Right now (2:45 EST) star al-Jazeera talk show host Faisal al-Qassem is hosting a show called "Behind the News" focused on a new video from al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri laying out his concept of "reform": it begins with the sharia, jihad is the only route to reform, freedom for the umma must come first, no real reform is possible until the current regimes are gone, American-style "reforms" don't cut it, and at any rate real reform must come from within Islam and not from America, and "reform can't come from demonstrations and protests" - a direct criticism of Kefaya and the recent protest movements.
Zawahiri's extended discourse on reform is itself an important commentary about the changing terms of debate in the Arab and Islamic worlds - rather than setting the terms of public discourse, Zawahiri is responding.
Qassem turns the event of this tape into an opportunity for a remarkable and exceptionally interesting discussion on this topic: is al-Qaeda relevant in the context of the current push for reform?
Rather than just air or report Zawahiri's remarks, the program presents short excerpts and then gives the guests a chance to comment and respond to each of Zawahiri's points in turn. This turns Zawahiri's tape from a monologue into a dialogue. The three guests - Montasser al-Zayat (the ubiquitous Islamist expert from Egypt), Mohammed Abu Roman (a liberal from Jordan), and Ahmad Baha al-Din Shaaban (a leader from Kefaya) - have the chance to rebut Zawahiri's arguments and defend themselves against his claims. Right now, as I'm writing this, Shabaan (Kefaya) is responding directly and powerfully to Zawahiri and claiming the mantle of reform for his and like-minded democratic movements.
Qassem refuses to let any of his guests get away with easy answers. When a Jordanian says that Zawahiri has no place in the current debates, Qassem demands to know why the Muslim Brotherhood is so powerful in places like Egypt and Jordan if Islamist ideas are so irrelevant. He stopped Zayat cold with a question about Kefaya and Islamists in Egypt.
Is al-Jazeera doing a positive or negative thing by airing these clips of Zawahiri making his arguments and then giving articulate spokesmen of other political trends the chance to respond, at length and in depth? Does this unduly legitimize al-Qaeda and Zawahiri by taking his ideas seriously and broadcasting extensive clips of him speaking, or does it help to "wage the war of ideas" by putting those ideas up for intensive scrutiny and debate? Serious people can disagree about the answers to those questions.
I think that this is al-Jazeera at its best - debating the big issues, with everything on the table. Others, on both sides, will no doubt see it as al-Jazeera at its worst: either for giving Zawahiri a platform, or for giving the others the chance to dispute him.