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April 2, 2012 -- Vol.16, No.1

An Arab Perspective on Islamic Terrorism:
The Case of the Al-Jazeera Program Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât

by Ana Belén Soage

INTRODUCTION

In a poll timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the 11th September attacks, Aljazeera.net (website of the satellite news channel Al-Jazeera) asked readers: "Do you think that Al-Qaeda's 'operations' further the interests of Arabs and Muslims?". Astonishingly, 51% of respondents (a total of 34,734 people out of 76,679) answered "Yes", despite the fact that the victims of those attacks include Arabs and Muslims and that they have been used as a pretext to launch two wars universally decried in the Arab world. So why do so many Arabs think that Al-Qaeda's course of action is to be applauded despite its high costs for those whose cause it is supposed to champion?

As the old adage goes, "one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter". Many in the Arab world have undoubtedly rejected Western categories, as shown by the fact that what our media calls "terrorism" is more often than not described over there as part "ma yusammâ bil-'irhâb" ("what has been dubbed 'terrorism'"). Unfortunately, when the Western media discuss Islamic terrorism they pay very little attention to how it is perceived in the countries where it originates. We believe that a better understanding of that perception would contribute to finding a solution to the problem. That is why the purpose of this study is to fill that void and offer an insight into the Arab psyche through the case study of a popular program broadcast in what has arguably become the most influential Arab channel, Al-Jazeera.

Al-Jazeera is worthy of attention not just due to the unquestionable quality of its programming, but also to the fact that it endeavours to reflect the feelings prevalent in the "Arab street". Be it out of populism or conviction – or probably a mixture of the two –, the channel's journalists and reporters aim at offering a vision and an analysis of reality that the average Arab citizen can relate to. Contrary to the discourse of the traditional Arab media, either state-controlled or financed by personalities close to power, the only criterion of Al-Jazeera is to answer to the expectations of its public, which can often participate live through the telephone, fax or electronic mail. With the birth of Al-Jazeera, and maybe for the first time in history, Arab people "from the Ocean to the Gulf" have found a voice to their hopes and frustrations.

We will concentrate on the way "that which is called terrorism" is discussed in the popular Al-Jazeera program Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât ("Islamic law and life"). This program has been chosen for several reasons: It has a large audience, so we can presume it is a highly influential opinion-former. A large portion of its time is dedicated to the viewers' questions and comments, which gives an excellent indication of the Arab public's mood. Furthermore, it deals with current affairs and topical issues from an Islamic perspective and, as such, it is representative of one of the main socio-political currents in Arab society.

Finally, a word of warning: The opinions expressed below are those of the guests and public of a religious program that adheres to a certain interpretation of Islam – arguably prominent, but not the only one. In addition, we should not forget that the Arab media react, to a great extent, to the West's hostile policies towards Arab and Muslim states and to the distorted image of Islam conveyed by its media. In any case, we hope this study will contribute to acquiring a better understanding of Arab perceptions with a view to explaining why, despite the development of global communications and extensive economic and cultural exchanges, the breach between our worlds is only getting larger.

Al-Jazeera News Channel

Since its launch, back in 1996, Al-Jazeera has become one of the main sources of information not only in the Arab world but, by virtue of its Ben Laden exclusives and its coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also at the international level. The news channel boasts its independence, claiming that its main sponsor, the emir of Qatar, grants it total editorial freedom. This makes it the target of attacks from almost every front: the American administration considers it the champion of Al-Qaeda and its regional offices have been "accidentally" bombed in Kabul and Baghdad; in the Arab world, several regimes have accused it of libel and closed down its bureaux at some time or another, while many condemn its interviewing of Israeli personalities as a contribution to the normalisation of relations with the Jewish state.

Al-Jazeera was set up to present a credible news alternative both to the traditional, mostly state-controlled, Arab media and to foreign, i.e. non-Arab, media (the Arabic services of BBC News, Radio Montecarlo and the Voice of America have traditionally been amongst the most popular radio stations in the Middle East). The Qatari outlet has encouraged a more appealing style of reporting amongst Arab commercial satellite channels (Abu Dhabi, LBC, Al-Mustaqbal…) and, to a lesser extent, also amongst state channels (which nevertheless continue to open with the daily activities of the king or president in question). More significantly, it has prompted the launch of imitators-cum-competitors, like Saudi-financed Al-'Arabiyya or US-financed Al-Ĥurra (literally, "the free one", whose abysmal ratings have led to rumours of an impending scrapping).

