The fast and the furious

Robert Worth's NYT Week in Review piece on MEMRI is out. Worth, who reported from Baghdad and knows what he's talking about, points out the extent to which journalists have come to rely on bloggers, translations services like MEMRI, terrorism monitors like SITE and Jamestown:

WHEN an Iraqi insurgent group releases a new videotape or claims responsibility for an attack, Western reporters in Baghdad rarely hear about it firsthand. Nor do they usually get the news from their in-house Iraqi translators.

Instead, a reporter often receives an e-mailed alert from a highly caffeinated terrorism monitor sitting at a computer screen somewhere on the East Coast. Within hours, a constellation of other Middle East analysts has sent out interpretations — some of them conflicting — and a wealth of contextual material.

Journalists in Iraq are far too busy with the perils of on-the-ground reporting to sit at screens for hours browsing for terrorist Internet traffic. That is why the new array of online expertise has become an essential tip sheet for them. A whole new mini-industry of instantaneous translation and analysis has arisen, and it often erodes the traditional distinctions between credentialed foreign policy experts and mere amateurs.

Some of the groups are well-known and generously financed outfits like the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, whose primary function is to translate Arabic and Muslim media.

But among the best informed are one-person shows — a driven Arabist with a bedside computer. They gain access to terrorist Web sites, sometimes by posing as terrorists themselves, and translate jihadist communiqués and chatter that would not otherwise be available. Others write blogs, translating and commenting on terrorism and politics in general.

This conduit up to the mass media has long struck me as one of the crucial points about the influence of blogging and these internet sites which direct measures (like blog hits or links, surveys about blog reading patterns, or "scalp counts") miss.  It's very interesting to see bloggers like me, Juan Cole, and Josh Landis (and many others not mentioned in his piece) essentially put in the same category as professional, full-time and multi-person staffed organizations like MEMRI, SITE or Jamestown.   What bloggers and these organizations do is very different, as is how we do it.  But from Worth's perspective as a journalist seeking useful information and analysis, our output falls into the same category.  I think he's right about the consumption of this information by specialist audiences (government agencies, journalists, academics, etc).  There's an interesting research project to be done (by someone else!) on the implications of these new sources for public debate and for policy-making alike. 

With regard to MEMRI, Worth highlights the selection bias issue which has long been my primary criticism of its output: "While differences in translation can be an issue, the main disagreement among the interpreters is usually about selection: Which texts are worth highlighting? Which are significant?": 

"They say they highlight liberal voices along with the dangerous radicals, which is fine," said Marc Lynch, a scholar of Arab politics at Williams College who has criticized Memri on his own blog, Abu Aardvark. "But what that conceals is the entire middle ground, where most of the political debate goes on in the Arab world."

Mr. Carmon, in a telephone interview, dismissed this criticism, noting that Memri has expanded its translations immensely over the years, and now highlights Arab reformist views.

I find Carmon's response fascinating and revealing.  If Worth conveyed his objection accurately, then Carmon is effectively admitting the accuracy of my earlier critique, with his defense being that MEMRI now does a better job with Arab reformists than it used to do.   Maybe, maybe not - a lot would depend on the definition of "reformist" (is it Wafa Sultan, or is it people who actually matter for mainstream Arab political discourse?).   But I'm gratified to hear Carmon effectively conceding my long-standing point about MEMRI, at least in the past (when I actually made the criticisms). 

Whether or not MEMRI has changed, it doesn't bother me as much as it used to because the proliferation of sites has somewhat reduced the dangers of its selection biases.  I think that there's been enough criticism of MEMRI by now that most responsible people with any background in the region take their stuff with a degree of caution, and can take the source into account when drawing their conclusions.  And because there's an ever growing range of alternative sources of information, MEMRI no longer has any kind of monopoly as a window on to Arab debates.   Like Greg Gause, quoted in Worth's article, I've always felt that the more of this stuff that gets out into the public realm the better, and then let people make up their own minds about it. 

There's a long way to go before this process is complete, of course.  Bloggers do this on the side, in addition to our full time jobs (see below), and can't be counted on to fill translation gaps.  I know that there are various projects in the works to translate news and TV, which will help considerably.  Until then, two things which I would love to see to push this diversification of sources quickly to an acceptable level:

  • Mideast Wire:  from what I've seen, this relatively new service offers by far the most comprehensive, well-selected, and well-chosen translations from the Arab media. Unfortunately, it's subscription only.  All newsrooms should provide their journalists with subscriptions to it, or else some foundation should pony up the funds to allow Mideast Wire either to be a free service or at least to offer its services free to journalists.  (I don't work for them or even know them - I was just impressed with them during my free trial a while back)
  • US Open Source Center:  Juan Cole's readers are often treated to the translations from the US Government's Open Source Center.   But those translations should be far more widely available.  Those with access to a university library can usually access a much abridged version of what used to be FBIS (that's where Juan's stuff comes from, I believe).   But the full-scale translation service is locked up, available only to government employees and contractors.  That's a shame:  if these translations are so important (and they are), then shouldn't the public have access to the expert, non-partisan work of the OSC rather than having to rely on bloggers or potentially biased private organizations?


One last thing:  My experience with Abu Aardvark definitely confirms Worth's narrative -  I've been really surprised over the last year or so that in a wide variety of forums, including policy workshops, I'm now almost always introduced as the writer of Abu Aardvark.  Two years ago, I'm fairly sure that most people in these audiences would have hardly heard of blogs, much less of Abu Aardvark.  Over the last few months, I've been giving more and more thought to the implications of this change - both for my personal blogging and for the whole academic/ specialist blogging phenomenon in general.  For instance, it's made me sometimes think twice before posting cute stories about my kids, or waxing rhapsodic over the charms of certain newscasters, or engaging in once-entertaining blog-wars.   It also, sad to say, sometimes makes blogging feel more like part of my job and less like the hobby and amusing side-project that it began as - a problem at times when my real full time plus job makes it hard to find the time to blog.   That may merit another post sometime down the road...

Aqoul does MEMRI does Wafa

Meph at Aqoul has gone and translated the whole Wafa Sultan episode of The Opposite Direction to put MEMRI's selected transcript into context. The punchline of the translation seems to be that Ibrahim Khouli did not in fact declare Wafa Sultan a heretic. Details, details.  I haven't got the time or interest to go and check the work of either one of them (though Arabic speakers in the Aqoul comment thread seem satisfied), but if you're interested in that whole Wafa thing you should check it out.

Maqdessi and Zarqawi

With regard to Abu Mohammed al-Maqdassi's ideology, MEMRI (with all the usual caveats) has just published a long and fairly useful overview of his background and relationship to Zarqawi.  Parts of the report are unreliable - MEMRI cites the alleged relationship between al-Jazeera and Zarqawi via Omar Haddid as fact without mentioning that the story was quickly discredited, for example - but I have some confidence in the key parts on Maqdassi since they come directly from Hazem al-Amin's excellent reporting in al-Hayat:

Among the returnees from Kuwait were also some who belonged to the Jihad movement, and they were headed by Issam Muhammad Taher Al-Burqawi, who acquired the name of Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi. Al -Maqdisi, a Palestinian, became the spiritual teacher of this movement in Jordan and eventually the spiritual leader of Al-Zarqawi.

Al-Maqdisi went to Afghanistan with the Palestinian Sheikh Omar Mahmoud Abu Omar, (known as Abu Qatadah). When Al-Maqdisi returned to Kuwait and, eventually, to Jordan, Abu Qatadah found refuge in London (he is currently under house arrest). These two figures became the main sources of authority of the Salafi Jihad ideology in Jordan. Prior to his return to Jordan, Al-Maqdisi was either connected with or a member of Jam'iyat Al-Turath Al-Islami (The Society of Islamic Heritage), considered the principal Salafi organization in Kuwait. ...

Arriving in Jordan from Kuwait in 1991, Al-Maqdisi embarked upon organizing a Salafi movement among the Palestinians and Jordanians who had returned from the Jihad in Afghanistan. Among them was Al -Zarqawi. For those involved in this effort, says Al-Hayat, the period was known as "the beginning of the Da'wa (Islamic propagation) – an intensive effort to introduce young men to the concepts of Salafi Jihad.


Perhaps one of the most prominent of the clandestine organizations established in Jordan was the Tawheed (Monotheism) organization, later renamed Bay'at Al-Imam. It was founded by Al-Maqdisi in 1992 and joined by Al-Zarqawi in 1993, shortly after his return from his first visit to Afghanistan. In 1994, Jordanian security services uncovered weapons in the possession of these two men. They were imprisoned in the Al-Sawwaqa desert prison until 1999. During the period of their incarceration, the two managed to organize a sizable number of activists....

