Al Jazeera Television: Rhetoric of Deflection
Issue 15, Spring 2012
Faisal al-Qasim, host of Al Jazeera’s popular talk show, The Opposite Direction
To contribute to the ongoing debate over Al Jazeera, and to help situate Al Jazeera more accurately in the matrix of Arab mass media, I offer a close reading of the channel’s political discourse on issues that sharply divide the Arab public from the Qatari government and other Arab regimes.
The evidence emerging from textual analysis of the channel’s political discourse indicates that identification between the channel and the majority of the Arab masses does not signal a substantive, liberational rhetoric. Rather, identification signals a widely used rhetorical strategy that allows Al Jazeera to ultimately deflect the viewers’ radicalism and channel it towards nonviolent political ideologies that are conducive to Qatari interests and policies. Furthermore, by indirectly connecting Qatar with the anti-establishment viewers, Al Jazeera reinvents Qatari autocracy, depicting it as an acceptable form of governance.
Al Jazeera: The Ongoing Debate
The radical political changes now under way in Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria have rekindled the debate over the most viewed pan-Arab news TV station — Al Jazeera. As evidenced by the Arab audiences’ sustained interest in and constant attraction to it, Al Jazeera’s popularity is hardly a contested issue, nor is the basis for this popularity, i.e. the “easy fit” between the channel’s bold anti-establishment political discourses and the beliefs and attitudes of the Arab masses at large (Ajami, 2002; Bakri, 2002; Brumberg, 2003; El-Nawawy and Iskandar, 2003; Khouri, 2001; Lynch, 2006; Sakr, 2001; Zayani, 2007, among others). What remains contested and hotly debated, however, are the motives, implications and possible impact of the channel’s “anti-establishment” discourses on Arab audiences, and, hence, the political stability of the Arab world, and possibly the world at large.
This question, ever since the establishment of Al Jazeera in 1996, has been answered differently by proponents of three contending perspectives on the channel. Some scholars and observers argue that Al Jazeera, because of its anti-establishment rhetoric, which caters to and lends credence to the “radicalism” of the majority of the Arab populations, is a radicalizing force (e.g., Ajami, 2001; Alt, 2004; Brumberg, 2002; Friedman, 2001, among others). Proponents of the second perspective (e.g., Alterman, 2004; El-Nawawy and Iskandar, 2003; Marc Lynch, 2006; Michael Wolff, 2003, among others) believe exactly the opposite, arguing that Al Jazeera, possibly because of the anti-establishment tone of its political discourse, becomes a manifestation and transmitter of noble and coveted Western values (free speech, democracy, tolerance and acknowledgment of the “other,” etc.), which, in the long run, will help moderate “radical” Arab populations; that, in turn, renders Al Jazeera a moderating force.
A third group of scholars and commentators diverges completely from the radicalizing-moderating paradigm of thinking, providing us instead with an alternative reading of Al Jazeera grounded in the politico-historical context in which it came to life. Subscribers to this line of thinking argue that the channel, despite its starkly anti-establishment rhetoric, is not a historical anomaly, as far as its establishment and objectives are concerned; Al Jazeera, they contend, is in line with other state-sponsored Arab mass media that aim, first and foremost, at serving and defending the strategic interests of the host state (Al-Dajani, 2002; El-‘Iryan, 2002; Khouri, 2001, Sakr, 2005; Zayani, 2007, among others). Despite the profound contributions of the three perspectives to our understanding of the Al Jazeera phenomenon, the narrative of Al Jazeera that emerges out of each one of them is either incoherent, as in the case of a radicalizing-moderating paradigm of thinking, or inadequate, as in the case of the third argument, whose proponents maintain that Al Jazeera is not a historical anomaly (Al-Sadi, 2011).
The incoherence of the radicalizing-moderating argument stems from one or more of the following factors that blur our understanding of Al Jazeera. The first of these factors is the set of cultural or ideological biases and objectives that commentators bring to their analyses of Al Jazeera. For example, scholars, observers and other parties (Arab or foreign) who were unsympathetic to the Palestinian Second Intifada of 2000, who zealously supported and advocated the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and who, more recently, took either a sceptical or overtly hostile stance towards the current Arab revolutions and uprisings, argued that Al Jazeera caters to the radicalism of Arab populations, and endorses and inflames their anti-establishment, anti-Israel, anti-U.S. passions. In contrast, other Arab or foreign scholars and commentators who took the opposite stance on the same issues praised Al Jazeera’s professionalism and its use of Western journalistic values and practices that many Western media outlets have abandoned in their coverage of those issues. In both cases, the result is a narrative of Al Jazeera that tells us more about the narrator than it does about Al Jazeera itself.
