Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

Biased, Ill-Informing Arab Media Undermine Peace in the Middle East

So long as we Arabs are one-sidedly informed, the longer we remain demagogic, peace will never become a reality in the Middle East. Thanks to modern electronic multimedia, the culture of reading is dwindling worldwide, slowly but steadily. But the culture of reading in the Arab world has sparsely existed. According to a recent UNESCO report, the Arab countries still have some of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world. The majority of Arabs do not read.
A recent study of the International Media Institute in Berlin, Germany, came to the conclusion that only 3% of Arabs read predominantly daily newspapers. The majority of Arabs watch TV for news and entertainment.

By and large the Arab states are awash with print and electronic media. Most of these media, however, are state-controlled, semi-official organs, or owned by oil rich Arabs, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. For example, the Saudi tycoon, Al Waleed Bin Talal owns MBC TV, Al Arabiya, Orbit, and other smaller TV channels. Sheikh Hamad Al Thani of Qatar owns Al Jazeera, and the Lebanese millionaire Saad Al Hareeri owns Al Mustaqbal.

All these media are largely biased. They misrepresent Western views, and critical, differentiated reporting is almost absent. Israel is depicted as the “aggressor” and the West as its backer.

American and Western shortcomings, like torturing in Abugraib prison in Iraq are exaggerated and discussed extensively, but torture in Arab prisons are hushed up. Muntather Al Zaidi the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush in a press conference in Baghdad is a “hero”.

The Arab media highlight corruption charges raised against the German Electronic giant, Siemens, but corruption practices by Bandar Bin Sultan, the son of the Saudi Crown Prince, are hushed up. He “earned” billions of dollars from a Saudi-British arms deal.

There are innumerable examples of Arab biased reporting. A quick look at Arab reporting and op-ed yield a full barrel. More than 7000 rockets and mortars deliberately aimed at Israeli civilian targets since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 are largely ignored by the Arab media. They, day in day out compare Gaza to a “concentration camp” and the Israeli offensive to a “real Holocaust.” Suicide bombers and Palestinian militants killed by the Israelis are called “martyrs.” Critical Internet websites are blocked.

Arab bloggers, who criticize their governments and demand democracy, free speech and human rights – basic decent demands, are persecuted and jailed.

We Arabs are very good at void rhetoric. Defiantly we shout, “Gaza will be hell for the Israeli soldiers” and “We’ll defend our honor with our teeth and lives.”

When we are defeated, like in 1967 and 1973 we call it Nakba (calamity) and Naksa (setback). We stand up again and shout, “We lost a battle, but not the war.” And eventually we blame our helplessness on the West and claim, “They hate us. They don’t want to see us developed. They want to exploit our oil.”

Deema, a Lebanese journalist based in Berlin who does not want to be identified by her last name, says, “The Arab media are filled with sentiments rather than facts. A journalist who sticks to facts is accused of being biased, and risks losing their job.”

Ahmed, a Palestinian journalist, told me, “If you portrait America and Israel as a devil and find clues to support that, you are highly praised by you editor.”

Waleed Qabalan, former editor at Al Jazeera TV, told me, “The fact that images tell thousands of words is a daily reality in all Arab TV channels. They go selectively with these images and spend much money on retaining them. They shun mentioning the root causes of the Israeli offensive, namely Hamas rockets, for example. Besides, in terms of language they formulate reports and news in such a way so that America and Israel are discredited.”

Arab state-controlled media and commercial outlets repress free differentiated reporting and analysis. They are minutely censored by government-loyal editors. Arab critical scholars and intellectuals are banned from publishing or taking part in TV and radio debates.

The only columnist in the Arab world who blames Hamas for its defiance and atrocities in Gaza is Fouad Al Hashem. He writes for Al Watan daily, Kuwait. He severely blasts Hamas and Hizbollah. But he does so because he is filled with hate for these organizations which had supported Saddam when he invaded Kuwait.

By and large, the Arab media discourse remains ballistic and irrational. Abdulazeem Hammad says in the Egyptian Al Ahram daily (Jan. 19, 2009), “All the armies of world, including the Israeli, cannot and will never defeat the Palestinian resistance. The struggle will go on until all Palestine is liberated.”

Free public surveys that gauge public opinion on national and regional issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict, like those in Israel and the West at large, are none existent in the Arab world.

All political plans, including the Road Map and the Oslo Accords have failed because they lack public participation and free debates. Israeli existence concerns and wish for living in peace with its neighbors do not find any echo in the Arab media. They are slammed as “propaganda”.

Arab rejectionists and Islamists, vocal and militant, have all the say in the Arab media. Radical organizations like Hamas and Hizbollah are commended as “freedom fighters.” And Osama Bin Laden is a “ghost” created by American myth.

I was lately in Syria and conducted case studies among relatives and friends whom I mutually trust. They unanimously say that they want peace with Israel and would love to have good relations with America.

Layla, a retired nurse, told me, “The Arab armies have tried to liberate Palestine and failed twice. On the contrary, Israel occupied more Arab land. How long are we going to live like that without peace? It is high time that Arab government returned to the ground of reality and made peace with Israel. Hamas provoked the Israelis. Instead of turning to build their land, which Israel evacuated, the Gazans, I mean Hamas, have smuggled weapons to fire at innocent people.”

“You asked me if I read.” Nabeel said, “No, I don’t. What shall I read? The newspapers? They are filled with lies and propaganda. For balanced and reliable information and news I turn to BBC, for example.”

Ghassan, a Christian said, “out of curiosity I read the Koran and found it filled with passages inciting to hatred and violence. What kind of religion is Islam? And what kind of God is Allah who asks people to slay humans simply because they are not Muslims? I’m sure that if decent Muslims learn about violence and hatred in the Koran, they would leave Islam. In the past it was the nationalists who wanted to throw the Jews in the Mediterranean. Now it is the Islamists. Enough is enough.”

But if Arabs do not read, where do they learn about Islam? Jalal Al Azm, a philosophy professor at Damascus University told me, “They learn about Islam from their mosques’ imams and self-appointed Islam experts in all kinds of media outlets who daily and profusely issue fatwas (religious edicts), and the illiterate masses believe them. The fatwa market is thriving. Lately, Farfur, the grand mufti of Syria, said in the daily Tishreen (Jan. 7, 2009), “if Westerners learned about Islam, they would convert to Islam.” Convert to a religion that preaches violence and hatred?!

In conclusion, unless Arabs are properly and diversely informed and left expressing themselves freely, including criticizing Islam, there is no chance for peace to become a reality in the Middle East.

Dr. Sami Alrabaa, an ex-Muslim, is a sociology professor and an Arab/Muslim culture specialist. Before moving to Germany he taught at Kuwait University, King Saud University, and Michigan State University.