Al-Hayat cites a man called Abu Othman who was in prison at the time Al-Maqdisi and Al-Zarqawi were incarcerated. According to him, Al-Maqdisi's personality was kind, gentle and non-confrontational. By contrast, Al-Zarqawi showed strength and toughness, in addition to being confrontational. Abu Othmam added that the tribal personality of Abu Mus'ab made it possible for him to extract oaths of allegiance (mubaya'a) from others within the prison. The youths surrounding him in prison, who were JihadImara ("emirate") over the group to Al-Zarqawi in 1996. Under the rule of the Imara, the master, Al-Maqdisi, was obliged to receive the orders of his former student, Al-Zarqawi.

Nothing demonstrates the loyalty and devotion of Al-Zarqawi's followers to their leader more than their reaction to what appeared to be a critical article by his former prison mentor Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi. In July 2004, Al-Maqdisi posted on his website an article titled "Al-Zarqawi-Aid and Advice," in which he wrote:

"I say and stress that I am listening to and following the chaos that rages today in Iraq… blowing up cars or setting roadside explosives, by firing mortars in the streets and marketplaces, and other places where Muslims congregate. The hands of the Jihad fighters must remain clean so that they will not be stained by the blood of those who must not be harmed even if they are rebellious and shameless…You must also beware of entanglement by choosing means [of warfare] that are not illegal in the Shari'a."

Al-Maqdisi went on to warn against means and methods such as abducting or killing Muslims on pretexts not based on Islamic law such as the claim that they work for the infidels "where such acts do not reach the [level] of aid to the infidels or aid in harming Muslims." Quite interestingly, Al-Maqdisi warned against attacks on Christian churches, because this strengthens the will of the infidels against Muslims everywhere. 

The Jihad fighters were enraged by the article, for they see Al-Zarqawi as "a divine grace," and believe it heresy for anyone – even Al-Zarqawi's teacher and guide, Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi – to think he made a mistake.

So there's one take on Maqdassi.  It fits with my own general sense of the man - contrary to what Bashir al-Nafaa said on al-Jazeera yesterday, Maqdassi is no Qaradawi or Huwaydi.  He's a strong salafi, not an Islamist moderate, from all the evidence I can find (see this interview with Muhammed al-Muqri of al-Gamaa in al-Sharq al-Awsat, for example).   He's a leading theorist of takfir - which he famously declared against the Saudi regime - whereas Qaradawi and many others just signed on (not for the first time) to this declaration forbidding the practice of takfir. In his interview with al-Jazeera, he didn't condemn killing - he just said that this wasn't the time, and that it wasn't helping the cause.    His break with Zarqawi over tactics seems real, and important - especially if it influences other salafis against Zarqawi - but he comes from the same milieu and ran in the same circles.  (Also see this interpretation by Walid Phares, which seems to me to entirely miss the point, but decide for yourself.)

Not that this is the most relevant part of the whole affair - not compared to, say, fatwas issued by Nelly -  but I found it kind of interesting nonetheless.

Shame on Tariq al-Hamid, editor of al-Sharq al-Awsat, for dimissing al-Jazeera's broadcast and discussion of this important interview as  just another "Qatari attack on Saudi Arabia."Nahid Hattar, a radical Jordanian writer who supports the Iraqi insurgency, denounced al-Jazeera's interview with Maqdassi for exaggerating his importance, speculated that years in prison had weakend Maqdassi's mind, complained that Maqdassi seemed weak and confused, and theorized that the whole interview was orchestrated by the Jordanian regime with al-Jazeera's complicity as part of a psychological warfare campaign against Zarqawi.  But Hamid has different priorities... al-Sharq al-Awsat's obsession with al-Jazeera can really get embarrassing sometimes.  (UPDATE:  here's a link to the English version of Hamid, who I'm told prefers to spell his name Alhomayed, sorry about that.)

Friedman vs Huwaydi

Tom Friedman today:

"Yet these mass murders [in Iraq] - this desecration and dismemberment of real Muslims by other Muslims - have not prompted a single protest march anywhere in the Muslim world. And I have not read of a single fatwa issued by any Muslim cleric outside Iraq condemning these indiscriminate mass murders of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds by these jihadist suicide bombers."

Fahmy Huwaydi, prominent Egyptian moderate Islamist, al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 16, 2005:

"A strong Islamist condemnation is required... for the killing of Shia in Iraq.. and for ignorant Salafism."

"This has nothing to do with nationalist resistance.. it is a form of terrorist crime which can not be justified in any way, and its criminal nature will never be changed by a statement or a fatwa issued by Abu Musab al Zarqawi condemning Shi'ites."

To be fair, Huwaydi's column was neither a fatwa nor a protest march, but it was a very clear and blunt condemnation of the attacks on Shia by jihadists in Iraq by a very prominent and influential moderate Islamist figure. 

Of course, Huwaydi's piece wasn't translated by MEMRI, so for Tom Friedman his article does not exist. 

UPDATE: wow, this is funny! Someone linked to a Friedman column today, and I followed the link, and after reading two paragraphs I assumed it was the same one I blogged about here. But then it turns out that these were actually two different columns! Who knew? Anyway, the Gadflyer does justice to them both. But, um, Tom - quoting Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed yet again is a bit much, don't you think? And that confrontation between Iraqi and Jordanian journalists was last month, not a few days ago, and isn't that uncommon - even al-Jazeera aired one.

MEMRI nails al-Jazeera.... oops.

MEMRI special report, May 12:  "The Reaction to 5,000 Members of the Aal-Marra Tribe Being Stripped of Their Qatari Citizenship: Why is Al-Jazeera Silent?"

Al-Jazeera (Arabic) May 11:  "The National Commission for Human Rights in Qatar said that it has grave concerns about the stripping of citizenship and the barring of citizens from travel, as well as the continuation of what it describes as discrimination against women."

Al-Jazeera (English), May 11:  "Many Qataris, chiefly holders of Saudi nationality, have been stripped of their citizenship in recent years, but the number and causes are in dispute. Members of a tribe most hit by the citizenship-withdrawal measure say as many as 6000 Qataris have been stripped of their citizenship, but unofficial estimates in Qatar put the figure at no more than 2000.") 

Will MEMRI apologize for getting this embarrassingly wrong?  If they issue a correction, I'll let you know. 

Pollock reads the Turkish media, or somebody does...

When I read that Robert Pollock alarmist piece in the Opinion Journal warning of a dangerous, wholly irrational anti-Americanism rising in Turkey, fueled by the "Nazi-like" Turkish media, my first response was: gosh!  This article sounds just like the ones I read about the Arab media which rely on MEMRI! 

Then some Turks of my acquaintance complained that Pollock totally misrepresented the Turkish media by presenting quotes taken from marginal publications as representative.  And again I was thinking, that is just so MEMRI! 

But, of course, MEMRI doesn't work on the Turkish media.

Or so I thought! 

Then I learned that MEMRI just started its own service from Turkey, including this recent report on "anti- Americanism in the Turkish media." 

What an amazing coincidence! 

MEMRI Credit Where Due

Last month, I noted the publication of a really fascinating multi-part series by al-Hayat journalist Hazem Amin on the salafi movement and the Jordanian city of al Sult.  MEMRI, of which I am not a fan, has done what I did not have the time to do and has translated significant parts of it.  It's definitely worth the read, and I tip my hat to them for making it available.   

They have also posted a compilation of their dossiers on Yusuf al Qaradawi, along with an announcement that they plan a full rebuttal to the Ken Livingston dossier.  Read that, read my translations (most of which can be found via the "moderate Islamists" category link), read everything you can find, read translations of  Qaradawi's book denouncing extremism (I was going to translate his book - available in full at his website -  myself but didn't have the time; I don't know who did these translations or how reliable they are, and am including this link with those disclaimers), and make up your own mind.   Also, check out this Crooked Timber test of my proposition that "rational discussions of Qaradawi seem to be virtually impossible these days.  The demonization campaign seems to have worked." 

As for me, assuming the stomach flu gods show mercy, I'm going to be on the road for a few days.  I might have the chance for some light posting or commenting, but wouldn't count on it.

Tsunami, probably the last installment

Following and translating the Arab media's response to the tsunami has been very interesting to me, and I've gotten a lot of useful and interesting feedback out of it. Shame on the editors of several publications that I won't name for not considering this Arab media response newsworthy (or op-ed-worthy);  any editor readers out there who might be interested, feel free to drop me a line since exclusivity clauses will have expired by now. 

That said, here's one final short roundup of interesting commentary - short and final because I'm horribly busy, and because the arguments are starting to repeat themselves.

