The 2017 Gulf crisis pitting Qatar against other Arab governments has unmasked a lot of bias and hypocrisy in many quarters. Those defending Qatar and those attacking it have glossed over actions and positions that hurt their case and often present a skewed or partial version of the truth. Not surprisingly, both Qatar's defenders and its critics have sought to aggressively promote their politicized and partial versions of the truth outside the Middle East. As I noted previously, Qatar should be squirming, but they are not the only ones.[i]
Such hypocrisy is particularly in high relief when it comes to the pioneering Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which revolutionized television news in the Arabic language when it launched in 1996. I remember, as a young public diplomacy officer serving in the region, the dullness and uniformity of Arab broadcast television before Al-Jazeera changed the media landscape.
Those who want it shut down (the Saudis and their allies in the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) focus on the station's unabashed support for Islamists, its criticism of other Arab regimes, and its material support for terrorism.[ii] MEMRI has an extensive archive of material from Al-Jazeera stretching back many years illustrating Al-Jazeera's incendiary appeal, promotion of intolerance, and support for terrorism. We expect to issue additional reports providing fresh material unmasking the network's worldview soon.
While the Gulf crisis heated up, Al-Jazeera also won the support of a range of left-of-center Western media and politicians who seem to have only a vague understanding of what the station actually puts on in Arabic but see calls for its closure in purely press freedom terms.
Most notorious was a lazy New York Times editorial in support of the station which acknowledged that "critical reporting on Qatar or members of Qatar's royal family is not tolerated" but that otherwise "much of the rest of its reporting hews to international journalistic standards, provides a unique view on events in the Middle East, and serves as a vital news source for millions who live under antidemocratic rule."[iii] Meanwhile, The Guardian called the effort to shut down Al-Jazeera as "part of an assault on free speech to subvert the impact of old and new media in the Arab world." The Guardian at least acknowledged accusations of antisemitism and partisanship on the part of the Qatari state-funded broadcaster.[iv]
My personal views on Al-Jazeera are complicated, even though it is obvious that much of its content is deeply disturbing. The truth of Al-Jazeera is rather more than those who want to shut it down and those who defend it. It is BOTH a legitimate, historically important news operation and an open and constant exercise in Islamist agitprop. Fouad Ajami perfectly captured the tone and nuance of the station in 2011 when he noted that "day in and day out, Al-Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage."[v]
I have a lot of history with Al-Jazeera and still have some scars from it.[vi] For more than 12 years, I appeared as a guest of the station, on various debate programs and on the news dozens of times.[vii] When I was in the State Department, I was the only U.S. government official reckless enough to appear more than once on the station's highly rated and controversial talk shows, matching my wit and working-level Arabic against some nasty (native-speaker-of-Arabic) opponents.[viii] Although there is no doubt about Al-Jazeera's anti-American and Islamist sub-text, which colors almost everything they put on the air, I was never censored or limited in my comments.
In October 2015, I was glad as MEMRI Vice President to have survived an episode of Faisal Al-Qassim's notorious "Al-Itijah Al-Muakkas" (Opposite Direction) talk show, AKA "three people yelling at each other."[ix] After I agreed to appear, I found out that I was matched against a Sweden-based Iraqi exile, a former Communist who had, on a previous live appearance on Al-Jazeera, made clear his support for the Islamic State while on the air.[x] On some stations, that might get you banned; on Al-Jazeera it got him a return appearance. Another guest on the same program in 2014 had openly given his allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi live on the air.[xi]
But my connection with Al-Jazeera goes beyond on-camera appearances. In 2002, as a U.S. diplomat in Jordan, I worked to secure the release from detention of Al-Jazeera's Amman Bureau Chief Yasir Abu Hilaleh. Today he is the Managing Director of Al-Jazeera News.
While serving as the U.S. Charge d'Affaires in Khartoum, I secured the release of Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj, who had been detained for six years in Guantanamo after being arrested on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. When Al-Hajj was off-loaded from a U.S. military transport at Khartoum International Airport in the early morning hours of May 2, 2008, the plastic manacles he was wearing were clipped off and handed to me.
