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The Truth About the Arab Media

Lee Smith

In the wake of last month’s terrorist attack in Glasgow and foiled plots in London, newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent, as well as members of the liberal-left intelligentsia, have placed the blame, not on Muslim extremism, but on British foreign policy. “[T]he new Prime Minister has to attend to the underlying causes of jihadist terrorism,” The Independent explained in a July 1 editorial. “Of course, there is a link with foreign policy, in that British engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan is used as a grievance by the ideologues of al-Qa’ida to rouse anti-Western sentiment.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s new government has similarly decided to play down any connection between Islam and terrorism.

In accepting this argument, Western journalists and politicians may believe that they are making common cause with Muslim moderates. But Westerners have little sense of how the debates are playing out in Arabic and rely instead on entrepreneurs posing as mediators. Insofar as someone like Tariq Ramadan, for instance, is able to narrow the field and sell it as a choice between himself or Finsbury Park Mosque’s fire-breathing Abu Hamza Al Masri, then it’s no wonder he’s become a media darling and that blaming the bombings on British foreign policy seems “moderate” in comparison. But there has been criticism of Arab and Muslim violence, and British accommodation, in at least one quarter, and it may be a surprising one to many: the London-based Arab media.

Neither in London, nor in the Arab and Islamic world has there been enough condemnation,” says Hazem Saghieh, a columnist for Al Hayat. “Learning to accommodate these horrible acts is a symptom of mental disease.” The Lebanese-born Saghieh is one of the pillars of London’s Arab press establishment, a large collection of voices dominated, like all the Arab media, by Al Jazeera-style resentment and incitement, but also including a solid core of liberal or liberal-friendly outlets. Elaph, a Web-magazine that is something like an Arabic-language Slate, has one of its main offices in the British capital. So does Saqi Books, founded by Saghieh’s late wife, Mai Ghassoub.

But the flagships of Arab liberal media are Al Hayat and the other London-based broadsheet Asharq Al-Awsat, both of which ran several articles in the last month unequivocally condemning the violence and those who justify it. “There are segments of the Arab media that seem to think it is a press freedom to incite people to kill others,” Tariq Al Homayed, Asharq Al-Awsat’s editor-in-chief, told me in a phone interview. “These people are more dangerous than the criminals themselves.”

The origins of the Arab media and Arab liberalism are both found in the Middle East’s landmark encounter with Western modernity—Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt.

The French scholars that accompanied him brought a printing press, and though the first newspaper published in the region was intended mostly for the French landing force, Napoleon’s easy walkover showed Middle Eastern potentates how far the lands of Islam lagged behind its historical rival, Christian Europe. As Muhammad Ali Pasha, the father of modern Egypt, sent military students off to the continent to learn the latest advances in European war-making, one of the delegations included Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, a young Al-Azhar-educated imam who immersed himself in French culture, history, literature and philosophy, including, among his favorites, Voltaire and Rousseau.

When Tahtawi returned to Egypt and became editor of The Egyptian Gazette in 1842, he substituted Arabic for Ottoman Turkish as the language of the educated classes and hammered out the foundations of Arab liberalism, including the emancipation of women, human rights, and political sovereignty issuing not from God or violent coercion but popular mandate. Tahtawi’s early-twentieth-century progeny included intellectuals like Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayyid and Taha Hussein who used journalism as a venue to advance a rights-based liberal nationalism derived from English and French political theory, from Locke to Mill.

Arab liberals were already fighting a rear-guard battle by the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup d’etat, but when the pan-Arabist demagogue nationalized the press—an example that regimes throughout the region emulated—the liberal era in the Middle East was officially over. Lebanon was one of the few to preserve its free press, until the civil war when many journalists and their press organs scattered, some of them, like Al Hayat, landing in London. And it was there the liberal Arab media enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, thanks to press freedoms unavailable in the Middle East and large sums of Saudi cash. It is perhaps surprising given the kingdom’s well-earned reputation for funding global jihad, but most of the liberal pan-Arab media in London and now Dubai is majority-Saudi owned.

Today, as refugees from the violence of Arab-nationalist politics in the 1960s and 1970s, liberal Arab journalists in London acknowledge their affiliation with the West. And it is they who saw more clearly than anyone the danger of the UK’s lax immigration policies.

“People like me kept saying, you are allowing radicals in this country,” says Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, former editor of Asharq Al-Awsat and now a regular columnist at the paper. “These people were chased out of their own countries, and the British government chose to let them in. They pay for their housing and even pay for their lawyers to argue to extend their stay. This system is on auto-pilot.” For Adel Darwish, a Fleet Street veteran who writes for a number of British papers as well as a column for Asharq Al-Awsat and, whose family left Alexandria, Egypt in 1959, the pattern of violence is familiar. “This all begins with the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign in Egypt in the 1930s, when they targeted cinemas, nightclubs, judges, and writers. This was before the creation of the state of Israel, or the U.S. was a major power in the region. What they did then is what they are doing now. They are targeting our way of life.”

Here is the difference between Europe’s “moderate Muslim” leadership and the liberal Arab media based there: The former wants much of what a liberal society has to offer, various opportunities and freedoms, as well as entitlements and concessions, in addition to a thick layer of Islam separating them from what they perceive as the sickness of liberal societies, the freedoms and entitlements of others; the latter, at one time anyway, had hoped for Arab societies to be more like Western liberal democracies.

“This liberal opinion reflects the private sector, business people, and media people,” says Rashed, now General Manager of Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV. “Right now it is the only voice taking on the arguments coming out of the radical mosques.”

Europe’s moderate Muslims, like Tariq Ramadan, however, are not taking on the radicals; rather, they are translating the fear terrorism generates into shares of political power for themselves. Western intellectuals and journalists can either court the goodwill of men who claim to represent the vast majority of Arab and Muslim longing, or, they can listen to the intellectuals and journalists who are actually interested in promoting liberalism.

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