April 5, 2003
Images of Iraqi civilian suffering, largely absent from U.S. broadcasts, build antiwar feeling.
By Teresa Watanabe, Times Staff Writer
The Arab scholar huddles in his Van Nuys den day and night, armed with three remotes to watch more than a dozen Arab satellite TV channels broadcast news about Iraq. Here, UCLA Islamic law professor Khaled Abou el Fadl sees a very different war from the "Operation Iraqi Freedom" proclaimed by U.S. officials.
On these channels, U.S. troops are seen not as liberators but as invaders and colonizers.
The televised images of bloodied victims, terrified civilians and rough treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war have helped harden resistance to the war, not only among Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East but also among some Arab Americans who have long opposed Saddam Hussein's regime.
U.S. officials call the critical portrayal of war on Arab TV channels unfair and inaccurate. At the same time, however, they have used the channels as a platform for making their case to the Arab world. Some analysts believe the growing profusion of Arab satellite TV channels eventually will help pave the way for the democracy that U.S. war planners are calling for.
"They will tend to reduce the effectiveness of our propaganda efforts," said Richard Dekmejian, a USC political science professor, "but they are a tremendous source of firsthand knowledge about the region and a powerful dynamic to bring democracy there."
For now, however, it is the critical coverage of U.S. power that shapes the debate. Consider these images from a recent tour of the Arab TV landscape with Abou el Fadl as translator and guide:
The privately owned Lebanese Broadcasting Network is reporting on the human suffering caused by an explosion in a Baghdad market. An Iraqi man wails, "My brother! My brother! I can't believe it," before dropping to the ground sobbing. A woman draped in black collapses on a bed after seeing her daughter's remains. "There was an explosion. I couldn't find my daughter. When I did, she was all blown apart," she cries.
On Al Jazeera, the state-financed satellite TV channel based in Qatar that commands 35 million viewers, a Syrian diplomat angrily denies claims by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that Syria is providing military aid to Iraq. The diplomat expresses the fear -- widely repeated across the Arab channels -- that the U.S. plans to go after Syria and Iran after it finishes with Iraq; he appeals to the international community to "stop this insanity."
On the Egyptian-owned Nile Channel, one of thousands of Jordanians who have volunteered to fight with Iraqi troops tells a reporter he felt so degraded by the U.S. and British attacks that he could not eat or sleep. "This is the beginning of a new age of colonialism," he says.
Cutting to a Cairo peace rally, the channel features a passionate speech by popular Egyptian actor Adel Enam. "Where are you, the United States of liberty, human rights and respect for human beings?" Enam roars. "Why have you been assassinated by the United States of religious fanatics, hate, xenophobia and financial greed?"
The coverage also includes reports that convey less of an emotional charge, such as a discussion of the role of international law and the United Nations in the conflict. But the more vivid scenes of Arab suffering, largely absent from U.S. television, are among those that have helped change the way Abou el Fadl and others like him see the conflict.
One of the nation's leading Islamic law scholars, Abou el Fadl repeatedly has condemned Muslim extremists. He supported the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan as a just response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A Kuwaiti-born U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, he fled the Middle East after being persecuted for human-rights activities.
Initially, Abou el Fadl thought a strike against Iraq could be moral if it were truly welcomed as liberation by the Iraqi population. Now, he said, after watching days of news coverage, reading voluminous reports on the war and consulting with his intelligence and diplomatic contacts, he has concluded otherwise.
He now believes that most Iraqis see the coalition effort as an invasion and an attempt to repeat the British colonial domination of their land. He opposes the war as immoral and mistrusts the intentions of his government.
Few Americans sufficiently understand that the Bush administration lacks credibility among Arabs as a liberator, Abou el Fadl said. President Bush and the conservatives who guide him -- from Defense Department officials and advisors Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft -- are repeatedly portrayed on Arab TV as "a right-wing clique of born-again Christians and pro-Israeli hawks who fundamentally do not respect, like or understand Arabs," Abou el Fadl said.
Imam Moustafa al Qawzini, a Pomona resident and Shiite Muslim leader, is also harboring growing doubts about the war. His own family fled Iraq after Hussein's forces imprisoned his grandfather and killed several members of his family; Al Qawzini has been active in the anti-Hussein movement among Iraqi exiles and initially supported limited military strikes to remove the Iraqi dictator.
But the televised images have deeply unsettled him, Al Qawzini said. One piece of footage constantly replayed by Al Jazeera and other stations a few days ago, he said, showed heavily armed British troops kicking in the door of a home on the outskirts of Basra and terrifying a woman inside so much that she collapsed to the floor.
Such images, he said, have inflamed the entire Arab world.
"The anti-American rage that exists today in the Muslim world is at a level I have never seen in my life," said Hussam Ayloush of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The broadcasts also have triggered what Abou el Fadl and other experts say is a tremendous outpouring of pan-Arab sentiment. Across the region, many of the satellite stations are playing pan-Arab patriotic songs and broadcasting interviews with non-Iraqi Arabs and Muslims who are volunteering to fight the U.S. forces.
As the influence of Arab satellite TV on public opinion grows, it is drawing sharp criticism -- but also predictions that it eventually could help pave the way for democracy.
In a recent interview with the Saudi-based Arab Radio and Television Network, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher complained that Arab TV failed to place news in context -- excessively focusing on U.S.-inflicted civilian casualties, for instance, without exposing Hussein's atrocities.
"We don't target civilians," Boucher told the reporter. "The Iraqis kill their own civilians. Why don't you cover that? Why do you only cover it when we kill civilians?"
But some Arab TV images have cut in favor of allied forces as well. Al Qazwini said, for instance, that shots of cheering crowds in Najaf welcoming allied forces and U.S. soldiers giving candy to Iraqi children have brought tears to his eyes.
Al Jazeera in particular has proved to be an important venue for the Arab world to hear firsthand interviews of Western officials. Alone among Arab satellite channels, Al Jazeera interviews Israeli officials, according to Abou el Fadl. Since the war began, the channel has broadcast the military briefings of Iraqi, U.S. and British officials, along with the full speeches of Bush, Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
"Al Jazeera does something that is invaluable to the Arab world: They allow critics of despotic governments, who are usually marginalized and utterly disempowered, to speak," Abou el Fadl said.