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What Some of the Arab World is Watching

From the very beginning of Fouad Ajami's critique of Al-Jazeera television ("What the Muslim World is Watching," New York Times Magazine, November 18, 2001), it is evident that there is something amiss. All of the Muslim world cannot be watching Al-Jazeera since most of its 1.2 billion souls do not speak Arabic. Not even the entire Arab world watches regularly. By Mr. Ajami's reckoning Al-Jazeera enjoys a worldwide market share of 35 million viewers, while the population of the Arab world itself—which includes among other groups significant Christian populations—is about 250 million. When he finally discloses that the other Arab satellite channels command a much larger audience, the most that Mr. Ajami might honestly conclude is that Al-Jazeera is what some of the Arab world is watching.

As director of the program in Middle East Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Professor Ajami knows this. Why, then, does he prevaricate? The disparaging tone he adopts in describing his own distress at viewing Al-Jazeera reveals a great deal about his agenda.

Mr. Ajami cries foul at Al-Jazeera programming which elsewhere he might find fair. The station, he complains, sensationalizes the news Hollywood-style. Its promos employ "particularly shameless....feverish montage." Its reporters and announcers are "fiercely opinionated" and "adept at riling up" viewers. By Mr. Ajami's own admission, this mix makes for constantly compelling television. In a different market from that in which Al-Jazeera operates, wherein stations depend upon advertising revenues for their survival, programming directors find it difficult to resist applying the same formula.

The truth is, the newscasters and editors at Al-Jazeera have been steeped in western journalistic values, as Mr. Ajami acknowledges For many of them this came through working for the BBC Arabic-language channel in partnership with, as Mr. Ajami puts it, the "Saudi concern, Orbit Communications." When after several years that arrangement collapsed in disagreements over editorial independence, these journalists gravitated to the nascent Al-Jazeera, where such freedom was promised them. Mr. Ajami is not happy to accord them that. Instead he charges that they have mounted a "crafty operation...mimicking Western norms of journalistic fairness."

He grudgingly applauds Al-Jazeera for its refusal to conform to the style of newscasting preferred by most Arab governments: procedural news of the quotidian activities of heads of state. But he prefers for Arab audiences to receive their news from and for America to explain her case to them through such sources as MBC, which he describes as being "controlled by an in-law of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia" with their "blandly professional" news programs and their "staid" reporters "careful not to incur the wrath of Arab rulers or to challenge the established order." In a milieu already known for restricted freedom of expression, Mr. Ajami is advocating more of the same for Al-Jazeera.

What Mr. Ajami really appears to be objecting to is content. He is alarmed, for instance, that Al-Jazeera announcers seem to favor the idea of a single Arab nation or that they feel more loyalty to the Muslim community as a whole rather than to any particular state, and that guests express profound skepticism at the Zionist project in their midst.

He cannot have it both ways. By deploring Al-Jazeera's programming he has placed himself into the camp of disgruntled Arab governments who do not relish seeing their foibles held up to the light. The more mainstream Arab satellite channels, which those governments support and which Mr. Ajami favors, will also celebrate Arab identity, reflect Muslim spirituality, and express censure of Israel.

Mr. Ajami especially disapproves of the call-in talk shows for which Al-Jazeera is famous. He reads sinister manipulation of issues into standard talk-show practice, wherein everything is ruled by the clock. If guests begin to perorate or callers to rant, it is time to cut them off and move on to other things. When Al-Jazeera anchors do not challenge their callers' incendiary views or when they talk over the voices of guests appearing by satellite feeds, they are not parading their biases, they are practicing their professionalism.

What is more, the opinions to which Mr. Ajami objects so stoutly are expressed less by hosts (who, true to form, maintain a cool neutrality) than by guests and callers on the programs he analyses. Indeed, Mr. Ajami consumes considerable space bewailing their comments, as if these represent the editorial posture of the station. For example, he berates a preacher who appears on a religious talk show for the exception he takes to a fatwa released by several authorities asserting that American Muslims are bound to serve in the army of their own country, even if that means fighting other Muslims. In even greater measure does Mr. Ajami deride his language: "He had the verbal skills and eloquence of his homeland. (Egyptians are people of the spoken word...the Gulfies [sic] are the silent types.)" He scorns the guest's eloquence, his knowledge of the sacred writings of Islam, and his ability to recite poetry extemporaneously (all qualities to be expected of a preacher in the Arab world!).

Mr. Ajami is forgetting that guests with galvanizing opinions, able to incite lively discussion and elicit viewer participation, are the stock in trade of talk shows. An equally quirky and unflattering picture as his could be painted of the US media by utilizing his technique of selectively scrutinizing the lunatic-fringe guests of some American radio and television talk shows and their crackpot listener/viewer comments.

Ultimately having no good grounds upon which to base his complaints, Mr. Ajami camouflages this by pressing hot buttons and leveling ad hominem attacks on presenters and their guests. Of all things, he pays special attention to their clothing. Our preacher, in "exaggerated Islamist fantasy," wore a "bushy jet-black beard," white robe and headgear, his host ("young, polite") a suit and tie. Al-Jazeera reporters in Kabul are flak-jacketed (so, wisely, are those of other news agencies). The sole man-on-the-Egyptian-street to express a moderate opinion was a "quiet man in a white shirt and tie" (presumably others were not so meticulously attired). An anchor ("Demure at first glance...[but] a woman of will and political preference" - as if this latter were a flaw canceling out the former virtue) on the night Mr. Ajami watched her was dressed in "Hillary Clinton style." Her guest from London ("with the exile's emphatic politics and faith") sported a "close-cropped beard [and]...a shiny silk suit matched by a shiny silk tie." Mr. Ajami cannot resist sending a closing barb in the direction of the anchor's speech either: "I could not make out her exact nationality in the Arab world; her accent didn't give her away."

