|11 September 2001>Commentary>What the Muslim World Is Watching
What the Muslim World Is Watching
Fouad Ajami . NYTimes . 18 November
And now, the news: Relatives and neighbors in a village near Peshawar, Pakistan, watch Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan.
l Jazeera is not subtle television. Recently, during a lull in its nonstop coverage of the raids on Kabul and the street battles of Bethlehem, the Arabic-language satellite news station showed an odd but telling episode of its documentary program "Biography and Secrets." The show's subject was Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Presenting Che as a romantic, doomed hero, the documentary recounted the Marxist rebel's last stand in the remote mountains of Bolivia, lingering mournfully over the details of his capture and execution. Even Che's corpse received a lot of airtime; Al Jazeera loves grisly footage and is never shy about presenting graphic imagery. The
episode's subject matter was, of course, allegorical. Before bin Laden, there was Guevara. Before Afghanistan, there was Bolivia. As for the show's focus on C.I.A. operatives chasing Guevara into the mountains, this, too, was clearly meant to evoke the contemporary hunt for Osama, the Islamic rebel.
Al Jazeera, which claims a global audience of 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers, may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel -- but he is clearly its star, as I learned during an extended viewing of the station's programming in October. The channel's graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.
On Al Jazeera (which means "the Peninsula"), the Hollywoodization of news is indulged with an abandon that would make the Fox News Channel blush. The channel's promos are particularly shameless. One clip juxtaposes a scowling George Bush with a poised, almost dreamy bin Laden; between them is an image of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames. Another promo opens with a glittering shot of the Dome of the Rock. What follows is a feverish montage: a crowd of Israeli settlers dance with unfurled flags; an Israeli soldier fires his rifle; a group of Palestinians display Israeli bullet shells; a Palestinian woman wails; a wounded Arab child lies on a bed. In the climactic image, Palestinian boys carry a banner decrying the shame of the Arab world's silence.
Al Jazeera's reporters are similarly adept at riling up the viewer. A fiercely opinionated group, most are either pan-Arabists -- nationalists of a leftist bent committed to the idea of a single nation across the many frontiers of the Arab world -- or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life. Since their primary allegiance is to fellow Muslims, not Muslim states, Al Jazeera's reporters and editors have no qualms about challenging the wisdom of today's Arab rulers. Indeed, Al Jazeera has been rebuked by the governments of Libya and Tunisia for giving opposition leaders from those countries significant air time. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for their part, have complained about Al Jazeera's extensive reporting on the misery of Iraqis living under sanctions. But the five-year-old station has refused to be reined in. The channel openly scorns the sycophantic tone of the state-run Arab media and the quiescence of the mainstream Arab press, both of which play down controversy and dissent.
Compared with other Arab media outlets, Al Jazeera may be more independent -- but it is also more inflammatory. For the dark side of the pan-Arab worldview is an aggressive mix of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, and these hostilities drive the station's coverage, whether it is reporting on the upheaval in the West Bank or on the American raids on Kandahar. Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.
Consider how Al Jazeera covered the second intifada, which erupted in September 2000. The story was a godsend for the station; masked Palestinian boys aiming slingshots and stones at Israeli soldiers made for constantly compelling television. The station's coverage of the crisis barely feigned neutrality. The men and women who reported from Israel and Gaza kept careful count of the "martyrs." The channel's policy was firm: Palestinians who fell to Israeli gunfire were martyrs; Israelis killed by Palestinians were Israelis killed by Palestinians. Al Jazeera's reporters exalted the "children of the stones," giving them the same amount of coverage that MSNBC gave to Monica Lewinsky. The station played and replayed the heart-rending footage of 12-year-old Muhammed al-Durra, who was shot in Gaza and died in his father's arms. The images' ceaseless repetition signaled the arrival of a new, sensational breed of Arab journalism. Even some Palestinians questioned the opportunistic way Al Jazeera handled the tragic incident. But the channel savored the publicity and the controversy all the same.