Tawfiq Rabahi, in al-Quds al-Arabi January 11, lambasts the Arabs, people and governments alike, for being slow to respond to the humanitarian tragedy.  But, he notes, some optimism can be found in the simple fact that a late response is better than no response at all, even if the response came only under public pressure and criticism.   Nothing new here, just one more variation on the theme, noted here mainly to build the empirical case.   The author does take the opportunity to ridicule the heavy-handed Saudi self-aggrandizement when it did authorize the telethon, with announcers and fundraisers mentioning their royal patrons every other minute.    He also asks whether the campaign against Islamic charities after 9/11 accounts for some of the initial weakness of the Arab response, since the NGOs which would ordinarily take on a leadership role had been gutted by the counter-terrorism operations. 

Fahmi Huwaydi, in al Sharq al Awsat January 12, sees the tsunami as a warning to the Arab and Islamic worlds.  He praises the Arab media for its efforts in covering the disaster and campaigning for humanitarian contributions, but worries that this media has been less active in trying to discern the lessons of the catastrophe.    He points out that for all the Arab and Muslim concern for identity, the earthquake did not discriminate by sex, religion, or ethnicity - and all were equally powerless before nature, and before God.   He mocks those who said that the earthquake was a response to Christmas celebrations, and says that thankfully such people represented a very small part of Arab and Muslim society.   While claiming that the US only did as much as it did in order to improve its image among Muslims, he pointedly asks whether Muslims would have done the same for a disaster which struck non-Muslims. 

Abd al Rahman al Rashed, in the January 12 al Sharq al Awsat, recounts a story told by fellow columnist Samir Attullah about a Pakistani taxi driver who believed that the tsunami was God's punishment against some sinners, and his ignorance of how many people had actually died.  Rashed writes of his dismay that such perverted thinking could be found among some simple people.  But even more dismaying to him were the people trying to use the catastrophe to market their political ideas by politicizing the suffering in their own interests, or by invoking the tsunami as God's punishment against infidels. 

Hassan Nafia, in January 12 al-Hayat, tries to draw a link between globalization and attempts to manage the impact of the tsunami.    It's long, and I'm busy.  Sorry.

Finally, MEMRI quotes Yusuf al-Qaradawi's January 7 sermon on Qatari TV, about the tsunami: 

"People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others...Whoever examines these areas discovers that they are tourism areas. Tourism areas are areas where the forbidden acts are widespread, as well as alcohol consumption, drug use, and acts of abomination...These areas were notorious because of this type of modern tourism, which has become known as 'sex tourism'.  After the trafficking in drugs and trafficking in weapons, comes 'sex tourism', in which prostitution and sexual perversion are traded. They even traffic in children ... Young children that are used for sexual perversions. Don't they deserve punishment from Allah?!"

Yikes!  That sounds awful.   Qaradawi seems to be saying that the victims of the tsunami got what they deserved... because of sex tourism!  But, well, this being MEMRI, I decided to check it out before jumping to any conclusions.  Fortunately, excerpts from the  sermon can be found at and Islam Online (but unfortunately, only excerpts and not a full transcript).

From what I saw in those excerpts, Qaradawi rejects claims that the tsunami represents an act of nature, because it - like all else in the world - should really be understood as an act of God:  only God can act on his creations, and God is the only and absolute actor in all things.   Like many religious thinkers, he rejects arguments that this was a random natural disaster with no meaning, and he argues against those who refuse to connect natural disasters to human sin and corruption - naming a number of Quranic examples of God causing natural disasters (against the Pharoah, for one).  He takes the tsunami as a warning against human hubris or arrogance, and calls for humility before God:   "this earthquake and what followed shows us the extent of humanity's ignorance of what is around it, despite all that has been achieved by civilization and its progress... despite technology and satellites, mankind remains ignorant of what will happen." 

Qaradawi then say the things attributed to him about the evils of sex tourism. Anyone who disagrees with the claim that those who engage in child prostitution deserve God's punishment are welcome to register these sentiments in the comment section.  What Qaradawi does not say, however, is that the sex tourism caused the tsunami or that its victims deserved their fate.   Qaradawi says that "God is very patient (sabour) with the the unjust and the corrupt and the evil ones, who he will take and who will not escape him", which I take to mean as a warning against seeing a direct worldly relationship between sin - which exists everywhere in this world -  and divine action. 

There are three lessons to take away from the earthquake, for Qaradawi:   "the tsunami was a divine punishment for the sinners, a warning to the negligent, and a test and tribulation to the believers. The trial for the believers is that it [the tsunami] took the honest and the wicked, the reverent and the licentious, the believers and the unbelievers alike."   Calling on the faithful to grapple with the fact that the tsunami was an act of God which took the innocent and the guilty alike seems inconsistent with the idea that he "blamed the victims".    I could be wrong about all this - Qaradawi does sometimes say outrageously religiously conservative things which make me roll my eyes, and the online text only gave excerpts, not the full sermon -  but this does seem to be a case of MEMRI's selective translation leaving readers with the wrong impression of his meaning. 

And that's it... I've already taken more time here than I meant to... have to get back to work.  But let me direct you back to the very interesting comment that Stacy left to the "Saghiye and Fiqi" post - ideas very much worth following up. 

UPDATE:  Rumi, in comments, adds this: "Furthermore, they deliberately omitted from Sheikh Qaradawi's Friday sermon his appeal to the Muslims of the world to rush to the aid of the victims of the Tsunami disaster Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Worse still, they did not care to inform the public about the daily appeal featuring Sheikh Al-Qaradawi on the Arabic satellite station Aljazeera urging Muslims to donate generously to the fund set up by the Federation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to alleviate the suffering of the Tsunami victims."

I doubt that such relevant facts will make much difference, though.  Based on a rather depressing exchange I had over on a right wing site yesterday with someone I usually respect, rational discussions of Qaradawi seem to be virtually impossible these days.  The demonization campaign seems to have worked, and people who really should know better just throw names around, casually equating Qaradawi with bin Laden and putting the most outrageous things in his mouth.   It's one thing to make a reasonable argument like "Qaradawi helps to create an environment more receptive to bin Ladenist arguments", but people now go so far beyond that, without any skepticism whatsoever about the allegations or any evident concern that they might be challenged.   All the misinformation and fake issues just make it impossible to have a rational discussion about the real issues raised by Qaradawi, a critical discussion that would be well worth having.  The only reason that I find myself repeatedly "defending" Qaradawi is that I want to strip away the false allegations to get to the real issues, to debate what he really says and not what people falsely attribute to him.   The response to that in some quarters is just really depressing.  Oh well. 

More on the tsunami

More on the Arab media's response to the tsunami.  The Saudi telethon continues apace, racking up enormous private contributions.   Abdullah al-Mahfouz bin Bayat, a Mauritanian Islamic preacher, writes in al Sharq al Awsat today that the emerging Muslim response to the tsunami offers a moment of hope, demonstrating that Islam is a compassionate religion.  The televised appeals are getting a lot of publicity, and collecting a lot of money. 

Over in Al Hayat, Ragheda Dergham describes the Arab response as "a tardy awakening for the Arabs [with] harsh lessons for the future."   Like Abd al Bari Atwan in al Quds al Arabi a few days ago, Dergham writes that the Arabs felt embarrassed too late by their weak response, and that their contributions now - which are still absurdly small - came in response to criticism and not as an honest, profound sense of human responsibility.  This really has become one of the most prominent themes running through the media commentary I've been tracking - criticism of Arab states, Islamic movements, and even public opinion for their weak response to the tsunami.  I'm still waiting to see if the media begins to take credit for forcing their leaders to change their tune.  In this piece, by the way,  Dergham asks an interesting question, to which I don't know the answer:  has (or will) the United States reached out to local Muslim or Islamist organizations to help with the relief effort?  Wouldn't that be a good way to begin to work together?

In a seperate piece in al Hayat, Dergham debunks the conspiracy theory that the tsunami was set off by an American nuclear experiment.   Good to see debunking of conspiracy theories in the Arab media, by the Arab media. A December 31 piece by Dergham pleaded for the world to use the tsunami disaster to recognize the need for "a global citizenship" to transcend national self interest, and got in some shots at American foreign policy along the way (but did not spare Muslim or Arab states, either - they also felt her scornful wrath). Some earlier pieces in al Hayat were more critical of the US.  For example, a January 3 piece by Abd al Wahhab Badrakhan emphasized that Bush only increased from $35 million to $350 million after receiving a lot of criticism (note that he did not use the real original figure of $15 million), and then explored the contradictions in the American global posture.

