- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Al-Jazeera, the satellite television channel often called the CNN of the Arab world, is best known for its interviews with Osama bin Laden that aired after September 11. That could easily lead one to dismiss the station as a mouthpiece for radical Muslims who like to blow up buildings full of people. In "Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East," a much different story is told.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the days following September 11 was a belief common in the Arab world that the attacks were part of a Jewish conspiracy to discredit Islam. The authors, Mohammed el-Nawawy, an Egyptian journalist, and Adel Iskandar, a communications professor at the University of Kentucky, tackle Arab conspiratorial thinking head on. "Such allegations of a vast Jewish conspiracy, silly and ridiculous as they are, continue to circulate in the Arab world, although they are less popular now following the broadcast of the incriminating bin Laden video tapes," they write.

"For some time, some Arabs and Muslims were in denial that members of their faith, ethnicity, or nationality could have committed such heinous acts." Against that backdrop, Al-Jazeera broadcast bin Laden's now famous remarks that the World Trade Center and Pentagon had been "hit by God in one of its softest spots … thank God for that." Despite the broadcasts, many Arabs still cling to same type of conspiratorial thinking, and on Al-Jazeera talk shows one can hear conspiracy theories stated by prominent Arab intellectuals, only to be openly challenged by others. The talk shows are described as "boxing rings."

The authors make a convincing case that the station prides itself on airing opposing and often highly inflammatory viewpoints. As a result, Al-Jazeera has managed to infuriate just about every Arab government during its five years on the air. With the satellite signal available to anyone with a television set and a dish, Algerians get to hear Islamic militants who are battling to overthrow their unelected government statements that would likely get them killed or at least jailed if spoken aloud.

Al-Jazeera has broadcast a debate on who is a Jordanian, a taboo in Jordan where more than half the population is Palestinian. It lets Iraqis debate Kuwaitis. Opponents of the Saudi monarchy get their say along with the Saudi government. Israeli government officials get to debate Palestinians. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once appeared on the channel.

These are not the kinds of things that Arab audiences expect to see on the tube. Until Al-Jazeera appeared, the only television stations available (including several satellite channels) were owned or controlled by governments ruled by kings and presidents-for-life who tolerate little dissent. A typical newscast would consist of a laconic recap of the president's or king's daily schedule of speeches or ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

Al-Jazeera's executives "have been asked to censor their reporting by everyone from the Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell," the authors write. The book begins by tracking the TV viewing habits of two Arab families living in Canada, one Palestinian and the other Egyptian Coptic Christian, who were closely following the U.S. air war over Afghanistan last fall. In a tightly-knit Arab expat community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, their neighbors drop by each night to watch the news. After a few weeks, they go out and buy satellite dishes of their own. Last fall's air war over Afghanistan has done for Al-Jazeera what the Persian Gulf war did for CNN 10 years earlier.

The authors go on to explain the station's presence in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, where it began broadcasting in 1996 with a $140 million gift from the ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. The sheik is unusual in the Arab world in that he has outlawed censorship. Without calling it a quid pro quo, the book devotes an entire chapter to Al-Jazeera's coverage of Qatar: favorable or nonexistent. Apparently Sheik Hamad continues to subsidize the station, which has yet to turn a profit. Why he does it remains a mystery. He certainly gets plenty of attention for his generosity, with officials from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Mr. Powell calling him up in an attempt to tone down coverage they find distasteful.

The sheik typically replies that he has no control over what the station chooses to broadcast. The authors suggest two possibilities: Sheik Hamad is an enlightened ruler or he simply enjoys the attention the world is forced to pay to his tiny country.

In all, the authors do an admirable job of telling the story of Al-Jazeera without drawing conclusions of their own. Take, for example, the U.S. bombing of Al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau during the Afghan war late at night when nobody was there. Somehow the authors manage to make it through that episode without suggesting the bombing was deliberate and without suggesting it was an accident.


Willis Witter is deputy foreign editor for The Washington Times.


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