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  • Crossfire: The Arab Version
  • Faisal al-Kasim (bio)

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...