Something Afoot in the Arab Press

By Amnon Rubinstein

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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Media outlets in the Arab world are a unique phenomenon — hatred and defamation are a staple, the antisemitic propaganda recalls that of Goebbels, and what masquerades as fact is in fact a figment of psychopathic imagination.

Take, for instance, an article published last week by the Egyptian opposition newspaper Al-Wafd, which blamed the “Zionist lobby” for the French law banning the appearance of certain religious symbols in educational institutions, such as Muslim head coverings. This article perceived the law as part of a Jewish conspiracy to take over Europe, and it quoted Lebanon’s culture minister, who claimed the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” verify the existence of a Jewish plan to foment disputes between the other monotheistic religions, in order to precipitate wars between states.

After perusing such malicious lies, including articles that evince support for Holocaust denial (even in “moderate” outlets, such as Al Jazeera, whose Internet site features such an article), it becomes necessary to pose a troubling question: Does the outright fabrication reflect the views of the Arab intelligentsia? Is there a murmur of dissent beneath the surface? After all, it is impossible to know what really goes on in dictatorial regimes. Such regimes put up a veneer of stability, unity and consensus, just as democracies project a misleading veneer of weakness.

Then, when a dictatorship collapses, it turns out the facade was as thick as paper — as it turned out, for instance, that the Soviet puppet regimes in Eastern Europe had no supporters. Can a similar process of popular dissent be swelling beneath the surface in the Arab world? Might the fact that Muslim terrorists murder hundreds of Muslim worshippers in mosques (as has happened recently) stir opposition?

In fact, evidence has started to mount that the external facade presented by Arab media is a deception, and whenever the belt is loosened a little, new voices can be heard in the Arab world (and samples of them can be found on the Web site of Memri, the Middle East Media Research Institute).

This is what columnist Ahmed Ramrabi in the Qatari newspaper Al-Watan had to say about the prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hezbollah: “One of my colleagues drew my attention to the Lebanese and Palestinian citizens who returned to Beirut and to Ramallah, and to the fact that their faces radiated health, as though they returned from vacations in Europe. The moral of the story is clear: Prisons in Israel are better than those in the Arab world. My colleague told me that had these people left Arab jails, they would have looked like skeletons. Not to mention those who never get out of such prisons alive.”

Rassan Suleiman al-Atibi wrote in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Qabas: “For several days, the Arab newspapers have discussed the deal between Israel and Hezbollah, in which 500 Arab prisoners were freed in exchange for the remains of a few Israeli soldiers. Arab media outlets started to pay homage to Hezbollah with such effusive rhetoric that the leader of the organization began to think that he had already defeated Israel. The truth is that the deal illustrated to us the value that the body of an Israeli soldier retains, compared to the disregard for the value of an Arab life. It also made palpable the extent of Arab foolishness.”

Khaled Jalabi in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Watan wrote with forthright candor: “At first glance, it appears that Israel endured the humiliation of conducting negotiations with a faction and not a state, with the aim of freeing one individual in exchange for hundreds of prisoners. But only a child would miss the point: On a purely arithmetic reckoning, the meaning is that Israel viewed the three corpses and the one living man as being equivalent to any number of people, even if that total reached hundreds or thousands. In terms of moral logic, the moral is that, in Israel’s view, the life of an Israeli, even one of Arab origin, is considered invaluable. In contrast, an Arab citizen can be thrown in prison for having surfed on the opposition’s Web site… that shows how much a citizen’s life is worth in the eyes of Arab regimes.”

Something is afoot there. When hundreds of Syrian intellectuals sign a petition calling for reforms in their country, that’s hardly a routine occurrence. In terms of Israel’s interests, it might not be a dramatic change, but it’s important to know that the Arab world is not the sum of what’s written in Cairo, Damascus and Ramallah.

Amnon Rubinstein is a former member of the Knesset representing the Meretz Party. This article originally appeared in Ha’aretz,

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