Media and dissent in the Arab world

By Hollie Russon Gilman

“Dissent protects democracy.” This was one of my favorite buttons at the Kerry office. I love this phrase because it strikes at a key principle of democratic government. When I attended the speech of Hafez Al Mirazi, the Washington Bureau Chief of Al Jazeera, on Monday at the International House, I was enraptured when he spoke about the need for conflicting opinions in an open society. The idea of allowing for and embracing conflicting ideas is a central theme in democracy, and yet an aspect of democracy that has always been contentious.

My bias against Al Jazeera is huge. I learned about the leading Islamic television channel at the same time I learned about Osama bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalism. Thus, my opinions of Al Jazeera were predominately negative—I saw it as a station that is perpetuating a cycle of violence and hatred against the West by acting as the mouthpiece of bin Laden and his ideological allies. However, Al Mirzai presented Al Jazeera as a network that is covering both sides of a tough story—he even used the Fox concept of “fair and balanced.” At the same time, he spoke about the need for a television station to reflect the desires of the audience, an audience that will not watch television that does not appeal to them. Therefore, to succeed as a business, Al Jazeera must tread a fine line between objectivity and trying to appeal to its viewers.

What does this mean for Americans? We must come to the realization that Al Jazeera, the major news network in the Arab/Islamic world, will be presenting anti-American stories. Yet Al Mirazi reassured the audience that the American point of view is being represented. I personally do not agree with all of our policies in the Middle East, but it is hard for me to imagine people feeling true hatred toward America.

Our issues with Al Jazeera also have to do with our domestic situation. George Bush wants to use American might to promote freedom in the world, yet freedom includes the right to dissent. The dissent in our country makes many politicians and the current Administration scared. The President’s second-term Administration has been almost entirely purged of ideologies that conflict with the Bush Doctrine. Our President would like us to believe that anyone who does not support all of his foreign policy is unpatriotic. I do not need to believe blindly in policies fraught with failure in order to support our country. America is the beacon of hope in the world and must use its power accordingly; while doing so, we, as a free society, must allow dissent. How can we support the existence of dissent in the places to which we are supposedly exporting freedom if we are not fully allowing dissent

Let’s suppose Al Jazeera is the best chance America has at reaching the minds and souls of the Arab/Islamic world. Let’s also suppose that the Bush Administration is serious about bringing freedom to all the corners of the world. Bush must be prepared for the dissent that comes along with bringing freedom, both at home and abroad, and must work with, not against, the likes of Al Jazeera to make that happen.