EDITOR’S NOTE:This article appeared in the May 6, 2002, issue of National Review.
After the 9/11 attacks, the West realized that it knew little about the Arab world–in fact, dangerously little. Why do they hate us so, and did this come out of the blue? It seemed imperative to learn more about the Arabs–to learn, for example, what they were saying to one another, in their media, in their schools, and in their mosques. The Arab world had always been dark this way; it needed to come into the light.
And this is where www.memri.org proved “invaluable,” as everyone has said. It is more than a website, of course; it is an institute, specifically the Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI. What it does, mainly, is provide translations of Arab newspaper articles, television shows, political statements, sermons, textbooks, and so on. MEMRI invites one and all to “Explore the Middle East Through Its Own Media”–which is what many people, including journalists, began to do last fall. Plenty of journalists leaned heavily on MEMRI’s translations, citing “the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute.” In fact, “invaluable” was written so often before MEMRI’s name that one could have been forgiven for thinking the word was part of the name. MEMRI served as an antidote to darkness, as a way not to be ignorant.
Consider the case of Sheikh Muhammad al-Gamei’a, as “mainstream” a Muslim as one could have hoped for. He was head of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque on New York’s Upper East Side, the very symbol of Muslim splendor in America. Al-Gamei’a was the kind who participated in interreligious services and offered soothing words about peace, healing, and brotherhood. This is the sort of role he played–speaking in English–immediately after September 11.
But then he went home to Egypt and, on October 4, gave an eye-opening interview to a prominent Islamic website. The sheikh told his audience that, after September 11, Arabs in America could not go to hospitals, because Jewish doctors were making them sick; that Americans were firing on mosques and murdering Arabs in the street, with impunity; that Americans knew that the Jews–not radical Arabs–were responsible for the attacks, but were afraid to speak up about it, for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic.
After expounding on secret Jewish control, al-Gamei’a turned to Hitler–as Arab opinion-makers tend to do (a fact documented sickeningly and undeniably by MEMRI). Said the sheikh: “Now [the Jews] are riding on the back of the world powers. These people always seek out the superpower of the generation and develop coexistence with it. Before this, they rode on the back of England and on the back of the French empire. After that, they rode on the back of Germany. But Hitler annihilated them because they betrayed him and violated their contract with him.”
Al-Gamei’a then explained that “on the news in the U.S. it was said that four thousand Jews did not come to work at the World Trade Center on the day of the incident, and that the police arrested a group of Jews rejoicing in the streets at the time of the incident.” But “this news item was hushed up immediately after it was broadcast,” because “the Jews who control the media acted to hush it up so that the American people would not know. If it became known to the American people, they would have done to the Jews what Hitler did!”
Under ordinary circumstances, the sheikh’s words–so unlike those he had uttered, in English, while Muslim leader in New York–would have gone unnoticed in the West. But circumstances had changed, and journalists were attuned to MEMRI, meaning that the usual double game–sweetness and reason in English, lies and hate in Arabic–could not be played, in the dark. The al-Gamei’a story made it all the way to the top, which is to say, into the New York Times. The newspaper duly had “two independent translators” confirm the MEMRI translation–the institute’s work has never been found to be anything but honest, accurate, and meticulous. And the sheikh was exposed.
Why do ordinary Arabs believe such awful things about us? rings the question. And the answer–or at least part of the answer–is that they hear them from their authorities, incessantly.
The stream of materials kept coming from MEMRI, many of them startling conventional U.S. journalists, in part because a great deal of them came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two nations always counted among the “moderates.” Those acquainted with the Middle East were unsurprised, but everyone else–who took the question seriously–was somewhat awed. The anti-Israeli feeling could have been expected; but the anti-Americanism was, if anything, more breathtaking. Still more breathtaking was the anti-Semitism: not garden-variety anti-Semitism, and not present-day European anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism on the Nazi level. A veteran Middle East scholar once confided to me that the Muslim world is full of Mein Kampfs, big and little. Some are full-length books, some are essays, editorials, pamphlets, all declaring intentions, all divulging convictions, all remarkably candid. They have only to be read.
