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Fatema Mernissi

Al-Jazeera's Secret
by Fatema Mernissi

Part II : Excerpts from the English manuscripts for the Swiss magazine Weltwoche, Summer 2002

To come back to our mission, which is to help the Administration Bush to invest wisely the tax-payers money, the ideal would be that the Hollywood-designed Arab-Television manages to have as much appeal to Arabs as Al-Jazeera. The first question we have to answer is: Can Hollywood steel Al-Jazeera's secret?

If we remember that we have defined the Cyber-Islam Time Zone as the arena where the producers of messages targeting citizens living in Muslim nations use satellites to transmit their goods, we could say that the winners are those who treat the viewer as an equal and provide him with impartial two-sided news. The propaganda peddlers who deny him the right to think for himself are systematically condemned to lose. Today, Al-Jazeera's stunning capacity to capture "70% of Arabs with satellite TV", says Ali Al Hail, a media expert, is due to it being a 24 hours news channel, reflecting thus "the thirst of Arabs for impartial information from which they are deprived through their regimes' media." If you asked people in the street, like Karim a fisherman, what he likes to see, Al Jazeera's two shows "The Other Opinion" (Ar-Ra'y al Akhar) and "The Opposite Direction" (Al-Ittijah al mu'akiss) are immediately mentioned.

Karim, a 30 year-old fisherman, dropped Saudi-backed MBC in 1998 for Al-Jazeera: "It nurtures my brain". According to Karim, the 30 year-old fisherman I visit weekly in Mehdia beach, a few kilometers south of Rabat on the Atlantic Coast, "Al-Jazeera treats me like a human being with a dimagh, a powerful thinking brain. Its journalists give me jadal (controversy) to feed my brain. They cover the two sides of the story and let me make a decision. They don't think for me by feeding me one-sided propaganda like all the others. Did you know that in the verse 18 of sorat 21 of the Koran, the verb damagha means to pulverize?" Well, I knew the verse, but it would have never occurred to me to consider it as capturing the essence of the satellite revolution. Dismissed before as illiterates, that is useless parasites unfit for decision-making, Arab youth is recapturing its self-confidence via satellite-magnified story-telling, listening to Al-Jazeera's best-selling shows where people with opposite views are invited to argue and explain to the viewer the logic behind it. The novelty of these talk-shows which invite outside callers to join in, explains Mounir Nasser, is that it "allows the participation of the people in a debate ... It all used to be from top to bottom, the audience never had the chance to participate."

Jadal is to invite Israeli leaders to explain their action to Arab viewers.

The jadal concept is what Al-Jazeera programmers used when they invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on one of their talk shows in 1998 to speak directly to Arabs during Israel's elections, breaking thus one of the major taboos and revolutionizing ever since the way networks reported on the Middle East conflict. That the network was immediately accused of being "financed by the Mossad" was to be expected. In the beginning, explained Al-Jazeera's Managing Director, "people said we are the CIA or an Israeli channel, because we've brought Israeli journalists and experts to talk about the problem." He tried to emphasize to his attackers that the network's policy was to "get both opinions. We deal in a professional way." And that is exactly what jadal is. It operates, according to Bagi, an eleventh-century Muslim who lived in Spain and devoted his treaty "The Book of the Technique of Chaining Arguments" (Kitab al Minhaj fi Tartib al hijaj) to its techniques, "on the assumption that the human brain operates rationally and that once you convince someone by leading him, via a strategically ordered cascade of arguments, to adopt your own opinion, you have won him over." "This science," he explains, "is the best of all sciences and the most important because it is the way to understand and distinguish between what is true (al haq) and what is impossible (muhal)." Where jadal is used, force is unnecessary, repeats Bagi, quoting an impressive number of Koranic verses and hadiths (the prophet's sayings and acts), starting with verse 125 of sorat 16 (An-Nahl, The Bee) my generation was taught in Koranic schools: "Reason with them (jadilhum) in the most courteous manner."

Apart from polemics, fiery debates about vital issues where one's brain gets the tools to figure out the planet's bizarre forces, nothing seems to interest Arab viewers. Discovering the other Muslims with their different turbans and robes, and all the other inhabitants of the planet, without visa and without borders checks is the other pleasure, the satellite TV offers to the humble and the neglected. The satellite TV has given them an magical luxury: mobility. Surfing the channels, young Arabs have regained their nomad ancestors mobility, the right to travel and to learn from observing foreign cultures. Safar, the Arabic word for travel familiar to Westerners from the safari (tourist ventures), means literally to discover oneself. This is why medieval Muslim education was reduced to traveling. According to Ibn Manzur's fourteenth century dictionary (Lissan al'arab), a trip is called safar "because it unveils the real self of the musafir (the traveler)." During the safar "the suppressed side becomes visible" and it unveils the hidden face of the traveler. Tapping the humanist dimension of Islam, that of using the brain as instrument to learn and dialogue with the other nations is what explains both Al Jazeera's success and the failure of all the other Arab networks who are losing money in financing commercial programs no one wants to watch.

To be continued ...

© Fatema Merissi
If you are interested in publishing the article, partly or completely, please, contact the literary agent Edite Kroll.

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