Imagine the following scenario: President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, in a widely publicized meeting with American Secretary of State Colin Powell, calls on the American government to rein in popular media outlets including CNN. The Pakistani ruler opens the conversation by criticizing the frequent airing by CNN of scenes of enraged Pakistanis taking to the streets to denounce American intervention in the region. President Musharraf might argue that the repetitive display of inflammatory and hostile imagery had contributed to the growing climate of anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and were hindering diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.
Millions of Arabs --from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, from wealthy, Gulf businessmen to impoverished Palestinians in the Occupied Territories -- rely on the critical, unbiased information they receive from Al-Jazeera.
What would be the reaction of our mainstream US press? In all likelihood, the Pakistani request would be greeted with disbelief if not outright derision. Editorials from the likes of the New York Times and Washington Post would indignantly lecture Musharraf, who came to power through a military coup, of the independent nature of the American press. He would be reminded that American, unlike Pakistan, boasts a free press with a rich tradition of dissent. In America, an independent and credible media play a crucial role in the preservation of liberty. Commentators, pundits, and analysts would question the nature of our partner's commitment to democracy and freedom of expression.
How disheartening it was, then, to see the Emir of the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar remind Colin Powell of the importance of a free, credible press, as occurred earlier this month. The remarkable exchange took place during a meeting between the two leaders in Washington, during which the Secretary of State called on the Emir to rein in the Arab satellite service Al-Jazeera. Some have speciously accused Al-Jazeera of serving as a platform for suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Over the past several weeks, Al-Jazeera has been introduced to Americans and other westerners in dramatic fashion. With access to Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban limited, western media outlets have been forced to rely on satellite feeds and interviews carried by the Qatar-based news service. Indeed, the military campaign in Afghanistan may well do for Al-Jazeera what the Gulf War did for CNN more than a decade ago a place the news service on the international media map.
Notwithstanding the recent appearance by American officials (including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) on Al-Jazeera, the Bush administration is clearly troubled by its inability to influence the popular satellite network. Secretary Powell, however, has not been the first leader to take umbrage at Al-Jazeera's free-spirited coverage. Indeed, during its short history, the satellite service has managed to offend numerous Arab governments, not to mention Israel, which has criticized its extensive reporting on the Palestinian Intifada over the past year.
Millions of Arabs --from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, from wealthy, Gulf businessmen to impoverished Palestinians in the Occupied Territories -- rely on the critical, unbiased information they receive from Al-Jazeera. For the Arab world, Al-Jazeera, which began broadcasting in the 1990's, represents a refreshing departure from the stale, government-censored news they have been fed over the years. This is a trend that should be applauded and indeed encouraged.
The conversation between Powell and the Emir only underscores the perception of many in the Muslim and Arab worlds that our government never takes into consideration their welfare and legitimate aspirations when formulating American foreign policy. When former Secretary of State Madeline Albright was questioned regarding the devastating impact of economic sanctions on Iraq (which have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians), her callous response that the loss of life was "worth it" reverberated throughout Middle East. Unfortunately, the mainstream American press bears some responsibility for generally dismissing the Muslim and Arab masses as merely that a faceless masses, as opposed to flesh-and-blood human beings who share the same hopes, dreams, and fears common to all humanity. The frequent, contemptuous media references to the Arab and Muslim "street" as if these people have nothing better to do than hang out in the street all day, hurling slogans and burning flags epitomizes the underlying ignorance that clouds most western coverage of this important part of the globe.
Rather than seeking to censor Al-Jazeera and stifle the free-spirited coverage, analysis, and debates hosted by the satellite station, the Bush administration should applaud its independence and the voice it provides to the diverse spectrum of Arab and Muslim world opinion. If we are genuinely interested in defending and promoting "our way of life", we should also act in sincere fashion to ensure that others share with us the fruits of liberty.
Basil Abdelkarim is a physician and research associate for American Muslims for Jerusalem.