Al-Jazeera's distinguishing feature is its fierce rhetoric: John Hopkins University's Fouad Ajami has denounced the channel's journalists as "adept at riling up the viewer. A fiercely opinionated group, most are either pan-Arabists or Islamists who draw their inspiration from the primacy of the Muslim faith in political life" [1] ; Iranian journalist Amir Taheri has accused the channel of "islamicizing all issues" [2] . However, others disagree: Middle East expert Rime Allaf criticised Ajami and rejected a conception of freedom of speech which would only mean "freedom to emulate Western speech" [3] , and Paris Sciences-Po's Mohammed El Oifi wrote that "we can find there the main politico-intellectual currents that exist in the Arab world: the liberals, the nationalists and those that can be described as 'with Islamic tendencies'. No one is able to impose a single line" [4] .

Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât

Broadcast on Sunday evening local (Qatari) time, which is probably the best time to reach the largest possible number of viewers, from Asia to the American continent, Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât is said to be watched by around 10 million Muslims (mainly, but not exclusively, Arabs) every week. It is not just a program about religion but strives to remain topical and pertinent in order to prove that Islam has a fundamental role to play in dealing with the problems that confront the Muslim world. That is why it is often filmed not in Qatar but in other Arab countries or even outside the Arab world, wherever a current event deserves the attention of the Umma (Muslim nation).

For the purposes of this study, we have analysed the broadcasts of Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât between 1st January and 1st September 2004. Whenever names and dates are given in brackets, they indicate the author of the comments and the date of broadcast.

Aims and approach

Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât has a clear pedagogical purpose: It deals with subjects that the average Muslim, misled by the distorting and all-pervasive Western media and the duplicity of Arab leaders, needs guidance on, such as the legitimacy of "martyrdom operations" or the need for reform in the Arab world; as regular guest sheikh Yousuf Al-Qaradawi has explained, "education is what forms the human being, and the media is the school of the masses" (14th March). Its guidance is sought by a wide range of viewers, from the cultivated "muhandis" (engineer) that can express himself fluently in fuşĥah ('formal' Arabic) to the average man-on-the-street whose accent betrays his humble origins and lack of formal education; a significant percentage of the callers phone in from the Arab diaspora in Western countries.

The perspective adopted is unashamedly Islamic: the guests are Muslim religious scholars and community leaders and there is no attempt to get the arguments through to non-Muslim audiences. In fact, it could be asserted that the program preaches to the converted and reaffirms their prejudices. For instance, Jews and Christians are systematically attacked, and sometimes those attacks are not even coherent: in the course of a program dealing with "Muslims and political violence", Westerners were criticised for having forgotten religion in favour of materialist secularism but, a little later, their viciousness was attributed to the fact that they follow the Torah in its appeals to violence (Al-Qaradawi, 23rd May).

In addition, there is no real debate since host, guests and callers agree on the fundamental questions. The callers' comments tend to be less subtle and more radical than those of the people in the studio, but they are systematically followed by the latter's appreciative comments. Disagreements, when they exist, are reduced to nuances in the interpretation of religion as applied to certain issues; the rightfulness of using religion to approach those issues in the first place, or the possibility of bringing other elements into the equation, are never even raised.

Recurrent themes

As its popularity shows, Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât offers a picture of reality shared, to a certain degree, throughout the Arab world. Identifying the program's main themes will therefore provide us with an insight into Arab perceptions and opinions.

Religion is at the core of life

The subtext of Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât is that Islam, and specifically the sharî'a ("Islamic law" or, more precisely, "Islamic path", i.e. the path to salvation), is the panacea to all of life's problems, from corruption to military defeat and from crime to immorality. In most Muslim countries the sharîah is only used in matters of civil law, such as marriage and divorce, inheritance, etc.; few (Iran, Yemen, Pakistan) have made of it their main source of legislation, and even less (Saudia Arabia, Sudan, some states in Northern Nigeria) apply its penalties (iqâmat al-ĥadd, e.g. amputation of limbs or lapidation). However, many Muslims believe that the implementation of the sharî'a would not only be according to God's wish but also more suited to their culture.

