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“Why Do We Hate Them?” Arab Satellite Coverage of 9-11

On the first anniversary of 9-11, the Arab World's three leading transnational TV news broadcasters-MBC, Abu Dhabi Space Channel, and Al Jazeera-brought an intense scrutiny to bear on the events that have caused so much soul-searching in the Arab World. Predictably enough, the Arab satellite stations' treatment of those events, and the issues raised over the three days of intensive programming devoted to them, differed significantly from that found on Western stations. The discussions, which drew on many of the region's best-known commentators, provided an outlet for, and perhaps advanced, the emergence of a distinct Arab discourse around "9-11." It seemed, in fact, as though the Arab side was determined to take seriously the West's oft repeated wail of "Why do they hate us?" and indeed examine the question of, as Abd El Muneim Sa'id, director of Al-Ahram's Center for Political and Strategic Studies, put it at one point, "Why, in fact, do we hate them?"

From the eve of the anniversary, both MBC and Al Jazeera signaled that the following day's coverage was not going to be rolling news. In a near "snap" that gave a hint of the similarity in program design adopted by the two stations for the coming days, Al Jazeera announced that it would be covering "The Day That Changed The World," while MBC offered "The Day that Shook The World." With less fanfare, Abu Dhabi indicated its commitment by repeatedly showing stills of the attacks, backed by tragic music.

As programming started on the evening of 10 September, Al Jazeera set the pace with its exclusive airing of a tape reportedly released by Al-Qa'ida. The tape showed bearded men pouring over aviation manuals and maps-at one point, with conscious or unconscious theatrical flair, a traditional miswak (teeth-cleaning stick) jabs at a high-tech map of the Pentagon. It continued with an Osama Bin Laden voice-over naming and blessing the hijackers followed by footage of him delivering a sermon calling for justice in Palestine and for the release of imprisoned Saudi Islamists and it ended with lengthy extracts from hijacker Abd Al-Aziz Al-Umari's reading of his final testament. Initially Western reactions to the tape focused on its authenticity, a "former CIA operative" on BBC World's news bulletin later that evening providing rapid, robust denial. In contrast, Al Jazeera's assembled commentators assumed the tape's importance as a starting point for discussion and ran with it.

Commentators Abd El Bari Atwan, London editor of Al Quds newspaper and "Islamic writer" Muhammad Al-Awadi, with Philip Faraj, an "observer of American media," in Washington, set the parameters for the discussions that took place across the Arab satellites over the next day and a half. Al-Awadi stated that Arabs and Muslims largely shared the hijackers' feelings towards America and admired their commitment, while rejecting the methods they used. Atwan admitted that he was "moved" by Al-Umari's testament and the tape's implicit message to Muslim youth. Similarly Al-Awadi's assertion that the preponderance of Saudi Arabian nationals among the hijackers owed more to their statistically greater involvement with relief work in Afghanistan than to any fanaticism innate in Saudi society implicitly spurned the current movement in the US to demonize the kingdom. It was thus made clear from the start that this discussion would be from an unapologetically Arab perspective. Faraj's comment that the western media presentation of the tape would likely have differed significantly from Al Jazeera's seemed much to the point.

And so it went through the rest of the evening. Al Jazeera and MBC devoted virtually every minute of their programming to panel discussions prompted by footage of the events themselves or by interviews with players, for the most part raising issues that would fail to receive major attention in the western world as it came online later. Abu Dhabi's contribution, while less continuous, was also substantial. MBC's late night special on 10 September on "the invisible victims of the events of 9-11," meaning relatives of the hijackers and those arrested in connection with the attacks, highlighted the legal and humanitarian issue of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere who are denied access to legal advice and or a speedy trial. Abu Dhabi's contributors raised the question of mistreatment of Arabs and Muslims in the US and set this in the broader context of the relations between them and the rest of American society, described by US academic Aziza Al-Habri as historically tense and exacerbated in recent years by "Muslim boasting over the rapid growth of Islam in the US."

The marathon discussion resumed the following day, repeatedly throwing up the same issues: the contrast between America's towering military and economic might and its puny moral stature in the eyes of people of the region (or, as Abd El-Hamid Qandil of Egypt's Nasserist newspaper Al-Arabi put it, America's being "all hardware and no software"); the defensiveness on the part of Arab leaders and some intellectuals regarding Islam and their anxiety to "explain away" what happened versus the need to focus more on the negative impacts of western responses to the events on the region; the definition of jihad, and its incorporation within an Islamic conception of resistance to oppression; the reconciliation, as perceived by some, between the "Arab street" and the regimes, and the increased legitimacy on the street, according to others, of the Islamist movement; the "green light" given to Sharon's government by the "war on terrorism."

Needless to say, the US was not exempt from criticism, but it was not "them" that were primarily at issue here, but "us." Even Al Jazeera anchor Mohamed Krichan's deft thrust on launching the day's programming that America had divided the world into "the camp of the faithful" (mu'askar al-iman) and "the camp of unbelief" (mu'askar al-kufr), showed that the blade of Islamist discourse can cut the absolutists on either side. Commercial breaks were kept to a minimum and were short, and news coverage of other issues was curtailed (aided no doubt by the paucity of other stories; only the resignation of the Palestine Authority government merited more than cursory attention). This was an intense and focused exercise.

