How to Seduce Arab Minds
by Fatema Mernissi
Part I: Excerpts from the English manuscripts for the Swiss magazine Weltwoche, Summer 2002
The Bush administration's decision to seek help from the media was prompted by a strategic event which happened on Sunday, October 7, 2001: "Americans were glued to their seats as they watched an unfamiliar and sobering dose of real-life adversity unfold on the TV screens. Cable News Network (CNN) broke its regular coverage of the first day of the US strikes on Afghanistan to broadcast a live feed from Al-Jazeera showing America's iconoclastic arch-nemesis, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden." Mr. Bush's administration discovered that day three strange facts at once. The first was that the credibility of American power depended not so much on flexing military muscles such as bomb throwing as on the media coverage. The second was that CNN has evidently lost its monopoly over world information which established its reputation during the 1991 Gulf war when the entire planet starting with the Arabs, relied on it, to see American bombs hit Baghdad. Last but not the least, the third was that CNN lost its monopoly to an obscure six-years-old Arab station (Al-Jazeera was created in 1996), beaming from a tiny Gulf state called Qatar whose population is little more than an average-size US city.
How would I have reacted, I asked myself, if I were Mr. Bush? I would bomb the dwarf-like Al-Jazeera offices, I thought. And believe it or not, that is exactly what happened: On November 13 in 2001 the Kabul office of Al-Jazeera was destroyed by a US missile. No one was in the office when the missile hit. However, with its two star reporters out of action after their building was destroyed, Al-Jazeera was temporarily reduced to airing footage from other networks before it was able to regroup its correspondents in Afghanistan. But just like "Striking Lightening" (Ar-ra'd al Qacif), the scary jinni in Scheherazade's "1001 Nights Tales", Al-Jazeera emerged, after the American attack on its offices, more visible than ever for a much wider audience than its regular 35 millions viewers. What would I have done, I thought again, if I were Mr. Bush and discovered that hitting the unfriendly network is like bestowing free advertising on it? That is when I decided that, if I were the president of the United States, I would finance an American clone of Al-Jazeera. And guess what? I was not surprised when I read: "A new consideration starting in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a bill called the '911 Initiative' to invest 500 million dollars into a pan-Arab satellite TV channel to combat the media influence of the increasingly successful Al-Jazeera and to target Muslim youth."
But suddenly, my self-satisfaction at how clever I was at guessing Mr. Bush's moves stopped when I found myself faced with the horrific task of having to invest successfully the 500 million dollars to sell America to the Arabs! What advice would I give to Hollywood film moguls to help them seduce Arab minds? Of course, I will start by decoding Al-Jazeera's secret. And since I am among those Arabs who have stopped watching CNN as my first and major source of information and switched to Al-Jazeera ever since its creation in 1996, I had enough opportunities, during the late-night summer discussions with colleagues here in Rabat, to understand the Al-Jazeera appeal. Commenting its programs since it started beaming in 1996 has become one of my regular discussions topics I have to maintain with key men in the souks (markets) I visit weekly, from Hamid, the vegetable seller of Akkari, to Karim, the fisherman of Mehdia beach, who sells fresh sea-wonders from his boat in a shallow Atlantic creek south of Rabat. I have come to a conclusion not everyone agrees with at my Mohamed V university environment: I think that Al-Jazeera's appeal lies in its unearthing and re-energizing a medieval art called jadal or the art of polemics, as its major programming concept.
Continue with Part II
© Fatema Merissi
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