Arab media: the ice cracking?

Remember all that quickly-discredited talk about how democratic elections in Iraq would send positive shockwaves throughout the Arab world, unshackling the democratic aspirations of the region’s peoples?

Long after the American press gave up on that kind of talk, it seems that the Arab media have not. In fact, with the timely death of Arafat, the month of January now brings not just the first but also the second democratic election in the history of the Arab world, with Palestinians joining Iraqis at the ballot station. And Arab journalists and commentators seem to have felt the shock of recognition now running the whole circle round.

From these selections, you’ll see that Arab commentators are publicly asking the harshest questions ever asked of the region’s Arab regimes. The answers, one can hope, will soon be forthcoming.

We start on the op-ed page of the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat:

Some of the [Arab League] members…maintain that the Baghdad government is not legitimate. Why? They argue that it is not elected and was appointed by the American occupation. This widespread view has some basis…However, the talk of the illegitimacy of the [Iraqi] government…allows us to raise questions regarding most of the regimes in the region…some of which emerged as a result of coups or internal conspiracies, when no one asked the people what it thought.

Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, director-general of Al Arabia TV, November 24

…and we continue straight on through to al-Jazeera TV, that famous bastion of neoconservative views…

We are not being fair to the current Iraqi government. Not me, nor you, nor the other guest on this program, not even the viewers, but history will do justice to them. These people are establishing the first democracy in the Middle East. This country will be a platform for liberties in the whole region. In Iraq, the days of a leader who remains on his throne until he dies are gone. This is over. For the first time the Iraqi leader will be elected by Iraqi ballots.

Egyptian journalist Nabil Sharaf al-Din, speaking on Al Jazeera TV, November 23

…before moving on to my personal favorite, and, I think, the most eye-opening…

It is outrageous, and amazing, that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab [world] are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation. It is well and good for the Arabs to demand the right of political representation for [Iraq’s] Sunni Arabs out of concern for them in the face of the tyranny of the other Iraqi groups and out of concern for national unity and the ideal relative representation. But we do not understand why this concern does not apply to the many Arab countries that do not permit their minorities to announce their existence, let alone their right to [political] representation…

It is sad and pathetic that the eyes of the entire world are upon the Palestinian and Iraqi elections that will be held under the lances of foreign occupation, while the peoples of the “independent, free, and sovereign” Arab countries have no way of expressing their will.

Salameh Nematt , Washington bureau chief for the London-based daily Al Hayat, November 25

This last one really says it all.

Maybe more importantly, last week saw Palestinian Authority TV allow a progressive imam to deliver the televised Friday sermon – and instead of the usual incitement and diatribe, Palestinians heard a sermon of conciliation, urging them to consider an Islam that can get along with the changing world, remaining true to the prophet while heeding the prophet’s admonition that Islam must be “reborn with each new century.”

Where it goes from here, I guess we will see.

I can’t explain it, but reading that gave me the same sort of overwhelming happy feeling that reading about Radio Free Europe or the Berlin Airlift does.

Seriously, is there anyone who isn’t relieved that Arafat is finally out of the picture?

“The illegitimacy of the CIA puppet government in Baghdad has finally given us the ability to discuss how illegitimate our governments are!”

Of course it does, that is the intention. It’s a small collection of translations from selective MEMRI. With a billion opinions in the Muslim world, there are bound to be several which support any view you want to create. MEMRI, run as it is by former members of Israel’s intelligence service, wants to create a certain picture of the Middle East. Today they are painting the picture that the occupations of Iraq and Palestine are actually a great thing, because they are changing the opinions of Arabs and making them move more in the direction we want. Tomorrow it will be giving us the translation of crazy extremists ranting about murdering Americans being the duty of Islam as evidence of why we need to invade and crush them.

This may or may not be true, but with the limited window on the Islamic world offered by a clearly biased MEMRI, you will never know the truth, only what they want you to hear about.

Nice point, Tim!

So the true value of the war in Iraq is that they made new Arab media outlets more popular? While it is true that Al-Jazeera’s ratings were greatly improved by the war, I can’t believe that’s sufficient justification. Maybe we just could’ve paid for a slick promotional campaign: cheaper and fewer lives lost.