MEMRI made clear that the people celebrating in the Middle East over September 11 were not only the radicalized masses, but the elites who had radicalized them. Well before that terrible day, the Arab media were full of exultation over the attacks that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda had already committed against America, and were anticipating and urging yet more spectacular ones. In July, Dr. Faisal al-Qassem, host of a talk show on al-Jazeera–sometimes described as the “Arab CNN”–said, “Has bin Laden not become a worthy opponent, feared by America–for whom [America] moves its fleets and puts its army and embassies on highest alert? . . . Who smashed one of its destroyers on the high seas? Who fought it in Somalia and caused its troops to run like rabbits? Who made its embassies throughout the world into fortresses [whose residents] fear even a light breeze? Who caused America to yelp in pain one hundred times?”
Yet the host did fault bin Laden on one score: “Where are bin Laden’s attacks on Israel? True, according to opinion polls we conducted, America is Enemy No. 1 . . . but Israel is the spearhead. Where is his struggle, his jihad against Israel? Why are we not seeing it?”
After September 11, of course, bin Laden became an even greater figure, although some commentators–moderates, one might even call them–preferred to concentrate on the evil of the American war. Ibrahim Nafi’ is editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, the government daily in Cairo. In October, he wrote that U.S. forces were dropping their food for desperate Afghans in minefields. He further suggested that this food had been “genetically treated,” with “the aim of affecting the health of the Afghan people” (for the worse, naturally). Therefore the Afghans would be unlucky either way: blown up by mines or poisoned by America’s food gifts. We should bear in mind that Nafi’ is not some “crazy” spouting off in a renegade organ, but the equivalent of the principal editor of the New York Times, although appointed by the head of state.
The veil has been lifted by MEMRI. The institute is the brainchild of Yigal Carmon, who, with co-founder Meyrav Wurmser, began these efforts four years ago. (Wurmser is now at the Hudson Institute in Washington, while Carmon continues with MEMRI.) An Israeli, Carmon was born in Romania, to parents speaking Romanian, Hungarian, and German. Carmon would go on to speak several more languages. He is of a type more common in his country than in others: a military man–he is a retired military-intelligence colonel–and an intellectual, a scholar. He is a specialist in Arabic, Arab literature, and Arab politics. Carmon served as counter-terrorism adviser to two prime ministers, Shamir and Rabin, and participated in negotiations with the Syrians.
In establishing MEMRI, he wanted to bring the Arab world to Western governments, journalists, and publics at large, without filters and without distortions. Few outsiders learn Arabic, and Westerners–including Middle East correspondents–have always been at the mercy of what Arabs tell them in their own tongues. Carmon’s idea was that political elites (in particular) should read editorials in Al-Ahram the same way they read editorials in the Jerusalem Post or the New York Times–with their morning coffee.
At first, he focused mainly on the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, with the most urgent attention being paid to the P.A. Yasser Arafat would speak to his people preaching jihad–on P.A. TV–and few on the outside knew it. Carmon simply translated these speeches and distributed them to all interested parties. Some in the Israeli government were profoundly irritated by this project, because to hear Arafat in the raw was to doubt that he could be a “partner for peace,” as the Israeli leadership very much needed him to be. Foreign minister Shimon Peres once chided, “The point is not to expose them but to change them.” MEMRI retorts that exposure–knowledge, openness, understanding–is a precondition to change.
From small beginnings, the institute branched out, literally. It is now headquartered in Washington, and has offices in Jerusalem, London, and Berlin. MEMRI translates into English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Hebrew, and Turkish; soon it will do Italian, and perhaps Japanese. The institute’s staff number about thirty, and they are of assorted nationalities and religions. The outfit runs on a shoestring, with Carmon constantly on a hunt for money. MEMRI exists entirely on private donations–there are about 250 donors, including some foundations–and will not accept any government money, as a matter of policy. Independence and objectivity are matters of pride here. Staffers work virtually around the clock, with an almost missionary spirit, feeling that their work is vital, that their moment is now.
