‘Al-Jazeera should be burnt to the ground” a senior Israeli Intelligence officer recently remarked to me in private. This former officer, who today appears regularly on Arabic media, was lamenting the station’s radical rhetoric and vitriol against the West. He has a right to his opinion, but I respectfully disagree. In no small part, this is because al-Jazeera has provided me with endless hours of fascination and entertainment.
Even during my service in the Israeli army, I was unreachable almost every Tuesday night between 9:05 and 10:00 pm. For that hour, I sat glued to the TV watching the equivalent of political Jerry Springer in Arabic. Al-Jazeera superstar Faisal al-Qassem hosts The Opposite Direction, far and away the best program in the Arab world.
The show pits two guests against one another who, to put it mildly, hate each other’s guts. Qassem will invite a Kurd whose entire family was killed by Iraqi forces and a Baath party loyalist who served under Saddam. He will invite a democratic Syrian dissident and an Assad lackey, a secular feminist and a radical Islamist. Guests storm off the show and regularly curse each other and threaten bodily harm. This format — unthinkable in most of the Arab world — has unleashed a torrent of repressed emotion and brought about a veritable revolution in the region.
Arab regimes have always tightly controlled their media outlets. Autocratic governments, by their nature, try desperately to keep citizens in the dark; too much information could lead to discontent or revolt. Literate and well-informed masses would likely find out that their leaders were irresponsible, inept, and corrupt. Before the Internet, e-mail, web-cams, and text messaging, it was far easier to restrict the flow of information and blame foreigners for domestic ills.
Few tools have done as much to break the wall of Arab ignorance and lack of accountability as al-Jazeera. Debates that were previously thought unimaginable in the Arab world are now heatedly discussed night after night and broadcast to tens of millions. The impact of this development cannot be overstated. Though many in the West have been quick to criticize al-Jazeera since its founding in 1996, such opposition totally misses the point. There are far more important trends afoot in the Arab world than if one more sheikh decries Western capitalism or pronounces America the “great Satan.”
On Qassem’s show, unlike the average state-owned newspaper in the Arab world, the most contentious issues of the day are fiercely debated. Knowingly or not, the Qatar-based al-Jazeera and The Opposite Direction in particular, are modeled after another channel founded in 1996: Fox News. Two more politically disparate channels would be hard to come by, but the fact remains that they are strikingly similar. Al-Jazeera uses sharp graphics, dramatic music, and refined broadcasters, and has an aesthetic allure that is hard to beat — techniques that Fox has all but perfected. And both stations utilize the debate format — though I fear Hannity and Colmes would look positively wimpy next to any two of Qassem’s guests.
But is al-Jazeera “fair and balanced” — does it give viewpoints from the “the opposite direction” a fair shot? Consider some of Qassem’s recent guests. Vociferous secularist Wafa Sultan, Lebanese neocon Fouad Ajami, critic of radical Islam Daniel Pipes and terrorist-hunter Steve Emerson have all had significant face time on Qassem’s show. They have defended secularism, democracy, and the West to tens of millions of Arabs.
Even more important than Americans like Pipes and Emerson are Qassem’s Arab guests. They are tyranny’s most eloquent critics. There is nothing as satisfying as watching a fearless Egyptian dissident blast Mubarak’s autocracy or a brave Saudi columnist wallop Abdullah’s thuggish regime. A more devastating critique of the bigoted theory that Arabs do not desire, understand, or deserve freedom is not to be found.
Al-Jazeera still has a long way to go. Far too much time is given to radicals and conspiracy theorists whose sole line of reasoning is to blame Jews or America. Sheikh Qaradawi’s weekly program Sharia and Life, is an uncontrolled gush of irrationality and divisiveness. Israelis are not represented nearly enough, and when they are mentioned, it is almost invariably negative. Qassem himself said in July 2001: “ ‘Hezbollah’ is a beautiful, mighty name, and as many have said, it succeeded in expelling the Zionists from southern [Lebanon] like dogs — my apologies to the dogs. . . . ”
Despite these criticisms, al-Jazeera has set a new gold standard for Arab media. That Faisal al-Qassem is banned from most Arab countries and would be thrown in prison in Syria is a sure sign that he is doing a lot right. Innovators like Qassem are helping to lead tens of millions of Arabs out of the shadows of ignorance and in The Opposite Direction.
– – David Keyes served in the Strategic Division of the Israeli army and assisted a former U.N. ambassador.