The apparent executions in Iraq last week of U.S. soldier Keith Maupin and U.S. Marine Wassef Ali Hassoun, and the confirmed beheadings a week earlier of South Korean Kim Sun Il in Iraq and of American Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia, left the media the world over horrified and uncertain about how much should be shown. Except in much of the Arab world, that is. As I scanned Arab satellite channels and Arabic newspapers, I found a lot of reporting on the brutal attacks, but very little condemnation and a widespread willingness to run the stomach-turning video and photos again and again.
Showing videotapes of people being shot, beheaded or held hostage with a curved sword aimed at their neck is largely new terrain for the Arab media. As a media critic whose focus is the Arab world, I have watched perhaps a dozen Arab channels and read countless newspapers in recent weeks. I found that few Arab commentators and journalists noted either that major shift or its significance. In particular, the Kim and Johnson beheadings generally have been reported as if they were quite ordinary. (Hassoun's death was announced only yesterday by a militant group promising to release a video soon of his claimed beheading -- undoubtedly to wide coverage again.)
I am aware of only a handful of columnists, most notably the Kuwaiti journalist Ahmed al-Rubai, who condemned the killings unequivocally. Some reporters and analysts intimated to me that they were afraid to denounce the beheadings; others provided distorted coverage that blurred the line between terrorism and Iraqi resistance to the U.S. occupation.
Take, for example, the video of Kim's beheading. Al-Jazeera and the Lebanese LBC presented the video, which al-Jazeera said it had received from a group linked to al Qaeda, as if the terrorists were part of the Iraqi resistance against the Americans and their allies. Al-Jazeera did not note what any person knowledgeable about the region's dialects would have known: that the terrorists who appeared in the video and read the "verdict" that justified Kim's killing were not Iraqi and therefore not part of the Iraqi resistance. They clearly spoke a dialect from the Saudi heartland of Najd.
Al-Jazeera is the same network that calls every Arab suicide bomber a shaheed, or martyr. And yet its anchors take care to refer to Abdul Aziz al-Maqrin, who claimed to have beheaded Johnson, as the "man who Saudi Arabia and Washington call a terrorist."
Furthermore, in a discussion of the violence in Saudi Arabia immediately after the slaying of Johnson, al-Jazeera anchor Abdul Samad Nasser adopted the language of Osama bin Laden and referred to Saudi Arabia as "Jazeerat al-Arab" (the Arabian Peninsula, a reference used in Arabic before the formation of the current Saudi state) as if the state never existed. Perhaps this can be justified in light of the tension between the Qatari government, which owns al-Jazeera, and Saudi Arabia, but it does not explain the distortion or the violent language of that network and other media, including its competitor, the Saudi-financed al-Arabiya satellite channel, which is based in Dubai.
In a search for answers about the Arab media's approach, I went directly to Abdul Rahman Rashed, the head of al-Arabiya, and asked him why most Arab commentators remain silent about these horrific acts of violence and why his channel and al-Jazeera give so much airtime to the terrorists.
Rashed blames both contemporary Arab culture and the culture of Arab newsrooms. He offered two examples -- one from print and the other from TV -- to make his point. He told me that last year, when he was still chief editor of the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat (for which I am a columnist), he caught one of his editors changing the caption of an AP photo from "an American soldier chatting with an Iraqi girl" to "an American soldier asking an Iraqi girl for sex." "If I had not caught him, it would have gone to print this way," he said.
Now, at al-Arabiya, he has received pictures of Johnson's beheading, but refuses to show them. Al-Jazeera aired the entire video, which Rashed equates with airing the full-length communiques of al Qaeda. Rashed, who took over al-Arabiya a few months ago, said that changing the channel's culture is "a huge challenge." Very few in the Arab media are as candid as Rashed.
