Crossfire: The Arab Version
Over the past half century, the Arab world has imported many products of western culture: Michael Jackson and McDonalds are today part and parcel of our public life. Even iconoclastic western ideas have made great inroads—secularism, for example, is alien to our history and tradition, but it has fundamentally influenced Arab political ideologies. Nonetheless, the one major innovation of western civilization that has remained untouchable for Arabs is democracy, along with its indispensable ingredient: freedom of the press.
Although various Arab countries have set up some of the trappings of democracy—elections, political parties, parliaments—these have mainly been cosmetic. The parliaments are little more than rubber-stamp assemblies. Here in the Gulf, states reject even the term parliament in favor of shura, an Islamic consultative council, which has proved unworkable wherever it has been tried.
Our anachronistic media culture is a victim of this sad state of affairs. While banning real opposition parties and locking up political activists, totalitarian regimes also muzzle the press and bring it under tight state control. Our so-called information ministries are reminiscent of the Soviet era in their insipidness and fawning coverage of the regimes.
Fancy the ABC or the BBC evening news broadcast’s allocating more than two-thirds of its airtime to President Clinton’s or Prime Minister Blair’s social agenda. Arab newspapers and television and radio stations do just that: They allocate a huge chunk of their daily coverage to the daily agenda of the king, the emir, or the president. Editors and producers are required to cover visits to their country of even the lowest-ranking foreign dignitaries. This ridiculous media culture has become the butt of many jokes. It is known as “receive and see-off” journalism—that is, an itemization of the people that the leader has welcomed and seen off in the previous news cycle.
The Arab media is downtrodden even in the—relatively speaking—more democratic countries of the region. Although these countries do have an opposition press, even they are at the beck and call of the information and interior ministries. Political, social, and economic issues are tackled only superficially and in a way that does not offend or anger the ruling clique. [End Page 93]
So for the last fifty years, most Arabs have depended on foreign media for real information and analysis of events in their region. The BBC’s Arabic radio, the Voice of America, and Radio Monte Carlo have been extremely popular, much more so than local radio stations. In one of his routines, the Syrian comedian Duraid Lahham tunes into London to find out “what’s happening in Syria.”
With the advent of satellite television and the Internet, expectations ran high that things might change. Instead, disappointment came quickly. It is true that many new satellite channels became available throughout the Arab world. But these broadcasters broke new ground primarily in technology and in form, but not in content—at least not political content.
Some Saudi business tycoons have pushed the envelope by establishing huge western-style networks beaming in from Europe. These channels have proved quite popular, especially for expatriate Arabs in Europe and America. There are now scores of talk shows tackling soft social and political issues that were nearly taboo in the past. This is the case especially in entertainment programming. These channels broadcast variety shows and films that are racy by Arabic standards. Channel Two of the Orbit network shows Egyptian and Lebanese women wearing next to nothing. This has created a kind of cultural schizophrenia, with women covered from head to toe on local stations in Saudi Arabia and virtual soft-core porn on Saudi-owned satellite channels.
But when it comes to politics, the scope of maneuver is quite limited. These networks have been unable to break many political taboos because of the affiliations, by blood and business interests, between the owners and the Saudi ruling family.
In this sense, Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel (JSC) is revolutionary. Unlike the Saudi-owned networks, Al-Jazeera has refused to escape to foreign shores. It broadcasts from the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, a fact that has astonished viewers, who sometimes cannot believe their eyes when watching programs like my Opposite Direction. From the very beginning in November 1996, the show and the channel were a hit with audiences all over the Arab world and abroad for taking on highly sensitive political, cultural, and religious issues.
Al-Jazeera’s editorial policy is so lax that I am hardly ever given orders regarding program content. The station has an even wider scope of freedom than the BBC Arabic radio, where I worked for ten years. I tackle issues that I never even dreamed of covering during my service at the BBC.
The Opposite Direction is modeled on the Crossfire format, but this show is even fiercer and more tumultuous than its western counterparts. In a live, two-hour weekly broadcast, two guests from opposite sides of the spectrum on a variety of political, social, economic, cultural, or religious issues come face-to-face in debate and take calls from viewers. Emotions run high, such as during a recent discussion with two prominent Arab women on polygamy. Egyptian writer Safinaz Kazem, a former-Marxist-turned-Islamist with an acid tongue, stormed off the set after her counterpart, former Jordanian member of parliament [End Page 94] Tojan Faisal, rejected polygamy as an anachronistic practice. Faisal’s view is iconoclastic: It contradicts the Koran, and for that reason it could have cost her her life. This show was the talk of the Arab world for months and infuriated the religious establishment. It was also the first time on Arab television that anyone has ever walked off the set in the midst of an on-air broadcast.
Remember the uproar over Salman Rushdie’s authorship of The Satanic Verses? I hosted an episode with the Egyptian scholar Nasser Hamid Abu Zeid, who was convicted of apostasy—also a capital offense in Islam—and ordered to divorce his Muslim wife for having questioned the timelessness and divinity of the Koran’s teachings. Abu Zeid, who had to flee to the Netherlands, is regarded by many as the Salman Rushdie of the Arab world. For the first time, ordinary Arabs had a chance to see this man—so vilified by the religious authorities and so controversial that no other Arab producer would have anything to do with him—and draw their own conclusions. Needless to say, I was attacked fiercely for that show.
Many prominent Arab secularist thinkers, including Sadeeq Jalal Al-Azm, Lafif Lakhdar, Aziz Lazma, and Rifaat Saeed, not only have appeared on the program, but have all been free to question, and even mock, religious thought—something that was unthinkable until now, especially on television. In one edition, Youssef al-Karadawi, the mufti of Qatar, was put in the position of having to defend his faith to the scorn and derision of Al-Azm, a professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus. Al-Azm ridiculed religious thought, mocking the prophets, claiming that Islam is a “backward” religion, and praising Kemal Ataturk for banishing Islam from modern Turkish life.
