Boxing Rings: Al-Jazeera's Talk Shows
An excerpt from
the book "Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and
Changed the Middle East," by Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar.
Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2002. Thanks to Westview
Press and the authors for permission to publish this excerpt.
During each weekly episode of the program, Al-Jazeera's top talk-show host, Faisal Al-Kasim, spends the first two minutes of the flagship show, Al Ittijah Al Mo'akis (The Opposite Direction), posing questions that reflect opposite positions on a chosen topic. This talk show is just one of many through which Al-Jazeera opens the floor to unbridled and often noisy debates on some of the most sensitive issues in Arab society. Other Arab TV networks would never screen such discussions, which result in floods of telephone calls to the studios and reams of protests throughout the Arab press.
Crossfire in the Middle
Al-Kasim's guests during this episode were Christopher Ross, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and the current U.S. State Department counterterrorism coordinator, and Ibrahim Alloush, a mass-communications scholar and editor-in-chief of an Arab think-tank's website, entitled The Free Arab Voice on the Internet.
From the early moments, it was clear that the discussion would be contentious to say the least. Al-Kasim's first question, directed to Ross, was: "Why was Al-Jazeera's bureau in Afghanistan bombed?" Before Ross had a chance to answer, Alloush interrupted abruptly, saying: "I think the question we should start with is: Was the bombing of Al-Jazeera's bureau in Afghanistan a prelude for bombing Al-Jazeera's bureau in Qatar?" Alloush's question alluded to the dominant Arab thought that the United States has been against Al-Jazeera since the September 11 attacks. Although even Al-Jazeera officials noted that U.S. forces were aware of the bureau's location, few were prepared to make such unsubstantiated accusations. This is evidence that Alloush's interpretation is part of the conspiracy theories propagated by fringe thinkers and that his website is but one among the media that fosters such a theory in the Arab world.
Throughout the discussion, Ross, who was being interviewed from Al-Jazeera's studio in Washington, D.C., met Alloush's aggressive tone with a smile on his face and poise in his answers. Ross elegantly rebutted Alloush's arguments with rapid-fire and eloquent responses. Ross's answers were not in English; they were in fluent Arabic. A November 6, 2001, article in Time described Ross's fluency in Arabic as a "secret weapon to the propaganda war" and "a tremendous asset in making the case to middle-class Muslims countering [Osama] bin Laden's adept exploitation of anti-American grievances in the Muslim world." The article mentioned that "it may take a spokesman with [Ross's] deep appreciation of the nuances of Arab politics-and language-to help reverse the tide of Arab sentiment against the U.S. five weeks into the Afghan bombing campaign."
Ross, who has played a leading role in formulating Middle East policy in various U.S. administrations over some thirty years of diplomatic service, responded calmly to Alloush's allegations. Ross argued that "the United States is not targeting Al-Jazeera's bureaus in Kabul [the Afghani capital], Qatar, or America And my participation in this program tonight is evidence that there is a kind of media cooperation between the [United States] and Al-Jazeera. As for [Al-Jazeera's] Kabul bureau, the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are after the military sites only, not the civil or the media sites, and despite our efforts in that regard, there is bound to be some faults in using the weapons. Up to this point, we don't know how the Al-Jazeera bureau was bombed, but we know that it wasn't among our targets."
During this early segment in the program, Al-Kasim, in an attempt to question Alloush's perceptions of U.S. policies, challenged him: "Why these allegations against America and against the American troops in Afghanistan?"
