- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

At the H Street home of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), five linguists can create a media stir simply by translating, accurately, Arabic-language news stories on their black Dell computers.

From its nine-room office, which looks more like the corporate headquarters of a small Saudi oil company, MEMRI distributes, via e-mail and fax, translations of comments about America in mainstream Arabic-language newspapers and in speeches by Muslim leaders.

U.S. officials say the translated texts sometimes are unnerving.

"New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was obsessed by his hatred of Arabs even before the terrorist attacks on New York," Hafez Al-Barghouthi, editor of the Palestinian Authority newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, wrote on Oct. 17. "He hides his first name, chosen for him by his Italian father, so as not to remind the Jewish voters of the infamous Rudolph [sic] Hitler."

Founded in 1998 by two Israelis, Meyrav Wurmser and Yigal Carmon, MEMRI is a think tank that has emerged from obscurity.

Many major media outlets in the Western world, including at least 30 in the United States, have used the group's research and translations in the past six months. Next month, MEMRI will add a Moscow office to branches already in London, Jerusalem and Berlin.

"There's a big need to know what's being reported in the Arabic press," says Steven Stalinsky, MEMRI's executive director. "It's more important now than ever before."

Mr. Stalinsky says MEMRI, which also posts its translations on its Web site (www.memri.org), bridges the language gap between the West, where few speak Arabic, and the Muslim world.

"The last Arab video we translated covered everything from 'how to beat your wife' to teaching young children how to hate Jews and Christians," he says. "And that was aired on the MSNBC of the Arab news world."

Ninety-nine U.S. senators cited MEMRI translations in an April 25 letter to President Bush. "We are concerned about the vitriolic, hateful and anti-Semitic rhetoric that has been circulating throughout much of the Arab media," they said. "That many of these statements originated in the state-controlled media of presumed allies is all the more troubling."

Mr. Carmon, the group's president, who served as counterterrorism adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, testified to Congress just days before Mr. Bush received the letter.

"Following September 11, the [Arab] media overwhelmingly approved of the attacks, and praised Osama bin Laden," he told the House International Relations Middle East and South Asia subcommittee on April 18. "It is worth mentioning that many articles in the Arab media have said that the attacks were the work of the United States government itself and/or a Jewish conspiracy. Recent Gallup polls show a large majority of the Arab world continue to believe it."

Some Islamist groups criticize MEMRI's work, but do not dispute the accuracy of its translations.

"It's a free country and they can print what they like," says Ibrahim Hooper of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "But MEMRI's intent is to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible."

"They obviously have a pro-Israeli agenda," says Raeed Tayeh, spokesman for the American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice. "They're trying to drive a wedge between the Western world and the Muslim world."

Both the American-born Mr. Stalinsky and the Romanian-born Mr. Carmon deny that MEMRI's translators, most of whom come from the Middle East, select stories biased against Arabic speakers. Alternative news sources are hard to find, they say, because they often are suppressed in Middle Eastern countries.

"We look for everything we can find, and it's very untrue that our goal is simply to highlight Arab anti-Semitism," says Mr. Stalinsky. "We have something called the Reform Project, which focuses exclusively on Muslim reformists in the Middle East."

Mr. Carmon, a former teacher with a master's degree in Arabic from Hebrew University in Israel, says the September 11 terrorist attacks on America "didn't come from nowhere."

"The Arab press is indeed immersed in a lot of hatred for America that comes from Islamic religious leaders," says Mr. Carmon. "But what interests me most is the dissident voices, the moderate voices that are struggling to be heard from the margins of Arabic society. Islam must be reformed and there are many Muslims out there trying to do it. But the Saudi-financed news media keeps them shut out of the public discourse."

Mr. Stalinsky says, with a practiced emphasis, that MEMRI is not the tool of any government entity. "We're completely independent, 501(c)3, nonprofit, and nonpartisan," he says. "And our translations are accurate, which no one challenges."

This week, MEMRI will release the "MEMRI Hill Report," a 64-page document, to the media and Congress. It provides a sampling of translations that have caught the eye of Capitol Hill.

Columnist Mahmoud bin Abd Al-Ghani Sabbagh, writing in the Saudi government newspaper Al-Riyadh on Oct. 15, was especially hard on New York and Mr. Giuliani.

"If democracy means a governor who is a homosexual in a city in which dance clubs, prostitution, homosexuality, and stripping proliferate the U.S. can keep its democracy," Mr. Al-Ghani Sabbagh wrote. (Mr. Giuliani was mayor, not governor, and has since left office.)

Nothing appears in such newspapers without government approval.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, who in February introduced legislation to put Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization on the U.S. government's list of recognized terrorist groups, relies heavily on MEMRI translations. "Arafat has shown that he's not a partner in peace," Mr. Engel says. "He's a thug and a liar."

MEMRI operates on a half-million-dollar budget minute compared with other foundations in the District culled from more than 200 individual donors. The largest single contribution last year was $150,000.

For security reasons, MEMRI asks its Washington staff not to talk freely about their work and no longer prints its office address or staff directory on the Internet. Mrs. Wurmser, who left MEMRI for a job at the Hudson Institute a year and a half ago after helping MEMRI get off the ground, said she understood why.

"They don't want suicide bombers walking through the door on Monday morning."

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