A handful of agencies monitor the media in Muslim countries. What they see is not pretty.
Since September 11, understanding the inner mind of Arab and Islamic society has assumed urgent importance in the West. As policy makers and journalists have rushed to close the gap between what leaders and media in those countries say in Arabic and what they say in English, a handful of Jewish-run or Israeli-based agencies have become key suppliers of information.
A rising star in this new growth industry is Washington-based MEMRI
, the Middle East Media Research Institute, whose primary product is translations of selected material from media throughout the Islamic world.
To MEMRI president Yigal Carmon, a former counter-intelligence consultant to the Israeli government who lives in Jerusalem, it is clear that the media and leadership throughout Islamic countries speak quite differently to a Western audience and when they think no one in the West is listening. In Arabic, he says, opinion-molders in those countries commonly express points of view deeply troubling in their racism, falsification and hostility to Jews, Israel and Western values. With an active e-mail distribution list and offices in Washington, Jerusalem, London and Berlin, MEMRI has in recent months increasingly penetrated mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times
(including influential Mideast correspondent Thomas Friedman’s columns), the Washington Post
, the LA Times
, the New Yorker
Magazine and many others.
Among MEMRI’s coups: the revelation that the imam of New York’s Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque, Sheikh Muhammad Al-Gamei'a, an apparently reliable source of information for journalists, was in Arabic blaming the Jews for the September 11 attacks. MEMRI later revealed that the semi-official Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram was accusing the US of dropping poisoned food to Afghan civilians. More recently, MEMRI flagged the Ramadan screening, in several Arab countries, of the 30-part TV series “Horseman Without a Horse,” which purports to demonstrate how the Protocols of the Elders of Zion remain (as an Egyptian paper put it) “the central line that still, to this very day, dominates Israel's policy, political aspirations, and racism.”
Last year, MEMRI brought to public attention the controversial interview in which the late Faisal Husseini, long regarded as a Palestinian moderate, asserted that peace negotiations with Israel were only a tactic for reaching the PA’s true goal of creating its own state in all of Mandate Palestine. Although doubts were raised, in the wake of Husseini's death soon afterward, about the accuracy of the interview, which was published in a marginal opposition paper, Carmon notes that no evidence was ever produced that Husseini had been misquoted; his detractors respond that a tape of the interview, which seemed to contradict Husseini’s previous and consistent statements in Arabic, was also never produced.
Though the accuracy of its translations has not been questioned, MEMRI has nonetheless been criticized for selecting texts to translate in order to score right-wing political points. Indeed, despite its claim to be ”non-partisan,“ its opinion pieces and analyses, as well the articles it occasionally translates from the Hebrew press, generally dovetail with a right-wing approach. The organization was castigated recently by Vincent Cannistraro, the former head of the CIA’s counterintelligence unit, for acting “s propagandists for their political point of view, which is the extreme-right of Likud. They simply don't present the whole picture,” Cannistraro told the American Jewish paper The Forward.
Carmon, who refused to be interviewed for this article, has elsewhere hotly denied the charge of selectivity, insisting that MEMRI’s coverage is ”absolutely balanced“ and not chosen to make the Islamic media look bad. If it doesn’t seem so, he says, that’s because, even outside the conflict with Israel, there’s “so little material” in Islamic sources on broader subjects such as social issues or women’s rights that is at all “positive.”
With a focus more narrowly concentrated on the Palestinian Authority and Arab-Israeli issues, Palestinian Media Watch
publishes reports that document its review of Palestinian textbooks and the Palestinian media, especially the news columns, editorials, sports, arts, even cooking pages of Palestinian newspapers. His organization’s aim, according to director Itamar Marcus, is to “understand Palestinian society through the window of its media.” (Marcus and MEMRI’s Carmon were, until five years ago, partners in an agency similar to PMW; their parting was not completely amicable.)
PMW finds as “consensus” Palestinian opinion in regard to Israel and Jews a nearly unrelieved message of hostility. According to Marcus, both the Palestinian media and official PA spokespeople routinely deny the Holocaust, contend that the ancient Hebrews were actually Arab tribes and assert that archeologists find no record of any Jewish presence in the country before modern times. Palestinian TV makes implicit calls on children to embrace martyrdom, airs sermons by Muslim clerics calling for the murder of Jews and broadcasts video clips that deceitfully blend dramatizations with actual file film to show, for example, an Israeli soldier murdering a Palestinian child. Recent coverage of a sports event in Europe referred to Israel with distaste only as the “Hebrew entity.” Even the crossword puzzles, subject of a PMW report last March, are full of blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel word clues. (A Jewish trait? Treachery. Museum commemorating “the Holocaust and the lies”? Yad Vashem.)
Detailed and well-publicized studies of Palestinian schoolbooks by PMW and another group, the Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace
, which Marcus also directed until a year ago, indict the books, with copious quotations from them, for encouraging jihad
, glorifying martyrdom, and teaching schoolchildren to hate Israel, despise Jews and consider all of Israel their stolen property. The reports have had significant impact on opinion-molders, policy makers and public opinion in the United States and Europe, as well as Israel. (Marcus and the director of CMIP’s Israel office, Dr. Yohanan Manor, both take partial credit for the European Union’s recent decision to examine whether its funding for the textbooks is encouraging reconciliation between Israel and the PA.)
