Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Al-Jazeera, an Accidental Ally

Unintended consequences are great levelers of absolute conviction.  The incidental and accidental keep turning over my most deeply held convictions.  That’s just one of the things that make the world (and watching the world) such an interesting experience.  Not always pleasant, sometimes heartwarming and occasionally vicious beyond explanation, but always interesting.


So it is with al-Jazeera, the Arab-language satellite TV station that Washington has vilified over the nine years it’s been on the air.  With the administration playing up coverage of beheadings and Osama bin Laden statements, Americans have perhaps been given a one-sided look at al-Jazeera’s impact on  political directions recently taken by a number of Arab countries.  This most-watched channel in the Arab world covered Palestine and Iraqi elections, gave saturated coverage to the aftermath of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri’s assassination, sent four correspondents to cover Egypt’s reform movement Kifaya, reporteded Morocco’s commission on human rights and Kuwait’s movement toward giving women the vote. Four full-time correspondents are stationed in Washington.


That’s a full plate.  That brings news of change to every illiterate Arab, charges conversations over tea in market places, brings dialogue to populations whose only prior example was what was heard in the mosque.  Robin Wright’s Washington Post article quotes Egypt’s aging president, Hosni Mubarak, when he visited the run down, dilapidated headquarters of al-Jazeera . . . “All this trouble from a matchbox.”


That’s where trouble comes from, matchboxes that when struck ignite a firestorm and the Arab world is on edge, a tinderbox next to the matches.  Bitterly disappointed by their leadership but with nowhere to vent their frustration but by joining a communal hatred of the West, even though that doesn’t feel quite right.  How, they wonder, did this magnificent Muslim culture fall so far from grace?


Arab leadership excelles at keeping heads down, making victims of Arabs, because as long as they are victims it’s all someone else’s fault.  Al-Jazeera has tapped the fault in bedrock victim-hood and the crack is slight, but enough to let some light in. 


Light . . . Mobarak's trouble from the matchbox.


Leadership loves control and abhors instability like nature abhors a vacuum, so the Bush administration and Arab strongmen are equally edgy and critical of al-Jazeera.  News and commentary is dangerous, always the first to fall victim to dictatorship. News and commentary shines the Beirut light on Teheran coffee-house conversation.


I suspect that the Arab side of the equation has far more to lose and is losing it, no matter the daily postings of a Bulgarian ‘copter shot down, no matter the day-by-day atrocities occurring in Iraq.  Insurgent Arab fighters in Iraq are a sharpening sword that sends chills to the necks of Royal Families, conservative clerics and dictator-presidents shaking in their ill-gotten boots. Insurgencies feed off discontent and if Iraq and Afghanistan begin to warm to their fledgling democracies, car-bombers may quickly take their business elsewhere and elsewhere means against existing Arab authority. 


That’s a big if, no doubt about it.


Yet revolutions have been built on less and the Arab street is awash in arms.  Despair feeds on ignorance, hope comes with knowledge and information is knowledge.  The Arab on the street has been lied to by so many sides in this decades-long conflict that he believes no official sources and believes less and less what he hears in mosque.  Somewhat surprisingly to al-Jazeera, they have become a force to be reckoned with and I quote Robin Wright’s second to last paragraph:


“A-Jazeera editors and reporters say they are largely responding to the rising ripple of activism in the Middle East, such as Lebanon’s popular revolt. ‘It was really remarkable,’ said Ahmed Sheikh, al-Jazeera’s editor-in-chief. ‘It was the first time people in this region have been able to topple a government.  We were all captivated.’”


If there is a single force that has perpetuated and encouraged democracy in America, it is without a doubt a free press.  Informed, we are unshakable.  It amazes me that, with editors and correspondents thrown in jail across the Arab world, al-Jazeera has  somehow been allowed to remain on the air.  It’s not much of a stretch to see this dusty, dilapidated satellite station as the modern force for change in the Arab world. 


Allah knows they’re ready for it.