Alternatives: Many Arab-Americans and Muslims who don’t trust U.S. press organizations go to Web sites and other news outlets to get a different perspective
Ali Abunimah is an Arab-American activist who created his own news Web site to conduct an “electronic intifada” against a foe he calls the “Israeli media war machine.”
Nadya Sbaiti, a Lebanese-American pursuing her doctorate in Washington, routinely turns to the Al-Jazeera news channel rather than the American press.
“The U.S. news media is the fourth branch of government,” she says.
As Sbaiti and Abunimah can attest, many Arab-Americans and Muslims who distrust major U.S. news organizations bypass them for alternative Web sites and other media outlets that feature articles and commentaries with a more sympathetic approach. Never has that felt more important, they say, than since the terrorist strikes Sept. 11. “I find things there that I don’t find anywhere else,” Ibrahim Ali, a Palestinian graduate student who recently became a U.S. citizen, says of Al-Jazeera. The Qatar-based television channel claims 35 million viewers worldwide, about 150,000 of whom live in the United States. Subscribers here pay an average of $26 a month for the service on many cable and satellite systems.
Invoking the role of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, Abunimah styles himself as a gadfly who has dedicated his life to challenging the status quo. While Socrates rankled his neighbors in the Athenian marketplace, Abunimah reaches a much broader audience through the World Wide Web. His site (www.abunimah.org) generates about 1,000 hits a day and e-mail messages from around the country and the world, he says.
“I do it to relieve my frustration, when I see news not being reported accurately,” he says. “My goal is not to tell people what to think but to provide an alternative source of information.”
Abunimah, 31, lives in Chicago. He was educated at Princeton and the University of Chicago. The son of a Jordanian diplomat, he was born in this country but largely grew up in the Middle East before returning here.
Other sources help many of this country’s several million Muslims satisfy their hunger for news that reflects a world view shaped by Islam or focuses on it.
Recent articles on Islam-Online (www.islam-online.net) carry headlines such as “U.S. Senators Call on Bush to ‘Not restrain Israel’ ” and “U.S. Evangelist Graham Says Islam Is an ‘Evil & Wicked’ Religion” and “World Concern Over Proposed U.S. Invasion of Iraq.”
Islam-Online also offers entertainment and science articles, a cyber-counselor (one query is headed “Meeting candidates who propose for my sister is risky because sometimes I like them myself”) and fatwas - rulings by Islamic scholars.
Few Americans had heard of Al-Jazeera until it broadcast a prerecorded message from Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Al-Jazeera, which means “the peninsula” in Arabic, is an independent operation started five years ago by Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani.
Access to the Taliban
Yet Al-Jazeera’s correspondent in Afghanistan had access to areas controlled by the Taliban and largely closed to Western journalists. Its viewers saw the channel’s version of what was going on inside the country after the U.S. bombing campaign began. Some U.S. news networks aired Al-Jazeera footage because they could not match it.
That access fueled American criticism of the channel as a collaborator of the Taliban. Yet some Arab governments have denounced Al-Jazeera with equal vehemence as a “Zionist tool.”
Al-Jazeera officials say disgruntled Arab officials want propaganda, not news that is truthful and accurate by Western standards. The station’s critics point to interviews with such prominent Israelis as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as proof that it has a pro-Israeli slant. Al-Jazeera maintains that it is merely trying to tell both sides of the story by interviewing Israelis.
Ibrahim Ali is blind but he regularly sits in front of a television to get his news from Al-Jazeera. Ali is among a handful of students at Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies who regularly catch Al-Jazeera between afternoon classes. They gather around a large-screen television to watch the station that’s become known as the “CNN of the Arab World.”
Al-Jazeera broadcasts in Arabic
Ali, 42, a doctoral student, listened to the hour’s lead news story that day and summarized it this way: The Israelis have created “more martyrs.” The station regularly uses the word “martyr” to refer to Palestinians killed in clashes with Israelis. After one such clash, the newscast alleged that three Palestinians were killed after they were captured.
“They were executed,” Ali says. He adds that accounts of alleged Israeli atrocities often go unreported or underreported by the U.S. news media.
Ali says he appreciates the station’s reports on the plight of the Palestinians because they show the daily humiliation endured under Israeli occupation, such as spending hours just to drive a few miles due to backups at Israeli checkpoints.
Sbaiti, who is also working on her doctorate in Middle Eastern studies at Georgetown, says the United States is hypocritical when it claims to be “the world’s biggest promoter of free speech.” U.S. government objections to Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan, especially about reports on civilian casualties, show its double standard, she says.
Sbaiti says Al-Jazeera is an alternative voice that exposes the bias and ethnocentrism of the U.S. press.
“Al-Jazeera springs from a different tree, and sometimes it’s in a different forest,” she says.
Mary-Denise Tabar, a second-year graduate student in Arab studies, says Al-Jazeera’s effort to get comments from Israelis shows that it is trying to report the news fairly. Tabar, an American from Arlington, Va., says she watches Al-Jazeera for its news value and because it helps her to learn Arabic.
Why Al-Jazeera is popular
Zeinhab Ali, a doctoral student from Egypt who is not related to Ibrahim Ali, says that Al-Jazeera is popular in her country because it broadcasts news that does not reflect the government line. In Egypt, the government controls television, and many newspapers are rubber stamps for the government, she says.
She says the U.S. news media misled the American people with their coverage of the rationale for the terrorist attacks.
“The American media talks about the terrorists striking because America is a democracy,” she says. “They make it seem as if they were jealous, they just want to destroy America. Al-Jazeera shows that it was U.S. policy in the Middle East that made the people attack. They were desperate and wanted to do anything to make a statement.”
Zeinhab Ali says many Egyptians are too poor to own televisions and satellite dishes. Those who have them in her home country spread Al-Jazeera’s message by word of mouth. Increasingly, Ali and others say, many Arab-Americans and Muslims are doing the same.