Meanwhile, in the regularly anti-American al Quds al Arabi, the columnists have begun to awaken on the tsunami.  Subhi Hadidi asks, observing the tremendous outpouring of global responses to the tsunami: "is this the same world which ignored the disasters of Rwanda and Congo and Darfur?  The world of occupied Palestine and occupied Iraq and occupied Afghanistan?  The world of Guantanamo prisoners and the Abu Ghraib prison and the massacres of Fallujah?"   Hadidi argues that global civil society and private citizens far outperformed their governments.  And he is scathing towards the United States and dismissive of American efforts and the motivations behind them.   I expected to see a lot more stuff like this, to be honest, but it hasn't been as prominent as you'd think.  But it is definitely out there. 

Meanwhile...when it looks at Arab media responses to the tsunami, MEMRI finds only conspiracy theories and anti-Americanism. You find what you look for, I suppose.  I look at the two most widely viewed television stations and two of the most widely read daily newspapers, and tell you what I find - including two arguably "anti-American" pieces, along with a surprising trend of self-criticism of the official Arab response.   MEMRI digs up a relatively obscure Saudi television station and an Egyptian tabloid saying what they want to hear, and then passes it off as representative of the Arab media as a whole.  Vintage.   

(In response to prominent American media picking up the MEMRI story about the nonsense on the Saudi TV station al Majd, al Hayat reports that the station director of al Majd has issued a statement that the contents of broadcasts do not necessarily represent the opinions of the station management.  The station manager points out that Shaykh Fouzan was only one of many guests on the program, and that his remarks were his personal opinion expressed in the course of the program.)



I understand that you have filed a lawsuit against Professor Juan Cole for making "several statements about MEMRI which go beyond what could be considered legitimate criticism, and which in fact qualify as slander and libel."  Two of your complaints - about Professor Cole's statements concerning your financing and your political affiliations - are uninteresting to me, or -  most likely - to anyone else, including a court.  But the heart of your complaint seems to be this: 

"You also write that MEMRI is an "anti-Arab propaganda machine" that "cherry-picks the vast Arabic press." If you have any level of familiarity with MEMRI, you should be aware of our Reform Project, which is one of the most important of MEMRI's projects, and which receives much of our energy and resources. The Reform Project ( is devoted solely to finding and amplifying the progressive voices in the Arab world. It is especially disappointing that these charges do not come from an overzealous journalist, but from a member of the academic community, from whom one should be able to expect at least the minimum amount of research and corroboration."

I note that in your letter of complaint you do not actually address the criticism that your sevice "cherry picks the vast Arab press," instead diverting attention to your Reform Project.   I can understand why you choose not to contest Professor Cole's point.   Indeed, it is the near-unanimous consensus of all Arabic-speaking experts on the Middle East that your service does exactly what Professor Cole alleges.  If your lawsuit actually goes to court, I strongly doubt that you would be able to find a single Arabic-speaking expert (other than those already sympathetic to your political viewpoint) willing to testify otherwise. 

To be blunt, Professor Cole is right.  MEMRI routinely selects articles which show the worst of Arab discourse, even where this represents only a minority of actually expressed opinion, while almost never acknowledging the actual distribution of opinion.  As for the Reform Project, it tends to select statements by pro-American reformers who concentrate on criticizing other Arabs, again with little regard for the real debates going on among Arabs.  Your selective translations therefore offer a doubly warped perspective on the Arab debates:  first, over-emphasizing the presence of radical and noxious voices;  and second, over-emphasizing the importance of a small and marginal group of Arabs who share your own prejudices.   What you leave out is almost the entire Arab political debate which really matters to Arabs:  a lively debate on satellite stations such as al Jazeera and al Arabiya and in the elite Arab press about reform, international relations, political Islam, democracy, and Arab culture which English-speaking readers would greatly benefit from knowing about.   

While examples abound, allow me to focus on the specific instance of your complaint:  Cole's attack on your translation of Osama bin Laden's pre-election speech.  To be honest, I thought that Cole went rather easy on you.  I described your release of your "variant" translation - complete with heavy publicity in the National Review, the New York Post, and Fox News - as a display of "disgusting partisanship" which I dearly hope will forever cost you whatever reputation for integrity and objectivity you once held.

I infer from your decision to take action against Professor Cole that this has indeed been the case, that your reputation has taken a serious beating, and that this lawsuit represents an ill-advised attempt to stop the bleeding.  I actually quite hope that the lawsuit, by shining the light again on your remarkable partisan intervention, re-opens the wound and ensures the outcome you hope to prevent.   

Anyway, here's what I wrote at the time:

"MEMRI is cherry-picking a couple of statements on fringe websites to support its own, highly partisan, interpretation. Actually, to be totally clear, they are relying on ONE statement on ONE radical website, which could have been posted by ANYBODY. This is not an authoritative interpretation, nor one which has been accepted anywhere in mainstream Arab or Islamist debates which I have yet seen. This is what MEMRI always does: not mis-translate, but choose selectively among a wide range of sources to find those which support their agenda - and leave non-Arabic speakers with a highly distorted picture of reality."

The 'variant' on which you rested your politically motivated intervention relied on an odd reading of the word 'wilayet' at the end of bin Laden's statement.  Where virtually everybody - not only Americans relying on the English translation but also Arabs in the mainstream media and in the jihadist chat rooms - interpreted bin Laden as warning America that it must change its policies or face another attack, you decided to translate 'wilayet' as "U.S. state" and to read this as a very different threat:  that any American state which voted for Kerry would be granted a seperate peace, while any American state voting for Bush would be under threat.  This reading served the Bush election campaign very well, by reinforcing the odd belief that bin Laden wanted to see Bush lose and that a vote for Kerry was therefore a vote for bin Laden.

On the 'wilayet' controversy, I noted that "MEMRI's argument entirely on bin Laden's use of the word 'wilayet' instead of 'dawla' to refer to 'state.' While MEMRI is correct that in normal usage, wilayet would refer to a sub-unit (such as an American state), its dictionary definition is, in fact, 'sovereign power, sovereign, sovereignty, rule, government' (Hans Wehr dictionary)."   I also pointed out the context of the wider argument of bin Laden's speech.  It was also worth noting that you not once but repeatedly referred to "ay-wilayet" in your publications, which is bafflingly wrong:  the correct Arabic would have been "al-wilayet", which calls your Arabic competence into question; and at any rate bin Laden did not use a definite article in his speech (it was "kul wilayet").  Later, I pointed out that the use of 'wilayet' to refer to the second Bush administration's term had become widespread in the Arab media.   I concluded that your reading was "possible, but highly implausible."   

But here's the problem:  even if your translation was marginally plausible, you never once acknowledged that your highly charged translation was controversial, contested, or a minority view.  Instead, you hyped it through partisan channels in a clear attempt to influence the election, without the slightest regard for standards of objectivity or intellectual honesty.

How did you support this variant reading, at odds with how almost all actually existing Arabs had interpreted it?  By reference to a single post on a single jihadist chat room, al Qala'a.  Well, on that website, the very next day, a poster on al Qala'a wrote an extended treatise entitled "America fell into Shaykh Bin Laden's trap."  You didn't translate that one.  And, indeed, on al Qala'a, al Islahi, and other jihadist chat rooms the overwhelming response to Bush's re-election was joyous:  again, a point which your readers might have needed to know.

In the whole wilayet controversy, therefore, you have fully lived up to your bad reputation:  you presented your highly controversial variant translation in the most partisan way possible, based on a very thin foundation of evidence, without ever acknowledging that weakness or - in the weeks since - responding to your critics or to the increasingly powerful evidence in the other direction.   You similarly refused to translate commentaries on the very same sites which did not support your views, which gave your readers a highly warped perspective on the state of Arab argument.

In short, if you do decide to take Professor Cole to court over the allegation that you cherry-pick the Arab media to offer a highly warped perspective of Arab discourse, expect to lose.  The trial would be  exceedingly helpful to the general good of discrediting you by shining light on your translation and selection practices.   

Cheerfully yours,
the aardvark

PS if you want to see other example of attacks upon your intellectual integrity, please select "MEMRI" from the categories bar to the right.   

FOR REFERENCE:  lots of people in the blog world are commenting on this.   I'll add more as I notice them.
Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber
American Amnesia
Brad DeLong
Armed Liberal at Winds of Change
The Agonist

More Wilaya Talk

Erudite commentary on the "wilayat" question continues to pour in! I'll post here two anonymous contributions, each from distinguished Middle East studies figures.

