Cover Story

The air war

The battle for public opinion intensifies as Middle East media whip up anti-American sentiment

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

At the outbreak of war, Iraqi television showed a suicide-bomber recruit demanding of his Muslim brothers: "What happened to the boiling Arab blood in your veins?"

Heating up fast, according to reports of Middle East protests during the first weekend of the war in Iraq. In Egypt, thousands of university students hurled rocks at police and threatened to torch the U.S. embassy. In Yemen, police shot dead four and dozens others were injured when protesters marched on the San'a U.S. embassy. In Jordan, 10,000 protesters took part in a rally organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group with suspected ties to terrorism.

While protests ignited in the region, Qatari satellite television station Al-Jazeera launched its English-language website and showed footage of wounded Iraqi civilians in contrast to Western media coverage of advancing U.S. troops. In the Gulf War, Arabs could only rely on CNN for war coverage, but now the rise of the station and other Arab news providers has helped stoke anti-American sentiment.

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Vitriolic condemnations of the war in Arab newspapers also abounded, compiled and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute. An editor of the Lebanese daily Al-Safir said, "George Bush loves fire games. Instead of offering his mother flowers during the holiday he offers burned cities from far, far away."

The editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar hinted at greater American ambition in the region: "In the face of the total darkness which engulfs the Arab world, following the unjust American attack on Iraq ... [w]e must stand firm against any violation of our national security that takes advantage of the tragedy of this war."

In the Saudi English daily Arab News, a Syrian ministry of foreign affairs official said Arab countries "deserted a sister Arab country" by opening land bases and air space to the United States: "Their leaders have left the Arabs to fend for themselves, having ruined their standing and honor among nations. It is no wonder that the world does not respect the Arabs."

Egypt's Al-Azhar mosque, the Muslim world's oldest and most revered religious center, has also issued a fatwa urging all Muslims to rise up in jihad against American forces. The edict signals lines are dissolving between Muslim hard-liners and moderates.

Such hyberbole in the Arab media "drastically" increases anti-American feeling, according to Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said negative Arab coverage has so far focused on gory war footage but not on American intentions-and that's where U.S. governmentÐrun radio stations such as Radio Sawa can step into the breach.

Will the Arab world listen to an American-backed media outlet? "I don't think it's a question of receptivity," Mr. Schanzer said. "It's a question of curiosity about what America is doing and what its goals are."

The 24-hour Radio Sawa completed its first year of broadcasting last month and is gaining popularity among Arabs under 30 with its blend of American and Arab pop music and newscasts every half hour. The first survey of its Amman, Jordan, listeners in October 2002 showed the station was the first choice among 43 percent of respondents, and 25 percent said it was their first news choice. Now Congress has earmarked $30 million in the FY2004 budget for the creation of an Arabic satellite television station in the Middle East, and its creator, Norman Pattiz, is lobbying Congress for more. If he gets it, he says the station could go on air in six months.

Avi Jorisch, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said the television station of Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah-Al Manar-has a growing number of viewers. Licensed by the Lebanese government in 1997, the station claims on its website to be the "first Arab establishment to stage an effective psychological warfare against the Zionist enemy." Mr. Jorisch said, "Their goal is to really at this point foment anti-American sentiment. We have to be very careful how we treat civilians and build roads, build hospitals, so Al Manar does not have the opportunity to take images and use it to its own means."

Mr. Schanzer and Mr. Jorisch said Radio Sawa and plans for an American-run television station in the region will help douse some Arab anger-but how well America rebuilds Iraq and limits civilian casualties will ultimately be the biggest weapon in the U.S. public-relations arsenal against the Middle East's bombastic media.

"Unfortunately over the years it has been socialized to believe the U.S. has evil intentions," Mr. Schanzer said. "It's going to be difficult to overcome this."

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