Carmon and his team are most eager to stress that a major part of their mission is to highlight the “good guys” in the Middle East: the democrats, or near democrats; the liberals, or near liberals–anyone who evinces the slightest interest in reform. If a professor somewhere in the Gulf writes a letter-to-the-editor expressing reasonableness or the hope of change, MEMRI seizes on it, trumpeting it, holding it out as a flower amid the weeds. The institute is useful for “gotcha”–for a kind of ideological and rhetorical whistle-blowing; but it is most interested in encouraging democracy and reform. Carmon dreams of, to borrow language from another region and period, perestroika and glasnost in the Arab world.
For the time being, however, the “gotcha” elements will remain in the fore. When Arafat appears on 60 Minutes–as he did–he can now be confronted with his Arabic statements–as he was. When Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO’s smooth and earnest-seeming spokeswoman, is interviewed on Fox News, she is faced with the Friday sermons broadcast on Palestinian Authority TV. Egyptian officials are queried about the steady Hitlerism in their country’s official media, and they huffily deny it–but then a columnist goes and reiterates, “Thanks [be] to Hitler, of blessed memory, who on behalf of the Palestinians revenged in advance against the most vile criminals on the face of the earth. Although we do have a complaint against him, for his revenge on them was not enough.”
Just as many Arab officials and opinionists praise bin Laden for September 11 in one breath, and in the next breath insist that the Jews, rather than bin Laden, perpetrated it, they are apt to deny the Holocaust in one breath, and then hail it in the next. They seem not to be able to decide whether the Holocaust is a Jewish lie, meant to gain world sympathy, or a mighty act. They regularly peddle anti-Jewish fabrications, such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Nazis’ Handbook on the Jewish Question (1935). The foreign minister of Syria, Mustafa Tlass, is the author of The Matza of Zion, which perpetuates the blood libel.
And speaking of blood libel, America’s ally, Saudi Arabia, was discomfited briefly by the exposure of an article in one of its official dailies. In Al-Riyadh, Dr. Umayma Ahmad al-Jalahma of King Faisal University had a column entitled “The Jewish Holiday of Purim,” holding that “the Jew must prepare very special pastries” for this event: specifically, pastries filled with the blood of non-Jewish adolescents. MEMRI spread this news, and many Western outlets picked it up, awake to something rotten in the “desert kingdom.”
And pity Yasser Arafat, who now has MEMRI listening in. His ministers in the P.A. frequently reassure the populace that any move toward peace and negotiation is a mere tactic. One of those ministers, the late Faisal al-Husseini, had been considered by the West a Great Moderate Hope. Shortly before he died last summer, al-Husseini gave an interview to an Egyptian newspaper in which he described the Oslo accords as a Trojan Horse, elaborating on the metaphor with specificity and relish. That shook the “peace camp” in Israel. And Arafat himself is “caught” when he, for example, gives an interview to Egyptian TV. While under siege from the Israeli military, he vowed to take Jerusalem and said–repeatedly, almost as an incantation–”martyrs by the millions. To Jerusalem we march–martyrs by the millions.” When his interviewer closed with, “We are with you in our hearts and souls and we pray for your safety and the safety of the Palestinian people,” Arafat responded, “Man, don’t wish me safety! Pray for me to attain martyrdom! Is there anything better than being martyred on this holy land? We are all seekers of martyrdom.” Speaking to Abu Dhabi TV, Arafat said of Ariel Sharon, “True, he uses all the weapons prohibited by international law. True, he uses depleted uranium. True, he uses toxic gases . . . but we are steadfast.” Such lies are “unhelpful,” to use a President Bush adjective.
Wading or clicking through MEMRI’s materials can be a depressing act, but it is also illusion-dispelling, and therefore constructive. This one institute is worth a hundred reality-twisting Middle Eastern Studies departments in the U.S. Furthermore, listening to Arabs–reading what they say in their newspapers, hearing what they say on television–is a way of taking them seriously: a way of not condescending to them, of admitting that they have useful things to tell us, one way or the other. Years ago, Solzhenitsyn exhorted, “Live not by lies.” We might say, in these new circumstances, “Live not by ignorance about lies, either.” Anyone still has the right to avert his eyes, of course. But no one can say that that is not a choice.