Not that there was consensus. Some challenged the notion that anything significant had been either changed or been shaken on that particular day, citing evidence of long-term trends in US policy towards the Middle East and Central Asia and the opportunism of US planning. Others found a silver lining: had not the US started talking for the first time of a Palestinian state, and had not oil prices risen, in the aftermath of 9-11? While Jordanian analyst and author Adnan Abu Odeh and others declared that the time had come for denial to be set aside, particularly in the light of the latest Al-Qa'ida tape, Abd El-Halim Qandil believed that the failure of the US to provide clear evidence of the guilt of the hijackers and to bring them to trial, a year after the crime, had created doubts that would last "for at least a quarter of a century." Former Kuwait Minister of Information Saad Al-Ajami even questioned whether a rational discussion of the issues was possible at a broad level, given that illiteracy stands at 70 percent in the Arab World. Voices from the other side were also given time, with the fluently Arabophone Foreign Office spokesman Gerald Russell defending the British record on the arrest of Islamic activists.

By mid-afternoon of 11 September, US commemorations of the anniversary were starting, and the Arab satellites shifted their focus to the other side of the Atlantic. Al Jazeera's anchor in Qatar handed over to Washington, and the beat went on. Now, however, the focus inevitably became less regional, with considerable time devoted to the ceremonies at the site of the Trade towers, the speeches of Bush and Rumsfeld, the reactions of survivors, and western-originated documentaries, such as that on the firefighters' of 9-11. The resolutely "non-political" nature of these Western packages allowed less room for analysis. However, where there was an opportunity to bring things back to the region, it was taken. Thus the growth of interest in Arabic and Islamic studies at US universities was well explored by Al Jazeera, with an interview with Michael Sells, author of "Approaching Islam," the inclusion of which on a Chapel Hill, North Carolina summer reading list led to right-wing Christian protests. And as the US president's peripatations from ceremony to ceremony came to an end, focus returned to the Middle East. MBC's airing of the Saudi documentary "In Search of Bin Laden," though, despite its title, it devoted rather little time to that particular chase, was thoughtful in its exploration of why "ordinary kids were transformed into terrorists." Interestingly, this program was probably the most forthright in its use of that term, which elsewhere seemingly automatically summoned up the prophylactic prefix "so-called."

Among the commentators and thinkers, both older and younger, who contributed, some over several hours, were former Arab League secretary general Clovis Maksoud, the Brookings Institution's Shibley Telhami, Georgetown University's Halim Barakat, Solidarity International's Yasir Bushnaq, London-based Jihad member and asylum-grantee Hani El-Siba'i, Edmund Gharib of the American University in Washington, former University of South Florida professor and media witch-hunt victim Sami Al-Arian, Diya Rashwan of Al-Ahram's Center for Political and Strategic Studies, well-known Egyptian Islamist lawyer Montasser El-Zayyat, and president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Ziad Asali, in addition to those mentioned above. Abd El-Bari Atwan deserves a special mention for sheer stamina: first seen reviewing the Osama Bin Ladin tape for Al Jazeera on the evening of September 10, he was still going strong on MBC's late night news review early on the morning of 12 September. The anchors, and especially Al Jazeera's Montaha El-Ramahi, Hafez El-Mirazi, and Mohamed Krichan, also deserve note for their unfailingly vigorous marathon performances. The non-Arab presence in the various studios included a number who expressed themselves fluently in Arabic, boosting the spontaneity and effectiveness of the dialog; Eric Rouleau, former Le Monde Middle East correspondent and diplomat, and David Mack, Vice-President of the Middle East Institute, come to mind, in addition to UK FO spokesman Gerald Russell.

Notable for their absence from this distinguished line-up were the official Arabs, the exception being Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq El-Hariri, who gave interviews to both Al Jazeera and MBC. This may be unsurprising if El-Hariri's emphatically pro-US stand was representative of the opinions of the Arab political establishment in general. More surprising was the relatively small space devoted to the "Arab street," despite the commentators' frequent references to the latter as a critical player; person-on-the-street interviews were few, and the first call-in program took place on the night of September 11, as it was all winding down.

By the early morning of September 12, this sustained effort was starting to run out of steam, and Abu Dhabi's showing of a documentary on the design faults that led to the collapse of the Twin Towers seemed to indicate that there was not much left to say. The following day did bring Al Jazeera's docu-drama "The Road to 11 September" in the "Top Secret" series, which reviewed the lives of the hijackers in the period before the attacks (and incidentally included Yousri Foda's interview with Ramzi Bin Al Sheeba [see in this issue "Covering Al-Qa'ida"]) and MBC's re-run of its Saudi documentary. It had been a long haul, but an engrossing one, demonstrative of the maturity of the best of Arab satellite programming and its ability to provide a forum for the most articulate voices in the region it serves.

About Humphrey Davies

Humphrey Davies is TBS managing editor.

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