The first, from Senior (And Far More Learned Than I) Middle East Studies Figure #1, who said I could post it but didn't say whether I should attach his/her name to it:

"For whatever it's worth I decided to check out Lisan al-Arab which is probably a better source for thinking about whatever was in Osama bin Ladin's mind than Hans Wehr. I realize that this is a somewhat archaic source, but it does use citations that enrich the context of the definitions and since those citations are often from the Qur'an or hadith literature, they can be quite valuable. The Lisan provides nusra (help, support) as a synonym for walaya (the verbal noun); wilaya is a noun and more closely linked to power (sultan as well as niqaba; NB: walaya and naqaba are synonyms) although it can also have nusra as a synonym. Ibn Manzur points to the Qur'anic reference al-ladhina amanu wa lam yuhajiru ma lakum min wilayatihim min sha'y to point up the importance of this aspect of the concept (help, succor--and I can't help but note that George Bush has said the first duty of the President is to protect the people while John Kerry campaigned on the slogan "Help is on the Way"). Further exploration of the meanings associated with w-l-y include the notion of mawla with which Usama Bin Ladin actually ended his remarks and notes another verse of the Qur'an: bi ann allah mawla al-ladhina amanu wa ann al-kafirin la mawla lahum. I note this is the idea as the end of the sentence in the video about wilaya which has provoked so much virtual ink although it has frequently been dropped from the translations and the arguments. It therefore seems plausible to me that when Usama bin Ladin spoke of the wilaya of Virginia he meant government (or sultan or qudra or tadbir in the senses of power, capacity and regulation, i.e. the state as an entity) but when he ended his talk he meant something closer to the state as an abstraction that establishes justice, tranquillity and the general welfare. And judging by his ending (God is his friend and protector but not ours, echoing the Qur'anic sentiment cited above) he seems to believe that God is on his side which, of course, puts me in mind of the Bob Dylan song..."

Aardvark says: wow. Very, very interesting.


The second is a three way conversation involving myself, Toby Jones, and another anonymous ME studies person:

Anonymous: "I agree with the Aardvark that MEMRI's translation of 'wilaya' is possible but not the most likely. His latest suggestion that it could mean 'term' or 'administration' is intriguing. To al-Qaeda, if not to Paul Weyrich and Richard Land, Bush could be a 'wali' (executive or administrator) with
no religious legitimacy and so his term of administration could be a 'wilaya.' Question for Toby: on the chat boards you monitor, is Bush ever described as a 'wali'?"

Toby Jones: "Aardvark has picked up on something interesting (new?) in the mainstream media -- Bush's second adminstration is indeed being widely referred to as a "wilayah". I'm intrigued to know why they are using this term now. As for the chat boards and such usages, I have not noticed Bush referred to as "wali". "ra'is" was the term of choice leading up to the election, which makes perfect sense and is the common usage regarding the position of president. I will keep an eye on how the usage of such terms change and let you know if I think they do."


Abu Aardvark: your one stop shop for learned discussion of the term "wilayat."

Waiting for MEMRI

I've taken MEMRI to task rather loudly for its irresponsible release of its "variant" translation of bin Laden's video. That was bad. But you know what's worse? Since the controversy, MEMRI has not released a single word which would suggest that they recognize that their translation was contested or controversial. They have acknowledged no ambiguity. Since their release on November 1, the only new item related to bin Laden they have posted was a full translation of his video, published on November 5. In this full translation, they repeat their earlier translation: "Your security is in your own hands, and any [U.S.] state [wilaya] that does not toy with our security automatically guarantees its own security." This was their opportunity to admit - even in a footnote - that this is a controversial reading. They did not.

The only reasonable defense of MEMRI on this has been that some posters on jihadi websites have offered this interpretation - a point addressed in the Toby Jones post below.

But here's the thing. MEMRI has cited two jihadi websites in defense of their translation: al Qala'a and al Islah. I follow both of those websites. Over the last week there have been a lot of posts about the election on both of them. And almost every one of them has celebrated Bush's victory as a victory for al Qaeda. If MEMRI has any hope of regaining a reputation as a reliable source - or if they care about such a reputation - I would hope to see this development reported, with citations. Just to be helpful, such a report might draw on, in addition to the ones referenced in earlier posts, this one from al Islah entitled "Allahu Akbar, Bush Wins and Al Qaeda Wins".

Toby Jones on the MEMRI Variant

As Issandr mentioned in comments to the last post, there has been a little bit of debate on the H-Mideast list-serve about the MEMRI translation of bin Laden's speech, the whole "wilayet" contretemps. Some scholars, including Joel Beinin, were rather more forthcoming toward's MEMRI's translation than I was; others were equally skeptical. In my opinion, the best of the commentaries came from Toby Jones of the International Crisis Group - best, even though he disagreed with me!

With Toby's kind permission I am reproducing here both his original message and his follow-up via e-mail. Consider this, in a way, that rarest of things (okay, unprecedented): an Abu Aardvark guest post. (Though I'm happy to consider more of them in the future, if they are of this quality!)

First, Toby Jones's message to the H-Mideast listserve:

"The website Charles Cameron linked here, and that MEMRI points to in support of its discussion of the meaning of wilayah, is a popular one -- although is hardly the most read forum in the Islamist internet universe. It has a consistent readership and you will probably find anywhere from 30-100 people present in the political forum at any one time. There are some personalities who participate regularly -- some that post links to other sites (although that has decreased recently because al-Qal3ah has come under some sort of pressure over this), jihadi publications (you will find sawt al-jihad, muaskar al-battar, as well as the newer basha`ir linked regularly). There are also regular discussions of "news" from other on-line sites, such as Other personalities regularly post "updates" from Fallujah and provide alternative casualty figures to those provided in the mainstream media, although does the same. These posters have a cult following and have garnered some credibility, although I
cannot explain why. For some readers it may be the only place they visit to get information. But for most it is just one stop. The site was down ealier this fall and but has returned to service in the last month.

"The discussion is failry broad, although most of the focus is on Iraq, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and issues that cross the umma -- particularly discussions about various ulama and sheikhs and whether those who do not support the jihad represent the interests of Muslims or not. There is currently a fascinating debate, albeit mostly one-sided on this site and others, about the recent statement by the 26 Saudi scholars who support the "jihad" in Iraq and argue that resistance to the occupating is mandatory for Iraqis compared to the efforts of another Saudi sheikh, al-Obaykan, who argues that the insurgency is not legal. The latter has made quite a name for himself for being a contrarian and is not well-liked -- a story to watch I think.

"There are also discussions regarding the intersection of popular culture and politics in the Muslim (mostly Arab) world such as the controversies that swirl around television programing. For example, right now there are regular discussions of a Saudi TV serial during Ramadan that has been a bit to irreverent for the tastes of the official ulama. The series The Road to Kabul generated similar discussion before it was cancelled, under threat of violence from some previously unheard of group claiming to be a coalition of
mujahideen from Syria and Iraq, if I remember correctly.

"As for the meaning of wilayah -- I happen to agree with both sides of this argument. It is difficult to discern UBL's intent with respect to language, although Juan Cole is absolutely right that there are past patterns that matter a great deal in the end. However, other purported al-Qaeda branches, such as the Abu Hafs al-Masri brigades (which MEMRI suggests may not be legitimate) use more secular language. Even al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has picked up on some of this, speaking of "client" states in the
Middle East and engaging in a kind of political discourse that is less about religion and a theological world-view than it is about interests (jihadi realism?). This is not to say that these groups have jettisoned the
theological core of their propaganda, but that the political language has become sharper. It is not impossible that the use of wilayah would fit this mold. What is clear from al-Qal3ah is that at least some constituencies in the Islamist electronic network are *consuming* UBL's statement as though he meant individual states. That is certainly as important as intent.

"I offer this, also from al-Qal3ah:

"Within the thread is an electoral map, color coded with red and blue states. The poster who shared it remarks that the visual power of all those red states makes clear who America's choice was and that each state supporting Bush -- who the poster suggets is the most bloody and violent American president -- also supports the killing of Muslims. That makes them each susceptible to jihad. This poster's point was that all the red really means that all Americans are potential targets, but the logic was based on an
interpretation of UBL's last address and his point about states, in this case individual states."


That's the kind of in-depth, thoughtful analysis which I take seriously. So I followed up and had a nice email exchange with Toby. Here's his response:

"...I do regret that I posted my comment before coming across you treatment of the wilayah issue and Qala`a/Qal3ah more generally (which I read yesterday and found very compelling)-- I would have made my general dissatisfaction with MEMRI much more clear. I agree with you and Juan Cole in general that the MEMRI line has probably been overstated with regard to OBL's intended meaning, and I really hate to agree with them. And, I'm not entirely sure I do, even on this. I also was happy to see your treatment of other posts from that particular website that made clear Bush was the favored candidate. Unlike the wilayah issue, that argument did have some legs on almost every Islamist chat board I monitor. In fact, it elicited glee from most participants who seem to be thrilled that Bush is being returned to office. Scary.