Since Sept. 11, I discovered, Al Jazeera has become only more incendiary. The channel's seething dispatches from the "streets of Kabul" or the "streets of Baghdad" emphasize anti-American feeling. The channel's numerous call-in shows welcome viewers to express opinions that in the United States would be considered hate speech. And, of course, there is the matter of Al Jazeera's "exclusive" bin Laden videotapes. On Oct. 7, Al Jazeera broadcast a chilling message from bin Laden that Al Qaeda had delivered to its Kabul bureau. Dressed in a camouflage jacket over a traditional thoub, bin Laden spoke in ornate Arabic, claiming that the terror attacks of Sept. 11 should be applauded by Muslims. It was a riveting performance -- one that was repeated on Nov. 3, when another bin Laden speech aired in full on the station. And just over a week ago, Al Jazeera broadcast a third Al Qaeda tape, this one showcasing the military skills of four young men who were said to be bin Laden's own sons.
The problem of Al Jazeera's role in the current crisis is one that the White House has been trying to solve. Indeed, the Bush administration has lately been expressing its desire to win the "war of ideas," to capture the Muslim world's intellectual sympathy and make it see the war against bin Laden as a just cause. There has been talk of showing American-government-sponsored commercials on Al Jazeera. And top American officials have begun appearing on the station's talk shows. But my viewing suggests that it won't be easy to dampen the fiery tone of Al Jazeera. The enmity runs too deep.
Indeed, the truth is that a foreign power can't easily win a "war of ideas" in the Muslim world. Sure, we can establish "coalition information centers" -- as the administration has in Washington, London and Islamabad -- and dispatch our diplomats on "listening tours." We can give Al Jazeera extended access to the highest American officials and hope that these leaders will make an impression on Arab viewers. But anti-Americanism is a potent force that cannot be readily dissolved.
What's more, Al Jazeera is a crafty operation. In covering the intifada, its broadcasters perfected a sly game -- namely, mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness while pandering to pan-Arab sentiments. In a seemingly open-minded act, Al Jazeera broke with a widespread taboo of the Arab news media and interviewed Israeli journalists and officials, including Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres. Yet at the same time, it pressed on with unrelenting anti-Zionist reportage that contributed to further alienation between Israelis and Palestinians.
What this means is that no matter how many Americans show up on Al Jazeera, the station will pursue its own oppositional agenda. Al Jazeera's reporters see themselves as "anti-imperialists." These men and women are convinced that the rulers of the Arab world have given in to American might; these are broadcasters who play to an Arab gallery whose political bitterness they share -- and feed. In their eyes, it is an unjust, aggressive war they are covering in Afghanistan. Watching Al Jazeera makes all of this distressingly clear.
Al Jazeera is on the ground in Afghanistan and reports the news up close. It is the only television news outlet with a bureau in Kabul. Alas, there is no skyline in the Afghan capital, no bright city lights that can illuminate America's nighttime raids. What worked so well for CNN in Baghdad has been impossible for Al Jazeera in Kabul and Kandahar. Instead, Al Jazeera's Afghanistan coverage supplies a pointed contrast between the high-tech foreign power, with its stealth planes and Tomahawk missiles, and the Taliban warriors, with their pickup trucks racing through stark, rubble-strewn landscapes.
In its rough outlines, the message of Al Jazeera is similar to that of the Taliban: there is a huge technological imbalance between the antagonists, but the foreign power will nonetheless come to grief.
In some videotape shown on Oct. 22, a band of Taliban warriors displayed what they claimed to be the wreckage of the second American helicopter they said they had downed. There was twisted steel with American markings shown in close-up. In an interview, a Taliban soldier said triumphantly that after the first helicopter had been hit, the second came in for support and rescue, and the Taliban soldiers downed it as well. There was blood, he said, at the scene of the wreckage -- and added that a search was under way for the "remains" of the American crews. A stylish warrior of the Taliban with a bright blue turban, the soldier spoke to the camera with great confidence and defiance. America's cruise missiles and bombs would not defeat the Taliban, he promised: "If these Americans were men, they would come here and fight on the ground. We would do to them what we did to the British and the Russians." Another warrior spoke with similar certainty. "God Almighty will grant us victory," he promised. Al Jazeera's report was presented entirely from the Taliban's point of view. No doubts were expressed about the validity of the Taliban's military boasts -- including one soldier's claim that the steel from the American helicopters would immediately be sold off as scrap metal. The Western news media presented the same story rather differently. In addition to presenting the Taliban's claims, CNN noted a strong American denial. In the case of one helicopter, the Pentagon claimed that only the landing gear of a CH-47 had been sheared off, after its pilot flew too close to a ground barrier. And a helicopter that did crash, the Pentagon claimed, did so because of a mechanical malfunction -- not Taliban gunfire.