However, a new study by Dr. Nathan Brown
, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, sharply calls into question the credibility of significant parts of Marcus’s and CMIP’s work on the Palestinian schoolbooks. In the new study, “Democracy, History, and the Contest over the Palestinian Curriculum,” part of a larger research project on Palestinian institution-building sponsored by the Texas-based Adam Institute, Brown acknowledges that the Palestinian texts fail to educate toward peace. However, he cites as false a few of the claims made by the CMIP reports and more generally accuses Marcus and CMIP of “tendentiousness” and selectivity to further their own political agendas, calling their work “highly misleading” and lacking in nuance and “contextualization.”
Most surprising, Brown’s study flatly denies that the Palestinian curriculum incites “hatred, violence, and anti-Semitism.” The damning studies by Marcus (not related to CMIP founder, French businessman André Marcus) and CMIP, Brown told this reporter, “read as if someone who did not read Arabic asked someone who did to dig up some dirt – any dirt – on the books, took all the material thus collected, wrote a quick introduction and conclusion, and then faxed the resulting document around the world…. a method that could probably be used to portray a cookbook in a negative light.”
Both Marcus, who is not an Arabic speaker, and Manor, who is, vehemently condemn Brown’s study as naïve and badly informed, and Brown and CMIP have been dueling over the issue on their respective web sites. Marcus quotes chapter and verse from the textbooks: Here, Jews are labeled as “deceitful”; there, Lake Kinneret, Beersheva and the Negev are named as places in “Palestine”; a 6th-grade text refers to Israel as “our stolen homeland.” “Our report is about 85 percent actual quotations from the textbooks,” Marcus declares. “Brown simply ignores what we found.” Manor, pointing out that maps in the textbooks never use the name Israel, charges that Brown “just wants to explain away the Palestinian failure to prepare their people for reconciliation.” Both Marcus and Manor highlight a volume whose anti-Semitism is extremely blatant – although it is, technically, not one of the textbooks but an outside source to which students are expected to refer.
Whatever the relative demerits of the Palestinian textbooks, other observers
at the window of Arabic media see an equally dark picture.
Michael Widlanski, a veteran Arabist who teaches at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School and has been monitoring Arabic media, especially radio, for years, also reports extreme Palestinian reluctance to acknowledge Israel’s existence, an almost blanket refusal to compromise in order to live peacefully with Israel and a strong message, sometimes coded, sometimes not, that all of mandate Palestine belongs to the Arabs.
The American-born Widlanski’s translations and analyses are used by both David Bedein’s Israel Resource News and Dr. Aaron Lerner’s Independent Media Review and Analysis (IMRA), as well as by a start-up venture called The Media Line, whose president Felice Friedson promises “aggressive” presentations of information and opinions to support Israel. There’s “no question,” Widlanski says, that the Palestinians’ ultimate plan – which he identifies as taking over what is now Israel – “has always been clear.” When asked about Dr. Sari Nusseibeh, the PA’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, who has aroused controversy among his own people by speaking in favor of a two-state solution and for relinquishing the “right of return,” Widlanski responds flatly, “I never heard Nusseibeh say anything like that in Arabic.” David Bedein
, another American immigrant, was one of the earliest journalists to make the case, in the mid-1990s, that Israel’s neighbors were saying one thing in English, another in Arabic. Bedein, director of Israel Resource News Agency, echoes the other media monitors: the Palestinian media praises suicide bombers, calls for war, labels the US as the enemy. A more moderate perspective, Bedein says, “does not exist. It’s a totalitarian system that broadcasts a consistent message – war with Israel.” IMRA
, now ten years old, operates as a kind of clearing house for data on Arab-Israeli relations. Privately funded by its American-born founder Dr. Aaron Lerner, IMRA’s frequent e-mail postings disseminate a wide mix of material: public-opinion surveys by Israeli and Palestinian polling organizations, summaries of news reports from the Israeli and Arab media, translations of Israeli and PNA statements, reports, analyses and some original interviews. “We commission some polls ourselves,” Lerner adds.
Lerner, who sometimes sardonically annotates the data he presents, says the polls show a strong Palestinian majority in favor of continuing the intifada, a high level of support for military operations against civilians and strong objections to conceding the right of return. Taken together, he says, recent polls indicate that the Palestinian man-in-the-street “doesn’t believe he’ll get what he wants by peaceful means – and he’s optimistic about the future.” He pauses for effect. “That’s a chilling combination.”
Beyond their sobering view of the message coming from the region’s Arabic media, the media monitors also agree on the weakness of Israel’s informational efforts
. Especially galling to them is that the information they make available is not well used. “Nobody is assigned in the PM’s office or anywhere else,” grouses Lerner, “to put out a selection of material from the Arab world that would serve Israeli hasbara
Both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office, however, make use of material from MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch, which Ariel Sharon’s media and public affairs advisor Ra’anan Gissin calls “the only two organizations of any consequence – good material, accurate and timely.” Both organizations remain in close contact with him, supplying early alerts – “on a voluntary basis,” he is quick to add – such as news he received from Itamar Marcus on the morning he spoke with this reporter that Yassir Arafat had sent a lengthy message of “congratulations and solidarity” to be read at the 34th anniversary celebration meeting of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – “to an organization that he has banned and outlawed!” Gissin fumes.
Do the messages propagated by Israel’s neighbors in Arabic justify the media mavens’ dark and distrustful assessment? Now that so much of the material is available electronically, consumers of news in the West can listen for themselves, decide for themselves and even, perhaps, track if the rhetoric emanating from Arabic-speaking countries changes, now that they know the West is listening in.