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Dateline: Scholars Discuss Arab Media and the War On Terrorism - 2001-11-12

The Bush Administration is working to make U.S. views on the war on terrorism available to news media around the world around the clock.

Diplomats and military officials assigned to new information centers in London and Pakistan will coordinate with U.S. officials in Washington to express American perspectives and respond to what the White House calls Taleban misinformation.

One of the goals of the new effort is to change anti-American views in the Arab World.

Some media do reach the United States from the Arab World like news summaries from Radio Kuwait. But such reports fall on ears that largely do not understand Arabic or other Middle Eastern languages.

Meanwhile, news from the United States is heard, seen or read in the Arab world largely on media controlled by the government or opposition political parties.

As a result, says Fawaz Gerges of New York's Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, the U.S. and Arab cultures don't really communicate with each other, but are more "like two ships passing in the night." The professor of Middle Eastern Studies says he was terribly disheartened at some of the Arab media response to the September terrorist attacks on the United States.

"Even intelligent people were advancing conspiratorial theories on what happened on the 11th of September," he said. "Many Arabs and Muslims could not really believe that some of their people would do such a horrible thing. It's either the Mossad or a U.S. intelligence agency."

The Arab news media spread rumors that were easy to disprove in the United States but were repeated throughout the Middle East. There were reports, for example, that claimed no Jews died in the terrorist strikes, indeed, that 4,000 Jews were warned in advance and did not show up for work at New York's World Trade Center on the day of the attacks.

Professor Gerges also criticizes the Arab media for restricting coverage of America so narrowly that what he calls the human face of America stays hidden.

"There is more to America than its foreign policy," he said. "There is here a great, dynamic, vital, open civil society. Americans have been at the forefront of humanitarian aid, of helping Muslims all over the world in Kosovo and Bosnia. Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans have been one of the most successful communities in the United States. All that is missing from the picture, because, unfortunately, the main emphasis in that part of the world, in the Arab World, in the Muslim World, is basically on highly divisive issues like the Palestinian-Israeli question and the Iraqi crisis."

Mr. Gerges says U.S. initiatives on both of those issues would help overcome the distrust of the United States.

The chairman of the Communications Department at Indiana's Purdue University Yahya Kamalipour says the Arab news media adds religion to their focus on political aims. "The media in the Middle East, including the nowadays popular Al Jazeera television out of Qatar, usually blend politics and religion together," he said. "This becomes quite a potent force in terms of influencing public opinion."

As a result, Professor Kamalipour says many people in the Arab world are skeptical of continuing U.S. claims that the war on terrorism is not aimed at Islam and they also demand proof that Osama bin Laden was behind the September terrorist attacks. He says a neutral party, perhaps the United Nations, could help deliver the U.S. message.

Professor Kamalipour said, "I personally believe that if the United Nations gets actively involved in the process and Kofi Annan would present some facts, that may carry some credibility. When you have lack of evidence, lack of concrete information, then people rely on rumors. The attack was orchestrated in such a sophisticated way that one would say, 'Well, how could a group, a person, who lives in the poorest country in the world, orchestrate such an attack?'"

The Middle East Media and Research Institute, known as MEMRI, is publicizing what appears in the Arab media by translating reports and interviews into English and putting them on the organization's web site -

The group's President, Yigal Carmon, says the translations are quoted by activists on all sides of Middle East issues. The group noted this week that two Saudi columnists are now challenging conspiracy theories that blamed the September 11th attacks on "extremist American militias" or Israeli intelligence. But Mr. Carmon says he remains outraged at Arab commentators who expressed joy at the deadly terrorist strikes, especially one columnist in Syria:

Yigal Carmon: "The chairman of the Writer's Association in Syria writes, in a very literary style, the feeling of rejoice he had, 'his lungs were filled with air and he breathed like he had never did before' when he saw the wreckage of the World Trade Center. So he finds these terms and idioms to represent his feelings, 'his lungs filled with air and he breathed like he never breathed before' when he saw that."

Dave Arlington: "Does favorable material about the United States get in print or get repeated on radio or television, things like humanitarian aid to Muslim nations or U.S. military action in support of Muslim societies in Kosovo and Kuwait and Somalia?

Yigal Carmon: "Every time that the United States is involved, especially with troops, to help, it is immediately turned against her as another attempt, cunning attempt, colonialist, imperialist attempt, to take advantage of a situation. So the whole idea of American support is totally taken away. It is mentioned, but again with a spin that this is not really what it's declared to be, but rather an imperialistic attempt."

Dave Arlington: "There must be some benefit to Arab governments to let the most amazing statements in the media stand as fact. What is in it for them?"

Yigal Carmon: "Mainly, it is trying to portray a situation in which the Arab world and the Muslim world is under attack, constant attack, one way or the other. They have enemies they have to fight. This is the main thrust of all of this. Once they are enemies, it justifies the regimes in whatever they do to "protect the nation", have rights suppressed because it's time of emergency, time of war, have liberties suspended because it's time of war, the enemy's at the gates, and so on and so forth. So this is the ultimate justifications for the regimes not to hold real elections."

Agreeing with Mr. Carmon that Arab governments encourage a certain level of anti-Americanism is Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College Professor Fawaz Gerges. He says that has opened a large gap between the rhetoric and the actions of Arab regimes regarding U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

"While most Arab and Muslim governments support the U.S. campaign against terrorism," he said, "they are basically terrified of the angry responses of their public. So while privately they offer their support to the United States, in terms of exchange of intelligence, in terms of allowing the United States to use some of their bases, publicly they are terrified that any explicit relationship with the U.S. campaign against terrorism might alienate their dissatisfied public."

Professor Gerges says the support some Arab regimes are giving the United States can actually work against American interests, giving the Arab public a picture of Washington as the "main sustainer" of authoritarian governments. He says America's challenge is to appeal directly to that public over the heads of anti-American commentators in the media and over the heads of their governments.

That does seem to be the goal of the new White House public relations campaign. Its success will be measured in part by the number of interviews and news reports featuring U.S. officials and commentators that appear on Arab media such as Al Jazeera satellite television.