Alloush, using a similar tone, told Al-Kasim that there are several media sources that prove that Al-Jazeera was targeted. Alloush asked Ross to refer to the October 14, 2001, issue of the New York Daily News, which he claimed contained an article that encouraged U.S. troops to close down the Al-Jazeera bureau as a response to the network's coverage of the damages to civilian sites in Afghanistan. Alloush also encouraged Ross to check out the November 18, 2001, issue of the New York Times, which he said included an article written by noted Johns Hopkins University Middle Eastern scholar Fouad Ajami that described Al-Jazeera as "anti-American." According to Alloush, "Al-Jazeera is targeted by the American media, which are monopolized by four or five conglomerates, such as Sony, Time Warner, Viacom, and Walt Disney. Al-Jazeera has broken such media monopoly through its competition in the news market, and the bombing of the Al-Jazeera bureau had a competitive market-driven dimension."
Al-Kasim, who appeared to be unconvinced by Alloush's arguments, responded, "Doctor Alloush, you cited an American newspaper that incites feelings against Al-Jazeera, but can that serve as a sufficient evidence to show that the U.S. administration bombed Al-Jazeera intentionally? Do you have other evidence? Is it just talk? Are you just guessing?"
Alloush seemed at a loss to provide a direct answer. Instead, he claimed that the New York Daily News is the sixth largest newspaper in the United States and is part of an American media conglomerate. He added that CNN lost its preeminence as the dominant world news medium because of the role Al-Jazeera played in Kabul. "It was necessary to stop Al-Jazeera's role for the benefit of the American news media," Alloush argued.
At this point, Ross interjected (in his flawless Arabic, laced with a Lebanese accent), "First, the New York Daily News does not by any means represent the opinion of the United States administration. We have hundreds of newspapers, and we have press freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. I don't deny that the American news media are market-driven institutions that follow the money, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, our media policies are set by the news editors based on their readings of the public's concerns, and we don't have a government institution that supervises the media as is the case in many other countries."
Ross continued his argument in an attempt to explain the U.S. stand on Al-Jazeera. "You at Al-Jazeera know that since Al-Jazeera's inception, the U.S. administration has been a great admirer of the channel. It is true, however, that during a specific time, some American officials expressed their concerns that Al-Jazeera was broadcasting announcements made by Al-Qaeda organization officials on a regular basis. The U.S. government considered that to be a message inciting violence." Ross responded that Al-Jazeera's small total revenue from advertising doesn't merit much worry from huge international media conglomerates.
In the course of the debate, Alloush made the comment that big media conglomerates with major U.S. holdings are controlled by "some Jews who have Zionist trends." Alloush added that the three largest American newspapers-the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal-and the three national U.S. networks-ABC, CBS, and NBC-are owned by Jews. "Is that a coincidence?" Alloush pressed.
Although U.S. administrations have demonstrated time and again undivided support for the state of Israel based on strategic interests, Alloush's remark remains part of a pervasive, though tragically misinformed, conspiracy theory in the Arab world. This misguided theory purports that there is a Jewish and Zionist plot planned by the United States and Israel to weaken Arab states. In fact, the Al-Jazeera channel itself has been accused by many Arabs of being a Zionist forum because of its interviews with several Israeli leaders, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak among them. Other Arabs have gone so far to accuse Al-Jazeera of being financed by the CIA.
Ross responded to Alloush, saying that the American news organizations he cited are publicly traded companies, whose shares are available on the world's stock markets, and that anyone can buy them, including Arab investors.
At that point, Al-Kasim read a fax sent from Paris by an Arab viewer saying that he did not believe there was any correlation between the bombing of the Al-Jazeera bureau in Kabul and the network's role in covering the war. "If this were the case, we would have seen the rubbles of that bureau a long time ago," the viewer faxed.
The episode continued with Al-Kasim asking Alloush for concrete evidence for his allegations and Ross emphasizing his point that U.S. news media provide a forum for all voices and that there was no hidden intention behind the bombing of the Al-Jazeera bureau. At one point toward the end of the show, Al-Kasim reminded Alloush of Thomas Jefferson's saying: "If I were to choose between a government without a press or a press without a government, I would have chosen the latter."