A second factor that undermines the radicalizing-moderating paradigm is the exclusion of a key element in the culture of Arab political communication—namely, the calculated ambiguity of Arab political discourse, regardless of the political identity of the speaker (see Abdul-Raof, 2006; Al-Sadi, 2011). Pro-establishment figures, for instance, inject a degree of ambiguity into their discourse in order to bridge the gap between an unpopular political establishment and the disenfranchised population. Anti-establishment speakers, on the other hand, use the same tactic to avoid prosecution, or even persecution, by their tyrannical regimes. Thus, in the context of political communication, to read Al Jazeera’s discourses literally is, generally speaking, to misread them.
A third factor that threatens the integrity of this narrative of Al Jazeera derives from ignoring the implications of the politico-historical context in which Al Jazeera was born. I am referring specifically to the Qatar-Al Jazeera connection. Once we incorporate this connection into the narrative of Al Jazeera, the channel becomes, first and foremost, a mere manifestation of Qatari pragmatism. Al Jazeera, in other words, is far from representing any drastic societal or political transformation (Khouri, 2001; Sakr, 2001; Telhami, 2004). A fourth factor that weakens the radicalizing-moderating line of understanding is the tendency to dismiss the norms, beliefs, and objectives that govern Arab audiences’ interactions with any particular mass medium. Historically, the popularity of a given mass medium in the Arab world (the BBC, for instance) says more about the needs and expectations of the Arab audiences than it does about the medium itself (Al-Sadi, 2011). Put in different words, the relationship between the popularity of a mass medium like Al Jazeera and its possible effect on the Arab audience is more problematic than presumed by the proponents of a radicalizing-moderating perspective.
When proponents of the radicalizing-moderating line of thinking fail to take this set of factors into account, it chips away at the validity of their arguments and their ability to offer a more coherent narrative of Al Jazeera. But this does not automatically qualify the third argument as adequate. Despite its strength, the context-sensitive narrative of Al Jazeera, which aligns it functionally with the general paradigm of state-sponsored Arab mass media, sounds somewhat counter-intuitive, when one takes into consideration the implications of the following clearly anti-establishment remarks, delivered by one of the channel’s presenters:
America is Israel, isn’t it? Israel is America, isn’t it? Isn’t there a complete harmony in their visions? Therefore, the United States is our principal enemy, however we look at the facts…Why then do the majority of Arab regimes throw themselves into the lap of the enemy, knowing very well that it [the United States] is the enemy of their peoples and their interests? (Al Jazeera, June 12, 2000)
At face value, these remarks identify the speaker fully with the beliefs and attitudes of the majority of the Arab masses rather than with the perspective and policies of the Qatari establishment. This point of identification, in turn, weakens the context-sensitive argument, rendering it somewhat counter-intuitive and rather inadequate.
A more accurate reading of Al Jazeera requires the overcoming of both the incoherence of the radicalizing-moderating argument and the inadequacy of the context-sensitive argument. To this purpose, one must read Al Jazeera’s “anti-establishment” discourse critically in order to extract textual evidence that allows us to situate the channel in its proper historical, political and rhetorical space.
Al Jazeera Channel: An Alternative Narrative
Over a five-year period, 1999 through 2003, I closely read the channel’s political discourse on three key political issues (the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the question of Arab unification) as covered primarily by three of the channels’ most popular programs, Faisal Al-Qasim’s “The Opposite Direction,” Ahmad Mansour’s “Without Bounds,” and Sami Haddad’s “More Than One Opinion.” At other points in my analysis of Al Jazeera’s political discourse, I also examined the coverage of the same political issues in two other popular programs, Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s “Religion and Life” and “Al Jazeera Pulpit.”
Based on the findings of my textual analysis, I argue that the channel’s anti-establishment discourse is far from being a manifestation of a substantive, liberational, anti-establishment political rhetoric that undercuts the policies and political perspective of the Qatari state. Rather, the discourse is a manifestation of a rhetorical strategy that allows Al Jazeera to bolster Qatari policies in three ways: a) by initially identifying itself superficially with the viewers’ “radicalism,” in order to b) subtly deflect from itself the radical precepts of the two most popular ideologies—Arab nationalism and jihadist Islamism, or from any radical program of action that they may inspire—and c) by creating a need for, and orienting the audiences’ “radicalism” towards, an alternative political ideology that fits with the policies and strategic interests of the Qatari government.
Concomitantly, I also argue that the same rhetorical strategy implies an effort by Al Jazeera to make Arab viewers identify with a new paradigm of an Arab state that Qatar epitomizes—a democratizing, self-reforming state that meets much of the expectations of the Arab masses and could, thus, replace both radical Arab regimes, such as Syria and Iraq, and unpopular moderate, pro-Western Arab regimes, such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority. In other words, Al Jazeera becomes a means of reinventing, not challenging, Arab autocracy.
 This article is derived from a doctoral dissertation entitled “Al-Jazeera Television: Intifada on the Air” (University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, May 2011).