God bless Al-Jazeera

From a former Israeli soldier and conservative U.S. commentator comes a surprising endorsement of Al-Jazeera. By David Keyes.
"Al-Jazeera should be burnt to the ground," a senior Israeli Intelligence officer recently remarked to me in private. This former officer, who today appears regularly on Arabic media, was lamenting the station's radical rhetoric and vitriol against the West. He has a right to his opinion, but I respectfully disagree. In no small part, this is because al-Jazeera has provided me with endless hours of fascination and entertainment.

Even during my service in the Israeli army, I was unreachable almost every Tuesday night between 9.05 and 10.00 pm. For that hour, I sat glued to the TV watching the equivalent of political Jerry Springer in Arabic. Al-Jazeera superstar Faisal al-Qassem hosts The Opposite Direction, far and away the best program in the Arab world.

The show pits two guests against one another who, to put it mildly, hate each other's guts. Qassem will invite a Kurd whose entire family was killed by Iraqi forces and a Baath party loyalist who served under Saddam. He will invite a democratic Syrian dissident and an Assad lackey, a secular feminist and a radical Islamist. Guests storm off the show and regularly curse each other and threaten bodily harm. This format — unthinkable in most of the Arab world — has unleashed a torrent of repressed emotion and brought about a veritable revolution in the region.

Arab regimes have always tightly controlled their media outlets. Autocratic governments, by their nature, try desperately to keep citizens in the dark; too much information could lead to discontent or revolt. Literate and well-informed masses would likely find out that their leaders were irresponsible, inept, and corrupt. Before the Internet, e-mail, web-cams, and text messaging, it was far easier to restrict the flow of information and blame foreigners for domestic ills.

Few tools have done as much to break the wall of Arab ignorance and lack of accountability as al-Jazeera. Debates that were previously thought unimaginable in the Arab world are now heatedly discussed night after night and broadcast to tens of millions. The impact of this development cannot be overstated. Though many in the West have been quick to criticize al-Jazeera since its founding in 1996, such opposition totally misses the point. There are far more important trends afoot in the Arab world than if one more sheikh decries Western capitalism or pronounces America the "great Satan."