The problem with al-Jazeera

17. Actualité archives 2007

JUDEA PEARL in Los Angeles, The New York Times -
In late 2001, three months before my son, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped, he interviewed the influential Qatari cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and asked him about suicide bombings against Israeli civilians. The sheik replied with a novel twist of logic. "Israeli society in general is armed," he said, implying that Israeli civilians -- including women and children, doctors and journalists -- are legitimate targets.
At the time, it was still surprising to see an authoritative Muslim cleric give religious license to the ideology of terror -- granting the faithful permission to elevate their own grievances above the norms of civilized society.
Daniel would fall victim to that same ideology when he was abducted and murdered in Pakistan. After his death, I discovered that Sheik Qaradawi is the host of a weekly program on the Qatar-based TV news network al-Jazeera called Sharia and Life. He uses this forum to preach his new morality to millions of Arabic-speaking viewers, including Hamas operatives, al-Qaeda recruits, schoolteachers and impressionable Muslim youths. "We have the 'children bomb,' and these human bombs must continue until liberation," he told his audience in 2002. Consistent with this logic and morality, Sheik Qaradawi later extended his Koranic blessing to suicide bombing against American civilians in Iraq.
A few in the Arab world have taken issue with his calls for violence. Al Ittihad, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, editorialized in 2004 that the beheading of two American hostages in Iraq happened "in direct response to Qaradawi's fatwa and incitement, which permits the killing of American civilians." Yet few, in the Middle East or the West, seem willing to condemn al-Jazeera's management for giving the cleric regular airtime.
None of this might seem to matter much to us except that for two months now al-Jazeera has been taking its mixture of news coverage and extremist propagandizing to the West's front door through an English-language station. Called al-Jazeera English, the network can be received via satellite or streamed over the Internet. It has bureaus in London and Washington, and has recruited such high-profile Western journalists as Sir David Frost as correspondents.
In part, this is promising. The Arabic version of al-Jazeera and its various spinoffs on satellite TV and the Internet are usually credited with having a positive influence on Arab society. In particular, al-Jazeera's coverage has placed an emphasis on younger leaders, reformers and successful businessmen who may serve as role models for today's Arab youth. And it has brought --as the press usually does -- a degree of inquisitiveness and openness that could become a useful engine of reform in the region.
Westerners have been quick to point out these benefits. A critic for The New York Times said that "though al- Jazeera English looks at news events through a non-Western prism, it also points to where East and West actually meet." Time magazine noted, "arguably nothing -- including the Bush administration's panoply of democratization programs -- has done more than al- Jazeera to open minds and challenge authority in the Middle East.''
But what should concern Westerners is that the ideology of men like Sheik Qaradawi saturates many of the network's programs, and is gaining wider acceptance among Muslim youths in the West. In its "straight" news coverage on its Arabic TV broadcasts and Web sites, al-Jazeera's reports consistently amplify radical Islamist sentiments (although without endorsing violence explicitly).
For example, the phrase "war on terror" is invariably preceded by the contemptuous prefix "so-called." The words "terror" and "insurgency" are rarely uttered with a straight face, usually replaced with "resistance" or "struggle." The phrase "war in Iraq" is often replaced by "war on Iraq" or "war against Iraq." A suicide bombing is called a "commando attack" or, occasionally, a "paradise operation."
Al-Jazeera's Web site can be less subtle. On Dec. 12, after religious leaders and heads of state all over the world condemned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for staging a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran, the headline on the site read, "Ahmadinejad Praised by Participants of the Holocaust Conference in Tehran, but Condemned by Zionists in Europe."
In short, al-Jazeera's editors choreograph a worldview in which an irreconcilable struggle rages between an evil meaning Western oppressor and its helpless, righteous Arab victims. Most worrisome, perhaps, it often reports on supposed Western conspiracies behind most Arab hardships or failings, thus fuelling the sense of helplessness, humiliation and anger among Muslim youths and helping turn them into potential recruits for terrorist organizations.
The question is, to what extent will this pathological worldview infiltrate al- Jazeera's English channel, which is still trying to find its voice? David Marash, a former Nightline correspondent who is the American anchor on al-Jazeera English, acknowledges such a possibility, but dismisses the responsibility of the network. "Undoubtedly, some al- Jazeera programs may have inspired some social misfits to undertake terrorism," he told The New York Sun. "The danger with information is that some people will take it the wrong way.''
Still, with the growing number of social misfits in society, and the growing confusion between "information" and deception in the news media, the danger of fuelling combustible anger in some viewers cannot be ignored, especially when pumped subliminally by well-respected Western anchors.
Let's face it: When a terrorist attack is described as a "martyrdom" in a thick Middle Eastern accent, it can be dismissed by Americans as a peculiarity of cultural differences. But imagine the effect of the word if spoken in David Frost's cultured British tones. This is why, even if al-Jazeera English waters down its alarmist content, it should still be seen as a potential threat: it will bestow respectability upon the practices of its parent network in Qatar, which continues, among other things, to broadcast Sheik Qaradawi's teachings.
I wouldn't call for banning al- Jazeera English, even if that were possible. It is important to extend a hand to the network because it can become a force for good; but it is as important for our news organizations to scrutinize its content and let its viewers know when anti-Western wishes are subverting objective truth. As al-Jazeera on the whole feels the heat of world media attention, we can hope that it will learn to harness its popularity in the service of humanity, progress and moderation.
- Judea Pearl is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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