Review

Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East

Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar



As recently as six years ago no one had heard of the Arab-based TV
network Al-Jazeera --- for the very good reason that it did not
exist. Today it is arguably the world's most talked-about,
argued-over, politically influential and cockily controversial news
source. Based in the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, it has 35 million
viewers, including about 200,000 in the United States.

It has been denounced as a sewer full of Anti-American vitriol, yet
Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have appeared on its talk shows,
as have Tony Blair and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. The authors of this
fascinating study demonstrate that Al-Jazeera (variously translated
as "the island" or "the peninsula") is just as controversial in the
Arab world as it is in the West. A Saudi Arabian government
official has accused it of serving up "poison on a golden platter"
--- and bear in mind that tiny Qatar occupies a small peninsula
right next door to powerful Saudi Arabia.

Two remarkable events made Al-Jazeera famous --- its broadcasting
of three tapes of Osama bin Laden's anti-American rants and
threats, and its presence as the only outside news source in
Afghanistan during the early stages of the US-led coalition
offensive that ultimately toppled the Taliban.

The authors of this book are both Egyptians who now teach at North
American universities. They appear to have solid journalistic
credentials and neither one ever worked for Al-Jazeera. They claim
to be independent observers, though naturally writing from an Arab
perspective. I could find no obvious evidence of bias or
ax-grinding in their book. This is important to note in a book
concerned with such a highly charged and politically volatile
topic.

Westerners will be surprised to learn from El-Nawawy and Iskandar
that Al-Jazeera actually is an offspring of the Arabic service of
Britain's beloved BBC. There was a financial and journalistic
disagreement that led to the defection of a number of the BBC
unit's staff, who ended up being invited to set up shop
independently in Qatar, a country smaller than Connecticut and with
fewer people than San Francisco. Qatar's relatively liberal-minded
government funded the station (and still does) but claims the
network is totally independent of state control. El-Nawawy and
Iskandar believe this to be true.

Al-Jazeera's answer to the torrent of criticism from the West is
that it is simply doing an honest journalistic job --- presenting
all sides of political issues in a part of the world where even
allowing anyone with dissenting views to appear on your network is
regarded as virtual treason. Al-Jazeera's model, its executives
claim, is CNN. The network's motto is "the opinion, and the other
opinion." It has, for example, suffered severe criticism and
punitive measures for merely allowing Israeli officials to state
their case on its talk shows. Since the authors of this book are
both Egyptians, they understandably lay heavy stress on the uproar
that Al-Jazeera's freewheeling style has caused in the Arab
world.

What Western critics see as bias, El-Nawawy and Iskandar see as
journalism that reflects an Arab point of view, just as CNN and the
other American networks reflect a Western point of view. They urge
the West to take fuller advantage of Al-Jazeera by having American
officials present the Western case more fully than has been done in
the past. Past appearances by Rumsfeld, Powell, Condolezza Rice,
and a lower-level diplomat named Christopher Ross, they claim, have
been only a small step in the direction the US must follow if it is
ever to win over suspicious Arab states and peoples.

They also urge Al-Jazeera itself to find more moderate views
instead of simply airing the most strident extremist voices they
can find in talk shows that often resemble barroom brawls or boxing
matches.

The core message of this book is that the West should stop
mindlessly demonizing Al-Jazeera merely because it presents a point
of view different from ours. Instead, they say, the West should
take advantage of a unique opportunity to put its case to people
brainwashed for decades by government-controlled media.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 20, 2011

Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East
Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar

  • Publication Date: January 21, 2011
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • ISBN-10: 0813340179
  • ISBN-13: 9780813340173