The Two Faces of Al Jazeera

By Kessler, Oren | Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Two Faces of Al Jazeera


Kessler, Oren, Middle East Quarterly


One of the principal beneficiaries of the Arab uprisings has been Al Jazeera television. Viewers are praising the English and Arabic channels' comprehensive coverage of the revolts while the Obama administration continues to court the network as part of its signature foreign policy goal of improving ties with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

On August 1, 2011, Al Jazeera English (AJE) began broadcasting to two million cable subscribers in New York - the third major U.S. city to carry the station after Houston and Washington, D.C.1 AJE's gutsy, driven reporting - one commentator aptly commended its "hustle"2 - has won it friends in high places: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lauded the channel as "real news,"3 and Sen. John McCain (Republican, Ariz.) said he was "very proud" of its handling of the so-called Arab Spring.4

Lost in the exuberance is the fact that a vast gulf still separates the channel's English iteration from the original Arabic, which fifteen years after its birth continues to inflame Arab resentments in its promotion of anti-Americanism, Sunni sectarianism and, in recent years, Islamism.

As AJE debuts in New York, many viewers who do not speak Arabic will presume the station to be a direct or approximate translation of its parent network in Qatar.5 But to appreciate what Al Jazeera English is, it is critical to rememberjust what it is not - even a remote likeness of its Arabic-speaking progenitor.

FANNING THE FLAMES

In the aftermath of the 9/1 1 terrorist attacks, Fouad Ajami traveled to Qatar to write aprofile on Al Jazeera Arabic (AJA) for The New York Times Magazine. In the cover story "What the Muslim World Is Watching," he wrote, " Jazeera's reporters see themselves as 'anti-imperialists. ' Convinced that the rulers of the Arab world have given in to American might, these are broadcasters who play to an Arab gallery whose political bitterness they share - and feed."6

Virtually all of the channel's journalists, he found, were either leftist, pan- Arab nationalists, or Islamists. "Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous, Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one," he wrote. "Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage."7

It was in the days after the 2001 attacks that most Americans first encountered Al Jazeera Arabic (the English offshoot was still five years away) when the channel broadcast its first Osama bin Laden tape, an admission of responsibility for the slaughter. The clip was the first of about ten audio and video statements AJA would broadcast of the al-Qaeda leader over the same number of years.8

In the wake of those attacks, Aj ami discovered, bin Laden was Al Jazeera's unchallenged star: "The channel's graphics assign him a lead role: There is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set."9

In Afghanistan, Al Jazeera's narrative was roughly analogous to the Taliban's: ill-equipped, heroic Muslims overcoming the foreign invader through sheer courage and faith. Taliban-embedded reporters ended their broadcasts with the sign-off "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" - the Islamist government's official name for the country - while the U.S. war on terror was denied the same treatment, identified instead as a campaign against "what it calls terror."10

Coverage in Iraq has been similar. Words like "terrof and "insurgency" are rarely mentioned with a straight face, usually replaced with "resistance" or "struggle." Suicide bombings against U.S. troops are "commando attacks" or sometimes even "paradise operations" while "War in Iraq" is replaced by "War onlraq."11 Similarly, Israel's 2008-09 Gaza offensive was branded "War on Gaza" in both Arabic and English. …

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