At a seminar I attended many years ago in the United Arab Emirates, American political scientist Michael Craig Hudson, considered an expert on the Middle East, said something bizarre. Hudson said he was optimistic that the region had great hope for Arab-Israeli peace because the Gulf youth did not watch Al-Jazeera but the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) instead.
The inference was that Gulf youth were not politicized enough to take interest in Al-Jazeera TV, considered an annoyance by Arab authoritarian regimes, the United States and Israel because of its bold news coverage and discussions of current affairs. On the contrary, their interest in the Lebanese LBC network, whose belly dancing shows attract many viewers, make Arab youth peaceful.
So, does that mean belly dance is good and politics is bad for Arabs? Leave politics, current affairs and discussion on U.S. wars and Israeli occupation to others. Hudson would have people believe that would ensure Middle East peace. It may be an American wish to see Gulf youth indulge in lazy amusements and remain uniformed or ill-informed about what goes on in their own region, but Arab youth are definitely not apolitical.
The simple measurement of their interest in serious matters lies in Al-Jazeera Arabic's popularity across the Arab world. Launched in 1996, Al-Jazeera quickly became popular among Arab audiences looking for an alternative to their existing staid media. Arab regimes, keen to keep a tight lid on dissent and dissemination of information, found the channel pesky and even a threat.
There were diplomatic complaints against Al-Jazeera's coverage as well, but at least confident, authoritarian leaders did not make a crisis over these matters. They must have thought negative news coverage alone was not enough to cause a revolution.
When Egypt's long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, visited Al-Jazeera's small, nondescript offices in Doha, he was reported to have said, "This matchbox! All this noise is coming out of this matchbox?"
That kind of humor is totally missing following the Arab uprisings that led to the downfall of regimes in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. This is clearly evident in the ongoing row between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc that includes Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE.
One of their goals in the offensive against Qatar is to get rid of Al-Jazeera. Together with Al-Jazeera English, the media network gives the small, gas-rich emirate an influential global voice.
Apart from their dislike of open discussions on various regional issues, the Saudi-led bloc probably also feels inferior since their own media networks do not have the kind of influence Al-Jazeera enjoys.
They have tried to make rival networks, taking help from the Murdochs of the world, but with marginal success. This anti-Qatar bloc would be content, just like the American professor, if Gulf youth watched belly dancing shows and not political news.
Powerful Western puppet masters also fear Al-Jazeera's influence to the extent that the Pentagon targeted it, and its journalists have faced serious threats from some so-called champions of freedom.
Al-Jazeera as an idea and an institution is very important for a global balance of information. In the run up to the launch of Al-Jazeera English, there was a lot of concern in the Muslim world about not having a voice to counter Islamophobia that prevailed in the West following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. The climate those attacks formed was such that bogus reasons were given for the invasion of Iraq, and the gullible Western public accepted massive death and destruction in the name of fighting terrorism. The fallout of that Anglo-American militarism is still wreaking havoc in the region.
Whereas most Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries felt the need to launch an international channel, it was the then Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani's decisiveness that led to the launch of Al-Jazeera English in 2006.
Today, you can see in the anti-Qatar bloc's clumsy demands, as they lack such decisive smartness. For the regimes in these countries, it does not matter whether their youth are fed Zionist propaganda or live on belly dance shows.
As Al-Jazeera's coverage and viewership expanded, the discomfiture of those inimical to its growth has multiplied. Egypt has been particularly harsh in its attacks on the television network, although other Arab regimes have off and on adopted punitive measures.
The thinking behind seeking measures against Al-Jazeera is to both remove a critical voice from the regional discourse and cut Qatar's diplomatic influence.
When the American political scientist made his bizarre remarks at the seminar in the UAE, I was hoping that the Gulf scholars present would respond to him. After all, Hudson had ostensibly insulted Arab youth by suggesting that they did not need information and political education. But those present acted as if they had not heard the denigrating statement.
I understand now that their silence was because of the seminar's venue and not because they necessarily agreed with the Middle East expert.
* India-based journalist
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