This episode of the talk show was a hit with audiences all over the Arab world. It hosted a renowned U.S. diplomat and gave him the opportunity, in the local language, to respond to an Arab scholar who has deep-seated anti-American positions, strengthened at the time by the U.S. strikes on Afghanistan. And though having Ross address Arab concerns in Arabic was a breakthrough, Al-Jazeera's pan-Arab audiences need exposure to more views from U.S. officials who, like Ross, understand the Arabic language and can address viewers effectively and persuasively. Translations are never as powerful as hearing person-to-person discourse in the native tongue.
Al-Kasim, the outspoken and often domineering Syrian host of The Opposite Direction, is himself of Arab and Islamic origin. His controversial program has made him a media superstar, a household name in the Arab world. He is a skilled moderator who knows how to elicit responses from guests, instigating them with provocative questions. He runs the show professionally and objectively and makes sure that all possible opinions are presented-often exhaustively. This is no doubt tedious, especially in the Arab world, where people are not accustomed to routine public disagreement and discourse. But Al-Kasim's poise and experience always lead to coherent and persuasive responses from guests. Al-Kasim may have attained early expertise from his study of English Literature at Hull University in England, followed by his ten-year experience as an anchor at BBC's Arabic radio network.
Al-Kasim, writing in a recent article ("Crossfire: The Arab Version, "Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, summer 1999), explained that "Al-Jazeera's editorial policy is so lax that I am hardly ever given orders regarding program content. My program is the most controversial show on the network, but no one interferes. I choose the subjects, and I choose the guests. No one has ever influenced my decisions. The network has an even wider scope of freedom than the BBC Arabic radio. I tackle issues that I never even dreamed of covering during my service at the BBC."
Al-Kasim said he started The Opposite Direction because he felt it was time that the opposing point of view, virtually silent in the Arab world for more than a half-century, be heard. "I am quite convinced that what hinders progress in the Arab world is the absence of a free press," said Al-Kasim in the same article. "The dirt in our society has been swept under the carpet for too long. But I am certain that this won't be the case for much longer. Arabs are beginning to engage in lively debate over their political and social predicament. And Al-Jazeera offers a ray of hope."
Al-Kasim always makes sure that his guests get equal time on his program, and unlike many other Arab anchormen who sometimes appear unable to stop guests from deviating from the topic or monopolizing the discussion, he manages and controls the discussion like the seasoned veteran that he is. Before he steps in, though, he often allows discussions to get especially volatile.
But sometimes-even Al-Kasim loses control of the show. For example, one of his shows discussed polygamy, a topic that arouses strong reaction throughout the Middle East because it is accepted under Islamic law yet roundly criticized by the public. The show, which aired in early 1999, hosted two prominent Arab women who debated the practice of polygamy among Muslim men. One of the guests, Egyptian writer Safinaz Kazem, a Marxist-turned-Islamist, stormed off the set in the middle of the show; then her counterpart, former Jordanian member of parliament Tojan Faisal, rejected polygamy as an antiquated practice. From Kazem's point of view, Faisal's view contradicted the Quran, and for that reason it could have cost Faisal her life. This show was the talk of the Arab world for months, and it infuriated the Islamic religious establishment. It was also the first time on Arab TV that anyone had ever walked off the set in the middle of an on-air broadcast.
Blasphemy on the Airwaves
In another episode that aired in late 1998, The Opposite Direction featured Jordan's then-deputy prime minister, who debated one of Jordan's prominent Islamist opposition leaders, himself imprisoned many times for rhetoric that bordered on incitement to violence. The opposition leader angrily attacked the Jordanian government throughout the show, and the minister responded in kind. After the Al-Jazeera broadcast, the opposition leader challenged the Jordanian government to rebroadcast the debate so all Jordanians could see it. The government did, but rather than build support for the opposition leader, the result was pure entertainment. To the audiences who tuned in to watch the show using satellite dishes, and later with roof antennas, and later still on videotapes that passed from hand to hand, Arabic audiences watched, and rewatched, as if viewing a Hollywood blockbuster.