"I do think there is something to be said for what might be an emerging kind of popular political discourse that uses knowledge of the American political system as a tool to justify particular strategies (i.e., Gilles
Kepel talks about bin Laden and his discussion of how the American Congress is elected in order to justify attacks on all American citizens in his new book.). Thus, my willingness to entertain the idea that some consumers of OBL will take the individual state theory and run with it. Of course, at the end of the day and with electoral maps in hand, most will point to the visual evidence that the vast majority of the US, at least spatially, voted for Bush -- thus justifying attacks on every American. The wilayah/individual state theory really doesn't matter in the end -- and that no doubt suits bin Laden just fine."


I would be more than willing to go along with Toby Jones on this evaluation: some jihadis, such as the one quoted by MEMRI, may have read OBL's "wilayat" term that way (as "individual states"), whatever OBL intended. But that minority reading gained little purchase against the much more plausible alternative, referencing the US as a whole - again, judging by what these jihadi websites are actually saying, not by what American observers would prefer to impute to them.

And none of these scholarly discussions mitigate the astonishing partisan opportunism of MEMRI's use of its (inexplicable) reputation for honest translations of Arabic sources to attempt to influence the American election with its over-stated, sensationalized, and unqualified interpretation to conservative media outlets the day before the election.

The only thing I would add is to elevate from comments to the last post yet another *possible* reading of the term "wilayat": term, or regime. As I noted yesterday, lots of completely ordinary, commonplace Arab analysis of the election has been referring to Bush's second term with the word "wilayat" - a fairly ordinary usage with fits with the dictionary definition of rule or sovereignty. The injunction "every wilayat [administration, term, regime] which plays with our security...." would make just as much logical sense as does "every [individual US state]", and would better fit the context. As I said in comments, this isn't to say that "administration/term" is the *correct* reading, just to say that it's another *possible* reading which is no less plausible than MEMRI's, and which has if anything greater support in terms of its reception by Arab listeners.

Jihadi Website and the election

More from al Qala'ah, the radical Islamist jihadi website which MEMRI cited as its evidence for the 'wilayet' theory.

"Al Islam" (creative name!), member since May 2004, writes:

"Bush declared war on Muslims and killed Muslims and continues to kill us.

"The whole world knows that, including Americans.

"What happened yesterday was that Bush presented himself before the Americans and Bush won.

"Therefore the American people support killing Muslims from jihadi terrorists [al irhabbiyyin al mujajidin] to civilians to children and innocents."


This is entirely predictable... and still scary. The vanishing distinction between the policies of the American government and the American people has been one of the most disturbing aspects of the new anti-Americanism of the last couple of years. If this jihadist website is any indication, Bush's victory looks set to radically accelerate that process.


Another poster offers a more MEMRI-friendly analysis (unlike MEMRI, I want to give as many sides of the story as I can find in my limited time and resources...):

Yusif al Shamri, member since October 2003, writes a post entitled "Does Bush's victory mean the beginning of the division of America into two warring nations [ummatayn mutaharribatayn]?"

Excerpts: "It is not hidden from anyone who follows American political scene that the USA is beginning to divide into two different parts, one part a Zionist Crusader religious extremist part led by George Bush.

"And another part opposing this direction.

"One of the most important reasons for the appearance of this division was the eruption of the project of bin Laden and al Qaeda, which in summary saw that dragging a great power fighting Islam into conflicts inside the Islamic world would bankrupt it economically and spiritually and would lead to internal divisions leading to its defeat and clear the way for the rise of Islam as a great power, after the collapse of the deceptive world order which is controlled by Zionist-Crusaderism and through which it controls the resourcese of the Islamic ummah, with the help of leaders funded by it corruptly....

"Bin Laden succeeded in unleashing his project which exceeded all expectations in the attacks of 9/11....

"It is clear that since that day the US has entered a tunnel of political and economic and military crises which are leading it to a great defeat, leading its reputation and its spirit to a surprising and sharp collapse, and it is an historical truth that the collapse of civilizations begins with a sharp and surprising blow....

"There is no doubt that the appearance of bin Laden's video in the heart of the American election campaign, which explained his project, and addressed the one great power from a position of strength, and which was able to compel America to build a counter-program which was un-studied... and whose results were catastrophic for America in Iraq, where it is is trapped and does not know how to escape... there is no doubt that all of this has had an effect in dividing America.

"But there remains one great question: will the victory of Bush hasten the beginning of the division of America?"

What makes this somewhat MEMRI friendly is the argument that bin Laden's project is aiming to divide America along these cultural/political lines; he doesn't say anything about the bin Laden tape having actually said that, but you could easily see how the author would see an offer to the Blue states as a clever strategic move to hasten the divide. But, given how amenable this would be to his argument, it's striking that he does not say: "as bin Laden cleverly suggested in his video...."

So, as I've said before, you have to take all of these jihadi websites with a grain of salt. They are interesting windows into jihadi arguments, in the same way that reading Free Republic is an interesting window into wingnut arguments and worldviews. These aren't authoritative commentaries, nor do they necessarily reflect a dominant or widespread opinion. But if we're going to be taking them as important, we should look at all that they have to say and not just cherry-pick those that support a partisan position - which is, regrettably, the MEMRI way.

New From MEMRI's Jihadi Website

So, remember how MEMRI took that one post on a radical Islamist website, al Qala'a, and turned it into a media sensation about how bin Laden was offering a seperate peace to Blue states?

Well, looking forward to MEMRI's translation of this one which went up this morning on al Qala'a. What, can't wait for MEMRI? Suspect that MEMRI might never get around to noticing it? Well, then allow me to be Helpful!Aardvark just this once.

Majid al Tamimi (member since March 2003, posting number 514): "America fell into the trap of Shaykh Usumah Bin Laden."

"Shaykh Usamah bin Laden did not direct his letter to the American people without a keen understanding of the psychology of the American voter.. he sent it at the appropriate time, a little before the election so that American voters would have to respond to it directly, without time to think it through sufficiently.

"In summary what Shaykh Usamah sent in his letter to the American people: your president Bush is the cause of many problems for America... with his inability to make the appropriate decisions to minimize losses, and entering his country into two wars which have not yet ended with a military victory or even a political one and with escalating losses...

"This is what Shaykh Usamah wanted to insert into the minds of the American people. And he did that.

"The mentality of the American people - in its majority - is an arrogant mentality which sees itself (the free spreading freedom and saving mankind and building democracy...)

"Its arrogance made them re-elect Bush in support of Shaykh bin Laden.

"Their arrogant reaction to the message of the Shaykh made them re-elect Bush as the president when the whole world know, and above all the American people, that he has causes them many losses, not only for America but for its allied states.

"If they had elected a president other than Bush this would have said that Shaykh Usamah triumphed over the Bush administration...

"And so they fell into the trap...

"They re-elected the one who has caused so many losses to America."

Hey, you know and I know that this is just some guy in a chatroom, but if the other posting was good enough for MEMRI, Fox News, the New York Post, and countless blogs, don't you think this one deserves wide circulation as well?

(NOTE: some typos corrected. only got a couple hours of sleep last night...)

Arab discussions of the bin Laden tape

The 'blowback' which I predicted in the comments in the last post (by which conservative-leaning Arab writers pick up the MEMRI line and introduce it into the Arab media where it hadn't previously existed) begins with a column by al Hayat commentator (and frequent al Hurra guest) Salama Nima'at, who discusses the MEMRI position at length while claiming that neither campaign wants to touch such an inflammatory matter. Nimaat offers no real further analysis of the story, which he attributes to the New York Post and MEMRI, while leaving pretty much unchallenged the Post's claim that the tape was meant to help Kerry.

Other than that, Arab and Muslim commentators don't seem to be giving much credence to the MEMRI version.

I checked the qal3ati site this morning to see if anyone there was talking about the MEMRI piece, but didn't find anything even there. Maybe later?

Liberal al Hayat columnist Hazem Saghiye begins his piece by saying that "most commentators on the latest Osama bin Laden tape think that the al Qaeda leader "voted".. in the interests of George Bush." But, Saghiye argues, "rather than voting for Bush, bin Laden's message was about completing the project which began in the 1980s... always at the expense of the Palestinians and their issue". Saghiye points out that bin Laden's language was very different than in the past, was more leftist than religious, and was aimed at American arguments and concerns rather than Arab or Muslim ones. His claims to have been radicalized by the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel strike Saghiye as obviously untrue, given bin Laden's well-known personal history and traditional focus on the Arabian peninsula. But with Arafat leaving Palestine, Saghiye muses, perhaps bin Laden is making a bid for leadership of the Palestine issue to widen his anti-American campaign. Bin Laden's interest, then, is to see Bush in the White House to guarantee four more years of a leader who will isolate America from the world.

Ahmad Khashqaji, writing in the Saudi al Watan (via Elaph), also emphasizes the role of Palestine in bin Laden's new rhetorical strategy, again pointing out how this issue allows bin Laden to harness the anger and intensity of vast numbers of Arabs and Muslims who don't otherwise care about his religious message.

