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This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Shibley Telhami’s recently released book The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion And The Reshaping Of The Middle East. Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, writes about the complicated relationship between the Middle East and the West — global perspective of the region is often convoluted and misunderstood. The 2010 Arab Spring, as well as the most recent violent uprisings in Egypt that relieved president Mohamed Morsi from power, have once again gained the world’s attention. The media of course plays a big role in how society interprets and feels about the politics of the region, but too often we’re not understanding the full story. Al Jazeera stands at the center of this as one of the most respected, and far too often one of the most misunderstood, global news outlets in the Middle East. In this excerpt, Telhami explains how the media network came to be and why, despite criticisms, it is truly a voice for all people fighting for democracy in the region.

You can purchase the book here.

The Network Americans Love To Hate: Al Jazeera

The Arab media explosion that recently has culminated in uprisings across the region springs from two interrelated sources: the growth of satellite television and the affordability of the receivers to the Arab masses, and the common language that Arabs share across state boundaries. Arabic unified a media market of some 350 million people in twenty-two countries and beyond.

Even before television, in the 1950s and 1960s there had been a dramatic increase in radio usage across the Arab world, especially after the rise of transistor and short-wave radios and their availability to the masses. The most striking and influential example was Sawt al-Arab Radio (“Voice of the Arabs”), sponsored by Egypt to spread Nasser’s Pan-Arabist message in the 1950s and 1960s. This station was so popular across the region that it presented real challenges to Nasser’s political opponents among the conservative Arab rulers in places like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, who attempted to jam the broadcasts.

Even Israel exploited the medium, especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when its Arabic radio began broadcasting programs specifically aimed at Egyptians. Knowing that Nasser had prohibited popular songs and even soccer games following the war in favor of martial music and a more somber focus on preparation for a new war, the Israelis made sure to air the Egyptians’ favorite songs as a way of luring listeners to their political perspective. Radio, of course, was relatively easy to jam and governments worked to block threatening broadcasts, but its ultimate undoing as a primary source of news came with television’s power of visual imagery.

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By the early 1990s television had become king of the media, and each state had made sure it had its own TV stations as a way of building local identity and loyalty and as a means of controlling the flow of information to the public. In those days, average Arabs in most countries received their news from national nightly news broadcasts entirely controlled by the government. Viewers had to endure lengthy coverage of routine events, such as visits of rulers to a hospital or a village, before they got to serious news, which was filtered to protect the rulers and advance their immediate interests.

This would all begin to change before the twentieth century was out, but although Al Jazeera has become synonymous with a new world of Arab media change, it was not the pioneer. In the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi Arabia and wealthy members of the Saudi royal family took the lead by purchasing popular Arabic newspapers and distributing them across the region, and hiring some of the region’s most prominent journalists. They understood that their broader Arab consumer needed more news and more diversity, and they allowed greater coverage of Arab and international issues—although critical coverage of Saudi Arabia and its royal family remained taboo. They also pioneered new satellite stations, beginning with one called MBC, in the early 1990s; these reached mostly the elites, as satellite technology was expensive at that time. The overall effect of this Saudi-sponsored media was to show the potential for a larger media market and also the potential threats other governments could face from transnational media. This simultaneous sense of inspiration and threat is likely what inspired the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, to start Al Jazeera (“Peninsula” in Arabic, referring to the Arabian Peninsula, of which both Qatar and Saudi Arabia are parts) in 1996.

Coming to power only a year earlier after a palace coup that replaced his father as emir, Al Thani and Qatar were often criticized by the media, including the Saudi-controlled transnational newspapers. The criticism was directed not only at the circumstances of his takeover but also at independent policies he pursued that were not fully in harmony with Saudi policy, including warming up to Israel and taking the lead in helping to normalize relations between Israel and Arab countries. The emir didn’t appear to have an especially progressive or a Pan-Arab agenda; still, by creating a station that reached not just the 250,000 Qatari citizens but as many as possible of the region’s 350 million Arabs, he hoped to take away viewership from stations critical of him and of Qatar. There was another service that Al Jazeera provided to Qatari rulers: As a welcome voice viewed by Arabs as reflecting criticism for being a pro-American emirate that hosted a base for American airplanes attacking Iraq in the Unpopular 2003 Iraq war. And given the competition, Al Jazeera’s mission wasn’t that difficult.

Now, instead of hang to view lengthy footage of the royal family meeting foreign guests, viewers were exposed to programming that most Arabs hungered for, from opposing opinions to more information on issues they cared deeply about as Arabs and Muslims. This included live footage of bloodshed in Israeli confrontations with the Palestinians—footage that Arab national television broadcasts limited so as not to awaken their public’s passion. Al Jazeera further broke taboos in the 1990s by reporting from the Israeli Knesset (parliament), showing open debates, including sharp criticism of the Israeli government by Arab members of the Knesset. One Arab nationalist member of the Knesset heavily covered by Al Jazeera, Azmy Bishara, later settled in Qatar and became a regular Al Jazeera commentator.

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The result was a remarkable ascent: In just five years, by 2001, Al Jazeera had succeeded in becoming the most watched Arab television station for news, and within ten years more than three-quarters of Arabs identified Al Jazeera as being either their first or second choice for news. The station’s success also spawned competitors, from a transformed Abu Dhabi TV, to Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic, Iran’s Alalam, French and Russian Arabic stations, and many other country-based stations available on satellite.

With great success, though, came great criticism, at first from outside the Arab world and later from within it.

Mirroring, Not Leading, an Audience

In the years after 9/11, particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, many American commentators and politicians blamed the Arab media, especially Al Jazeera, for stoking Arab anger against American foreign policy. One of the ideas presented to address this perceived bias of the Arab media was to back an alternative American TV station, called Al Hurra, that would compete in the marketplace and offer a more “objective” view of events. Like other American attempts to win hearts and minds in the Arab world, this was an idea doomed to failure from the outset.

To be sure, there is room for outside views, whether from East or West, in the crowded Arabic media market. And there are plenty of models—from BBC to Russian and Iranian Arabic TV. But while one can make a strong case for having an American Arabic TV station such as Al Hurra TV, there never was a significant possibility that it would supplant or even seriously challenge Al Jazeera or other popular Arabic stations. It seems clear that the popular Arabic outlets succeeded because they reflected the hearts and minds of the region on core issues, not because they shaped them.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.

Excerpted with permission from The World Through Arab Eyes: Arab Public Opinion and the Reshaping of the Middle East, by Shibley Telhami. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2013.

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