Despite the many rounds of public criticism, Arab and Islamic leaders sometimes give exclusive interviews to Al-Kasim on The Opposite Direction. Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's leader, was interviewed by Al-Kasim on October 24, 2001, the first live interview of an Arab leader since the September 11 attacks. Qaddafi, once declared by the United States to be its sworn enemy, told Al-Kasim during the ninety-minute interview that the United States had a right to retaliate for the September 11 attacks, but he also would not brand Osama bin Laden as a terrorist until an international conference agreed on a definition of "terrorism." "We must sit down at any level without emotions...and after we define terrorism we agree on fighting terrorism. It is not logical that a country that is a member of the United Nations would shy from fighting terrorism," Qaddafi said, who called the September 11 attacks "horrifying, destructive" and added that they had caused enormous loss of life and economic damage that would affect all countries. Qaddafi reiterated that Washington had the right to seek revenge for the attacks without asking for anyone's permission, but he pointedly evaded answering direct questions on U.S. military strikes on Afghanistan.
Many Arab viewers were surprised to hear these remarks from Qaddafi, the erstwhile U.S. antagonist, who has often assailed the United States for its policies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The Opposite Direction is not the only controversial talk show featured on Al-Jazeera. Another blockbuster is Akthar Men Ra'y (More Than One Opinion). This popular weekly show, which airs on Fridays, offers a platform for opinions and views on political, economic, social, scientific, and cultural issues. The program's host, Samy Haddad-as provocative as Al-Kasim-invites personalities and experts on Arab and international issues to conduct no-holds-barred discussions.
A recent episode of that program, which aired in November 2001, discussed the status of political Islam in Great Britain. The guests were Sir Terence Clerk, the former British ambassador to the Middle East, and Omar Bakry, the head of Al-Mohajeroon (The Immigrants), an activist Islamic group based in Britain. The episode focused on a British law that punishes British Muslims who left for Afghanistan to fight against U.S. and British troops.
Haddad, a finely dressed man in suit and tie, with silvery white hair and thin-framed glasses, claimed that among the British Muslim community there are many who believe that this British law discriminates against them because they are nonwhites. He said, "When the Irish fought in Ulster [Northern Ireland], they were British citizens, and they killed individuals from the British police. But Britain did not accuse them of treason? Why the double standards? Is it because those are Muslims and the others were Christians?" The host's question was blatantly incorrect, because Northern Irish have been killed, imprisoned, and tried for treason by the British government. Yet his underlying objective was to provoke the British guest to defend his case against the logic of his discussant in the show, albeit by twisting the truth.
Clerk, surprised by Haddad's strong but misguided question, said, "The circumstances are different. Those youths, who have chosen to go and participate in what they described as a religious war in Afghanistan, have cut their relationship with the country in which they were born and raised. Those people might be charged with murder if they kill British soldiers." Clerk's answers throughout the program were in English, and the Arabic subtitles were not an exact translation.
Bakry, a plump man with a long beard and a large white turban on his head, responded angrily to Clerk, nearly shouting, "We consider your democracy to be the civil face of dictatorship, and now you have revealed the true meaning of democracy from your point of view. Your democracy is telling us: Either stand with us and help us to bomb and destroy Afghanistan, or stand with the terrorists."
Bakry elaborated on his point, and he spent fifteen minutes trying to explain to Haddad, the host, the obstacles facing Muslims in Britain. However, at one point Haddad interrupted, "You have asked that Muslims be trained on carrying weapons, and your group has failed in finding any Arab or Islamic country to serve as its base. Britain was the only country that hosted you and your group. Now you are accusing Britain of fighting political Islam, while you are free to say whatever you want." Haddad is nothing if not an equal opportunity provocateur.
