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.
“Al Jazeera toning it down? Nonsense,” says Ehud Yaari, who tracks the Arab media for Channel 2 in Israel. “They always thrive on crisis,” he told me. “They’re still pouring oil on the flames of the intifada.” Challenged that Al Jazeera thrives on shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, network spokesman Satnam Matharu responded calmly, “In Palestine and the Middle East, there are many fires and many people shouting. All we do is report.”
While Al Jazeera is the dominant news source in the region, it is by no means the only news. Unlike the American viewer, who may believe that his news channel is the objective source of information, there is no Walter “Voice of God” Cronkite of the Middle East. After a lifetime of being spoon-fed government-sponsored news and propaganda, many Arab viewers watch their so-called independent news with a skeptical eye, hopping from Al Jazeera to Al Arabiya (Saudi), maybe touching down briefly at Al Minar (Hezbollah) or even Al Hurra (US). An offshoot of Voice of America, Al Hurra, which means “The Freedom,” claims to broadcast “objective and accurate Arabic language news,” according to a glossy.
Al Hurra is still trying to find its niche in a crowded marketplace. If Al Jazeera is going to telecast all of Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony before a Congressional committee along with the questions–more live coverage than any other network–maybe America is better off making sure that its commentators are ready to spin their take on events in the Arabic spin zone, rather than creating a network of their own. Israeli officials make a living pleading their case on Al Jazeera, but watch out: they may find themselves positioned against a jihadist spokesman who can talk circles around a non-Arabic commentator.
While the Arabic newscasts are as fractured and polarized as the politics in the region, there are some glimmers of consensus. When Al Qaeda operatives killed a Sunni sheikh who had publicly allied himself with the American forces in Anbar, the response across the Middle East media ranged from sorrow to outrage. The anti-Al Qaeda Anbar awakening preceded the surge and is regarded as the key dynamic in the lowering of violence in Iraq. The media reflect a yearning for normalcy.
Most of the new Arabic TV networks feature video music; America’s Radio Sawa, with its mix of American and Arabic pop music, is a hit. Modeled after American Idol, the TV show Star Search is popular with viewers across the Middle East, who text-message their votes. Last year, viewers–especially Iraqis of all stripes–voted for an Iraqi girl, who won despite scathing comments from a Lebanese judge who plays the role of a sharp-tongued Simon Cowell. The runaway winner of this year’s Ramadan sweeps was the Syrian soap opera Bab al-Hara, a nostalgic look back at a simpler time that celebrates the golden years of Arab pride and tradition.
Living in such turbulent times, it is not easy to escape the news in the Middle East. But the people try mightily. On my way home, a man named Mohammed drove me to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. Yes, he told me, he’s watched some Al Jazeera, but he doesn’t do it so much anymore. He’s been too busy driving. He had recently been informed that he would be driving Diane Sawyer of ABC News, and he told the scheduler how excited he was. The ABC scheduler was delighted that Mohammed knew so much about Diane Sawyer and asked what newscast he had seen her on. “Oh, no,” he told the ABC scheduler with a grin. “I saw her on Oprah last week.”