I was reading the ‘Stars and Stripes’ newspaper today, lamenting the Sunday edition’s absence of the word unscrambler puzzle and a crossword that any normal person could solve. I’d already done the Sudoku puzzle which for some reason is mentioned everywhere, even in crackhouses and hovels in Brazilian favelas these days. I caught an article questioning Al-Jazeera’s motives and intentions as a result of the bin Laden tape recently released.
Every time a tape is released, this subject comes up, since Al-Jazeera tends to be the primary method of transmission for the major players of Al-Qaeda. Al-Jazeera is accused of being complicit and having connections to the Al-Qaeda organization, which is why they seem to always have the scoop first. It’s also accused of promoting the jihad, by using terms such as ‘martyr’ for killed ‘insurgents’, or ‘occupied Al-Quds’ instead of ‘Jerusalem’.
“Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Al-Qaeda is more nuanced but broadly speaking still fairly favorable. Its members are presented as being members of a legitimate organization no different from any other, and are quoted like Al-Jazeera was quoting from the head of the Red Cross. When an Al-Qaeda leader such as Ayman al-Zawahri or Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi releases a new statement or cassette, I have seem the speech bullet-pointed in the same way that an American network might give a run down of the President’s State of the Union Address.”
The author of the article is an Arabic linguist and Middle Eastern expert apparently.
Here’s my take on Al-Jazeera. The language gap (that is, almost no Americans, particularly those in the Administration or even analysts speak Arabic) is an immediate and foreboding obstacle towards seeing Al-Jazeera as nothing else except an anti-western terrorist mouthpiece, since all that is ever seen from Al-Jazeera in the west are the transcripts and videotapes from Al-Qaeda.
Having watched Al-Jazeera plenty myself, in order to learn Arabic, it’s seemed like a first-rate news organization. I’d rather watch it than FOXNews, personally. The stereotype in the U.S. is that Al-Jazeera plays mujaheddin propaganda all day long but really it’s filled with various programming, to include some nature programs, point-counterpoint-style political debate shows, regular news updates, and plenty of soccer highlights.
Al-Jazeera has tried to fashion itself as the voice of editorial and journalistic freedom in the Middle East. It sees itself as reporting news from the Arab point of view without being constrained by a dictator or ruler who strictly censors the media. Arabs trust Al-Jazeera more than any other organization, reportedly. Many of the other satellite news channels are state-censored. Foreign media is hopelessly out of touch with the Arab perspective.
Last year, the movie ‘Control Room’ was released, a documentary about Al-Jazeera, although much of it follows one of Al-Jazeera’s reporters around the U.S. military press area. The reporter offers up challenging questions to the military public relations officer, who was in my opinion embarrassingly ill-prepared for his job. Supposedly he has recently decided to work in some capacity with Al-Jazeera. But during the film, he’s put on the spot for the hypocrisies put out by his highers.
Al-Jazeera seems to be all about perspective. For what is basically an ignorant American populace to Islam and Arab culture, Al-Jazeera is a terrorist front. For Arabs who’ve for so long not had a news source they can genuinely believe is unbiased (many buy into state-sponsored programming but I don’t think “unbiased” would be a term they’d think to use for it), Al-Jazeera is a breath of fresh air.
Americans don’t understand how Arabs and Muslims see the rest of the world. ‘Martyrs’ and ‘occupied holy land’ ring a note even for secular, open-minded Arabs and Muslims because of decades (well, centuries) of people screwing people over in the Middle East. Americans take it personally that Iraqis see them as intruders and invaders, even crusaders. Because of America’s geographical position, I believe it has a blind spot when it comes to understanding foreigners’ perspectives — it doesn’t know about fearing for its survival in any real terms. Americans are just as guilty of stereotyping as Arabs are — ask an American whether he should call the anti-coalition forces in Iraq terrorists, insurgents, foreign fighters, mujaheddin, or whatever, and he’ll probably tell you that it don’t really matter, they’re all fuckin’ ragheads who should be shot.
The other component is that groups like Al-Qaeda are releasing tons of information on a daily basis, but none of it really makes the airwaves. Al-Qaeda tends to release many statements a day taking credit for various attacks. Globalterroralert.com and globalsecurity.org do fairly good jobs keeping track of these latest communiques. There is a lot of content not making it onto TV, or even RSS or the blogosphere. Only Zawahiri, bin Laden, or Zarqawi make the headlines.
Does Al-Jazeera have links to terrorists? Obviously it has had a few already. It probably has plants or sympathizers or people who will put things on the table in order to get scoops. While not as deeply corruptible and resourceful as American media can be, I’m sure they have their own methods. Several Al-Jazeera employees have been removed for relations with the terrorists, and that is to be expected. But Al-Jazeera by no means lives up to the slagging that it gets from American news organizations and the Administration. The Minutemen would like to differ though:
“The worldâ€™s most prolific terrorism television network has cancelled its recon operation at the Arizona/Mexico border, according to the Arizona Star newspaper. Al-Jazeera broadcasts in full all the latest messages from Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Al Quedaâ€™s followers â€“ as well as their footage beheading innocent non-combatants and hostages.Yet according to their Washington, DC-based reporter, Nasreddine Hssaini, they wanted to cover the unsecured Arizona/Mexico border from, â€œâ€¦ the human point of view.â€”
My final comment is in relation to the quote above. I feel that Al-Jazeera treats bin Laden favorably because the Middle East supports what bin Laden is doing, or at the very least, they feel his call to jihad deep within their Muslim roots. It has been completely misrepresented by the U.S. that bin Laden is an egomaniacal, homicidal maniac. As Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris discusses at length, bin Laden actually has a long-term plan which he takes his time executing. He is thinking about purifying the Muslim world and bestowing upon it a caliphate. He has taken on a mythical Robin Hood-like aura, standing up to the west and defending his way of life. It resonates deeply upon all Muslims. He writes with words of love for his people and he quotes at length from poetic or Koranic sources. Scheuer writes that bin Laden’s style of writing is grandiloquent and impressive in its skill, inspiring and romanticizing the jihad for many disillusioned, disenfranchised wannabe mujaheddin in the Middle East. Bin Laden is not a crazy nutjob like Zarqawi is, and he gains the respect of many Arabs.
There is so much more to all of what is going on than most people (like Star Jones!) realize or care to learn about. Keep your mind open and try to think about how you’d feel from someone else’s perspective. Until we begin to understand Arabs, Muslims, and the anti-coalition forces, it will continue to stupefy us that they don’t want to get on board with the American program. And until we realize that Al-Jazeera symbolizes the voice for a long-repressed people and that we should listen to what it has to say, then we’re going to be at odds with the hearts and minds we’re supposed to be winning over.