Soon after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush declared that the terrorists “hate our freedom…. They can’t stand the thought that people can go into the public square in America and express their differences with government.” I recently spent a hot day in October at the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, which is a virtual public square, giving voice to Arabs who challenge their governments, and ours.
On my first visit to the Middle East in twenty years, it was startling to see how the satellite has transformed the region. Al Jazeera Arabic, in particular, has taken the Middle East by storm. The stodgy government-run channels of yesteryear–featuring emirs shaking hands with other emirs–proved easy pickings for the hypercaffeinated talk shows. One of these, The Opposite Direction, is the Arab world’s most popular talk show, spotlighting the popular host Dr. Faisal al-Qasim, a high-octane blend of Jerry Springer and Bill O’Reilly, who thrives on pitting two ideological combatants against each other and egging them on.
Talk shows and the stick-in-the-eye newscasts have propelled Al Jazeera to the top of the ratings heap since its launch ten years ago. At first, Saddam Hussein sent out the satellite police to track down insurgent dishes that could receive it and follow the coaxial cables back to the offending TV sets. And the Saudis played endless loop recitations of the Koran on the same frequency to jam an offending broadcast channel. But the dishes kept procreating. [complete article]