February 4, 2003 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 122

Arab Media Reactions to the Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster

February 4, 2003
Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 122

Arab media reactions to the Columbia space shuttle disaster have been diverse. While several papers printed editorials expressing sorrow and condolences, some columnists linked the incident to America's war on terrorism, the anticipated war on Iraq, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. A few mocked the tragedy, with particular emphasis on the death of Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon.

"The American Space Program is Part of the Scientific Heritage of Humanity"

An editorial of the London-based Saudi-owned Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat declared that "The shuttle's fall shocked the entire world. The seven astronauts killed in this tragedy represented the human race with their aspirations to unlock the secrets of the universe. This is part of the collective dream that died with them…"[1]

The Jordanian daily Al-Dustour expressed similar sentiments in its editorial: "There is no doubt that the crash of the space shuttle Columbia is a shock to all humanity, not only the American people."[2] Also in Al-Dustour, columnist Arib Al-Rantawi wrote about the displays of joy which appeared on Islamic websites. "Only the sick and mentally feeble dance with joy at the Columbia space shuttle disaster. This is not an occasion for gloating. After all, the American space program is part of the scientific heritage of humanity…"

"The rejection of the 'nationalist terrorism' theory behind the Columbia disaster apparently did not please some, and they hastened to develop a theory of 'divine retribution' against the arrogant infidels… Once again, the Arab mind was revealed as an unfathomable storehouse of 'illogic,' as if we were a nation that does not learn from its defeats and catastrophes and hastens to bring up myths at every juncture. This is what happened in 1967; it recurred, tragically, in the Gulf War… and here we are, repeating the same tales now."[3]

The Death of Israeli Astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon "Is Enough to Arouse Joy in Every Heart that Beats Arabism and Islam"

Most of the comments on the disaster mentioned Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut. However, choosing not to mention him at all was Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Reza Asafi, who expressed "sorrow about the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in the skies of the U.S. and condolences [for] the American and Indian crew members. Iran distinguishes between Iran-U.S. political differences and scientific and human issues, and hopes that events of this kind will not prevent the information centers from continuing their struggle to discover the secrets of the universe."[4]

In an article titled "Ramon Can Go to Hell,"Hamed Salamin, a columnist for the UAE daily Al-Bayan, wrote: "Feelings of sadness and joy intermingle at the sight of the fragments of the American space shuttle Columbia scattering in the skies of Texas. These conflicting feelings make those feeling them probe the obscurity of their souls to seek out the reasons for the sadness and the joy… An atmosphere of sadness and shock overcame the Israelis two days ago when NASA announced [Ramon's] death… This is enough to arouse joy in every heart that beats Arabism and Islam…"

"Perhaps the sight of the Columbia shuttle's crashing in the town of Palestine, Texas reminds the Israeli people of the daily tragedy of the Palestinians – of the sorrow, the blood, and the massacres that the army of the [Zionist] entity carries out on the occupied lands. But it would not appear that the vast majority of Israelis have feelings for others… The Columbia disaster is a loss to all, even though emotions are conflicting. Sincerest condolences to the American people and to the families of the six American astronauts, and Ramon should go to hell. There is no sorrow for him whatsoever."[5]

In a similar vein, Nur Al-Din Sati', a columnist for the Lebanese pro-Syrian daily Al-Safir, wrote: "… Although the disaster will not change imperialist American behavior across the world, the loss caused by the crash of the Columbia is not restricted to America, which will continue to be a center of attraction for the minds and geniuses of the entire world, six of whom were lost two days ago; as for the seventh, his expertise was in destroying homes and pinpoint strikes at civilian targets, so he should not be classified [as a genius]."[6]

Al-Dustour columnist Bater Muhammad 'Ali Wardam criticized the American media coverage of the disaster: "… The explosion of the shuttle did not cheer us; we share the American people's sorrow over the death of the six American researchers and scientists. Naturally, we feel no sympathy for the Israeli fighter pilot who bombed the Iraqi reactor and participated in the 1973 war… But there was undoubtedly cheap media exploitation of the Israeli astronaut's death in the explosion."

"I followed CNN's coverage, and it shocked me that the expression of sorrow and horror regarding the Israeli astronaut was much greater than that for the six Americans. The story of his life and of the life of his family were presented on television, showing how he took [into space] a picture by a girl [sic] claimed to have been killed in World War II. The blonde CNN correspondent in Tel Aviv nearly burst into tears when she spoke of the shock in Israel following the incident, which was added to the [shocks of] 'Palestinian terrorism.' They had to point out repeatedly that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and the most technologically and scientifically advanced country, which enabled it to launch an astronaut in cooperation with NASA."

