There is broad consensus in Washington that a "war of ideas" is a central component of the larger war on terror. And in this war, a prime target is the "poisonous" Arab media environment, particularly the new satellite television channels , which are blamed for spreading anti-American sentiment. The Bush administration's principal response, contrary to the recommendations of its Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, has been to lavish resources on Al Hurra, a new Washington-based Arabic language satellite television station. This conceptualization of the problem is deeply flawed. The new Arab media should be seen not as enemies but as potential allies in the demand for fundamental political reforms in the Arab Middle East. The United States should recognize the media as a potent internal voice for reform whose influential critiques of the Arab status quo have far more weight than those emanating from Washington.
The reformist potential of the Arab media, celebrated by many American observers before September 11, has been obscured by U.S. anger over allegedly biased coverage of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Blaming the "incitement" and "venom" of this Arab media offers an easy explanation for Arab hostility towards the United States, but this is clearly overstated. Changes in Arab public opinion closely track changes in American policies. And as the Egyptian Islamist Fahmi Huwaydi points out, the Arab media can hardly blamed for the parallel rise of hostility to American Middle East policies from Europe to Latin America.
While the Arab media is generally quite critical of U.S. policies, they hardly speak with one voice. Indeed, the single most popular political program on Arab television, Al Jazeera's "The Opposite Direction," always begins with a lengthy recitation of the major arguments on both sides of the issue under consideration. While Al Jazeera remains the most influential satellite news station, the highly competitive market pushes not toward a stultifying consensus, but toward fiery arguments and clear disagreements. Saudi ownership of much of the print media ensures the presence of conservative voices in the press, which also routinely publishes prominent American columnists.
The hostility to American foreign policy prevalent in the Arab media should not obscure their other preoccupation: the repressive, stagnant Arab status quo. The new Arab media have been brutal in their criticism of Arab states, often using language far sharper than the Bush administration's own rhetoric. Thomas Friedman, like many observers, attributes such criticism to the impact of the Iraq war, asserting that "the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein has triggered the first real 'conversation' about political reform in the Arab world in a long, long time." But while the war has intensified the debate, it did not start it. Al Jazeera has been a forum for precisely such debates since the 1990s. Its talk shows have long featured topics as the relative merits of existing Arab regimes and colonial rule—debates in which Arab regimes generally have fared poorly. Guests regularly have attacked Arab regimes for their repression, demanding more freedoms and genuine democracy. Faced with this onslaught, Arab governments have denounced satellite stations as enemies, as divisive, even as terrorists. They have filed lawsuits against them, closed down bureaus, attempted to jam transmissions, or even launched their own state-run satellite stations.
The independent Arab media presents itself as the only authentic voice of the Arab people against both American hegemony and Arab repression. This suggests that a serious approach to democratic reform in the region should begin with these media—as a tacit partner, not as an enemy. Rather than mimic Arab governments' moves to repress or counter independent media, as it seems wont to do, the U.S. should demonstrate its genuine commitment to public freedoms by advocating these media even when they are highly critical of U.S. policy. Responding constructively to criticism of American policies and engaging directly with the Arab media would send a far better signal to Arab regimes and publics about the media's vital role in pushing for reform.
The U.S. should also broaden its definition of political "moderation" in the Arab context. The curious tendency to define moderation in terms of support for American policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the occupation of Iraq radically and unnecessarily circumscribes the range of possible U.S. interlocutors. Moderation should be understood not as a set of pre-defined political positions but in terms of openness to dialogue and pragmatic willingness to engage with others to resolve contentious problems. A wide range of Arab intellectuals and political figures prominent in the region's new media—liberals, nationalists and Islamists alike—share such an orientation. Unfortunately, it is precisely these moderates who have been the most alienated by the Bush administration's approach to reform.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science at Williams College.