A report on Oct. 30 by Al Jazeera's main man in Kabul, Tayseer Allouni, similarly underscored the ideological preference of the station's reporters. "The American planes have resumed their heavy bombing of Kabul, causing massive destruction of the infrastructure of the country," Allouni reported as his camera surveyed unrelieved scenes of wreckage and waste. Although Al Jazeera's images revealed a few craters in the street, much of the devastation appeared to be unrelated to American bombs -- potholes, a junkyard with discarded shells of cars. Noting that Kabul's notoriously decayed "roads had not been spared," Allouni then offered a wistful tribute to the Taliban's public-works efforts. "It appears that all the labors that had been made by the Taliban government prior to the outbreak of the war to repair the roads," he said sadly, "have scattered to the wind."
As Allouni presented it, there appeared to be nobody in Kabul who supported America's campaign to unseat the Taliban. A man in a telephone booth, wearing a traditional white cap, offered a scripted-sounding lament that even Kabul's telephone lines had been destroyed. "We have lost so much," he said, "because of the American bombing." Allouni then closed his survey with gruesome images of wounded Afghans. The camera zoomed in on an old man lying on his back, his beard crusted with blood; this was followed by the image of a heavily bandaged child who looked propped up, as if to face the camera. The parting shot was an awful close-up of a wounded child's face.
The channel's slant is also apparent in tiny modulations of language. Its reporters in Kabul always note that they are reporting from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the Taliban's official name for the country. Conversely, Washington's campaign is being waged not against terror, but against "what it calls terror."
Al Jazeera has a regular feature in which it briefly replays historical scenes and events that took place on that calendar day. On Oct. 23, the choice was an event that had taken place 18 years earlier. On that very day in 1983, a young man in a Mercedes truck loaded with TNT struck the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. The segment revisited the horror of that day -- the wailing of the wounded, the soot and ruin everywhere. The images were far more horrible than any I had ever seen of the tragedy. There was no sympathy in the narration, and a feeling of indifference, even menace, hung over this dark moment of remembrance. The message was clear: the Middle East was, and is, a region of heartbreak for the foreign power.
Al Jazeera loves the "Pakistani street" as much as it loves the "Afghan street." In its telling, the Pakistani street is forever on the boil, with "huge throngs" in Rawalpindi and Peshawar and Islamabad. One crowd in Rawalpindi was said to be particularly frenzied. Protesters angrily waved signs, some of them in English: "Afghanistan is in need of reconstruction not destruction." Anti-American demonstrations are, of course, eagerly covered by the Western news media as well. But by television standards, the Al Jazeera video was notably extended -- close to a minute long. In the clip, Islamist leaders prophesied calamity for the military ruler Pervez Musharraf. The crowd was dressed in South Asian white against the glare of the sun, and its rage seemed overwhelming. Looking at all those angry faces, it was easy to forget that General Musharraf, the ruler of Pakistan, was holding back the tide of anger in his country. The clip reached its maximum intensity when the crowd displayed an effigy of George Bush with a cardboard photo of his face. The protesters spat at the cutout, went at it with shoes. They pounded the American president to a pulp. It was a spectacle tailor-made for Al Jazeera.
l Jazeera began broadcasting in October 1996. The preceding year, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the crown prince of Qatar, did a most un-Arab thing: he pulled off a palace coup, taking over the government from his father (who was vacationing in Europe at the time). The young ruler promptly announced a new order of things and set out to challenge Saudi primacy in the Gulf region. He hoped to underline his independence and give his small principality a voice in the world.
The young emir had good timing. Soon after he ascended the throne, an Arabic television joint venture between the BBC and a Saudi concern, Orbit Communications, foundered over the BBC's insistence on editorial independence. The Arab reporters and editors who worked on this failed venture were eager for a new opportunity. Qatar's new emir gave them a new lease on life. With his fortune footing the bill, Al Jazeera was born.
