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What the Muslim World Is Watching
By Fouad Ajami
The New York Times Magazine


Al Jazeera is not subtle television. Recently, during a lull in its nonstop coverage of the raids on Kabul and the street battles of Bethlehem, the Arabic-language satellite news station showed an odd but telling episode of its documentary program "Biography and Secrets." The show's subject was Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Presenting Che as a romantic, doomed hero, the documentary recounted the Marxist rebel's last stand in the remote mountains of Bolivia, lingering mournfully over the details of his capture and execution. Even Che's corpse received a lot of airtime; Al Jazeera loves grisly footage and is never shy about presenting graphic imagery.
The episode's subject matter was, of course, allegorical. Before bin Laden, there was Guevara. Before Afghanistan, there was Bolivia. As for the show's focus on C.I.A. operatives chasing Guevara into the mountains, this, too, was clearly meant to evoke the contemporary hunt for Osama, the Islamic rebel.

Al Jazeera, which claims a global audience of 35 million Arabic-speaking viewers, may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel -- but he is clearly its star, as I learned during an extended viewing of the station's programming in October. The channel's graphics assign him a lead role: there is bin Laden seated on a mat, his submachine gun on his lap; there is bin Laden on horseback in Afghanistan, the brave knight of the Arab world. A huge, glamorous poster of bin Laden's silhouette hangs in the background of the main studio set at Al Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, the capital city of Qatar.


On Al Jazeera (which means "the Peninsula"), the Hollywoodization of news is indulged with an abandon that would make the Fox News Channel blush. The channel's promos are particularly shameless. One clip juxtaposes a scowling George Bush with a poised, almost dreamy bin Laden; between them is an image of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames. Another promo opens with a glittering shot of the Dome of the Rock. What follows is a feverish montage: a crowd of Israeli settlers dance with unfurled flags; an Israeli soldier fires his rifle; a group of Palestinians display Israeli bullet shells; a Palestinian woman wails; a wounded Arab child lies on a bed. In the climactic image, Palestinian boys carry a banner decrying the shame of the Arab world's silence.
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