I don't consider either Abu Hilaleh or Al-Hajj to be terrorists, nor do I consider Al-Jazeera to be a terrorist station. There are television stations in the region such as Al-Manar (Hizbullah), Al-Aqsa (Hamas), and Al-Zawra (pro-Iraqi terrorist) that certainly deserved that epithet. There are many outright purveyors of hate speech such, as the virulently anti-Shia Wesal TV, reportedly based in Cairo, that are just as bad. Wesal's poison is subsidized by private sector Salafis from Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.[xii] There are many other Salafi and Islamist stations scattered throughout the region that churn out a steady stream of toxic, bigoted speech against non-Muslims (or heterodox Muslims) little different than the discourse of the Islamic State.
Al-Jazeera is slightly different, more nuanced and, given its broader scope and greater credibility, more insidious. This is an informal, broadcast version of the Muslim Brotherhood, heavily subsidized as a tool of Qatari foreign policy.[xiii] As such it is strongly pro-Hamas, strongly pro-Turkish strongman Erdogan (who, ironically, is quite brutal with media he doesn't like) and taking a supportive line on Sunni insurgents, rebels and terrorists worldwide.
Those who speak of Al-Jazeera highlighting "dissidents" have never seen the fawning coverage the station has lavished on leaders like Erdogan and his policies or even the kid-gloves treatment to outright terrorists like Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, the head of the Nusra Front (Jabhat Al-Nusra; at the time of the initial Al-Jazeera interviews in 2015, Nusra was still formally part of Al-Qaeda). These defenders of Al-Jazeera downplay the blatant antisemitism.[xiv] They miss the unabashed days-long intensive on-air campaigns promoting Hamas's 2014 "Victory in Gaza" or Hassan Nasrallah's 2006 "Victory in Lebanon" or the bizarre blubbering over released terrorist Samir Al-Quntar and his 2008 birthday party.[xv] This was not journalism, but an orgy of cheerleading.[xvi]
It is, in fact, deeply ironic to see Al-Jazeera portrayed in the West as some sort of paragon of liberal values when those values are much more likely to be seen on Al-Jazeera's main competitor, the Dubai-based and Saudi owned Al-Arabiyya.[xvii] But generally, liberal values and unbiased journalism are thin on the ground anywhere you look in the Arab world.
Westerners get confused because they mix up the various personae which make up the Al-Jazeera brand. It is most definitely the informal Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) station, with a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bias that is palpable. It coddles Islamists of any sort. But it also reliably takes the Third World, leftist position on a variety of international issues with open sympathy, for example, for authoritarian rulers in Cuba and Venezuela. Rather than leading, what Al-Jazeera often does is try to mirror much of the preconceived notions of largely Sunni, restive Arab masses that watch it. This is less about quirky independence and more about confirmation bias and virtue signaling. Imagine an editorial line that is part Noam Chomsky and part Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Bana, and you get the picture.
The broadcaster is reliably "pro-Muslim," of course, on issues related to Muslim communities in the West along the lines of CAIR (which, of course, also reportedly has an MB/Hamas connection)[xviii] but in, say, Iraq, it will cleave towards an anti-Shia Muslim line veering into discourse used by ISIS and its apologists and use similar incendiary sectarian language on Syria. Al-Jazeera then would be pro-Iran and pro-Hizbullah if the adversary is the United States or Israel but could be anti-Iran and anti-Hizbullah if the opponent are Sunni populations or insurgents in Syria or Iraq.
But even with this clear and palpable bias, the station does have legitimate, hard-working journalists such as those that staff its bureau in Washington, D.C. and even in some Middle East capitals. It also has high profile Islamists such as veteran reporter Ahmed Mansour who is not shy about his advocacy. Its public affairs programming can be Islamist or leftist or a mixture of both, or neither, depending on the subject matter and the day.
