While Al Jazeera’s English-language channel is known in the U.S. for its progressive bent and seemingly fitting slogan “Experience. Empower. Engage,” the outlet’s flagship Arabic channel showed its true colors last weekend, in a since-deleted video that denied the magnitude of the Holocaust.
The 17-minute video, featuring a female narrator, was published on May 18 on Facebook with the Arabic caption, “Gas chambers killed millions of Jews, this is what the story is. What is the truth of the #Holocaust and how did the Zionists benefit from it?” The video, according to the BBC, claimed that the toll of the Holocaust had been exaggerated and “adopted by the Zionist movement,” that Israel was the biggest winner from the Holocaust, and that Jews use “financial resources and media institutions” to “put a special spotlight” on Jewish suffering.
Al Jazeera’s statement following the video’s deletion said that the post had “violated the editorial standards of the network” and that two journalists were suspended over its content. But what editorial standards, exactly, is the network referring to? It’s been churning out such anti-Semitic tropes — not to mention Islamist extremism, anti-Shia rhetoric, and Qatari propaganda — since its inception.
Al Jazeera is headquartered in Doha, Qatar’s capital. It was launched thanks to a $137 million loan from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, the emir of Qatar, in 1996 and continues to be funded by the Qatari royal family today. It grew in prominence following 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when it gave terrorists such as Osama bin Laden a platform. Following the 9/11 attacks, Al Jazeera aired the tape of bin Laden claiming responsibility for the attacks, which prompted the late professor and writer Fouad Ajami to go to the network’s Doha studio and report his findings in a New York Times Magazine story, “What the Muslim World Is Watching”:
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 November 3, 2001, after airing bin Laden’s claim of responsibility for the attacks, the network aired another “exclusive” bin Laden tape, and then a third. After 9/11, Al Jazeera was often accused of being a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda, and Egyptian media analyst Abdellatif El-Menawy told Arab News that Al Jazeera’s coverage of terror attacks reflects their bias: It refers to groups such as al-Qaeda only as having “been described as terrorists,” rather than labeling them as such itself. U.S. troops, poking through bin Laden’s notebooks after his death, found one entry in which he exclaimed, “Al Jazeera, thank God, carries the banner of revolutions.”
The network has been just as diligent in boosting the Taliban. In one Oct. 22, 2001, report, it allowed the group to boast of having downed an American helicopter in Afghanistan, rolling the tape as a Taliban soldier triumphantly chronicled the attack and its aftermath step by step. Here’s Ajami describing the segment:
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.
Anti-Americanism has always been another specialty of Al Jazeera’s. According to Ajami, the network didn’t dispute the claims made by the Taliban soldier and failed to mention that the Pentagon’s version of events had the helicopter crashing because of a mechanical malfunction, rather than Taliban gunfire. The network’s reporters in Kabul also make sure to note that they are reporting from the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban’s preferred name for the country. And it describes suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq as “commando attacks” or “paradise operations.”
Al Jazeera also features talk shows such as Al Sharia wa al-Hayat, or, in English, Sharia and Life. In the show, a preacher takes calls from guests. One can imagine the types of exchanges that ensue. Here again is Ajami, describing the preacher’s response to a caller from Denmark who suggests that the Muslim world should unite to form one Islamic state, and that Islam “is the only challenge to world capitalism, the only hope after a black capitalist century”:
“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.”
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the former host of the show, has been banned from the U.S., Britain, and France for his extremist views, which include praise of Adolf Hitler and an insistence that the killing of American soldiers is a “religious obligation.” Al-Qaradawi has been considered the intellectual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and his status as a respected imam in Qatar is secure despite his retiring from television.
Sunni preachers such as al-Qaradawi are Al Jazeera’s go-to experts on political subjects, all the better to offer the Muslim world an anti-establishment, Islamist alternative to other state-run outlets, which the network seems to suggest have weakened their respective countries. The Nation’s Kristen Gillespie wrote in 2007 that the “clear, underlying message” of the field reports is that the way out of the humiliation of the Muslim world by the West is “political Islam.” After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera’s secular Baghdad bureau chief was replaced by Wadah Khanfar, an Islamist sympathizer who former employees note was responsible for the hiring of hard-line Islamists as his assistants.
In July 2008, Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic channel threw Samir Kantar, a Lebanese man who killed three Israelis — including a four-year-old girl — in 1979, a party upon his repatriation in a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah. “Brother Samir, we wish to celebrate with you,” Ghassan Ben Jeddo, then the network’s Beirut bureau chief, was filmed exclaiming during the party, which aired on the channel, and included a cake with Kantar’s picture on it. Wadah Khanfar, by then Al Jazeera’s director general, later apologized for the incident, writing in a letter that the broadcast violated the outlet’s code of ethics. He also assured the public that he had ordered the channel’s programming director to take measures that would prevent similar incidents in the future.
Evidently, whatever measures were taken — if any were taken — have failed. As last weekend’s video showed, Al Jazeera continues to rely on conspiratorial anti-Semitic tropes and Islamist rhetoric to fan the sectarian flames in the Middle East. The damage it does should not be underestimated: It appears in the channel listings of every home with Arabic-language satellite television, in the Middle East and the West. Its English-language affiliate offers slick propaganda to appeal to progressives in hopes of sugarcoating the sinister political aims of its Qatari corporate overlords. This latest controversy is just the tip of a very large iceberg.