EDUCATION AND MEDIA-Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West

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EDUCATION AND MEDIA Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West, by Hugh Miles. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 448 pages. $24.

Reviewed by Patrick Belton

If one were to quibble with Hugh Miles's masterly, elegant treatment of the Al-Jazeera network, it would be for its faint note of the apologetic - as though the author feels a need to defend his subject against voices, presumably American, though Alastair Campbell indubitably amongst them, wont to criticize al-Jazeera as biased, incendiary and irresponsible; similar criticisms indeed were levelled during the war towards the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Al-Jazeera has now progressed from infancy well past its adolescence; one could thus start to chafe for supplanting the early days' nursery awe at its very existence - or apologia for the circumstances of its conception - by desire to understand it in rather pedestrian a fashion as one might the internal workings within Broadcasting House, or Eighth Avenue where instead of Times Square the American newspaper of record is newly housed.

Al-Jazeera (the Arabic renders as "the peninsula") began in 1996 from the ashes of a BBC World Service-Saudi collaboration that concluded in tears due to incompatible impressions of press freedom by the divorcands; its old members featured prominently amongst al-Jazeera's matriculants. Coveted C-Band transponder space on the Arabsat satellite then providentially fell free in July 1997 when France Télécom transmitted, in place of an educational program for Arab schoolchildren, 30 minutes of a hard-core pornographic film entitled Club Privé au Portugal.

Turning 12, al-Jazeera enjoys a viewership of perhaps 120 million, between it and its English service debuting in 2006. It is proprietor of three al-Jazeera sport channels, the C-Span-like al-Jazeera Mobasher and its own documentary and (non-pornographic) children's channels; an Urdu service will soon commence. Partly, its rise is due to the munificence of a loss-gobbling Emir, that of Qatar - whose kingdom Miles paints as an affluent oasis of liberalism if not democracy, a terrestrial aircraft carrier for Americans (he twice plumps for the metaphor), its diplomacy conversant with Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Tehran, making Qatar a veritable Switzerland without the chocolate.

The luck of the Qataris extended to scoops, including Yosri Fouda's interviews with Ramzi bin al-Shaibh and Khaled al-Sheikh Muhammad as they hid in Karachi, bin Ladin in June 1999 (though ABC had interviewed him before) and as chosen correspondent of Osaman epistolary from a faxed, typewritten, hand-signed first message on September 24, 2001 ("first he hijacked airplanes, now he had hijacked the airwaves," puns Miles). It has had good wars: uniquely there to witness the fall of Desert Fox's rockets on Iraq during Ramadan 1998, then an al-Aqsa Intifada during which Fatah heavies forced the closure of Walid al-Omary's Ramallah field office, though they were overruled by 'Arafat, then of course Afghanistan and Iraq. Free-wheeling talk shows captured the Arab imagination and discomfited Arab governments not accustomed to viewing their subjects' criticism on television: especially Dr. Faisal al-Qasim's Crossfire-like offering Al-Ittijah al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction), the first location many Arabs had for hearing an Israeli speak. Shaykh al-Qaradawi, whose Islam Online website has had a pioneering role in the development of the e-ummah, commanded broad audiences with Al-Shari'a wal-Hayat or Religion and Life. …