Ialso talked with fellow Arab writers and journalists to seek further answers, and it became obvious that many were outraged over how the beheading stories had been handled and why so many Arab journalists are afraid to express their anger publicly or put it in writing. Considering the history of terrorist movements in the Arab world and the way in which they have targeted writers -- the killing of Egyptian writer Farag Fouda in broad daylight in Cairo in 1992 comes to mind, as does the stabbing of 90-year-old Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz two years later -- their fear is justified. Islamic radicals have killed writers in Algeria, Egypt and elsewhere whose work challenged the logic of martyrdom and "random jihad," or killing foreigners in the name of Islam. But the lack of condemnation of the beheadings, despite their barbarism, is a direct result of a broad and dangerous trend in Arab media and in Arab culture broadly. The Arab world today swims in a sea of linguistic violence that justifies terrorism and makes it acceptable, especially to the young.
One needs only to read the writings of the Syrian Baathist Buthaina Shaban, who is the minister for immigrant affairs but also a syndicated writer whose work appears in many Arab newspapers.
In an article entitled "Blood of Martyrs," published last September in Tishreen, a major state-owned Syrian newspaper, she wrote in response to a Palestinian suicide bombing: "The blood of martyrs inscribes a scroll that can be read only by those with faith in their peoples and in the future of the [Arab] nation, who are convinced that however great their [personal] accomplishments, they are but a single link in the life of the homelands and the peoples. Therefore, they are ready for giving, the utmost of all kinds of giving, so that the scattered drops [of blood] join together to form a stream, then a river, then a gushing torrent."
Articles like this, which glorify death and urge young people to be suicidal, are part of the steady diet that Arab youths are exposed to every day.
Another example: Faisal Qasim, al-Jazeera's most popular talk-show host, recently devoted his entire 90-minute show to berating those who condemn terrorism in the Arab world, whom he called "agents of Washington's neo-cons." He wrote an article that made the same point for the pro-bin Laden newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, whose editor in chief, Abdul Bari Atwan, is a regular guest on al-Qasim's show.
Last month I traveled to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Lebanon and saw for myself the effect on the young of the Arab media's tendency, particularly on satellite television, to portray terrorists as resistance fighters and to broadcast in their entirety the videotaped messages of al Qaeda.
One Egyptian student told me the Americans "deserve [killing] for their support to Israel and their occupation of Iraq." A Kuwaiti who recently graduated from a Pennsylvania university said of Americans, "Don't believe them when they say it is al Qaeda that is slaying Americans. It is Americans who are killing Americans to justify their presence in the Arab world and to control Arab oil."
In each country, I was struck that al Qaeda and its ideas are no longer perceived as extreme. Indeed, al Qaeda has become mainstream and being part of the movement is "cool" in the eyes of young people. Why? Arab culture is being corrupted by the media that glorify violence, but also by schoolbooks that present only one role model for Arab children: the Jihadists and those who excelled at battling non-Muslims.
This trend must be reversed -- and the responsibility for doing so lies not just with the media. Unless Arabs themselves muster the courage to speak out against these heinous acts and those who perpetrate them, very little success can be made in the war on terrorism.
The imam of the grand mosque in Mecca has condemned the beheadings, as has the sheik of Egypt's Azhar Mosque. These are important voices, but Arab heads of state must do the same. And if governments condemned these acts, the media would change.
Arabs should stop deceiving themselves by confusing the suffering of Arabs in Iraq and the occupied territories in Israel with the beheading of innocent people in Iraq and elsewhere. (And if al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya were really serious about covering atrocities around the world, they would regularly show footage of the genocidal killing in Darfour, Sudan. Or is that massacre ignored because it is Arabs who are doing the killing?) The Arab media should make it clear that they will not publish hate speech against Muslims or non-Muslims.
The American media also have a role to play. They could make it easier for Arabs unequivocally to condemn beheadings and other acts of barbarism by talking to a broader range of commentators in the region.
If Arab moderates were to become prominent in the West, they would certainly become prominent at home. Instead, the BBC has been treating us to Atwan -- bin Laden's mouthpiece and the main cheerleader of suicide bombers on al-Jazeera -- as its main commentator on Arab affairs. Western media should tip the balance in favor of those who condemn terrorism but so far have been afraid to do so publicly.
The American media should also stop replaying images of violence from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, because when the Arab media air these gruesome images, they animate the logic of terror. They export fear to America. If the Americans did not import these pictures, the Arab media would stop manufacturing them. That could be a first step toward defeating the terrorists who kill not just for Allah and jihad, but for airtime.
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