For Muslims, Islam is not just a religion; it transcends the boundaries of personal faith and enters into all other spheres of life. According to Al-Qaradawi, "Islam is not just spirituality; Islam is religion and the physical world, missionary work and temporal power, creed and law, right and force; Islam is industry and agriculture; Islam is art; Islam is in everything". Even those who refuse Islam are subject to its laws: "Muslims cannot abandon the law of God; it they violate it, they will still be judged by it [because] the laws [of God] govern the Muslim and the atheist, the virtuous and the dissolute, the righteous and the vicious" (23rd May). Religion is also considered crucial to understanding current affairs: according to host Maher Abdullah, "whether we want it or not, everything related to this Umma has to do with politics" (1st February).

On the other hand, the Umma is idealised, which is not surprising given that, according to the Koran, "you are the best nation that was brought to humankind ". The reasons for its present, wretched state are explained by several factors, from Ottoman rule and European colonialism to the belief that Muslims have deviated from the path of God – deviation often attributed to the policies of the modern state, which has brought about a new Jâhiliyya (ante-Islamic "age of ignorance"). The first days of Islam, when Muslims were united and strong, are looked upon not just nostalgically but as the model to follow. In fact, history has been reinvented as a defence mechanism, in order to reaffirm self-worth and confront the military and cultural onslaught of the West in the Modern era [5] .

Muslims are always the victims

There is a widespread feeling that Muslims are the targets of aggression merely because of their faith. The West follows a conscious policy of weakening the Umma because it fears its potential strength; that is why it tries to contaminate the Muslim world with its degenerate principles or through its evangelisation programs (Al-Qaradawi, 23rd May). In any event, Muslims are the only victims worthy of being taken into consideration; according to Maher Abdullah: "Those who paid the highest price for the events of 11th September were the Muslims in America – of course, if we don't take into account the wars that have led to the destruction of two countries [i.e. Afghanistan and Iraq]" (31st March).

In the face of aggression, violence is a legitimate response. However, and given the huge gap in terms of armament between aggressors and victims, the latter are forced to resort to unorthodox means, such as "martyrdom operations". Al-Qaradawi controversially endorses suicide attacks if they do not target civilians – reserve which does not apply in the case of Israel, because every Israeli is an army reservist – by explaining that God, in his generosity, has given the weak a weapon He has not given the strong: the capacity to sacrifice themselves. That is why although suicide is a sin in Islam, suicide attacks are a rightful way of "defending religion, country, honour and Umma" (Al-Qaradawi, 23rd May).

Not everybody is as moderate as Al-Qaradawi on the issue of not targeting civilians. Their reasoning is that the victims of Western policies include Muslim civilians, so why should Muslims spare their enemy's civilians? On a program entitled "Muslims in Spain after the March explosions", broadcast on 18th July, Saudi caller Fuhad Al-Fuhad declared:

"Those who carried out the explosions in Madrid are 100% Islamist [sic]. What they did was a response to Spanish policies on Iraq, as proven by the fact that the Spanish troops have been withdrawn […] And that kind of terrorism in our religion, what is it but a response to the policies of America and its helpers?"

The West is the enemy of Islam

Western characterisation of Islam is a deliberate distortion aimed at justifying aggression against the Umma. Hypocritically, the West accuses Islam of being a religion of violence and upholds an "inverse logic" that "equates murdered and victim, oppressor and oppressed". Furthermore, and despite Jesus's message of love, events like the  European Wars of Religion and the two world wars prove that Christians are "the most violent, bloodthirsty of peoples". As mentioned above, this is attributed to the Jewish heritage: the Torah, "which both Jews and Christians believe in", contains appeals to either enslave or exterminate one's enemies. In contrast, Islam is a religion of peace which invites the enemies to convert but does not force conversion and, in case of non-compliance, only imposes a tribute (Al-Qaradawi, 23rd May).

Furthermore, Western civilisation is immoral and materialistic: it is the civilisation of al-masîĥ ad-dajjâl, "the false Messiah" or Antichrist, who according to Islamic tradition will come before the Day of Judgement to misguide humanity. Ad-dajjâl is said to be one-eyed and, according to Al-Qaradawi, that is a good description of Western civilisation, "which sees the person, life and the world with one eye, the materialistic, sensorial eye, ignoring all that is mystical and spiritual". Worse, Westerners would like to see Muslims follow them in the path to secularism, because they know that "religion is the strength of the Umma" (23rd May).