Abd al Bari Atwan, in al Quds al Arabi yesterday, wrote that whoever wins on Tuesday, bin Laden has already emerged the winner: if Kerry wins, then bin Laden can claim to have helped defeat Bush; and if Bush wins, bin Laden can say that this is what he preferred - as he did in his March statement which said that Bush's victory would serve the interests of Muslims by ensuring the continuation of America's wars against Arabs and Muslims which would increase hatred of the United States everywhere in the world. Atwan suggests that bin Laden's address to the American people was intended to convince them that al Qaeda's problems are with American policy and not the American people or American freedoms. And Atwan argues that bin Laden believes that he is winning the battle for Arab and Muslim hearts and minds, and that his shift from peripheral Islamist issues (Chechnya, Kosovo, Phillipines, etc..) to Palestine - the core Arab and Muslim issue - reflects an attempt to unify Arabs and Muslims.

I'm sure there will be much more, but I've got to go do some real work!

UPDATE: of all the Arab commentary, most of which - as per Saghiye above - argues that bin Laden favors Bush, MEMRI can only find one column worth translating today: the reliably conservative/pro-Bush Mamoun Fandy (who they describe as a 'progressive'), who predictably writes in al Ahram that bin Laden wants Kerry to win. Should sound good on al Hurra too, Mamoun!

MEMRI's disgusting partisanship

Rodger Payne has asked me to respond to a remarkable distortion which MEMRI is trying to peddle to credulous non-Arabic speakers in order to influence the American elections. Apparently it's making the rounds on pro-Bush blogs - I'll have to take Rodger's word for it. Here's a Volokh post on it, here's the NY Post, here's Yigal Carmon in the National Review.Don't fall for it.

To put it as bluntly as possible, MEMRI is being highly disingenuous to claim that Osama bin Laden supposedly was saying that he would attack American states which voted for Bush but not those which voted for Kerry. Aside from the fact that this contradicts the entire thrust of his message, it rests on a remarkably (even for MEMRI) thin foundation.. in other words, not only isn't it the sort of thing you'd expect bin Laden (who sees little principled difference between the candidates) to say, it also isn't what he said. Nor is it how Arabs and Muslims - who presumably don't have the same translation problems as most Americans - understood him.

First, it is worth pointing out that no Arab commentators or newspapers seem to have drawn the same conclusions as MEMRI's linguistic geniuses. In an al Jazeera roundup of 'different interpretations of the bin Laden message' this morning, for example, nobody raises this interpretation. MEMRI refers to a number of radical chatroom discussions, but in the mainstream public discourse - including interviews with leading Islamists such as Montasir al Zayat - everybody makes the same 'mistake' which MEMRI thinks Americans are making. Which suggests that it is not a mistake at all: Americans, just like almost all Arabs and Muslims, understood bin Laden correctly.

What is happening is that MEMRI is cherry-picking a couple of statements on fringe websites to support its own, highly partisan, interpretation. Actually, to be totally clear, they are relying on ONE statement on ONE radical website, which could have been posted by ANYBODY. This is not an authoritative interpretation, nor one which has been accepted anywhere in mainstream Arab or Islamist debates which I have yet seen.

This is what MEMRI always does: not mis-translate, but choose selectively among a wide range of sources to find those which support their agenda - and leave non-Arabic speakers with a highly distorted picture of reality. This is a classic case. Don't be fooled.

MEMRI's argument entirely on bin Laden's use of the word 'wilayet' instead of 'dawla' to refer to 'state.' While MEMRI is correct that in normal usage, wilayet would refer to a sub-unit (such as an American state), its dictionary definition is, in fact, 'sovereign power, sovereign, sovereignty, rule, government' (Hans Wehr dictionary). You decide. And Bin Laden's reference to not attacking Sweden suggests that sovereign states are his reference point, not American states.

MEMRI's claim that bin Laden offered an 'election deal' to Americans is blatantly false. Bin Laden clearly stated that America's security was not in the hands of Bush or Kerry, and that only American policies would make a difference.

In short, MEMRI is, as always, lying for partisan reasons. Truly, they have no shame. Hopefully no reputable outlets will fall for this disgraceful stunt.

Darfour and the Arab media

Here we go again. Abd al Rahman Rashed, helpfully translated by MEMRI, lashes out at the Arab media for its indifference to the atrocities in Darfour (not that MEMRI translated him just because he criticized the Arab media - god forbid). And he's right - Al Jazeera's talk shows have completely avoided the situation in the Sudan. Except for the June 21 Minbar al Jazeera program hosted by Jumana Damour called "Massive Suffering in Darfour", and the May 31, 2004 Minbar Al Jazeera program on "The Sudan agreement", and the April 27, 2004 episode of Faisal Al Qassem's The Opposite Direction on "Conditions in the Sudan" - during each of which the Darfour issue did come up.

To be fair, three talk shows do not a public outcry make (although they do serve as a leading indicator of what Arab political elites are talking about) - and Rashed is right that the Arab media remains largely fixated on the familiar troika of Palestine, Iraq, and Arab reform dilemmas. But he's being a bit disingenuous to suggest that Darfour has been completely ignored by the Arab media

And not to be overly churlish, but Rashed's op-ed was published in an Arab newspaper. And seeing how he's the director of Al Arabiya he would seem to be in a nice position to actually do something about it - you know, covering Darfour more heavily and arousing Arab interest in the subject, instead of lashing out at the "Arab media" for their parochialism and indifference.

All of that said, I agree with Rashed that Darfour is a horrible crime which deserved far greater attention... and not just from Arabs.

UPDATE: speaking of which, Hazem Saghiye has an outstanding piece on the difficulties Arabs have faced coming to terms with Darfour in today's Al Hayat (link in Arabic, sorry). He focuses on the question of whether Arabs should "cooperate with an enemy of the Arabs" in order to prevent the horrors there, and compares this dilemma to the choices of the Kurds in the 1990s.

Oh, and the episode of Akthar Min Rai (Sami Haddad) scheduled to air on July 9 is called "The Darfour crisis between the government's promises and the Security Council." A news blackout indeed!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Kamal Labibi takes Rashed's side, that the Arabs have ignored Darfour: "Arab reaction to the plight of the hundreds of thousands dispossessed, abused and displaced Darfurians is reminiscent of the shocking silence of both the Arab media and civil society that followed the gassing of thousands of Kurds by Iraqi troops led by Saddam Hussein more than 15 years ago." He blames the silence on the repressive Arab regimes - while he does note that the Arab League broke a norm of some 60 year standing by issuing a formal condemnation of the Sudanese ethnic cleansing in Darfour, he claims that after issuing the statement the Arabs let it drop in the face of Sudanese complaints... which, with regard to the Arab governments, is probably right. But, as with my response to Rashed above, I don't buy his "Arab silence" thesis... at least not with regard to Al Jazeera.

There was also this condemnation of the Tunis Arab summit by 34 Arab NGOs for, in part, this: ""The summit ignored the wide-ranging killings going on in the Darfour region of the Sudan, and the grave violations of human rights and international law being committed there – which have reached the level of ethnic cleansing – by militias supported by the Sudanese government. [This is being done] in disregard of what was written in the report issued by a fact-finding delegation sent by the Arab League that confirmed serious human rights violations in Darfour by the local Sudanese administration."

To avoid confusion: I am NOT saying that the Arab states have done much good here (or anywhere else). All I'm saying is that the Arab media and Arabic public opinion have not been silent on Darfour - a very different point.

How do we rescue jihad from the terrorists?

In today's al Sharq al Awsat, Saudi feminist Tharya Al Shahri asks "how can we rescue jihad from the terrorists?" Placing herself within a wider campaign to combat the doctrines and Quranic interpretations of al Qaeda, Al Shahri looks to undercut the core claims of the radical Islamist trend by contesting their readings of the Quran and Sharia. Her efforts strike me as neither especially original nor sufficiently distinctive to merit a great deal of discussion. This is not a criticism of Al Shahri or her work, but rather simply a reflection of the vast quantity of similar kinds of arguments of widely varying quality that are out there today in the Arab media. Instead, I'm mentioning her op-ed because it caught my eye for three main reasons.

