We used to know a lot about Al Jazeera. At what point did amnesia set in? The station was launched in November 1996. Two months after al-Qaida’s attacks on New York and Washington, Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-born American scholar, analyzed its product in the pages of The New York Times Magazine. Al Jazeera, he wrote, “may not officially be the Osama bin Laden Channel, but he is clearly its star ... 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.”
Ajami added: “Although Al Jazeera has sometimes been hailed in the West for being an autonomous Arabic news outlet, it would be a mistake to call it a fair or responsible one. Day in and day out, Al Jazeera deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage.”
Five years later Al Jazeera launched an English language version. To be fair, it is editorially distinct from AJ-Arabic. But, also to be fair, two questions must be asked: Are there serious disagreements between these sister stations? Or do they have what Ayman Mohyeldin, once AJ-English’s Cairo correspondent (and now a reporter at NBC), called a “shared vision,” with the Al Jazeera Network’s owners understanding their various audiences and what is required to influence each of them?
The Al Jazeera Network is owned by the royal family of Qatar — an emirate that is rated by Freedom House as “not free.” Qatar’s Wahhabi religious establishment is hard-core, but more indulgent of foreigners than are the clerics of Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism also is the state religion. The sale of oil keeps Qatar’s rulers fabulously wealthy so AJ will never need to turn a profit. If making money is not AJ’s purpose, what is?
Al Gore thinks he knows. As you have doubtless heard by now, the former vice president is selling to AJ the Current TV cable network he co-founded. Estimated price: $500 million. That will make what is to be known as Al Jazeera America available in about 50 million homes across the country. In a statement issued Jan. 2, Current TV co-founder Joel Hyatt, said that he and Gore were “thrilled and proud” that their project was being acquired by Al Jazeera which “was founded with the same goals we had for Current: To give voice to those whose voices are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the important stories that no one else is telling.”
The Current/AJ deal brims with ironies. To cite just one: Al Gore, Internet pioneer, paladin of global warming and archenemy of carbon fuels is about to have his bank account inflated by an estimated a hundred million petro-dollars, and he will “proudly” serve on the advisory board of a media outlet owned by a dictatorship that advocates government censorship of the Internet.
Quite a few of my journalistic colleagues have been cheerily asserting that Al Jazeera America will make a net contribution to the free market in ideas. I’m less confident. Among the reasons: Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is the host of Al Jazeera Arabic’s most popular program “Sharia and Life.” Qaradawi endorsed Ayatollah Khomeini’s call to execute novelist Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, called what Hitler did to Europe’s Jews “divine punishment” (adding: “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hand of the believers”), and in 1991 one of his acolytes, Mohamed Akram, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, wrote a memorandum, later obtained by the FBI, asserting that Brothers “must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”
Is Al Gore really “thrilled and proud” to be associated with such “independent and diverse points of view?” Is this really what he means by “speaking truth to power?” Might asking him be a net contribution to the free market in ideas?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.