Just finished Hugh Miles’ excellent book on Al-Jazeera. It’s well-written and easy to read, quite gripping in places, and gives much more than just the story of the Al-Jazeera network, it’s really the story of the last ten years in the Middle East, and counters so many of the stereotypes we have in the West about Arabs.
Principal among these is that Arabs hate America. Far from being a mouthpiece for Bin Laden or for anti-Western propaganda, Jazeera was the first media outlet in the Middle East that allowed free discussion, investigative journalism and ‘one opinion and the other’ – talk shows where opponents debated freely and uncensored phone-in calls were accepted. What emerges is that Arabs love America in many ways – they lap up its TV programmes, its sport, Hollywood and, most important, this kind of open argumentative media. Emotionally Arabs are very attached to America and its ideals, and to Britain and its reputation for objectivity and education. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – they are passionately opposed to its foreign policy, which in their eyes contradicts the values America has always espoused. Palestine is closer to the heart of ordinary Arabs in shops and cafes than we could ever imagine any foreign-policy issue since World War II. They really care about it, even if to some of them it’s an issue of sentiment and idealism rather than practical politics. They see double standards coming out of America all the time – WMD: no country should have them, we’ll attack anyone who’s trying to develop them but we won’t even talk about Israel’s nuclear bomb; free speech: Arabs almost all suffer under restrictive, almost despotic regimes where the media are forced to toe the government line slavishly. Arabs look to American ideals of free speech and turned to Jazeera en masse when it started to offer them that, but the US has gone to extreme lengths, from diplomatic pressure to alleged murder, to shut down Jazeera and replace it with lookalikes controlled by Washington. Arabs see the US say one thing, and do another; espouse free speech but support the dictators, talk anti-terrorism but turn a blind eye to Israel’s ‘targetted killings’. Jazeera was the first Arab station to invite and broadcase Israeli leaders, yet they are still decried as ‘spreading poison’. If you’ve ever feared the Arab world, do yourself a favour and read this book – then go there and talk to people.