Bakry backed off: "We are suffering from discrimination in Britain." Toward the end of the program, Haddad pointed his pen toward Clerk and said, "You know that there is a feeling of frustration and social marginality among the Muslims in Britain. There is some sort of discrimination against them, and this affects their loyalty to your country." Clerk surprised Haddad and Bakry by saying, "There is some truth to what you [Haddad] have described. But other minorities in Great Britain have the same claims. We expect a draft for a new law that will put an end to this kind of discrimination."
Haddad, Al-Kasim, and the hosts of other Al-Jazeera talk shows have one professional characteristic in common: They are not biased to one side or the other. They try to provoke their guests, energize the discussions, and instigate debates-often to the breaking point-without taking one side or the other. In doing so, their main objective is to present all points of view for viewers and let them decide. Most other talk shows on Arab TV offer little more than top-down dictation.
Several examples illustrate this argument. In one episode of The Opposite Direction, Yusuf Al-Karadawi, a prominent Islamic religious figure in Qatar, was put in the position of defending his faith to Sadeeq Jalal Al-Azm, a prominent Arab secularist thinker and professor of philosophy at the University of Damascus. Al-Karadawi's defense was met by Al-Azm's scorn and derision; the latter ridiculed religious thought, mocked the prophets, claimed that Islam is a "backward" religion, and praised Kemal Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey) for banishing Islam from his country. In the ensuing debate, host Al-Kasim never took sides; he kept his poise and never showed any emotions that would reflect his bias toward one guest or the other. Never before has such a well-known secularist like Al-Azm had the chance to go toe-to-toe with a religious cleric on television. After this episode aired, cassette tapes of the broadcast sold for up to $40 on the black market in several Arab cities.
Commenting on this episode in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics article, Al-Kasim said, "Some would argue that it is high time that we 'de-iconize' many of the thoughts and sacred myths that have dominated the Arab world for decades. My show is providing a forum for people to present this argument, as well as for the opposite side to defend against it. And for the first time in many years, Arab citizens have the opportunity to judge for themselves. Nonetheless, religious preachers all over the Arab world have condemned my program, calling me a raving secularist."
It can be argued convincingly that Al-Jazeera's talk-show hosts try to follow suit with the channel's motto: "The opinion and the other opinion." It might be that this motto discouraged several guests from even appearing on the network's talk shows, especially when see[ing] long-held ideologies and sincere beliefs questioned and challenged by aggressive opponents and relentless interrogator-hosts. It might also be that the network motto led some governments to prohibit citizens from appearing on Al-Jazeera talk shows. Al-Jazeera's managing director, Mohammed Jasim Al-Ali, said during a 2000 interview with the editor of the online journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies ("A Dialogue with the Managing Director of Al-Jazeera," fall 2000) that on some occasions guests would change their minds at the very last minute and not appear on the air. "It happened that one of the guests was arrested by his country's authorities for doing nothing, only so he would not be able to show up for Al-Jazeera's program," explained Al-Ali. "Others were denied travel by their countries' authorities, or had their telephone lines disconnected. "He also stated that in some countries Al-Jazeera's studio telephone lines were disconnected in while on the air." We do face such difficulties, but we stick to our stance and try to be balanced and fair as much as possible," he asserts.
In many cases, the formula of controversy and provocation has infuriated guests. Needless to say, making an appearance on one of these shows is not for the timid. Flailing arms, belligerent shouting, and frequent interruptions make for an adrenaline rush-in the studio and in living rooms. This is one of the reasons why many have accused these talk shows of being pure sensationalism.
Al-Kasim said in the May 17, 1999, issue of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan that he still remembered an especially humorous incident during an episode on democracy. According to Al-Kasim, the guest, who was hiding from Islamic fundamentalists, wanted to disguise himself using an artificial mustache. "Ten minutes into the program, the guest got too angry, and he started shouting to the point where he removed the mustache from his face and threw it on the ground. At this point, I couldn't hold myself from laughing," said Al-Kasim.
