours.
On my first visit to the Middle East in twenty years, it was startling to see how the satellite has transformed the region. Al Jazeera Arabic, in particular, has taken the Middle East by storm. The stodgy government-run channels of yesteryear–featuring emirs shaking hands with other emirs–proved easy pickings for the hypercaffeinated talk shows. One of these, The Opposite Direction, is the Arab world’s most popular talk show, spotlighting the popular host Dr. Faisal al-Qasim, a high-octane blend of Jerry Springer and Bill O’Reilly, who thrives on pitting two ideological combatants against each other and egging them on.
Talk shows and the stick-in-the-eye newscasts have propelled Al Jazeera to the top of the ratings heap since its launch ten years ago. At first, Saddam Hussein sent out the satellite police to track down insurgent dishes that could receive it and follow the coaxial cables back to the offending TV sets. And the Saudis played endless loop recitations of the Koran on the same frequency to jam an offending broadcast channel. But the dishes kept procreating.
Every government in the region has tried to shut down the local Al Jazeera bureau (“You report, we deport” was their mantra). But the genie was out of the bottle, and regional powers eventually decided, if you can’t beat them, join them. Hundreds of channels have been launched across the Middle East, spouting everybody from Saddam to Seinfeld. Ramadan is not only the holiest of holies but also sweeps week, as homebound Muslim families tuned in to their satellite dishes; and what they were viewing says a lot about the future of the region. Al Jazeera is housed and funded by the Emir of Qatar, a Gulf state once so insignificant that then-UN envoy George H.W. Bush was heard to crack, “Qatar is so poor, they cannot even afford a ‘U.’ ” That was before they discovered natural gas; today Qatar boasts that it is the fastest-growing country in the world, with the fastest-growing network in the world.
Many commentators believe that Al Jazeera Arabic is toning down its content compared with the early days of the Iraq War, when it ran graphic videos of American Humvees being blown up by roadside bombs and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld branded it “the terror network.” Al Jazeera’s most recent offspring, Al Jazeera English, is more like PBS on a slow day. Al Jazeera English is available around the world and even on the Israeli cable systems. But it is barely visible in the United States–Buckeye Cable in Ohio and Burlington Public Access in Vermont are the only channels that carry it.
Following the invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera used the same language it applies to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle: resistance fighters versus occupiers. Today, it has changed the rhetoric, referring instead to military or militia groups and government forces. Al Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, says only that his network is responding to changing facts. Thus, when the United States handed over the reins of government to the Iraqis in 2004, the UN stopped calling America an occupier–and so did Al Jazeera. The English news channel refers to militants, while the Arabic channel still uses the term “martyrs.” Words and their translations are important. The Arab newscasts throughout the region shy away from using the word “terrorist,” on the grounds that it is the American frame on the war. Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna was CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief until CNN’s senior management “ordered me to use the word ‘terrorist’ rather than militant, which I refused to do.” He says that CNN was reframing its Palestinian coverage, post 9/11, when it was facing stiff competition from Fox, under new rules from a new corporate owner. Hanna quit and went to Al Jazeera English. The network refers to the “so-called war on terror,” in quotation marks.