Spanish Inquisition

Defending Taysir Alouni and Al-Jazeera's lies


In a column written during the Iraq war, scholar Edward Said described the Al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alouni as "impressible." It was an odd choice of words since the definition of the word—"capable of being impressed; sensitive"—was not quite what Said had in mind given the phrasing of his sentence. What he really seemed to be saying was that Alouni was capable of impressing.

Whatever Said's real meaning, we now know that Alouni may have indeed been impressible when covering Osama bin Laden and his acolytes. If Spanish magistrate Balthasar Garzon is right that Alouni was an active member of Al-Qaeda, his reporting may have been intended to advance the group's agenda.

Alouni's culpability will be determined in a court of law, so there is no need to impart guilt just yet. Though Al-Jazeera and the Arabic media in general have depicted the journalist as an Arab Vaclav Havel, it is difficult to get worked up over his fate. He will surely be accorded more due process than were the victims of the Taleban or former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose regimes Alouni helped sustain through his systematically biased and unimpressive reporting.

Alouni has become a poster boy for the Occidentalist crowd, those who view the U.S. through the same distorting lens that Western Orientalists allegedly do the East. However, if it is proven he was an Al-Qaeda mole, this might have beneficial consequences for the new Middle Eastern media, forcing Arab publics to demand higher standards from their correspondents. With several members of Al-Jazeera's staff having been accused months ago of working for Iraq's intelligence services, the station might even engage in introspection.

More likely, however, the charges against Alouni will be overtaken by allegations in the Middle East that he fell victim to yet another anti-Arab conspiracy. Instead of reform, the Arab media may opt for stubborn retrenchment.

What makes the Alouni case interesting is the ambiguous role Syria might have played in it (Alouni is originally Syrian), and the double standards employed by the journalist's Arab sympathizers. A day after Alouni's arrest, the daily Al-Hayat reported that Syria's intelligence services had warned the Spanish authorities of the journalist's "suspicious activities" and told them they had been watching him for years. Syria accused Alouni of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which explains why the journalist is barred from visiting Syria.

The story raises a question. It is now established that Syria knew of Al-Qaeda's activities in Germany before September 11, 2001, and handed over to the US valuable information its agents had gathered there. A leading light of Al-Qaeda's German operation was Mamoun al-Darkazanli, a Syrian Muslim Brother. While his relations with Alouni are unclear (the Spaniards have a videotape of a wedding where Darkazanli was present with Alouni's brother-in-law), one can't help but wonder whether Syria played a greater role in Alouni's arrest, and in outing his possible contacts with the German network, than Spain is letting on.

Spain's critics have entirely ignored the Syrian angle to the case. This highlights the double standards implicit in the sharp contrast between Arab outrage at Alouni's detention, and the indifference last December that greeted the arrest of Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, for writing a story in Al-Hayat the authorities deemed "inaccurate." It's instructive that Alouni's supporters, particularly those in the Arab world, have adopted a high-profile defense of the journalist, under the assumption that in the West such campaigns bear fruit.

When Hamidi was arrested, however, both he and his advocates cautioned against public pressure, fearing this would induce the Syrian authorities to extend his incarceration. The subtle approach worked and Hamidi was released sooner than many people expected. What was remarkable, however, was how sullenly silent the Arab media and public remained throughout his ordeal and afterwards, as if to say it is only acceptable to protest detentions of Arabs in the West.

It is conceivable that Alouni is a pawn in a game bigger than he is. He was always a grating embodiment of what respectable journalists should avoid becoming: a purveyor of propaganda who occasionally got the story right. However, that doesn't necessarily make him a murderer. Nor does his alleged membership in Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, whose obliteration, we might recall, the West placed high up in its inventory of Syrian misdeeds during the 1980s.

But what is apparent is how Alouni has already been declared innocent by an Arab public that has regarded his arrest as more than a mere criminal case. Many in the region realize that if Alouni is guilty, this will discredit their own reading of current Middle Eastern affairs, which Al-Jazeera has played such a prominent role in shaping. If one of their favorite journalists is a con man, Arabs will lose yet another one of their illusions—one holding that Alouni and his comrades proved Arab correspondents could tell the truth, albeit their truth.

The Arab world is too impressible when it comes to Alouni. It was always a mistake to put such faith in a certifiably partisan reporter. But dashed illusions are commonplace in this part of the world, where the propensity is to defend the liar and persecute the truth-teller.