Al-Jazeera is ruled by politics. Take the recent airing of footage of American soldiers killed by Iraqis and of the interrogation of American POWs. The decision to air the footage was just another example of the network making politics — rather than reporting — its business.
The constant replay of the graphic images on Sunday was a flagrant violation of the Geneva Convention. Showing footage of dead soldiers and conducting of prisoner interrogations before the media both clearly undermine international law. The Qatar-based network’s goal was clear: It wanted the Americans to be seen as mercenaries.
And the network’s politics was all over the coverage. Consider:
Al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Washington, Wajd Waqfi, challenged the American media to broadcast the footage of dead American soldiers and of prisoners of war. Waqfi alleged that such a broadcast would have a “tremendous impact on the American street.”
Later on, Hafiz al-Mirazi, the network’s director in Washington, said while interviewing U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: “How can you talk about the Geneva convention when the U.S. showed political prisoners to the media in Afghanistan” — a subtle attempt to defend al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Mohammed al-Said Idriss, who is serving as al-Jazeera’s analyst on the war in Iraq, claimed that the “American media is an arm of the American government,” adding that its role is to prepare the psychological ground for U.S. government decisions. The media in America, he insisted, is as state-controlled as the media in Iraq. As a result, he explained, neutral media — such as al-Jazeera — are needed to “uncover lies.”
To rebut these allegations, let’s note that in Afghanistan, U.S. forces captured terrorist elements and followed the terms of the Geneva Convention. They haven’t filmed al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in close-ups with bullets in their heads. It’s one thing for the media to film dead fighters and soldiers in the battlefield, quite another to film and broadcast corpses in the custody of the Iraqi regime. It’s one thing to show prisoners before and as they are arrested, quite another to film an interrogation session in which subjects are humiliated. The American forces’ handling of irregular militias in Afghanistan exceeded the requirements of the Geneva Convention; the Iraqis’ treatment of our troops has flouted it.
Following the sharp criticism of the Iraqis for breaching international law, al-Jazeera asked one of its advisers to provide additional defense arguments. Former Colonel Osama Damj at first acknowledged that prisoners should not be displayed for public curiosity. But, he added, there is an exception: that is, if the display is in the interest of the prisoners. Damj explained that the Iraqi leadership had two objectives in airing this broadcast. One was to prove they did indeed have U.S. soldiers in their custody. The other was to demonstrate that Baghdad respects human rights and that the prisoners are in good health. And then, Damj disclosed the real reason behind his arguments.
To back up the so-called humane aspect of the Iraqis’ behavior, he cited the example of the mother of one of the soldiers — who, as soon as she had learned her son was in captivity, begged President Bush to do something for her son. Damj eventually admitted that, at the end of the day, the broadcast was really about using the prisoners to score a political victory.
So, is al-Jazeera a media outlet or a political organization? Answer: It’s both. It has the sophistication of modern-day, multidimensional satellite TV — which has led many in the Western intellectual establishment to dub it the “Arab CNN.” Despite the nickname, however, al-Jazeera is nothing like Western media outlets, which operate independently of government mandate in countries that guarantee freedom of the press.
In sum, it’s “Jihad TV.” Its doctrinal message is sculpted patiently through panel discussions including the “al-Sharia wal Hayat” (Law and Life), featuring mainly Sheikh Yussef al-Qardawi, a very influential Muslim Brotherhood cleric. The network functions essentially as a high-tech madrassa, broadcasting the ideology of jihad to millions around the world. Every development is thoroughly analyzed from a jihadist angle.
One example was the Iraq campaign. Months before the U.S. engagement began, two audiotapes were aired by al-Jazeera in which Osama bin Laden called on Muslims to fight for Baghdad as the “second capital of Islam” — not as the center of Saddam’s Baath. al-Jazeera was to use the term repeatedly, slowly building up the illusion that such a jihad would be fought for Iraq, not for Saddam. Interviews with religious fundamentalist leaders multiplied. The pressure eventually led al-Azhar, the Vatican of Sunni Islam, to call for jihad if Baghdad were to be attacked. That call, now “news,” in turn was broadcasted by al-Jazeera. Call it an electronic fatwa. By the time allied forces invade Iraq and the region’s fundamentalist masses explode, al-Jazeera has not merely reported the fact — it has created it.
— Walid Phares is a professor of Middle East studies and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic University, and author of several books on the Middle East. He is also an analyst for MSNBC.