Your View

“The Opinion and The Other Opinion”?

Guest post by davem

The motto of Al Jazeera is “The Opinion and the Other Opinion”.

According to books about the famous Arab TV channel, such as “Al Jazeera, How Arab TV News Channel Challenged the World” by Hugh Miles and “Al-Jazeera: The Story of the Network That Is Rattling Governments and Redefining Modern Journalism” by Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, it is at the forefront of the battle for a press freedom in the Arab world. As proof, they cite the fact that its offices have been closed and its journalists harassed throughout most of the Arab world.

The back cover of Miles’s book testifies that “[Jazeera] has done more to educate the Arab world about democracy than any nation-– or indeed notion-– of the democratic world”.

The assumption is that because most Middle Eastern states are despotic and Al Jazeera has irritated them, Al Jazeera must be a channel that espouses freedom, democracy and debate.

That’s certainly the impression it presents to the West.

But watch enough of it with even a basic comprehension of Arabic and you realize quickly that this is one big lie.

Al Jazeera broadcasts some of the most dangerous and reactionary views in the Middle East without any sort of editorial criticism or challenge.

It’s very, very difficult to explain this to people in the West as they have no way of knowing what it broadcasts. For example if you tell them that the channel does not criticize Hezbollah, Hamas or even Al Qaeda, a non-Arabic speaker is going to have to take your word for it.

However occasionally someone appears bringing up issues that are a little bit near the knuckle and suddenly the mask of respectability and free speech slips and the true face of Al Jazeera is exposed.

This is what happened when Wafa Sultan appeared on the popular programme “The Opposite Direction” and dealt directly with subjects that most Western journalists are too frightened to confront, or would rather bury under the carpet of “Western sensibilities.”

For all Al Jazeera’s bluster to the West about free speech, Wafa obviously hit a nerve and in the following week’s episode of “Opposite Direction,” the host Faisal Qassim opened the show with a grovelling apology which translates as:

“Welcome dear viewers. Despite the fact that we can’t guarantee what will be said by the guests live on the air, and we never endorse what is said, we will always endeavour to respect the feelings of our dear viewers. So I ask all the brothers and sisters who were offended by last week’s episode, which (by the way) was totally unexpected, to accept my most sincere apologies. We adhere to a professional code of conduct at Jazeera especially regarding respecting everybody’s beliefs and religions and I hope I am always in your best thoughts [i.e., I hope you will accept my apology].”

Not only that but the episode featuring Wafa Sultan has been pulled from the schedules and website. Its only existence is a 12-minute clip on MEMRI.

However the story didn’t end there. On the program “Sharia and Life,” Ken Livingstone’s “honoured guest” Yusuf Qaradawi exploded with anger not only at Wafa Sultan, but also at Faisal Qassim (the presenter) and indeed the Al Jazeera board of directors.

(Then he went on to do the usual “But look at the Jews! They’re worse!” blame-shifting that’s popular in the Arab world when things get a bit uncomfortable.)

What’s especially interesting is the presenter’s response immediately after Qaradawi’s outburst. MEMRI haven’t translated and posted this part. But I will.

At 13 minutes and 20 seconds into the programme the presenter explains to Qaradawi that:

“Doctor Faisal (Qassim) apologised immediately and described those words [of Wafa Sultan] as very offensive, and Al Jazeera also issued a statement immediately after that episode apologizing to the viewers.”

He didn’t say “Well the motto of Al Jazeera is ‘The Opinion and the Other Opinion’ and she has the right to her opinion, like you have the right to yours. How dare you tell us how we run our channel.”

No. Of course he didn’t.

So are they telling us that on Al Jazeera it’s perfectly OK to say that Eddie Weinstein and other Holocaust survivors are liars and fantasists?

Notice that nobody seemed to complain about Tal’at Rmeih claiming that the Holocaust was fabricated?

However as soon as someone starts asking difficult questions and shining a light on some of the more unsavoury aspects of a belief system which– like all belief systems– has not a shred of evidence to back it up, there’s outrage and censorship.

The most telling moment is in the first clip, when Faisal Qassim indignantly remarks to Tal’at Rmeih “So it’s clear that she [Wafa Sultan] has no problem denying holy books but won’t deny historical documents”.

Yes Faisal, that’s because unlike holy books, historical documents contain proof.

Personally I have more respect for Al Manar than Al Jazeera. Al Manar doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is, the media wing of Hezbollah.

Editorially Jazeera is on the same page as Manar. Unlike Manar it seeks to present itself to the West as merely an Arabic version of the BBC. What is difficult to take is the hypocrisy when it tries to sell itself as an independent channel dedicated to free speech.

Al Jazeera practises the very things it complains about. It will not hesitate to air criticisms of states like Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, citing their gross human rights violations, while ignoring or minimizing violations carried out by Syria, Iran and Qatar. These criticisms are not for the advancement of a Glasnost in the Arab world, but for the sole reason that these countries are allied with the West.

Watch enough of that channel and it becomes clear that its stance towards the West rejects democracy and pluralism. They only attack guests with moderate opinions while allowing radicals to speak freely. As on Fox News, guests who challenge the station’s prevailing ideology sometimes appear, but Al Jazeera is quick to distance itself editorially from them.

Even Jazeera English is experiencing hostility from its sister channel and being accused of ‘selling out’, which I interpret as not being Islamic enough. Morale among its English-language news staff is reported to be low.

Watch enough of its output and the central message becomes clear– primacy of Islam in politics and/or a centrally ruled Pan-Arab state will trump democracy and pluralism every time.

Criticism of this and of states and groups that promote these ideas– e.g. Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas–are marginalized. The station stifles any serious discussion of democracy and openness, yet does this by pretending to promote these very things.

Its allegiance is to political Islam/Arabism, not nation states. It criticises Arab states from a position of extremism, not liberalism.

As far back as November 2001, Fouad Ajami was one of the first people to bring this to the attention of the English-speaking world. Views such as these are very rarely given a platform on Jazeera,

Even on a personal level, in order to improve my Arabic– that is, to hear it being used to express progressive ideas and theories outside the usual reactionary, dangerous clichés– I have to watch Al Arabiya.

Now that channel comes with its own set of biases and is far from ideal; however it is light years ahead of Jazeera.

“The Opinion & The Other Opinion”? That’s about as hollow as “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide”.