Here's a news quiz: Where can you find the number of refugees the International Red Cross estimates will need assistance if a U.S.-led war erupts in Iraq? Or a description of Secretary of State Colin Powell's insecurity-betraying body language during testimony before the United Nations Security Council? How about profiles of volunteer Arab and Western "human shields" who've vowed to go to Iraq in the event of war?
Not on your local TV news broadcast, that's for sure. But information about all of these topics is readily available from a growing number of Arab news sources. And thanks to the Internet, many of them can be found in English at the click of a mouse. [See quiz answers below.]
Rudolf Zarzar teaches political science at Elon University in the Triad. A native of Beirut who came to the United States at 17 to pursue his studies, he's used to having to search for in-depth coverage of events in the Middle East. Among the sites he recommends is Arabia Online (www.arabia.com), the Egyptian government newspaper Al-Ahram (weekly.ahram.org.eg) and the Middle East Institute (www.mideasti.org).
"They give a perspective that is hardly ever heard," Zarzar says. "I looked at the Web the other day and there are over 500 sources."
Probably the best-known Arab media source is Al Jazeera, the upstart broadcast service that's been called the CNN of the Arab world. Just this month, Al Jazeera made headlines when it published an "audio letter to Muslims" attributed to Osama bin Laden. When mainstream U.S. media reported on the letter, most news organizations described only the Bush administration's view that it was further proof of a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq. Few outlets bothered to quote the full text of the letter--especially the part where bin Laden calls Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein an "infidel."
Such sins of omission by U.S. media when it comes to reporting on the Muslim world are a major reason to seek out other sources, says Ebrahim Moosa, a South African who teaches religion at Duke and works with the university's Center for the Study of Muslim Networks. A dedicated fan of Al Jazeera, Moosa says one of the best things the network does (besides sending camera crews on U.N. weapons inspectors' daily rounds in Iraq) is ask tough questions of U.S. government officials.
"Those State Department guys get asked questions they never get asked here," he says. "Like, 'Why is Iraq being criticized for having weapons of mass destruction, but not Israel?' "
Al Jazeera covers parts of the Muslim world such as Pakistan and Indonesia that are rarely a focus of U.S. media reports. It also poses a challenge to government-controlled news networks, Moosa says, by airing views of opposition figures and openly criticizing government policies. For example, he cites a recent report about people in Morocco and Jordan protesting their governments' participation in Bush's war plans. Saudi Arabian authorities recently barred Al Jazeera from covering the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, because they considered some of its broadcasts insulting to the royal family.
Both Zarzar and Moosa say an unwavering focus on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a common thread among Arab media outlets. Many of their home pages feature daily reports from the West Bank and Gaza--reports that don't always show up in the U.S. press. Another common theme is a growing sense of U.S. double standards when it comes to the war on terrorism. "The U.S. does not hew to international treaties," Moosa says. "So now North Korea can say that a pre-emptive strike is not only for the United States. Bush has unleashed a genie there."
What about expressions of Islamic extremism and anti-Semitism in Arab media? Moosa says he's seen some of both, but insists they are rare. "For instance, I saw a program on cloning on Al Jazeera and when they opened the airwaves, one caller said it was all a conspiracy of the West and the Jews--and they were cut off," he says.
On the specific subject of a war with Iraq, Moosa has noticed both widespread "resignation" in the face of the Bush administration's determination to attack Baghdad, and rising anger at that same push for military action.
There's also a fair amount of criticism of Iraq. A recent op-ed piece in the online version of Al Ahram, for example, claimed the greatest obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Iraqi "crisis" is the "vain posturing of its political elite."
For anyone seeking insight into complex current events, Arab media can be a valuable tool, Zarzar says. "What I tell my students is that there is a bias in the American media which tows the government's line. With few exceptions they are whipping up war hysteria. Just look at the titles of these reports, 'Countdown to Iraq,' that type of thing. It's a shame the media here manipulates instead of enlightening the public."
Answers to the quiz
1. A report on the expected number of refugees came from a Feb. 6 story in the online version of The Jordan Times (www.jordantimes.com).
2. A story about Powell's U.N. testimony came from the Feb. 6 offerings at www.Arabia.com and described his body language this way: "Powell entered the Security Council Conference room in New York with a wide smile on his face, apparently trying to express a feeling of confidence. However, his body language and the looks on the faces of those around him, especially [CIA Chief George] Tenet, revealed almost the opposite. With aides hugging him, batting him on the shoulder, in clear signs of encouragement, it was clear Powell was not so sure about the result of the case he was about to present."
3. A story called "We are all Iraqis" about Arab and Western "human shields" ran in the Jan. 30-Feb. 5 online issue of Al-Ahram.