The Other Side of Al-Jazeera

The two sides of al-Jazeera, in the Wilson Quarterly:

The Arab satellite television station al-Jazeera is the enemy, or so we are told: “jihad TV,” “killers with cameras,” “the most powerful ally of terror in the world.” Shortly after 9/11, Fouad Ajami, distinguished professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, luridly described the station in an influential New York Times Magazine essay as a cesspool of anti-American hate that “deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.” In June, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told attendees at an Asian defense conference that if they were to watch al-Jazeera day after day, “even if you were an American you would begin to believe that America was bad.” Even Newsweek International’s normally temperate Fareed Zakaria loses his composure when faced with al-Jazeera, which “fills its airwaves with crude appeals to Arab nationalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and religious fundamentalism.” Denunciation of al-Jazeera is impressively bipartisan and a starting point for many of the post-9/11 debates over public diplomacy and the war of ideas in the Middle East.

This consensus is all the more remarkable given how few of the critics speak Arabic or have ever actually watched al-Jazeera. If they had, they might well arrive at a more nuanced judgment. They would certainly find some support for their disgust. Al-Jazeera may have never broadcast a beheading video, but it has shown many clips of terrified hostages begging for their lives. It airs lengthy statements by Osama bin Laden and invites extremists on its talk shows. Watching the Egyptian radical Tala’at Ramih rhapsodize over the beheading of Western hostages on one popular talk show, or Americans and Iraqi civilians die bloody deaths, as shown on raw video footage, or ex-Nazi David Duke discuss American politics at the station’s invitation, it’s easy to see why al-Jazeera is such a tempting target.

But these incendiary segments tell only half the story. Al-Jazeera is at the forefront of a revolution in Arab political culture, one whose effects have barely begun to be appreciated. Even as the station complicates the postwar reconstruction of Iraq and offers a platform for anti-American voices, it is providing an unprecedented forum for debate in the Arab world that is eviscerating the legitimacy of the Arab status quo and helping to build a radically new pluralist political culture.