The emir's child has grown quickly. Although it is by no means the biggest Arabic television channel, its reach is expanding. Al Jazeera now reaches viewers in more than 20 Arab countries, mostly through private satellite dishes, which have become tremendously popular in the Middle East. Dishes can be purchased there for less than $100, and tens of millions of Arab families now own them. They are as common in Cairo slums as they are in Dubai mansions. Al Jazeera beams its signal free of charge to most countries. Outside the Arab world, in countries like Great Britain, it is offered as part of a subscription service. In the United States, around 150,000 subscribers pay the Dish Network between $22.99 and $29.99 a month to receive Al Jazeera as part of a multichannel Arabic "package."
Like America's own 24-hour news outlets, Al Jazeera is a repetitive affair. As with CNN, it is easy to see its luster withering away in a time of peace and normalcy. There are steady news updates throughout the day. (It is always daytime on Al Jazeera, which announces its coming schedule in Mecca time, Greenwich Mean Time and New York time.) There is a financial broadcast of the standard variety -- filmed out of London, with a source checking in from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Sports (soccer for the most part) gets its own regular report. There is a survey of the world press and a show dedicated to the secrets of the cinema. Oddly for a passionately pan-Arab channel, the station broadcasts dubbed programs bought from old American libraries: a wildlife documentary, a history of French art.
There is little coherence to Al Jazeera's scheduling -- segments about the American bombs in Kabul and the Israeli tanks in the streets of the West Bank alternate with quaint reports on life in Silicon Valley and the patterns of energy consumption in American cities. The end result has a hectic yet anonymous feel. Al Jazeera is not a star-driven channel; no particular anchor dominates it. It's the BBC pattern, reporter driven, with a succession of reporters and anchors drawn from different Arab lands.
The pride of Al Jazeera lies, without a doubt, in its heavily promoted talk shows, like "Without Borders," "Opinion and the Other Opinion" and "The Opposite Direction." One enormously popular program in this genre is "Al-Sharia wa al-Hayat," or "Islamic Law and Life." The program, which is full of belligerent piety and religious zeal, appears every Sunday evening at 9:05, Mecca time. It is structured somewhat like "Larry King Live"; an interview with a guest is followed by questions and comments from viewers.
One recent evening, the guest of the program was Sheik Muhammad Ibrahim Hassan, a young Islamic preacher. A large man with a bushy jet-black beard, he was dressed in a white thoub and a loose white kaffiyeh without a headband -- an exaggerated Islamist fantasy of what Muslims in seventh-century Arabia looked like. Hassan was interviewed by Hasib Maher, a young, polite Al Jazeera anchorman in suit and tie.
Hassan was fierce; it was easy to imagine him inciting a crowd. He had the verbal skills and eloquence of his homeland. (Egyptians are the people of the spoken and written word in the Arab world; the Gulfies are its silent types.) Hassan knew the sacred scripture by heart: he knew the Sira -- the life and the example -- of the Prophet Muhammad; he knew the Hadith, the sayings attributed to the Prophet. He tackled the questions thrown at him with gusto.
Al Jazeera's anchorman asked Hassan about a fatwa issued by a number of religious scholars that ruled that American Muslims were bound to fight under the flag of their country, even if this meant going to war against fellow Muslims. Hassan would have none of this fatwa. "This puzzles the believer," he said. "I say that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said that the Muslim is the brother of every other Muslim. He can't oppress his brother Muslim or bring about his surrender or abandon him to non-Muslims. Come to your brother's aid whether he be oppressor or oppressed, the Prophet taught us. No one can deny that our brothers in Afghanistan are among the oppressed."
Hassan really knew how to milk the medium. In an extended monologue, he declared that the Islamic community, the pan-national umma, was threatened everywhere -- in Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Philippines. The umma, he said forcefully, should know its pain and heal its wounds. Then he did something you never see on "Hardball": he broke into free-flowing verse. There was no shred of paper in front of him; this was rote learning and memorization:
Oh Muslims, we have been dying for centuries What are we in this world? . . . We are bloodied corpses, And our blood is being shed. Oh the honor of Islam, How that honor is being violated. . . . We strayed from the faith, And the world darkened for us. If the root dies, The branches and the leaves will die.Hassan now owned his airwave pulpit. He was in full flight. A look of awe stole upon the anchorman's face. The anchorman queried Hassan about the attacks of Sept. 11: Did they implicate Islam and Muslims in any way? The preacher answered in his own way. "Oppression always leads to an explosion!" he said angrily. "Under the cover of the new world order, Muslims in Chechnya and Iraq have been brutalized. . . . Any Muslim on the face of the earth who bears faith in God and his Prophet feels oppression today. If a believer feels oppression and thinks that no one listens to him and that power respects only the mighty, that believer could be provoked to violent deeds. We saw things -- horrors -- in Bosnia that would make young people turn old. . . . Where were the big powers and the coalitions and the international organizations then? Where are they now, given what is going on in Palestine? The satellite channels have spread everywhere a knowledge of this oppression."