It’s not like the fledgling Arab independent media wouldn’t be pushing for more openness and democracy anyway. They’ve always done that. They are now just doing it in the context of the Iraq war.

While you are correct in framing this as propaganda, RFE was propaganda, too. You can argue that the Airlift was propaganda. That voices like this are in the mainstream Arab media at all is encouraging. Would you say that Al Jazera (sp) has broadcasted things like this before?

Selective MEMRI. That’s nice. Probably an old joke, but I like it.

Would you say that Al Jazera (sp) has broadcasted things like this before?


Propaganda is for the other side, remember.

I don’t follow Al Jazeera that carefully, so I don’t know if they’ve had any commentary on this exact issue before, but I do know that the kind of critical reporting of local regimes is a common theme on the news channel. Long before the Iraq invasion Al Jazeera was pushing for reform in the region, and weren’t popular with the authorities in the region. They have also been very forward looking in their use of female anchors, in a culture where women can sometimes consider themselves lucky to be allowed a job at all, let alone a prominent one like a news anchor. Yes, they are biased towards the Arab view point, but from the Arab perspective CNN is biased towards a Western perspective, and they’d be right.

What’s really interresting is the name of the spokesman for Al-Jazeera: [color=red]Jihad Ballout.[/color]

As an aside, Al Jazeera isn’t breaking any ground with female anchors. Women were working anchor desks on news shows in Egypt and Jordan, as well as in the Gulf States, in the mid-late 1990s.

Yes, but Al Jazeera is pan-Arabic satellite channel, not just a local news outlet.

What’s really interresting is the name of the spokesman for Al-Jazeera: Jihad Ballout.

Perhaps not so interesting when you consider that in Arabic the word jihad has a wider meaning than the one we generally understand. A jihad for a muslim means to strive for some higher purpose, and this can be achieved through any number of means, not just war. A muslim can study, be a politician, work for charity, etc. for his jihad.

A jihad for a muslim means to strive for some higher purpose, and this can be achieved through any number of means, not just war. A muslim can study, be a politician, work for charity, etc. for his jihad.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest debate of the 21st century will be the debate within the Muslim world over the interpretation of this single word. Because for every imam counseling that jihad is a personal struggle against injustice, there is one who is convinced Mohammed meant literal, ceaseless war on behalf of Islam.

That moderate clerics and commentators now feel emboldened enough to stand up to the Qutb/Wahhabist extremism on the airwaves of so belligerent an outlet as Palestinian Authority TV is a very hopeful sign.

Yeah, but it’s not about just one word. There are numerous sections of the Koran and there are numerous Hadiths that explicitly state that Islam is the ultimate faith, as delivered to man by God’s final prophet. And as such it falls upon the adherents to bring it to the entire world. The core texts of Islam are much, much more blatant about proselytizing, even by force, than the books central to Judaism and Christianity. I mean, how can these other faiths seem like anything but errors that should be corrected when you are a Muslim worshipping as ordained by God’s final prophet before Judgement Day?

The only way to reform Islam is to change one of its central tenets – that the Koran and Hadiths have to be interpreted literally. Only then can you start addressing their actual messages, because there really isn’t any room for alternate interpretations a lot of the time.

I doubt that either of us are expert enough in the religious texts of the Koran and Hadith to make pronouncements as to their comparative evangelical natures in regards to Christianity. That said, if the Koranic texts are, like you say, “much, much more blatant about proselytizing, even by force, than the books central to Judaism* and Christianity”, then that would mean that Christians have, as a rule, been far more aggressive in their own forceful proselytizing than their holy books decree. Comparing the very gradual conversion process in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), caused more by inter-marriage than firebrand preaching (let alone force), to the torture, public burnings, and mass expulsions of Jews and Muslims by the subsequent Christian occupiers of that region, paints a very interesting picture. Either Muslims have, through their history, been comparitavely very liberal in relation to their apparently intolerant holy books, or their holy books aren’t as intolerant as you would like us to believe.