Al-Jazeera's motto seems to have encouraged its anchors and producers to select guests who represent the two extremes of an issue. This occurs often with the producers of The Opposite Direction, who routinely pick a guest from the far left and another from the far right; a knee-jerk liberal to debate an ultra-conservative; or perhaps a U.S. flag-waver and an anti-American radical. Is there room for a middle ground? It's surely a positive that a program like The Opposite Direction presents dissenting views, but do the guests have to be absolute polar opposites?
Why not have a secularist, a cleric, and a moderate-all of whom would strongly state their cases but without the naked vehemence? The staff and hosts of Al-Jazeera believe that for a program like The Opposite Direction it is essential to invite two extremes to generate heated debates, to grow more provocative, to elicit ever-more extreme reactions from featured guests. Make no doubt, the real winners are Arab viewers, whose understanding of the issues is enhanced by exposure to two extremely conflicting points of view.
Yet Al-Jazeera doesn't confine its on-air fireworks to shows that host polar opposites. The weekly Wednesday show Bila Hodoud (Without Frontiers) often invites a guest to discuss one issue in current affairs-politicians, party leaders, intellectuals, experts, Islamic scholars. On the October 31, 2001, episode the topic was Malaysia's stand on the current war in Afghanistan. The guest was Abdel Hadi Owang, the prime minister of Tringano Sultanate in Malaysia, an Islamic country. The host of Without Frontiers, Ahmed Mansour, may appear calm and pleasant on-screen, but the provocative, accusatory questions he often asks can make guests literally jump from their chairs.
During this episode, Owang was unruffled to start. He described the feelings and emotions of Malaysian people and offered that his country is opposed to the war in Afghanistan because, as he said, it killed innocent civilians. Mansour, in response, provoked Owang with the question, "Do you think the U.S. listens to no one? Do you think the U.S. takes the law into its own hands and acts like a rogue, outlaw state?"
At this point Owang opened up and started shouting, saying that the U.S. decision to launch a war in Afghanistan was illegal because the U.S. administration did not present any evidence or witnesses proving Afghanistan's involvement in terrorism. "There are hidden religious objectives behind the U.S. military campaign. There needs to be a discussion of the impact of Zionism on the Western public opinion. Israel should be included in the terrorists' circle because of its policies in the Palestinian territories," Owang insisted. Mansour seemed surprised by the outburst and suggested, "How could the U.S. have hidden religious objectives when it is a secular, nonreligious country?" Owang, as if he didn't expect Mansour's question, hesitated: "We have heard George W. Bush state that this war is a 'crusade' against the Islamic world."
Mansour explained that the term "crusade," as it was used by Bush, did not mean that it was a war against the Islamic world. He also added that Bush apologized for using that term that the president explained how he hadn't meant to imply this was a war against Muslims but against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that harbored the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Mansour also highlighted the fact that Bush's decision to undertake military action in Afghanistan was supported by an overwhelming majority of the American public.
At the end of the episode, Mansour added that one of the "unintentional" though positive aspects of the current crisis in Afghanistan is the growing interest of the Western countries in Islam, as the West tries to learn about Islam's true tenets and teachings. "There is a very high demand for translated books on Islam in the Western countries," said Mansour. Owang agreed with his host.
There is no question that misunderstandings and misperceptions pervade the Arab world when it comes to the United States and the war on terrorism. Even some of those hostile to bin Laden have grown wary of the U.S. bombing campaigns; this may widen the gap between the United States and its Arab allies. For its part, Al-Jazeera offers a free worldwide forum to address Arab and the Muslim worries and, when it suits, tries to change some of these misperceptions. This is what Mansour did to Owang when he explained that the United States does not have a religious purpose in the war in Afghanistan. This is also what Al-Jazeera attempted when it hosts U.S. and other Western guests on its talk shows. We know of no Arab TV network other than Al-Jazeera that has accomplished this. TBS
2002 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo