Between November 2003 and May 2004, while I was writing my book about Al Jazeera, I spent time interviewing a multitude of miscellaneous individuals and organizations about their feelings towards the network. I heard a diverse range of opinions about the channel, stretching from the overwhelmingly positive to the vehemently negative. I soon saw patterns emerging. I could see at once, for example, that there were clear differences between how Americans and Europeans viewed the channel. Americans essentially regarded Al Jazeera as part of the problem in the Middle East; Europeans regarded it as part of the solution.
Israelis seemed divided over the benefits of Al Jazeera. Some saw it as a welcome catalyst for change; others viewed it as something scarcely more palatable than Hizbullah's Al Manar channel, which has recently been banned from all European Union broadcasting satellites and last year was designated a terrorist organization in America (see Of Bans, Boycotts and Sacrificial Lambs: Al Manar in the Crossfire in this issue).
The most passionate critics of the channel I met were Arabs living in the West. Some Iraqi Shiites living in Detroit for example thought Al Jazeera had given too much support to Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Iraq. Pro-Republican Arabs working in Washington, the kind who subscribe to the neo-con vision of the greater Middle East initiative even more heartily then the neo-cons themselves -- like employees at the ill-conceived Alhurra for example -- were adamant that Al Jazeera was responsible for the Iraqi insurgency, in addition to having links to the Baathists (for more on Alhurra, see A Second Look at Alhurra in this issue).
But that was then and this is now. A new tide of democracy seems to be sweeping the region and much in the Arab world now is under reexamination. Since I finished the research for my book in May last year, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to travel extensively once again, this time to take part in debates, conferences, and seminars related to Al Jazeera and the Arab media.
I have been struck by the degree to which long-held opinions about the channel seem to have evolved. In particular, I have been surprised by the level of interest in Al Jazeera now apparent in many disparate groups that one might not necessarily think of as particularly concerned with alternative perspectives on Arab satellite television news. Amongst others, I have recently had dialogues about Al Jazeera with the Pentagon, Sandhurst Military Academy, NATO, the BBC, CBC, the New York Daily News, Salon.com, a wide variety of European radio stations and magazines, NPR, CNN, and ABC. Although there are still preconceptions and prejudice, often mixed with envy and fear, increasingly there is also a deep respect.
One thing has not changed. Al Jazeera's staunchest critics are still to be found in Washington. (Note: I have not been to either Saudi Arabia or Syria, where they are none too keen on Al Jazeera either.) The neo-conservatives simply hate Al Jazeera. Many think it has a religious agenda, even that it is a militant Islamic organization and that the new English language channel called Al Jazeera International should be shut down at all costs. (See The Challenge for Al Jazeera International in this issue.) Others told me that they had serious doubts about the legitimacy of the channel's funding. It is held by some in Washington that Al Jazeera is backed by a terrorist organization, possibly Al Qa'ida. This is ironic of course, since in fact Al Jazeera's principal sponsor and long-time benefactor is the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, America's principal ally in the region.
It is also still widely held that Al Jazeera is in league with the insurgents in Iraq, that it knew about attacks on coalition soldiers before they occurred, and that money changed hands with militant groups when the network acquired its various video tapes. Most Americans believe Al Jazeera to have repeatedly shown beheadings, when in fact it never has.
By contrast, I found military opinions in Europe to be much more sympathetic towards Al Jazeera. Sandhurst Military Academy was intrigued by the new network, regarding it as a useful new tool to communicate positive messages about the coalition's intentions toward Iraqis. They want to use Al Jazeera to stress important messages to Arabs, such as that the war in Iraq is not a war against Islam, and to point out to viewers that a coalition similar to that now in Iraq once assisted Muslims in Bosnia and in Kosovo.
NATO was eager to learn more about Al Jazeera for strategic reasons. To them, whether Al Jazeera is biased or not is less important than the fact that it is so influential. It is clear they recognize the network as the most important non-state actor in the Middle East today -- and therefore worthy of extremely close attention.