First, because this is exactly the kind of thing which you can find all over the elite Arab media, but which gets ignored by outfits like MEMRI and by most American commentators on Arab politics. Given its publication in al Sharq al Awsat, the article should no doubt be seen as part of the new Saudi ideological offensive against an al Qaeda now seen as a more urgent threat. It resembles the enormous outpouring of such articles which flooded the Egyptian public sphere during that country's battle with Islamists in the 1990s. But tactical and strategic considerations aside, I think it's worth emphasizing that a piece like this is worth noting precisely because it is hardly worth noting anymore. Defenses of Islamist moderation against radicalism have simply become part of the general landscape now.. something which you'd never know from MEMRI (the crucial ideas coming out of Saudi Arabia right now, for MEMRI, are that "Saudi Officials Reinforce Crown Prince Abdallah's Accusation that Zionists Are Behind Terror Attacks in Saudi Arabia".) For example, al Jazeera's main religious program "Sharia and Life" recently aired a two part conversation with Yusuf al Qaradawi on the subject of "Muslims and Political Violence" (May 23 and May 30, 2004), in which Qaradawi dissected rather carefully and critically the radical justifications for violence. Maybe Qaradawi is just an "old Muslim Brother," but isn't it even a little bit significant that the most influential and popular Islamist public intellectual is taking on these questions?

Second, because this is the kind of internal ideological struggle within Islamism which is vital to the future of the region. There are moderate Islamists, and it matters if their views win out. Indeed, as even Donald Rumsfeld recently admitted, this is arguably the most important of all fronts in the war on terror. And in this battle, American voices are largely irrelevant. What matters is moderate Islamists and Muslims themselves seeking to "rescue Jihad from the terrorists."

And third, because these are precisely the voices which Daniel Pipes tells us to ignore and to oppose as "stealth Islamists." Pipes tells us that there are no moderate Islamists, and that these widespread battles over the meaning of jihad don't really matter. Al Shahri, waging her battle in public against extremist views of Islam, would fare no better than does Khaled Abou el Fadl in the world of Daniel Pipes.

To make this as blunt as possible: To the extent that he cares about these moderate Islamists at all, Pipes wants them to lose. But nothing is more vital to American security or to a successful campaign against terrorism than their victory. So which side is Pipes on?

Shorter Meyrav Wurmser

Shorter Meyrav Wurmser: After years of selectively translating the Arab media to portray Arabs in the worst possible light, I have reluctantly come to realize that Arabs say such horrid things that we should no longer waste our noble and selfless efforts on trying to bring civilization to such nasty, brutish beasts. We try so hard to help them, but they just don't seem to appreciate us. So "it is no longer up to us to treat them as equals."

Shorter Meyrav Wurmser (disco version): It is indeed time for neocons to apologize: we were wrong to love Arabs so much and to try to help them as we did. God, we tried to love the Arabs, but they just weren't worthy. So let's get with the killing.

Shorter Meyrav Wurmser (aardvark remix): What do you mean "we", Mrs. MEMRI?

New MEMRI Service

The Washington Times reports: "Wonder what some in the Middle East are saying about America? We've learned that a special team from the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) will begin monitoring 18 to 20 Arabic TV stations every day, translating in real time and sending clips almost instantaneously to Western news channels. For instance, if CNN wants to report on an anti-American series aired on Iranian television, the network can obtain translated clips easily, something previously unheard of."

Great. Just what we need - MEMRI extending its noxious project of selectively translating the Arab media to put the worst possible spin on Arab discourse. The story's two examples, as explained by MEMRI's Elliot Zweig, are telling: "We've informally started the project and found a bunch of interesting clips....Among them is an interview on Al Arabiya with a Lebanese member of parliament, Walid Jumblatt, who accuses U.S. intelligence of being behind 9/11 and controlling Osama bin Laden.... Another great clip we've got is from Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV, of an 8-year-old girl yelling for Muslims to open the gates of jihad."

No doubt these are "interesting clips." But are they representative of wider Arab political discourse? How hard did Mr Zweig have to look for these "interesting clips"? How many straightforward news reports did he have to skip over? How many talk shows denouncing the absence of democracy in the region and the corruption of Arab dictators? How many unedited al Jazeera broadcasts of speeches by American officials?

Do you think MEMRI's invaluable translation service will provide clips from any of these recent al Jazeera talk shows: "Calls for Change in the Arab World" (Open Dialogue, February 24); "Blind (Senseless) Violence in Iraq" (Open Dialogue, March 6, 2004); "Freedom of the Press in 2004" (More than One Opinion, January 7); and so on and on. Don't get me wrong - MEMRI is going to find a lot of angry rhetoric out there, because there really is a lot of anger our there. Arabs and Muslims are furious with America and with the Bush administration, for reasons that I've discussed at great length here. But that's only half the story. It's the only half MEMRI wants you to see.

Let's be blunt: MEMRI is exactly what the American government accuses al Jazeera of being (but which it isn't): a biased, partisan platform for incitement that intentionally and maliciously distorts reality to make its enemies look bad. That's all.

By the way, did you know that Arab viewers had to turn to al Jazeera to watch President Bush's live press conference the other day? Al Hurra didn't cover it. Al Jazeera did.

Winkler and MEMRI

Shouldn't people be a bit embarrassed to pontificate about television stations broadcasting in a language that they do not understand? No, they just rely on MEMRI, which systematically picks the worst, most inflammatory statements in the Arab media and portrays them as normal. Very useful to have someone do the work of slanting the evidence for you so that you can make a political case about something you know nothing about. Works for Claudia Winkler.. ah, the journalistic standards of the Weekly Standard, proud home of Stephen Hayes. Oh, and by the way, this answers a question I posed a while ago about an earlier Claudia Winkler story - she discussed (inaccurately and misleadingly) an editorial in al Quds al Arabi, and I wondered whether she actually read Arabic, and if not where she got the translation (which came without attribution). Question answered.

MEMRI Greatest Hits

Another old blogger post.

MEMRI, again. Here's one small example of what's wrong with MEMRI, and why it matters for non-Arabic speakers attempting to understand Arab opinion: the reporting of Abd al-Bari Atwan's December 15 editorial in al-Quds al-Arabi.

Here's what MEMRI says about it: "While most newspapers reported the act of Saddam's capture in detail, there are beginning to emerge "conspiracy theories." Abd Al-Bari Atwan, the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi and a loyalist of Saddam Hussein, wrote that the arrest of Saddam "without resistance, hiding in a small and filthy hole, was most likely a theatre and a finely woven hatching operation.""

Here's what Claudia Winkler of the Weekly Standard said about the same editorial (although I have to admit some skepticism about how she came across it while browsing the Arabic press - if she does read Arabic, I'm quite impressed, but otherwise she might be a little more candid about where she found the translation) : "In the space of three short paragraphs, the writer--editor in chief Abd-al-Bari Atwan--goes from the grossest conspiracy theory about the Americans' "staged" capture of Saddam to a disarming admission that none other than "democracy, equality, transparency, and an independent justice system" are prerequisites for a restoration of Arab dignity. Here is the passage (dated December 15):
"We realize that the Iraqi president's appearance--with matted hair and ragged clothes--was extremely humiliating because no one expected him to be captured alive and without resistance, hiding in a small, filthy hole. More than likely, it was staged as a carefully crafted operation to mislead people. We have only heard the American story, more accurately, what the American military wanted us to hear. We will need more time for the dust to settle and for some parts of the real picture to emerge. The capture of Saddam Hussein could be a blessing for many Iraqis, especially those who suffered as a result of his injustice and oppression. But it could come back to haunt the Americans invaders. The Iraqis, and especially those who have collaborated with the occupation, are greatly distressed. Some of them have justified their silence, and even their collaboration, saying that they feared Saddam Hussein's return to power. How will they justify themselves now? These are momentous events, perhaps the most important days in the history of the Arab and Muslim community. They hold important lessons. We must learn these lessons if we truly desire a better future. First and foremost among these lessons is that justice, democracy, equality, transparency, and an independent justice system are the basic prerequisites for any real movement toward progress and the restoration of the community's dignity."

Gee, that's a big difference, huh? Wacky conspiracy talk aside, Atwan is actually using his op-ed to put in a powerful appeal for the rule of law, democracy, and equality, in the service of creating a better Iraq. You'd think that MEMRI would want to report such an exciting contribution, huh? No, of course not.

Of course, Winkler isn't totally right either. She reads the passage above as evidence that Saddam's capture has created a "teachable moment" in the Arab world - if even someone as radical as Abd al-Bari Atwan is saying such things now, then it must be true that the invasion of Iraq really is spreading liberalism into the Arab world!

The only problem with this inference, though, is that Atwan has been saying things like this for a long, long time. Al Quds al Arabi is indeed a powerful voice for a radically-tinged Arabism - one which has been consistently critical, often brutally so, of the authoritarian and repressive Arab regimes. It has always combined its hostility to American foreign policy with an equally searing critique of Arab regimes. Is Atwan (or al Quds al Arabi) a beacon of Jeffersonian democracy that would warm the cockles of Tom Friedman's heart? No, not really. But in terms of criticizing Arab autocracy, Atwan's paper is an old hand, and what he said in the editorial above offers little support for Winkler's claim that Saddam's arrest is the trigger for a new openness.