Occasionally more compromising voices are heard, especially when the guests are Muslim community leaders in Western countries. In the program broadcast on 1st September entitled "The fears of Muslims in Europe", which dealt mainly with the banning of the headscarf in French official establishments, host Maher Abdullah started off by criticising Muslim countries that implement similar policies, such as Turkey, and praised the European democratic process which offers Muslims an opportunity to contest that kind of measures. For his part, guest Mohammad Kazem Sawalha, vice-president of the Islamic League of Britain, warned against considering the West as a block with a single policy vis-à-vis Islam and the Muslim world.

The West is aided and abetted by treacherous Muslim regimes

A regular sub-theme is the support certain "treacherous" and "impious" Muslim regimes offer the West, particularly the US, because due to their unpopularity and lack of legitimacy Western backing is the main guarantee of their survival. In this respect, it is interesting to read some callers' interventions: On a program broadcast on 14th March dedicated to "Islamic education in the Arab region", Mahmoud Abdel Karim from Lebanon stated:

"We know who those countries are and the truth about their presidents, and how they represent the will of their masters in America […] In our own countries, the rulers call Islam 'terrorism' and want to fight [that] terrorism."

Abu 'Ala from Palestine offered a similar view in the program "Muslims and political violence", broadcast on 23rd May:

"The concept of violence and terrorism is shared by Jews, Christians and their 'agents' amongst the Arab and Muslim rulers, and it is their translation of jihad […]. They share the same term, therefore they share the same aim, which is to fight Islam […] That is the cause of the butchery, the destruction and the intimidation practised by Jews and Christians in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq and of the killing and persecution in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and the other Muslim countries ruled by treacherous rulers."

In this respect, Lebanese Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadhelallah, guest on 15th August in the program "The Islamic world between external challenge and internal impotence", made an interesting analysis of the issue of reform in the Middle East area:

"The Americans have pressed on the issue of reform because they have realised that the regimes that have traditionally safeguarded their interests have become worn out and may no longer be useful […] And the Arab regimes have raised the question of reform as a consequence of American pressure […] in order not to be replaced."

The extremists may be misguided, but they are nice guys

Some observers attribute the rise of fundamentalism and the violence it breeds to socio-economic reasons: the poor, disenfranchised and with nothing to lose, use religion as a tool in their fight against the corrupt elites and their foreign supporters. However, that does not explain the case of millionaires such as Al-Qaeda's Osama Ben Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, and Al-Qaradawi prefers to attribute their illegitimate (i.e. not used as self-defence) violence to their flawed interpretation of the Islamic corpus. He maintains that the perpetrators of violence have the best of intentions, but they are misguided – and their good intentions do not excuse them, because according to the imam Bin 'Awwâđ, acts have to be both khâliş (sincere) and şawâb (reasonable) in order to be endorsed by God (30th May).

Al-Qaradawi denounces the abuse of takfîr (excommunication leading to assassination) by the extremists groups. Unfortunately, he seems to agree with the extremists' actions, if not with their philosophy: when asked about two victims of takfîr, president Anwar Sadat and Egyptian intellectual Faraj Fôda, he avoided giving a straight answer but, in a clear reference to Fôda, condemned those "who do not content themselves with apostatising but also seek to propagate apostasy in society"; in addition, he praised organisations such as Islamic Jihad (responsible for the assassination of Sadat), because they do not only rely on takfîr but give other, "legitimate", reasons for their actions (30th May).

On the issue of how to deal with the phenomenon of extremism, the sheikh agreed with a caller who said that governments in Muslim countries use the extremists to combat the moderates and, by clamping down on the moderates when the extremists attack, give a negative image of Islam to the Muslims themselves and grant the West an opportunity to attack Islam. Al-Qaradawi considers that it is the moderates who are more dangerous to the West, because they are more influential and act in the long term. He deems it vital that that moderate tendency be allowed to "play its role in guiding the awakening, inculcating the correct principles into people and providing them with the rightly-guided, necessary enlightenment" (30th May).

CONCLUSION

This study has sought to show an Arab perspective on what is known in the West as "Islamic terrorism", one that justifies or even celebrates it. The proportion of Arabs that adhere to that view is difficult to estimate, and it is dangerous to generalise, but by concentrating on a popular program that offers the audience a chance to have their say it has at least been established that that view is far from being marginal. So how can the same phenomenon be perceived so differently in the West and in Arab world? Why do some many Arabs identify with the terrorists' aims and sometimes even approve of their methods?

