Beirut - On Sunday, as the U.S and Britain began their long-awaited attack against Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden took to the airwaves. In a videotaped transmission he articulated a typically apocalyptic message, noting how his world was divided between believers and infidels. It was noticeable that he did so not on CNN, but on the Arab world's premier satellite channel, Qatar's Al-Jazeera.
It is not often that Arab leaders defend domestic media freedoms before their American interlocutors. However, that's exactly what occurred last week when the secretary of state, Colin Powell, asked the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, to put a lid on Al-Jazeera because of its hostility to recent U.S. actions in the region. The emir diplomatically told Powell to mind his own business.
Powell blundered. He not only ignored America's own constitutional principles, but also underestimated the station's importance to Emir Hamad. Nevertheless, Powell was right in seeing Al-Jazeera as a serious obstacle blocking U.S. efforts to win over Arab public opinion in the fight against Bin Laden and his disciples. The station has refused to toe the official U.S. line on the "War on Terrorism." It routinely hosts angry critics of U.S. Middle East policy and it plainly sympathizes with the Taliban regime.
Al-Jazeera also happens to be the most uninhibited and freewheeling Arab news outlet around. It was established five years ago by Emir Hamad, and has never looked back. In a region where television, radio, and newspapers are usually state-owned and crushingly dreary, Al-Jazeera has been a popular breath of fresh air. The station is disliked by most Arab regimes because it invites their opposition in for interviews. Its anchors see themselves as journalists rather than as government functionaries. And its discussion panels provide rare opportunities for genuine debate.
That is what has made the station's performance in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks so disappointing. A more objective Arab voice could have helped reduce the expanding cultural rift between the West and the Muslim world over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Instead, Al-Jazeera has emerged as just another mouthpiece for Arab frustration. Though the Bush administration might benefit from listening to dissent, Al-Jazeera has had profit as well as rebellion on its mind: As the only station broadcasting from Taliban-controlled territory, its audience has soared. As a result, Al-Jazeera lately signed a lucrative agreement with CNN, granting the Atlanta-based station priority in broadcasting its footage from inside Afghanistan.
But Powell's efforts to lobby Emir Hamad exposed the worst in U.S. behavior. It was less the administration's effort to curb freedom of expression that was significant-though it certainly was-than the fact that it revealed how the U.S. feels most comfortable when dealing with Middle Eastern societies through their unaccountable despots. This has splendidly backfired on occasion, as in Iraq and Iran. However, successive administrations have continued to pursue the policy, believing that autocracy, particularly in a region awash with oil, is synonymous with predictability.
Qatar in particular has been a sporadic target of U.S. ire. In the past few years the emirate has affirmed its independence from Saudi Arabia in Gulf affairs, provoking irritation in Washington and Riyadh. Emir Hamad has also displeased the U.S. and some of its Gulf allies by staking out a role as mediator in the crisis with Iraq. On the other hand, the U.S. welcomed Qatar's efforts to develop ties with Israel several years ago -- an effort since frozen by the intifada -- which earned the emir bitter criticism in the Arab world. In this intricate ambiance, Emir Hamad has used Al-Jazeera's overt militancy as a shield protecting him from his domestic and regional antagonists.
The Bush administration would do best to adopt a different tack when dealing with Al-Jazeera. It should use the station as a means of getting its point across to an Arab public highly skeptical of whatever the U.S. does in the Middle East. It might also try to demonstrate that the attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania had nothing to do with the suffering of the Palestinian people. Al-Jazeera has proven that the Arabs are not sheep when granted legitimate forums for argument and dissension. That Powell should treat them as such by trying to hush their favorite station is not only insulting, it seems to suggest that the U.S. has no serious arguments to offer in defending its actions against Osama bin Laden.