It is this two-faced nature of Al-Jazeera's work that its defenders and attackers fail to capture. It is neither a paragon of free press virtues nor a terrorist station, but somewhere in between. Not surprisingly, this is a rough approximation of Qatari foreign policy, which both hosts a major American military base and supports terrorists in Hamas and bigoted, anti-American authoritarians in the Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, the crisis has made Al-Jazeera focus on Qatar and on itself like never before.
While Al-Jazeera richly deserves criticism, it is in the end only a powerful tool, used in the same way that Arab regimes, not just Qatar, use their tools – to advance political agendas, to stoke sectarianism, to send mixed signals, to hint at diversity and tolerance while at the same time helping through the years build the discourse from which would spring the Islamic State of today and the Islamic States of tomorrow.
The crisis over Qatar has a variety of origins, not just Qatar's policy choices and recidivism, but also personal ambition and the struggle of Arab states to find purpose and focus in a dangerous and shifting region. While rightly calling on Qatar to change its behavior – behavior often expressed through the lens of Al-Jazeera – its critics would also be well served looking at the mini-Al-Jazeeras in their own neighborhood, in their own minds, who play a double game, promote sectarianism, and indulge restive audiences in conspiracy theories and hatred of the Other. It is certainly in the interest of the U.S. to fight illiberal, toxic discourse in the region, whether it issues from Doha or any other capital.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice-President of MEMRI.
[i] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 129, Two-Faced Qatar Squirms – But They Shouldn't Be the Only Ones, June 2, 2017.
[ii] Theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/06/al-jazeera-qatar-saudi-arabia-muslim-brotherhood/531471/ , June 24, 2017.
[iii] Nytimes.com/2017/06/21/opinion/misguided-attacks-on-al-jazeera.html, June 21, 2017.
[iv] Theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/23/the-guardian-view-on-al-jazeera-muzzling-journalism, June 23, 2017.
[v] Nytimes.com/2001/11/18/magazine/what-the-muslim-world-is-watching.html, November 18, 2001.
[vi] Afsa.org/surviving-al-jazeera-and-other-public-calamities, July-August 2015.
[vii] Abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/2006/07/an_american_on_.html, July 17, 2006.
[viii] MEMRI TV Clip No. 994, Director Of Public Diplomacy In U.S. State Department Bureau Of Near Eastern Affairs Alberto Fernandez On Al-Jazeera TV: I Reject The Idea That The Future Of This Region Is In The Hands Of Al-Zarqawi And Mullah Omar, January 7, 2006.
[ix] MEMRI TV Clip NO. 5151, MEMRI Vice President Alberto Fernandez: We Need An Alternative To Isis And The Al-Assad Regime, October 13, 2015.
[xi] MEMRI TV Clip No. 4585, Islamic Scholar Pledges Allegiance To Isis Emir Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Live On Al-Jazeera Tv, November 2, 2014.
[xii] MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1206, Fitna TV: The Shi'ite-Bashing Campaign On Salafi TV Channels And Social Media, November 30, 2015.
[xiii] Arabmediasociety.com/?article=744, March 30, 2010.
[xiv] MEMRI TV Clip No. 5938, Former Jordanian Soldier Ahmad Daqamseh, Murderer Of Seven Israeli Schoolgirls, Upon Release: Israelis Are "Human Garbage" That Must Be Removed "By Burning Or Burying" March 11, 2017.
[xv] MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2013, Al-Jazeera and the Released Terrorist's Birthday Party, August 2, 2008.
[xvi] Jpost.com/Operation-Protective-Edge/Al-Jazeera-supporting-Hamass-narrative-in-Gaza-363635, July 21, 2014.
[xvii] Gatestoneinstitute.org/3545/al-jazeera-extremism, January 17, 2013.
[xviii] Washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2014/11/17/why-the-u-a-e-is-calling-2-american-groups-terrorists/?utm_term=.751727aa0aeb, November 17, 2014.