What possible relevance can the clothing of anchors and guests or their manner of speech have for the content or practice of the station? While a guest's precise nationality may sometimes be relevant, that of a talk show host rarely is, and never the anchor's. It is baffling that Mr. Ajami finds such details worthy of comment. If he is not content with Al-Jazeera for employing normal operating procedures, Mr. Ajami also takes offense at the station for conforming to locally developed broadcast techniques. In its reporting on anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan, which, Mr. Ajami admits, are also eagerly covered by western media, Al-Jazeera's clips are "by television standards...notably extended, close to a minute long." Mr. Ajami either does not know or, as is more likely, he is not saying that all Arab news sources broadcast extended clips of almost any event. Whatever else their faults, Arab news media have chosen not to report news by soundbite.

Mr. Ajami does not even make an attempt to achieve the open-minded objectivity that he accuses Al-Jazeera of cynically exploiting. Were he to do so, Al-Jazeera's programming would be regarded as standard broadcasting fare and practice. When he exoticizes the station for announcing its schedule in the local time for Mecca (and Greenwich and New York), he neglects to mention that BBC World also announces its programming in the time zones of major cities in its market. He complains of incoherent programming, with news from the war in Afghanistan and the conflict in the West Bank interspersed with financial programming, wildlife documentaries, and "quaint" features about life in the United States. So does the BBC sandwich its news breaks between curiosities like Morris dancing on the Dover fells and the interior decorating tastes of Londoners. Nor is CNN averse to quirky features like the bizarre and pointless "Business Unusual" by which consumers can learn such indispensable factoids as where to buy black socks over the Internet.

Similarly, Mr. Ajami would do well to consider the broadcasting priorities of western news sources. These naturally concentrate on the items of greatest interest to their viewers or on those that most immediately affect their own political systems. In recent weeks the BBC, for instance, has concentrated on the rigged elections in Zimbabwe (a Commonwealth country) and the passing of the Queen Mother. It should not be particularly surprising that Arab stations might pay closer attention to the conflict blazing in their own backyards. By reporting in detail news of concern to Arabs and Muslims, Al-Jazeera is not deliberately inciting its viewers; it is rather fulfilling its responsibility toward them.

Since Mr. Ajami has no credible complaint to level against an Arabic-language station practicing editorial freedom, there must be something else bothering him.

Professor Ajami is a regular television commentator on Arab affairs. For years he has been one of a very few Arab voices regularly heard over US airwaves. His status as a professor of Middle East Studies as well as his position on the editorial boards of a handful of sober newsmagazines will have invested his pronouncements with an air of authority. That these squared well with conventional American perspectives on the Middle East, gained almost exclusively through the monocle of Israel's dispute with Arabs, will have facilitated greatly his access to the media. He may simply be giving vent to the alarm he feels at finally having his views challenged by an independent source. Just as Al-Jazeera broadcasts "things that people of the region are not meant to see," so too has it opened an avenue for viewers in the West to see things that they are not accustomed to seeing: the other side of the issue.

Nevertheless, it seems that Mr. Ajami is animated by deeper motivations. In his books he emerges as a disappointed exile, his youthful idealism betrayed by the descent of Arab society into tyranny and irremediable communal factionalism. Here he appears a bitter intellectual ready to disparage the world whence he fled discontented, himself cynically exploiting his exotic appeal to the media by pandering to the prejudices of the society that has granted him his privileged perch.

This places Mr. Ajami in an odd and ultimately untenable position. While he claims as an insider to take no joy in the verdict he passes on the Arab world, yet does he appear to derive some grim satisfaction at the chronic disarray in Arab ranks. He comes very close to applauding Israel for its part in this. In his latest piece in the Wall Street Journal ("Arafat's War," March 29, 2002) he all but endorses the aims of Zionism. This is an extraordinarily rare position for an Arab to adopt, one that cries out for an explanation.

Born to a Shiite family in village in southern Lebanon, Fouad Ajami moved to Beirut as a young man, where he was charmed by the renaissance of Arab letters that was in full flower there at the time. The city was a paradise presided over by secularized Orthodox Christian and Sunni Muslim elites. Being himself of a secular bent, the young Mr. Ajami must have found invigorating the release from schismatic sectarianism granted by that sophisticated metropolis. It was an enchantment that was not destined to last. Eventually the artificial power-sharing arrangements upon which the political system of the country was based began to unravel, and under-represented religious communities (among them the Shiites—by now a majority of Muslims) seized that opportunity to challenge the dominant classes and to press for a greater say in their own rule. In the resulting political instability, leading ineluctably to civil war, Palestinian resistance groups without another geographical base found a niche in Lebanon. Mr. Ajami seems unable to forgive them for their role in the ruin of the Beirut of his youth. In some perverse manner he appears almost grateful to Israel for delivering Lebanon from the Palestine Liberation Organization and to welcome an elusive pax Israelia that would, in his estimation, save the Arabs from themselves.

Mr. Ajami is no media critic; his caviling at Al-Jazeera is disingenuous. More disturbing still is that as a social scientist he systematically displays his ignorance of some basic concepts in the field, as is ably pointed out by a PhD candidate in anthropology at Princeton in her reply to his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.

It appears that Mr. Ajami's aim is to rile up his own audience by spooking them with the current bugbears of militant Islam and anything Arab.

About David Wilmsen

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