with the Deaf
By David Wilmsen, TBS contributing editor
States Government's new Arabic-language satellite television
channel claims to be bringing something new to the Arab world.
The message is impossible to miss, as it is incessantly hyped
in the clumsily cued station promos: If you look, you must
surely see; a new horizon; a new window on the world. Think.
Contemplate. Choose. You are free. Imagine an uncensored dialogue,
a dialogue not afraid of crossing red lines. Imagine the truth
as it is. Imagine no more.
on Alhurra is here to promote that dialogue.
it seems, not many have bothered to engage. Oh, a fewa
very fewhave appeared on the talk shows. And a few more
in the press and broadcast media have spluttered some protests;
this is their domain, after all. But the viewing public either
has yet to become aware of the new channel or is simply ignoring
it. This is a good thing. Otherwise, the bumptious arrogance
of the station would start losing hearts and minds.
is that Alhurra really has provided a vehicle for dialogue,
just not in the manner envisioned by the station. Arab audiences
already have a choice between at least a half-a-dozen all-talk
satellite outlets, from which, in their reckoning, they receive
a balanced, in-depth airing of the issues, and whose popularity
stems in part from their freewheeling talk shows criticising
Arab governments. They are fully aware of US positions; they
just see things differently, and until now, there has been no
venue for them to convey their views to American interlocutors.
expressed in the maiden broadcast of the station with the first
edition of the weekly program "The Four Directions."
Journalist Jihad Khazen, joining the program by satellite feed
from London, observed that the problem is not the failure of
the Americans to gain a hearing on the Arab airways. The problem
is American policy. He continued, "We welcome the chance
for dialogue, and we hope it helps, but it is not going to change
too many minds. What will change minds is a change in US policy."
of listening, though, Alhurra seems stubbornly bent on hammering
home the government agenda, preaching to Arabs about the frailties
of their society. What it misses is that Arabs do not disagree
with them on that score. A regular guest to the station, Washington
chief of the newspaper Al-Hayat, Salah Nemett, is perfectly
happy to concede that the Arab world needs democracy. But, he
one is against democracy; we just don't want it delivered
on the back of an American tank.
US does not want to encourage democracy out of any love
for the Arabs but because it sees it as being in its own
interest to do so as part of its struggle against terrorism.
requires an independent judiciary and parliament, a free
press that keeps an eye on power, and laws that support
these institutions. Without those, an immediate transformation
to representative democracy would result in the ascendancy
of the religious extremists. Why? The Arab world has been
ruled by secular regimes for the past seventy years, and
the rise of Islamic movements has come about as a result
of the failures of those systems. It is the present regimes
that are responsible for the rise of these movements.
not what the United States government relishes hearing. And
yet views like these are presented nightly on the talk show
and station flagship "Free Hour" with mouthpiece Ziad
Noujaim, one of only two regular talk shows in the entire weekly
schedule. (The rest of the time is taken up by a curious blend
of variety shows and travelogues-many of them in English-and
occasionally an hour of news.) Unlike the other Arab satellite
channels, whose talk shows are peopled with a wide cross section
of voices, "Free Hour" is plagued with a deadening
sameness of Arab guests, probably because there are only a few
convenient to Alhurra offices in Virginia. These are brought
up against a greater abundance of American officials, Martin
Indyk, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell-even the president appeared-and
the two groups talk past each other. Noujaim's questions seem
scripted to provide the Americans a venue for spouting the party
line and to rub Arab noses into their miserable plight. No one
appears to notice that the Arab guests agree that things are
bad. But they are sceptical of American motives and intentions
have changed for a night when sociologist and democracy-advocate
Saad El Din Ibrahim was invited to the show. He more than anyone
else should have assured station management of a rousing program
with a genuine Arab voice detailing all that is amiss in the
Arab world. Usually the programs incorporate several viewpoints,
almost always including a spokesman for the administration.
This time, the Arab social critic was granted the entire hour
have turned out exactly as expected. True, Ibrahim agreed with
every ill Noujaim threw at him. Monarchracy? We've got it. Freedom
of expression? Restricted. Opposition parties? Weak. Minority
rights? A few. But he grew impatient with his host's single-minded
pursuit of these hot-button topics, as if through their much
repetition, someone in the Arab world would finally hear. Never
mind that they have been hearing Ibrahim say just these things
in Arab print and broadcast media for years.
Is there a civil society in the Arab world? Is it effective?
And most importantly, is it independent of political power?
Is it free to operate without permission of the political powers?
Man, you are asking five questions in one. Which one do you
want me to answer? Yes, it exists, in some countries it is strong
and in others weak, and it is empowered to play a role.
Then why doesn't it play a role? Why is there no change? I want
to believe what you are saying, and many viewers
You have to ask, where? In the Sudan, civil society was able
to bring down the government twice, the Abboud and Jaafar El-Numeiri
regimes. Professional associations, these are civil society.
In Bahrain, Kuwait, in a country like Lebanon. When you say
strong, that doesn't mean that it is going to win all of its
fights with the autocratic state. Who maintained Lebanese society
during the civil war? There was no government. It was civil
society-non-governmental, volunteer organizations-that swept
the streets and provided social services as best they could
I'm not talking about services; I'm talking about the possibility
Ziad! Are you going to teach me what civil society is? Unbelievable!
That's what civil-society organizations do. Civil society provides
services, creative outlets, works for change
That's what I am talking about
Everything! Why do you bring up one side of the issue and leave
out the other? It's bad enough that our leaders shout us down;
we don't need it from you.
be asked, who is listening to these discussions? Why should
Alhurra be quizzing its Arab guests about their civil society
or any other issue? Arab audiences do not need to be reminded
of the unpleasant realities of their world; they know them only
too well. It is Americans who, instead of trotting out their
usual tired nostrums, should be listening to the Arab point
of view, finally expressed in dialogue in an American venue.
But that is not likely to happen while the dialogue is in Arabic.
So, in the end, who is listening? Probably no one. TBS