Hassan then answered an e-mail message from a viewer. "Should we turn the other cheek, as Christ advised?" the viewer asked. "No, I say," Hassan replied. "The Islamic umma must come to the rescue of the oppressed!"
This was soon followed by a call from a Palestinian viewer, Shaker Abdulaziz. He greeted Hassan and the host, wished them God's peace and mercy, then delivered an angry prose poem. "The wolf," he said, "should not be blamed if the shepherd is an enemy of his own flock! I saw the people, evildoers living next to evildoers, befriending the wolf and weeping with the shepherd." Abdulaziz was speaking in code, but Al Jazeera's viewers would understand his message: the false, treacherous shepherds were, of course, those Arab rulers who had betrayed their peoples and befriended the wolves of the West.
"I greet you from the Dome of the Rock," Abdulaziz said. "A people are being slaughtered, liquidated and trampled upon. Where are the Arab rulers and armies? They do nothing!" Abdulaziz's wrath grew stronger. He challenged the show's guest preacher directly. "Is it not time for Sheik Hassan to call from this pulpit upon the Arab peoples to rebel, trample their rulers and replace them with a just ruler and the rule of the Islamic state?"
Maher, the smooth anchorman, did not challenge his guest's assertions. He did not mention, for instance, that the West had come to the defense of Muslims in Kosovo. He simply moved on.
Next, a viewer named Hazem Shami -- from Denmark, of all places -- came on the line. "Peace be upon you," he began. "The insistence of the colonizing nations, with America as their leader, on tying Islam to terrorism is merely due to the fact that America considers Islam as the sole obstacle to its hegemony over the Islamic world. Even though Islam is a message of peace and mercy, it still refuses the hegemony of the kuffar (infidels) over the Muslims in all matters -- cultural, economic, military. Muslims should unite their countries in one Islamic state. Islam is the only challenge to world capitalism, the only hope after a black capitalist century."
The man in Denmark had posed no question, but Hassan nonetheless took his bait. "The Jews are the ones responsible for spreading this hostile view of Islam," the preacher explained. "The Jews dominate the Western media, and they feed the decision-makers this distorted view of Islam. No sooner did the attacks in America take place, the Jews came forth accusing the Muslims, without evidence, without proof."
It was strange hearing this unyielding view of the faith and this talk of "infidels" coming from a man in Denmark. Islam, once a religion of Africa and Asia, had migrated across the globe; it had become part of Western European and North American life. But in bilad al-Kufr ("the lands of unbelief"), it had grown anxious. The caller lived in Western Europe, but the tranquil Danish world had not seeped into him. He had come to this satellite program, to this preacher, like some emissary of war. In close proximity to modern liberties, he had drawn back and, through Al Jazeera, sought the simplifications and certainties of extreme faith.
One of Al Jazeera's most heavily promoted talk shows right now is called "The First of the Century's Wars," in homage to the battle in Afghanistan. A recent episode featured three guests -- one in Washington, one in London and one in the Doha studio. Demure at first glance, Montaha al Ramhi, the anchorwoman who led the discussion, is a woman of will and political preference. She was dressed on this day in the Hillary Clinton style: an orange blouse under a black suit-jacket. I could not make out her exact nationality in the Arab world; her accent didn't give her away.
Ramhi's subject for the evening was Osama bin Laden, and the responses of the Arab world to his message. Does bin Laden represent the sentiments of the Arabs, she asked, or is he a "legend" that the West has exaggerated? There would be her guest panelists, she announced, and there would be reports from the field, from the "streets" of the Arab world. The guest in Doha was a Palestinian writer and analyst by the name of Fayez Rashid; the guest in London was Hafez Karmi, director of the Mayfair Islamic Center; the third pundit was Shafeeq Ghabra, a liberal Kuwaiti political scientist who currently lives in Washington.
Karmi, a large man with a close-cropped beard, was dressed in a shiny silk suit, matched by a shiny tie. He had the exile's emphatic politics, and he had the faith. Ghabra had his work cut out for him. Indeed, as soon as Rashid launched his first salvo, it became clear that Ghabra was to be a mere foil for an evening of boisterous anti-Americanism.
"He is a celebrated resister," Rashid said of bin Laden. "The U.S. was looking for an enemy, and bin Laden had supplied it with the enemy it needed. He is an Arab symbol of the fight against American oppression, against Israeli oppression. . . . The U.S. had exaggerated Osama bin Laden's threat. This is the American way: it was done earlier in the case of Iraq when the power of the Iraqi Army was exaggerated before it was destroyed. . . . Now the Americans want to kill bin Laden to defeat this newest Arab symbol."
When Ghabra spoke, he offered a cautionary refrain. A new international order, he said, was emerging out of the wreckage of Sept. 11. "The world is being reshaped," he said. He warned against allowing the "Arab street" to dictate policy. Surely, he said, one wanted leadership and judgment from the Arab world, lest it be further marginalized and left out of the order of nations.
For Karmi, however, Osama bin Laden was a "struggler in the path of God." There was no proof, he added, that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the events of Sept. 11; he was merely a man who cared about the rights of Muslims. He asked and answered his own question: Why did the "Arab Afghans" -- by which he meant the Arab volunteers who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980's to fight the Soviet Union -- turn their wrath against the United States? "They have been made angry that the enemies are inside the Arab world," he said, echoing bin Laden's Oct. 7 videotape. "By its presence in the Arabian Peninsula, or in Palestine through its unlimited support for the killing of Palestinians, America has brought this anger on itself!"
Rashid, the guest in Doha, offered further absolution for bin Laden. The man, he argued, was just "part of the Arab anger in the face of American arrogance."
The show paused for a commercial break. One ad offered a striking counterpoint to the furious anti-Westernism of the call-in program. It was for Hugo Boss "Deep Red" perfume. A willowy Western woman in leather pants strode toward a half-naked young man sprawled on a bed. "Your fragrance, your rules, Hugo Deep Red," the Arabic voiceover intoned. I imagined the young men in Arab-Muslim cities watching this. In the culture where the commercial was made, it was nothing unusual. But on those other shores, this ad threw into the air insinuations about the liberties of the West -- the kind of liberties that can never be had by the thwarted youths of the Islamic world.
Back on the air, Shafeeq Ghabra made his sharpest intervention of the program: There was a "democratic deficit" in the Arab world, he argued. "But if a Saudi citizen had to choose between bin Laden and King Fahd, he should choose King Fahd. Bin Laden has not come forth bearing a democratic project, or a new project to improve the condition of women, or to repair our educational system. What he proposes is a Talibanist project, which would be a calamity for the Arab people."
Ramhi, the anchorwoman, interrupted him, talking over his voice. "Someone has to say to the United States, this is a red line!" she shouted. "Here and no more, in Palestine and Iraq, in other Arab realms!"
Ramhi soon cut off the discussion and segued to a taped segment from Egypt. The report, a Cairo street scene, was full of anti-Americanism. "Any young Muslim would be proud to be Osama bin Laden," one young man said. "America is the maker of terrorism," another asserted, "and it is now tasting its own medicine." There was authenticity in this rage; it was unrehearsed and unprompted. The segment went on at some length.
Afterward, Ramhi admitted that there was a "minority opinion" to be found in Egypt. She cut to the brief comments of a quiet man, in a white shirt and tie, in the midst of a crowd. He was eager to exonerate his faith. "I am a good Muslim," he said, "and Islam does not permit the killing of noncombatants. Islam could never countenance the killing of civilians."
This dissent was immediately followed, however, by more belligerence. Men clamored for the "evidence," insisting there was no proof of bin Laden's guilt. And there was the unsettling verdict of the sole "woman on the street" interviewed. The young woman had a certain fundamentalist chic -- a colored head scarf arranged with flair and a confident way about her. She spoke of bin Laden with unadorned admiration. "Bin Laden is the only personality who is doing the right thing at this time," she said. "He is trying to awaken them from their slumber!"
