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Inside Al-Jazeera

BY Kevin Y. Kim

Samir Khader has covered and observed the war on terror through his work with the Arab news network, Al-Jazeera, which he joined after working as a journalist for French and Jordanian television. Khader’s insights recently landed him a lead role in Control Room, a new documentary by Jehane Noujaim about the war in Iraq. In These Times spoke with Khader in New York.

Blunt question: Were you against the U.S. war in Iraq?

Of course I was against the war. Imagine yourself an Arab citizen, living in the Middle East, with a foreign power coming to invade and occupy an Arab country whose population you consider as brothers, as Arabs like you. Most Arabs acknowledge Saddam Hussein was a dictator and should be toppled. But our feeling is that he should be toppled by his own people, his own army—not a foreign power. And we’re concerned that the Iraqi population was living under siege and complete embargo for over 13 really miserable years. You want to wage war on Hussein? OK, but who will suffer? It’s not Saddam; it’s the Iraqi population, which means you have to look at the cost of war. Even if war was justified, there is a human cost.

Soldiers your network reported on?

Yes, young Americans who joined the Army to learn, have a living, a future—whose government is sending them thousands of miles from their homes to wage a war for reasons about which they have no clue. Very young people, just following orders—it’s very sad to see them in this situation.

You’re critical of Bush’s policies. At the same time you have an avowed appreciation for American values and democracy—to the point that you’d like to send your kids to college here. How do you square that?

Look, look, look. We at Al-Jazeera try to make a difference between a country’s government and its people. We try our best to explain to viewers that this U.S. foreign policy has nothing to do with the American people, values, ethics, ideals and dreams. But people tend to always confuse the government with the people, so we try to emphasize this is the policy of this particular administration, with discrepancies among its members. Take, for example, the position of the U.S. secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] and secretary of state [Colin Powell]. Sometimes, personally, I wonder how these two men can coexist in the same administration. In our coverage, we make distinctions between them.

Isn’t Al-Jazeera what the United States truly wants for the region: an Arab channel with a Western-influenced way of providing information?

For decades, American administrations fully supported Arab dictatorships under the pretext that these governments allied with the United States in the war against communism. They didn’t care that the Arab world lacked democracy and freedom. After 9/11, they discovered this policy has transformed some Arab countries into factories producing terrorists. Now the United States wants to change things by introducing democracy to the Arab world. But how can they do that with guns? Therefore, we see ourselves at Al-Jazeera as the manifestation of the change that should happen in the Middle East. We introduce free speech, pluralism, openness to the Arab world. We were the first, only network to cross red lines. To break taboos. To uncover corruption in the Arab world. This is why we are Enemy No. 1 of many Arab governments. So when you see America attacking Al-Jazeera, you wonder what they really want for this Middle East.

How shocked were you by the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal?

Very. I never expected this from Americans. We had a lot of information on prisoner abuse before the scandal exploded in the United States, but because we are a TV station, if we wanted to say something, we had to prove it by picture. We didn’t have pictures; we had unverified testimonies.

The United States is at pains creating its own media in the Arab world, partly in response to Al-Jazeera. It seems the United States wants democracy in the Middle East but on its terms, in its image.

There is no American democracy. There is democracy, period. If the United States wants to build a new press in Iraq or elsewhere, to compete with Al-Jazeera, fine. This is better for us, because you excel and get better when facing good competition.

Al-Jazeera has taken a lot of negative criticism for its coverage.

When an American official appears on TV and says, “Al Jazeera always tells lies,” this is bad, destructive criticism. We have a daily audience of about 40 million people around the world. Would 40 million keep watching if we are telling lies? If a live guest insults the United States, however, it’s up to the anchor to challenge the guest. If our anchor doesn’t, a constructive criticism can be made and we’d try to explain this to the anchor.

A Muslim friend once told me the Arab world right now is going through its own Dark Ages, with many illiterate people being led by religious zealots, committing atrocities in the name of God.

Completely, I agree completely. And I hope this is the Dark Ages, because it’s worse than that.

Why, because it’s more bloody?

Oppression isn’t always bloody. It can mean you are denied your basic rights, your dignity as a human being—that your citizenship can be revoked at any time. I hope these Arab governments start thinking of themselves as representatives of the people instead of rulers in charge of sheep. Of course, there are differences from one government to another. My home country, Jordan, has always been considered one of the Arab world’s most moderate regimes. You cannot compare my status as a Jordanian with a Syrian’s or Libyan’s. Still, that is not enough.

In the long run, maybe the heavy cost of the war will come to be outweighed by the war’s benefits to the Iraqi people.

You have to ask the Iraqis themselves. When I was there, I found they had mixed feelings. On one side, they are glad somebody came and liberated them from Hussein’s dictatorship. But the cost they are paying is the occupation of their country, the denial of their sovereignty. What will happen in the future nobody knows, not even the Bush administration. We have to wait and see how things develop—but believe me, everybody inside and outside Iraq in the Middle East has only one wish: that Iraq will emerge from this nightmare and become a modern, stabilized, peaceful state. I think the Bush administration hopes for that but doesn’t know how to do it.

You got a friendly tip for Bush, then?

Five minutes to set a new policy for George Bush in Iraq? (laughing). Here’s a small suggestion. Mr. Bush, leave military efforts to the American military but give the British the chance to run the country. Yes, they have a past of colonialism, but as a result they know the region very well. They’ve occupied Iraq for more than half a century. They know all the tribes and colonies there. In the areas where the British are, there aren’t many problems. They know how to deal with people. I’ll give you one simple example. It’s easy, but surprisingly, no American has ever done it.

When Baghdad fell, the Americans, led by Jay Garner at the time, said: “We are now in charge. We are the occupation authority.” You know what the British did? They went looking for the chief of one of the biggest tribes in the south. They found him and told him: “Sheikh, you are in charge. We are here to help you.” Of course the British were truly in charge, but at least they made this gesture. America knows how to fight and win wars, but its problem is what to do after victory. The war on terrorism is a just cause. It should be followed by everybody, every country in the world. But the way Bush is tackling this problem in the Middle East is harming the population, freedom and democracy. In the name of combating terrorism, people are getting imprisoned, killed, tortured. What’s important for Arab public opinion is U.S. foreign policy. And U.S. foreign policy—much because of its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, yes—has unfortunately never had any credibility in the Middle East.

At least American media coverage of Iraq is improving.

It was more patriotic, less objective during the war. It’s getting better and better. They are now realizing they were fooled by the administration. But whatever we can say about the American media, I wish Al-Jazeera one day becomes similar to the American media in some respects, but without losing our identity, values and perspective.

You must get this question often. Regarding the “accidental” bombings of Al-Jazeera offices in Kabul and Baghdad, do you feel the U.S. military might be, in any way, targeting you?

If you ask this of 100 Al-Jazeera journalists, you will get 100 answers. I will give you my answer. I think they did it on purpose as a way to give a message: Beware, you are harming our interests. This is the message.

Kevin Y. Kim is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, L.A. Weekly, Far Eastern Economic Review, and elsewhere.

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