The Complex Arab-Muslim Reality and Media

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Al Jazeera English has made an unprecedented impact around the world.
Al Jazeera English has made an unprecedented impact around the world.

The Palestinians struggling to survive in their own land in which they have lived for centuries must suffer the indignity of being demonized as ‘terrorists’. Their fight for freedom is painted as the terrorism of the followers of a ‘hateful ideology,’ bent on destroying the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East and its peaceful Western friends.

Aijaz Zaka Syed | Caravan Daily

ARAB AND MUSLIM intellectuals never tire of blaming many of their woes on the world media and a certain lobby that apparently controls it. The Western media narrative is often seen as being skewed and dictated by its economic and political interests. Influenced by powerful lobbies, especially the all-powerful Israeli lobby, the media distorts and misrepresents the Arab and Muslim reality, complain Muslim intellectuals.

How far is this true? Is the alleged media bias really a myth?

From the never-ending Middle East conflict to the general state of affairs in their countries, the world’s perception of the complex Arab and Muslim reality is indeed often informed and distorted by many hackneyed stereotypes and deliberate misrepresentations. No wonder Arabs and Muslims often lose the battle of perceptions even before it’s begun.

So the Palestinians struggling to survive in their own land in which they have lived for centuries must suffer the indignity of being demonized as ‘terrorists’. Their fight for freedom is painted as the terrorism of the followers of a ‘hateful ideology,’ bent on destroying the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East and its peaceful Western friends.

While the world powers perpetuate their handpicked men as ‘moderate’ leaders, Muslims are disparaged as being inherently incapable of ‘embracing’ the blessings of Western democracy.

This is an impossibly one-sided, asymmetrical battle. The Muslims feel they are pitted against a giant propaganda machine that has for years controlled and dictated their world. And their claim and historic sense of perpetually being at the receiving end is not entirely without basis.

From the worldwide media empire of the likes of Rupert Murdoch (whose News Corp owns Fox News and Sky News besides scores of newspapers, television channels and radio stations around the globe) to the stable of Time-Warner that owns some of the world’s most powerful newspapers, magazines (Time, Times etc.,) and television networks, the Lobby’s stranglehold over the global media industry is firm and complete.

This control even extends to Hollywood, the dream factory that has for years perpetuated stereotypes, myths and biases about the ‘good guys and bad guys’.

Many of the major Hollywood studios and production companies are wholly or partly owned by Jewish and pro-Israel groups and families. It’s little surprising then that Arabs and Muslims do not exactly come across as the friendliest and most likable people on earth in films and television shows like 24 and Homeland.

The fact that some of the top editors, columnists, writers and filmmakers in the US and elsewhere also happen to be Jewish or pro-Israel also hasn’t helped our cause.

Just look at the New York Times and Washington Post, the two most formidable voices of the US establishment, and the proud line-up of their editors and columnists. From Tom Friedman to Charles Krauthammer, some of the biggest names in the business are staunch supporters of Israel.

No wonder the Republicans and Democrats are often vying with each other to woo the Lobby. It can make or mar any politician.

But to be fair to these movers and shakers, if they are there right at the top of the US establishment, they have every right to be. They have worked very hard for years and invested a great deal to be in the position that they are.

The Muslims have no reason to bemoan the fact that the world pays them little attention while lapping up the distorted reality offered by a biased media.

What have they done all these years to present their side of the story before the world? Very little, notwithstanding the considerable human and natural resources at their disposal. While their precious resources are splurged on delusions of grandeur, they have invested next to nothing in initiatives that could have helped them fight this critical battle of ideas.

Much of the media in Muslim lands lacks a killer instinct and professional approach. Many of them remain still preoccupied with what is considered non-news elsewhere ignoring the real needs and challenges facing their people.

This is why when Al Jazeera Arabic made its debut more than two decades ago with its refreshingly bold and innovative approach, it was lapped up by hungry Arab audiences. Again, this is why Al Jazeera English has made an unprecedented impact around the world. Today, it is heartwarming to see many international networks tune in to Al Jazeera to catch up on major breaking news stories, stories that they have missed.

Without doubt, this is the first credible attempt to meet the challenge on this front. This is the first media initiative targeting a global audience from a Middle Eastern perspective. Although Al Jazeera Arabic too reached and targeted an international audience, it had always been and seen as an Arab-Muslim perspective for an Arab-Muslim audience. The English news channel has, however, consciously sought to present itself as a global news network with a difference.

The arrival of Al Jazeera thus represents a seminal event in the history of the Middle East and world media. It is a sign of the Arab media coming of age. But more than the Arab world, Al Jazeera’s arrival marks a new era for the world media.

Speaking and reporting in a language spoken and understood across the world, Al Jazeera English has been reaching out to a truly global audience. More importantly, it offers an alternate reality to the Western audiences and rest of the world — a reality that is decidedly different from the sanitized worldview offered by the likes of CNN, BBC and Fox News.

Broadcasting from four continents, the channel has put together a dream team that is known for its professional excellence and integrity.

Today, Al Jazeera is widely respected in the region and around the world for its world-class reportage and courage to take on issues that had once been taboo. In the process, it has also ended up ruffling many feathers and bruised many giant sized egos.  If its reporters have faced the wrath of the Egyptian authorities with their coverage, the network’s offices in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region have been repeatedly bombed by the US under President Bush. But then whoever said speaking truth to power is easy!

Of course, reaching out to a world audience — especially the Western viewers —and winning their trust isn’t going to be easy for a network that is still panned as the ‘Bin Laden channel.’ But a journey on this long and arduous path has been begun in right earnest.

With its professional approach and persistence to report ‘all sides of a story’, the network is truly in the forefront of this battle of ideas. And hopefully Al Jazeera’s example would inspire others in the region and around the world to follow suit. We certainly need more Al Jazeeras out there.

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