Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today

Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today

Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today

Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today

Synopsis

Al-Jazeera and other satellite television stations have transformed Arab politics over the last decade. By shattering state control over information and giving a platform to long-stifled voices, these new Arab media have challenged the status quo by encouraging open debate about Iraq, Palestine, Islamism, Arab identity, and other vital political and social issues. These public arguments have redefined what it means to be Arab and reshaped the realm of political possibility. As Marc Lynch shows, the days of monolithic Arab opinion are over. How Arab governments and the United States engage this newly confident and influential public sphere will profoundly shape the future of the Arab world.

Marc Lynch draws on interviews conducted in the Middle East and analyses of Arab satellite television programs, op-ed pages, and public opinion polls to examine the nature, evolution, and influence of the new Arab public sphere. Lynch, who pays close attention to what is actually being said and talked about in the Arab world, takes the contentious issue of Iraq-which has divided Arabs like no other issue-to show how the media revolutionized the formation and expression of public opinion. He presents detailed discussions of Arab arguments about sanctions and the 2003 British and American invasion and occupation of Iraq. While Arabs strongly disagreed about Saddam's regime, they increasingly saw the effects of sanctions as a potent symbol of the suffering of all Arabs. Anger and despair over these sanctions shaped Arab views of America, their governments, and themselves.

Lynch also suggests how the United States can develop and improve its engagement with the Arab public sphere. He argues that the United States should move beyond treating the Arab public sphere as either an enemy to be defeated or an object to be manipulated via public relations. Instead of wasting vast sums of money on a satellite television station nobody watches, the United States should enter the public sphere as it really exists.

Excerpt

At the end of August 2003, the controversial al-Jazeera talk show host Faisal al-Qassem introduced the topic for the nights live broadcast of The Opposite Direction: do the Iraqi people have the right to demand an apology from the Arabs for their support of Saddam Hussein over the years? With Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the Pan-Arabist newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, facing off against Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Qassem framed the show—as he always does—by posing a long series of questions. the first dozen questions offered a strong defense of Arabs against their accusers: "Do Iraqis have the right to demand an apology from the rest of the Arabs? Should the Arabs actually make such an apology, or should the Iraqi people extend their thanks to the Arab regimes who did terrible things to the departed regime? Aren't they the ones who conspired against "Saddam" and allied with the occupiers against him?… Do they want an apology from the Arab regimes which enforced the embargo? Why don't we hear the Iraqis demanding an apology from the Americans and British who starved them and blockaded them and enslaved them?… Who is the real traitor to the Iraqi people: the one who minimized Saddam's crimes or the one who rode American tanks to occupy Iraq? Aren't those who opposed the invasion of Iraq worthy of praise?"

In the popular stereotype of al-Jazeera, Qassem's questioning would have ended with this defense of the Arabs and attack on their critics.

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