For the new Arab public, the fundamental challenge today is not to shatter more taboos or ask more questions but to offer solutions. Al-Jazeera’s talk shows have given a forum to voices both moderate and extreme. The shows often err on the side of sensationalism and false oppositions, inviting conflict rather than reasonable compromise. In the short term, the station may well have strengthened anti-American sentiment in the region. But in a longer view, al-Jazeera is building the foundations of a pluralist political culture. By replacing stifling consensus with furious public arguments and secrecy with transparency, al-Jazeera and its Arab competitors are creating perhaps the most essential underpinning of liberal democracy: a free and open critical public space, independent of the state, where citizens can speak their piece and expect to be heard.

The world will continue to argue about whether the invasion of Iraq was necessary for the current democratic ferment in the Middle East. But al-Jazeera was most assuredly necessary. Shutting it down or muffling its voice might give Americans some short-term satisfaction, but to do either would also take away one of the most powerful weapons in the hands of Arab democratic reformers.

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