"What we are saying does not originate from jealousy or from deprivation; in the Arab world we have excellent scientists who surpass Israel's. NASA itself has hundreds of Arab scientists… But the [coverage] attests to the spread of Zionism and of pro-Israeli streams in the American media. Everyone tried to exploit this incident to propagandize for Israel. The sorrow for the Israeli was much greater than the sorrow for the six Americans – which is incomprehensible."[7]

The Americans May Think of Terrorists and Rogue States Causing the Explosions

Some columnists ridiculed the tragedy, such as Fateh Abd Al-Salam in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Zaman: "… Had the explosion of the space shuttle taken place during liftoff, like the Challenger, another reason would have been added for advancing the war against Iraq. But it was destroyed on its return from space. Yet it is not inconceivable that thoughts are arising in the American mind about terrorists and rogue states on other planets."[8]

However, Khaled Ghalam wrote in the Libyan newspaper Al-Zahf Al-Akhdhar: "… The Americans, whose administration has set them at odds with the world due to its blind policy, found no one to comfort them, even in this bleak moment… What will Bush say to his people this time? Did bin Laden fly in a space shuttle like Columbia and crash into it...? Or perhaps Hamas used short-range Qassam rockets to explode it? Perhaps [the disaster was deliberate] so as to serve as a pretext for Blix and Al-Barad'i to explain the danger of nuclear warheads that cross the atmosphere and hit shuttles? …"

"Our only condolences to the American people are for its administration… which has lost human feeling and genuine love in its attitude towards the world's governments and peoples."[9]

Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah Expresses His Happiness

In a speech delivered in Beirut, Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said: "What happened yesterday is a message for all humanity, and especially for Arab and Islamic peoples and the peoples of the Third World. This is a message to all those who in recent years thought that the U.S. was God… America the superpower, with its navy, its science, and its invasion of space threatens the Planet Earth with war… Yet, yesterday it stood stunned as the space shuttle exploded in the skies and fell to earth without anyone being able to do a thing. Whether it wanted to or not, the U.S. stood submissive to the will of Allah."[10]

Islamic Websites: "The Heart of Every Believer Leaped with Joy at the Disaster of his Greatest Enemy"

Islamic websites offered myriad displays of rejoicing, as well as an abundance of theories regarding the metaphysical reasons for the shuttle disaster. Particularly notable was the posting, on by Sheikh Dr. Ali Al-Tamimi, an American citizen: "… The whole world heard about the shuttle crash. Undoubtedly, the heart of every believer leaped with joy at the disaster of his greatest enemy. In my heart arose some thoughts that I would like to share with my brothers: First, the name of the shuttle, Columbia, is from Columbus, who discovered the American continent in 1492 following the fall of Grenada, the last of the strongholds of Islam in Andalusia. It is known that with the discovery of the two American continents, the Byzantines, that is, the Christians of Europe, exploited the resources of both these continents in order to take over the Islamic world. With the fall of the Columbia, a thought arose in my heart that this was a powerful sign that the supremacy of the West, and particularly that of the U.S., which began 500 years ago, is about to fall precipitously – Allah willing, as happened to the shuttle."

"Second, the shuttle crew included an Israeli astronaut, about whom the Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. said that he bore with him all the hopes and aspirations of the Israeli people. Thus, these hopes and aspirations burned up, Allah willing, in the fall and burning of the shuttle. Third, CNN announced at the beginning that the shuttle fell near the city of Palestine, Texas. I said to myself: Allah is great; thus, Allah willing, will America fall in Palestine. Similarly, Texas is the state of the stupid president George Bush Jr., about whom we hope, Allah willing, that, like the shuttle fell on his country, his idiotic policy will collapse the foundations of his country on his head. Fourth, in the president's eulogy, to the American people… he quoted from the Book of Isaiah… I said to myself: Allah be praised, in this book there is a prophecy regarding the coming of the Prophet Muhammad and the destruction of the Jews at the end of time… Anyone who sought to elevate the Jews on whom Allah has cast humiliation and misery… will be struck by humiliation and by divine wrath…"[11]

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 3, 2003.

[2] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 3, 2003.

[3] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 3, 2003.

[4] Jumhoury-E Islami (Iran), February 3, 2003.

[5] Al-Bayan (UAE), February 3, 2003.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), February 3, 2003.

[7] Al-Dustour (Jordan), February 3, 2003.

[8] Al-Zaman (London), February 3, 2003.

[9] Al-Zahf Al-Akhdhar (Libya), February 3, 2003.

[10] AFP, cited by Al-Bayan (UAE), February 3, 2003.

[11], February 1, 2003.

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