The Gulf Cooperation Council comprises six nations, all of them Arab, Muslim, ruled by royals, and fabulously wealthy thanks to vast reserves of petroleum. With so much in common, you might expect they’d be best friends forever. In recent weeks, however, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has been the odd monarch out.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have cut diplomatic, commercial and even transportation ties with Qatar. They’ve been joined by Egypt which, though neither oil-rich nor monarchical, agrees that Sheikh Al Thani has been much too cozy with terrorist groups (including al Qaeda, ISIS and Hezbollah), terrorist financiers, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s mullahs.
The quartet is demanding that Qatar loosen its ties with those they see as enemies of their states. They are making one additional demand: that Qatar shut down Al Jazeera, its powerful media outlet.
Many in the Western media have risen to Al Jazeera’s defense. Washington Post editors praised Al Jazeera for providing “an outlet for critics of the region’s dictatorships.” They neglected to note that an exception is made for critics of the Qatari dictatorship.
The New York Times’ editorial board asserted that Al Jazeera generally “serves as a vital news source for millions who live under antidemocratic rule.” Well, not for Qataris who lives under antidemocratic rule.
The Economist said it was “outrageous” for Saudi Arabia, hardly a free country, to call for the closing of “the only big, feisty broadcaster in the Arab world, Al Jazeera.” Point taken but, as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.
Al Jazeera was founded by the current emir’s father 21 years ago. A few scholars quickly comprehended its raison d’etre. Qatar’s “press poodle,” was the description offered by Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and currently a fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Shibley Telhami, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, observed that among Al Jazeera’s early mission was to give “voice to Osama bin Laden.”
Fouad Ajami, winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” a Lebanese-born Shia, saw clearly how Al Jazeera was attempting to cement an alliance between Islamists and leftists. For example: A documentary that presented Che Guevara as a “romantic, doomed hero” was intended to evoke a view of Osama bin Laden as “the Islamic rebel” and “brave knight of the Arab world.” He added: “Al Jazeera is a crafty operation” that “”day in and day out deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”
Among Al Jazeera’s brightest TV stars is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the “spiritual leader” of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has praised Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah terrorist mastermind behind the 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut, in which 241 U.S. Marines were killed. He once issued a fatwa, a religious opinion, calling for the “abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq.”
Sheikh Qaradawi favors the “spread of Islam until it conquers the entire world and includes both the East and West [marking] the beginning of the return of the Islamic Caliphate.” Hitler, he has said, deserves praise for having “managed to put [Jews] in their place. This was divine punishment for them. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the [Muslims].”
Defenders of the network argue that however extreme Al Jazeera Arabic may be, its sister network, Al Jazeera English, is different. Consider the following exchange on National Public Radio earlier this month between host Kelly McEvers and Giles Trendle, managing director for Al Jazeera English:
McEvers: “I think it’s important to differentiate between Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera Arabic. Al Jazeera English is seen as objective, but it’s, you know, it’s not a secret that, especially after the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Al Jazeera Arabic was much more likely to take a stand on the air. Yeah?
Trendle: “Look, the two channels, Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English, are coming from the same stable. But one thing to understand is that a different language is expressed in different ways. There’s a cultural context here. So there have been many accusations against Al Jazeera Arabic, but it’s the same editorial ethos about getting all sides of the story to provide a full perspective.”
McEvers: “Yeah, I mean, but to think about some recent examples, I mean, you’ve got a prominent anchor on Al Jazeera Arabic saying an interim president in Egypt was a Jew carrying out an Israeli plot. You’ve got, you know, an Iraqi affairs editor tweeting approvingly about a massacre where Islamic State militants killed Shiites. I mean, these are people taking a stand in that particular part of the network.
Trendle: “Well, I’m not aware of those particular examples. But again, all I would say is that the cultural context and the language is such that it’s much more expressive and passionate, whereas maybe the English language, we might be more reserved and stiff upper lip.”
In other words, Al Jazeera is Al Jazeera. Its mission is to shape public opinion. Its owners are savvy enough to understand that different audiences will be persuaded by different messages.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been working hard to find a diplomatic solution to the Gulf family feud. My guess is that he’ll eventually convince Qatar to make significant compromises but that closing Al Jazeera won’t be among them.
In the multidimensional conflict underway in the world today propaganda is a highly strategic weapon. As al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri put it: “More than half of this war is taking place on the battlefield of the media.” What’s remarkable is that so many Western media professionals still don’t get that.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.