Al-Azm is well known in the Arab world. He has published books and articles that are critical of religion. He is respected by secular Arabs and hated by very religious Muslims. However, never before has he had the chance to go head-to-head with a cleric on television. In fact, it was the first time, Al-Azm told me, that he had ever gone on Arab television with his critique. After it aired, cassette tapes of the broadcast sold for up to $100 on the black market.
Some would argue that it is high time that we “deiconize” many of the thoughts and sacred myths that have dominated the Arab world for decades. My show is providing a forum for people to present this argument, as well as for the opposite side to defend against it. And for the first time in many years, Arab citizens have the opportunity to judge for themselves.
Nonetheless, religious preachers all over the Arab world have condemned my program, calling me a raving secularist. But The Opposite Direction has not only offended the faithful; it has also created a stir in political circles around the region. I have addressed many sensitive political issues by inviting dissidents from Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and the Gulf states.
As a result, I am persona non grata in many Arab countries. I have been vilified in the press of at least five countries. Jordan even went so far as to close down the Al-Jazeera office in Amman after a program on its peace treaty with Israel. The Opposite Direction almost led to a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and [End Page 95] several Arab governments. Much pressure has been put on the Qatari regime to take action against me and my program, but so far I’ve been left alone.
Al-Jazeera is financed completely by the Qatari government. However, the authorities have nothing to do with the content or with the editorial decisions. My program is the most controversial show on the station, but no one interferes. I choose the subjects, and I choose the guests. No one has ever influenced my decisions.
Indeed, the Qatari government is not exempt from criticism. We held a series of shows on Qatar’s policy of rapprochement with Israel. In one of them, titled “Why Is Qatar Crawling toward Israel?” Mohamad Misser, a professor of political science at the University of Qatar, argued the antinormalization position against Kamaran Karadaghi, a former Al Hayat newspaper journalist who is now at the Voice of Free Iraq. In another program in the series, Qatari foreign minister Sheik Hamed bin Jasim was criticized by name for this policy.
Of course, Al-Jazeera would be an impossibility without the Qatari government’s blessing. The show is a symbol of a democratization process under way in the emirate. Qatar has abolished its information ministry—the first Arab country to do so—and has scheduled municipal elections. A freely elected parliament has also been promised. Qatar is an example that political freedom and press freedom go hand in hand.
Although Arab governments loathe The Opposite Direction, Arab citizens from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf respect and admire it. I have received thousands of letters of support.
And I have been severely attacked. The Opposite Direction has been accused of being a Zionist forum. It has also been alleged that it is in the pay of the Iraqi regime. It goes without saying that these allegations are completely untrue.
I think the accusers are envious of Al-Jazeera. They are amazed that an upstart television station in such a tiny country has produced such a fantastic program as The Opposite Direction. The Saudis have invested millions of dollars in a media empire, but it hasn’t really succeeded. The Egyptians, too, have invested millions of dollars in their networks. But Al-Jazeera has pulled the rug from beneath all of them simply by being liberal and open.
I started The Opposite Direction because I felt it was time that the opposing point of view, which has been virtually silent in the Arab world for more than half a century, be heard. Almost since the era of independence, Arabs have been forced to believe in one leader or one party and be informed by a press that has been one of the pillars supporting the authoritarian structures.
Al-Jazeera is seeking to break this mold. It is striving to create a new culture of communication by encouraging dialogue and tolerance of dissenting opinions. In the past, when Arabs had differences, they settled them with bullets. Now, with this show, I hope they can learn to settle them with honest and open debate. [End Page 96]
It hasn’t been easy. Broadcasts have been extremely boisterous, some even violent. Several of the shows have been called “dialogues of the deaf.” But I think this problem will disappear gradually as we learn to disagree respectfully and recognize the virtue of dialogue.
It is already happening. It is often the case that two guests from countries that are at war with each other will spar aggressively on the show but afterward will shake hands and display the beginnings of a friendship.
It is said that Al-Jazeera is exerting political pressure on the decision makers of the Arab world. This is true, but only indirectly. Kuwait accused the channel of being behind the demonstrations throughout the Arab world late last year against the American and British bombardment of Iraq. Analysts said that the mere fact that we reported on the situation, with free and provocative reports on the issue, forced Arab governments—which hate demonstrations when they themselves are the target—to allow thousands to take to the streets and voice their opposition to the military operation. So for the first time in modern history, the Arab media played an influential role in politics, instead of being a lackey to it.
Al-Jazeera might seem quite ordinary for the western viewer, but it is revolutionary for Arabs, who regard it as an agent of change. Said one media analyst, “Al-Jazeera looks extraordinary because Arabs live under abnormal conditions.” 1 Critics liken its programs to a breeze of fresh air in the stuffy, boring world of Arab journalism.
I am quite convinced that what hinders progress in the Arab world is the absence of a free press. The dirt in our society has been swept under the carpet for too long. But I am certain that this won’t be the case for much longer. Arabs are beginning to engage in lively debate over their political and social predicament. And Al-Jazeera offers a ray of hope. Already, other Arab stations are imitating The Opposite Direction, though with limitations. Press freedom leads to political freedom. Someday, in spite of the attempts by today’s totalitarian rulers, a free Arab press may help to create real democracy in the Arab world.
Faisal al-Kasim is host of The Opposite Direction, a weekly debate program on Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel (JSC), which broadcasts from Qatar.
1. Mahmoud Marouf, Al-Ahdath (Morocco), Nov. 30, 1998.