Well, that was exciting. On al-Jazeera right now, Faisal al-Qassem's show The Opposite Direction - the most popular and controversial of all Arab talk show screamfests - is taking on the question of Saddam's execution. It started well enough, with Sunni ex-Baathist Mishan Jabouri (opposing the execution) sitting across from the Shia Sadeq al-Musawi (defending the government's position). So far so good - both sides represented, the question directly posed.
Qassem began the show as he always does, with a long sequence of provocative questions challenging both sides. My personal favorite was something like "why didn't Nuri al-Maliki refuse the American timing of an execution on the Eid if he is really a Muslim?" (that's from memory, not transcript) - but he was just as obnoxious to the other side. After presenting an online poll showing an overwhelming majority of al-Jazeera viewers opposed to the execution, he gave Musawi the chance to spoke first. Musawi launched into an impassioned defense: Saddam killed over a million Iraqis, including my relatives, he deserved to be executed, the timing doesn't matter. It was a pretty strong presentation of the pro-execution point of view.
Then Jabouri started talking. I was only half-listening, but next thing I knew, all heck broke lose - Jabouri accused Musawi of being an Iranian, everyone started screaming, they almost came to physical blows, and then Musawi stalked off the set.
Qassem let the chair sit empty while he went back and forth with Jabouri for a good ten minutes. Finally, Musawi came back, much calmer, and was given the chance to talk uninterrupted. Jabouri also calmed down a bit, and the discussion has come back from the brink.
Great theater.... inflammatory and sensationalist to be sure, but also an accurate reflection of the sectarian passions right now. A pretty good example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Qassem's program - directly posing the most incendiary issues live on the air, geting representatives of the two sides to argue them out in public, sometimes going over the edge. Whether such passionate televised arguments are a good or a bad thing is a matter of much debate. I would point out, though, that the increasingly sectarian nature of the Iraqi media make such cross-sectarian encounters less and less likely on its domestic television stations - with the closure of the Baghdad operations of Saad Bazzaz's popular al-Sharqiya for 'sectarianism' only the latest example. That could well increase the value of this kind of program on al-Jazeera or other transnational Arab media.
One small aside: Just a few days ago, a prominent Arab media critic wrote in al-Quds al-Arabi that Qassem appeared to be going soft, toning down his program, and wondered whether he was under pressure from above to tone things down. This episode would seem to put that argument to rest...