*I agree that Islam and Christianity are far more aggressively evangelical than Judaism, hence the people of that religion have taken a one sided beating from both of these two cultures.

No way Jose.

Muslims had a three-step process for conversion.

The first was incentives. After taking over a new territory (by force or conversion of leader), Muslims would have economic incentives and extra rights.

The second step was active conversion, sort of like today’s evangelists.

After that, followed persecution. Muslims weren’t as bad as the Inquisition (which has no parallels on that scale in western civilization until Stalin and Hitler - it grew more brutal and lasted longer than even the French Revolution) - but they weren’t exactly hospitable. Their worst excesses (still mild by Inquisition standards, except for relatively brief Shi’ite/Sunni flare-ups) were limited to their own heretics and dissidents.

You say no way, and then you describe your worst case scenario which still agrees with what I said. I didn’t say that they were nice, kind and benevolent, I said they were relatively very liberal. If you read the articles on the mistreatment of the Jewish people on the Jewish Virtual Library, a site that is not exactly Muslim friendly, you will get one page about the Muslims, which amounts to a few massacres, and laws forcing synogogues to never be higher than a mosque, but the Christian butchery needs a section of its own.

The laws against Jews and Christians in Muslim lands were unkind, but for the time they were very lenient to those outside the established religion of the state. The JVL even goes so far as to list “persecutions” such as making non-Muslims pay a “poll tax” and not allowing them to drink wine in public. This is pretty minor, considering that all Muslims had to pay a poll tax too, a “poor tax”, as part of their religion, it’s just that Christians and Jews paid the same with a different name. While no Jews or Christians were allowed to drink wine in public, they were generally allowed to drink in private. The JVL doesn’t bother to mention that, of course, no muslims are allowed to drink wine at all.

Yes, the Jewish people were treated badly by the Muslims, but to try and claim that they were treated as badly as they were in Christian Europe is an attempt at historical revisionism. Even the JVL notes that “At various times, Jews in Muslim lands were able to live in relative peace and thrive culturally and economically.” Compare this to some of the wonderful treatment doled out by the Christians. Let’s take a look at how the JVL describes the treatment of the Jewish people in Spain, not long after the evil Muslims were booted out by the benevolent Christians.

"[i]On July 30 of [1492], the entire Jewish community, some 200,000 people, were expelled from Spain.

Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety. In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by brigands hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.[/i]"

The most fortunate of the expelled Jews succeeded in escaping to Turkey. Sultan Bajazet welcomed them warmly. “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king,” he was fond of asking, “the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

Lucky? To escape to Muslim Turkey? Surely not!

Let’s look at the Crusades. Let’s see what the kind hearted Christians did on liberating Jerusalem from the evil Muslims.

In July 1099, after a five-week siege, the knights of the First Crusade and their rabble army captured Jerusalem, massacring most of the city’s non-Christian inhabitants. Barricaded in their synagogues, the Jews defended their quarter, only to be burnt to death or sold into slavery.

But when the evil Muslims returned, what did they do. Surely it must have been worse than the nice Christians?

After the overthrow of the Crusaders by a Muslim army under Saladin (1187), the Jews were again accorded a certain measure of freedom, including the right to live in Jerusalem.

Then there is the Inquisitions, the Holocaust, the treatment of Jewish people during the plagues (they were blamed of course), and other nastiness. It’s barely comparable.

While this is a very valid point, it doesn’t change the fact that what MEMRI usually chooses to highlight is not tinfoil geopages websites, but material coming out of state media organs. The notoriety of said organs has led to the creation of this thread.

As a sidenote, is there a reverse counterpart to MEMRI highlighting examples that official Arab hostility towards Israel isn’t all that bad?

Anyone want to guess what country in the Middle East that has the largest jewish population, besides Israel? It’s Iran. Yes, the same theocratic, nuke-developing, Israel-hating state we all know and despise actually offers it’s Jewish citizens a protected status precisely because it is mandated in to Koran that Jews are “people of the Book”, and as such a protected minority.

Not that life in Iran is all that rosy in the first place, but there is apparently neither open persecution nor discrimination of jews.