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What the Muslim World is Watching….or, What Some of the Arab World is Watching?

If there's one channel in the Arab world much talked about, alternately lauded and bashed by various commentators in both the West and the Arab world, it's Al-Jazeera. Pre-September 11 (and pre-bin Laden tapes and exclusive Afghanistan coverage) western writers largely praised the channel for its open and independent coverage; the Arab world, although they were hanging on every talk show, often denounced the channel as being pro-Israel, pro-West, anti-Arab. But with the airing of Al-Jazeera's exclusive bin Laden videos, the tables were turned. The US administration pressured the emir of Qatar to "rein in" the channel, while Arab viewers praised the Al-Jazeera as "the voice of truth" about the war in Afghanistan. And with the explosion of violence in the West Bank in recent weeks, viewers around the Arab region are glued to Al-Jazeera the way viewers watched CNN around the clock during the 1991 Gulf War.In this section TBS borrows from Al-Jazeera's own motto and presents al-rai w'al rai al-akher, one opinion and the other. Fouad Ajami argued in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 18, 2001 (and reprinted here with the author's kind permission), that Al-Jazeera is sensationalistic and incendiary television, more likely to incite anti-western feeling than accurately report the news. But TBS Contributing Editor David Wilmsen says that not only are Ajami's criticisms unfounded, they're also aimed at doing just what Ajami blames Al-Jazeera for doing: riling up the audience.
What the Muslim World is Watching

Fouad Ajami

Al-Jazeera is not subtle television. Recently, during a lull in its nonstop coverage of the raids on Kabul and the street battles of Bethlehem, the Arabic-language satellite news station showed an odd but telling episode of its documentary program "Biography and Secrets." The show's subject was Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Presenting Che as a romantic, doomed hero, the documentary recounted the Marxist rebel's last stand in the remote mountains of Bolivia, lingering mournfully over the details of his capture and execution. Even Che's corpse received a lot of airtime; Al-Jazeera loves grisly footage and is never shy about presenting graphic imagery. The episode's subject matter was, of course, allegorical. Before bin Laden, there was Guevara. Before Afghanistan, there was Bolivia. As for the show's focus on CIA operatives chasing Guevara into the mountains, this, too, was clearly meant to evoke the contemporary hunt for Osama, the Islamic rebel.


What Some of the Arab World is Watching

David Wilmsen

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.


About David Wilmsen

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