The European media have become by and large very sympathetic towards Al Jazeera. This contrasts with their stance as recently as the invasion of Afghanistan, when British tabloids branded Al Jazeera Bin Laden's "mouthpiece," claiming it was run by Palestinian and Syrian extremists. The Daily Telegraph called it "Bin Laden TV." The "taxi driver" talk radio stations in the UK, Spain, and Ireland still enjoy joking about the station's connection to Al Qa'ida, but not in a particularly malevolent way. Anchors often expressed a great deal of interest in the new English-language channel, and readily affirmed that one would be a fool to trust completely anything one saw or heard on any television news channel. Often the callers on the shows were Arabs living in Europe who said they enjoyed what they saw on the English-language website and could not wait for Al Jazeera International to rescue them from the incessant anti-Arab bias they perceived in Western news coverage.
The opinion of the American media towards Al Jazeera -- and consequently the image of the network in America -- has changed even more radically. In the past, the big American news networks adopted a policy of attacking Al Jazeera in public while secretly petitioning it in private so that they might use its exclusive footage. Although one ABC producer recently asked me whether Al Jazeera could fit him up with an interview with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, American anchors no longer seem to assume the channel is simply the hotline to the Axis of Evil. There is a new willingness to hear what Al Jazeera might have to say, coupled with a genuine interest in the origins of the channel, and even a desire to learn from its news-gathering strategies in the Middle East. CNN is planning a one-off special on the history of the channel.
Some in the American media -- at Salon.com, for example -- asked me whether the ripples of democratic reform we have seen in past weeks in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Kuwait are attributable to Al Jazeera. Even Murdoch's New York Daily News has conceded that "many analysts consider the Qatar-based network a greater catalyst for democracy in the Middle East than any US policy." This is the same paper which once called Al Jazeera "the great enabler of Arab hatred and self-deception. It propagates the views of Osama Bin Laden. It cheerleads for Palestinian suicide bombers. It has become Saddam's voice." The paper also had called on the US military to violently and permanently close down the "Arab propaganda outfit controlled by the medieval government of Qatar."
The seeds of this shift in perception were sown when the American people were so grievously mislead by their own media during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Feelings have since been catalyzed by a number of Western observers, regarded by and large as impartial in America, who have spoken out in favor of the channel. I am one; BBC World Services Director Richard Sambrook is another. I have noticed that when I tell Americans that the official British television regulatory watchdog, Ofcom, has consistently criticized Fox News more often than Al Jazeera -- not just for biased news but also over other issues, such as giving undue prominence to commercial products in what is supposed to be a news item -- they tend these days to be more impressed than surprised.
Al Jazeera's more salubrious reputation has not escaped discerning, internationally minded Americans, still smarting over the issue of the non-existent weapons of mass destruction and increasingly anxious about the seemingly endless conflict in Iraq. The BBC and CBC have already profited from the many Americans who, disenchanted with Fox's flag-waving during the war, have begun to look further afield for their news.
Consequently, the BBC is now all the more anxious about Al Jazeera International, which threatens to pinch their newly acquired American audience. When I addressed a crowd of BBC journalists this spring at the annual BBC news conference, I found everyone asking the same questions: How many people will switch from BBC World to Al Jazeera International when it starts up in November, and what can we learn from Al Jazeera's Arabic service right now to stop this happening?
They are right to be worried. Around the world, many people still choose the BBC as the most trusted name in English-language news. Of course, no one knows what the future holds for Al Jazeera, and the launch of the new channel certainly comes with risks. But it is not impossible to imagine that in a couple of years from now Al Jazeera International may eclipse the BBC, not just in America, but also in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Afghanistan, where anecdotal evidence suggests that even if people don't speak Arabic, they already recognize that little calligraphic teardrop logo as an incontrovertible stamp of authenticity.