Let us recall the average Arab citizen's perception of the situation as shown above: On the one hand, an arrogant West that hides behind a self-righteous discourse but does not respect human rights, offers Israel unconditional support and seeks to impose its (lack of) moral values; on the other hand, weak, tyrannical, treacherous governments that monopolise the nation's riches and exclude the citizens from the political process. We could add the failure of once-popular ideologies such as communism and ba'athism, a dire economic situation that condemns to poverty a large percentage of the population and a faulty education system that does not teach the student to think but to learn by heart, unquestioningly, what has been handed down and in which religion often plays a central role.

In this context, it is not surprising that Islamic radicalism has such a wide-based appeal, from the underprivileged to the educated youth and from the victims of direct attack to pious sections of the elite who see it as their duty to be "the blessed vanguard of the Umma" (as famously put by Osama Ben Laden). The movement has certainly gained appeal as a result of the bold "operations" carried out by the self-immolating activists of Al-Qaeda, and although this group's actions do not enjoying unanimous support, many have come to see terrorism not as a hateful crime but as a justified defence mechanism against Western aggression. With grievances running so deep, a military approach cannot be the only way to fight terrorism. There is no easy solution, but undoubtedly dialogue should be a part of it.

 

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Much has been written about Islam and Islamic extremism lately. For some articles that help clarify concepts, check up "Islamic extremism: Jihadism, Qutbism and Wahhabism" (dismiss the unfortunate, uncontextualised use of a Koranic verse as a sub-heading) or "Terms and concepts: use with caution". For those seeking to understand the causes of Islamic terrorism, there are plenty of informed articles such as "Islam and the theology of power", "Making sense of Islamic fundamentalism", "Enemies within, enemies without" or "Bin Laden and revolutionary millennialism". For a reductionist view, whose main interest resides in the fact that it seems to be the prevalent one within US governing circles, see "The roots and exploitation of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim worlds".

Al-Jazeera has been the focus of much interest since it was chosen by Ben Laden to deliver its communiqués, as reflected by the articles "Pour Al-Jézira, Ben Laden fait vendre" (part of a dossier that includes articles from the Francophone, Anglophone, Turk and Arab press) or the rather unfair "Bin Laden's private TV channel". "Perspectives on war. Inside Al-Jazeera" offers an overview of the channel's history. For a somehow typical attack on the channel and an equally typical defence of it, see "What the Muslim world is watching" and "Qatar's Al-Jazeera is not pro-Zionist enough for Fouad Ajami's taste". In addition, the Congressional Research Service has prepared the report "Al-Jazeera news network: Opportunity or challenge for US foreign policy in the Middle East?".

Al-Sharî'a wal-Ĥayât's celebrity Yousuf Al-Qaradawi has his own internet site at http://www.qaradawi.net. For articles about the Muslim cleric which give an idea of his renown and influence, see "Maverick cleric is a hit on Arab TV" and "Al-Qaradawi: L'Islam à l'écran", published by Le Monde (Edition Proche-Orient) on 3rd September 2004 (not available on-line). Aljazeera.net offers a profile of Al-Qaradawi (in Arabic) as well as an interview with the sheikh entitled "Reform according to Islam". Finally, and in order to appreciate the fact that Al-Qaradawi is a relative moderate, check out the diatribes "Some mistakes of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi" and "A warning for the Ummah against the heretic Yusuf Al-Qaradawi".



[1] Ajami, Fouad. What the Muslim world is watching. New York Times Magazine. 9 diciembre 2001. In: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/18/magazine/18ALJAZEERA.html.

[2] Taheri, Amir. Bin Laden’s private TV channel. OpinionJournal: 28 December 2001. In: http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=95001657.

[3] Allaf, Rime. Qatar’s Al-Jazeera is not pro-Zionist enough for Fouad Ajami’s taste. The Daily Star Online, 2001. In: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/opinion/20_11_01_b.htm.

[4] Ayad, Christophe. Pour Al-Jézira, Ben Laden fait vendre. Libération, 12 octubre 2001.

[5] See Malik, Jamal. Making sense of Islamic fundamentalism. ISIM (International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World): October 1998. In: http://www.isim.nl/files/newsl_1.pdf and Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Islam and the theology of power. Middle East Report 221: Winter 2001. In: http://www.merip.org/mer/mer221/221_abu_el_fadl.html.

 


Copyright © Ana Belén Soage