Al Jazeera is the only Arab television station to have achieved global fame, but its status is inflated. The truth is, other Arab channels reach much wider audiences. The oldest, most successful of the pan-Arab satellite stations is the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Centre. The station is controlled by an in-law of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. In addition to broadcasting the region's most popular program, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" MBC has five news broadcasts of its own. MBC's news programs come across as blandly professional. Compared to Al Jazeera, its reporters are staid, careful not to incur the wrath of Arab rulers or to challenge the established order. There is also the hugely popular Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International. LBCI is loaded with entertainment programming, but it also regularly presents news. The news on LBCI, a privately owned station, also has a tepid feel. Syria dominates the Lebanese world, and its news broadcasts avoid broadcasting anything that would offend.
Despite its comparatively small audience, Al Jazeera has received almost all of the Bush administration's attention so far. The doors in official Washington have now opened before Al Jazeera's reporters. Since Sept. 11, there have been interviews with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Surely, the emir of Qatar never imagined that the bet he took five years ago would be so amply rewarded. Al Jazeera still requires the emir's subsidies, but the station's heightened profile has brought it closer to solvency. Al Jazeera's footage from Afghanistan, for example, has been sold to news outlets around the world, with individual clips selling for as much as $250,000. And earlier this fall, CNN and ABC made arrangements with Al Jazeera to broadcast the Arabic station's exclusive video from Afghanistan.
Al Jazeera's defenders tend to applaud its independence from the censors who control state-sponsored outlets in the Arab world. For the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, there is the pleasure of channel-hopping at 2 in the morning and hearing a television station breaking with the widespread censorship and silence of the Arab news media. "It provides the one window through which we breathe," Soueif recently wrote of Al Jazeera.
In one sense, Soueif is right: the Arab world needed to be challenged. This was a region where the official media, in August 1990, withheld news of Iraq's conquest of Kuwait for three days. The pompous, sycophantic press in Arab countries -- whose main function has been to report the comings and goings and utterances of the ruler of the land -- has been dealt a major blow. For the first time, Arabs with a satellite dish now have access to uncensored news.
Al Jazeera's viewers see things that people of the region are clearly not meant to see. On Oct. 21, Al Jazeera offered silent footage of Bright Star, a joint Egyptian-American military exercise, off the coast of Egypt. It was a potent commentary on the stealth cooperation of the Egyptian military with the Pentagon. And despite the fact that its coverage of the intifada was horribly slanted, Al Jazeera should get some credit for being one of the few Arab TV stations to interview Israelis.
That said, Al Jazeera's virulent anti-American bias undercuts all of its virtues. It is, in the final analysis, a dangerous force. And it should treated as such by Washington.
A Madison Avenue advertising executive, Charlotte Beers, has been newly designated the under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. The aim is to win the propaganda war, or the battle of public diplomacy in the Muslim world. She has her work cut out for her. The Bush administration is eager to explain America's war, eager for the Arabs and the Pakistanis to accept the justness of its military actions. But how can it possibly expect to persuade the reporters at Al Jazeera to change their deep-seated view of this conflict? It would therefore be folly for America's leaders to spend too much energy trying to moderate Al Jazeera. It would be counterproductive to give Al Jazeera's editors and reporters a special claim on the time of senior American officials.
There is a better strategy available to Washington. Instead of focusing on Al Jazeera, the White House could grant "pool interviews" to a large number of Arab stations. It could give the less inflammatory satellite stations, like MBC and LBCI, as much attention as Al Jazeera. Or, indeed, it could give them more. After all, MBC has a bigger audience; shouldn't it have a bigger influence, too? Why not give MBC the scoop of an interview with President Bush? Why not give LBCI some exclusive access to White House officials?
Americans must accept that they are strangers in the Arab world. We can barely understand, let alone control, what Al Jazeera's flak-jacketed reporters in Kabul and smooth anchorwomen in Doha are saying about us. An American leader being interviewed on Al Jazeera will hardly be able to grasp the insinuations, the hidden meanings, suggested by its hostile reporters. No matter how hard we try, we cannot beat Al Jazeera at its own game. But one thing is sure: there is no need to reward a channel that has made a name for itself through stridency and anti-Americanism.
There is a war on the battlefield, and that is America's to win. But the repair of the Arab political condition -- and the weaning of the Arab world away from radicalism -- is a burden, and a task, for the Arabs themselves. The only thing America can do is make sure that it never gives this radicalism -- and its satellite channel -- a helping hand.
Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the author most recently of ''The Dream Palace of the Arabs.''