Saturday, July 11, 2009

Al-Jazira's Cartoons: A Glimpse at Real Mainstream Arab Thinking

By Barry Rubin

Al-Jazira, the international satellite television network located in Qatar, has an undeserved reputation in certain circles for moderation. Granted, it does present different opinions, but in its talk shows the moderate finds not only the other guest but also the moderator and every single phone caller against him. When the network began, it was dominated by traditional Arab nationalists, now there has been a switch to Islamists.

But while offering certain novelties—interviews with Israelis, criticisms about some states (though never Qatar)—al-Jazira is very typical of the debate and narrative that dominates in the Arabic-speaking world. One element that illustrates that in the purest sense of the word are its cartoons.

Al-Jazira commissions cartoons. And what cartoons these are! Remember, it has lots of money and can go to the best cartoonists the Arabic-speaking world has to offer. Remember, it has a claim to provide more diversity. And remember it has some interest in portraying itself as open-minded. But when one sees the extremist, bloodthirsty, cartoons al-Jazira produces, it is a shocking reminder of how far the cream of Arabic journalism—and intellectual life—is from that of a free, liberal society, or the images that many in the West have of it.

First, let’s look at two cartoons about the U.S.-Israel relationship that faithfully mirror the two main Arab conceptions of it. First, the Israeli slavemaster is pulled by the world, including the United States, motivating it cynically by the memory of Nazism.

And next, the American paymaster of Israel

So here are the two visions: America is an Israeli puppet; Israel is an American puppet. The first, from the Arab standpoint, is the more hopeless; the second, offers the possibility that the Arabs can get the United States to order Israel to give them whatever they want. Israel gets money; the Arabs get words. So much for Obama's efforts to reach out.

Note also that despite denials a clear antisemitic approach is evident. In the second, for example, we see the big nose and the sidecurls, elements of Nazi propaganda against Jews in the past. No Israeli leader has sidecurls, a characteristic of very traditional Orthodox Jews (and, ironically, almost anyone with sidecurls—including an Israeli citizen—would be either non- or outright anti-Zionist). So while some cartoon portrays the suffering of antisemitism as a scam, others continue to employ it to try to injure Jews. The most modern technology in the service of the most ancient hatred.

[While it shouldn't be necessary, a comparison might be useful. In about five years, 85 percent of all Jews in Europe were killed deliberately by the Germans and their many collaborators though they were unarmed and engaged in no warfare with anyone. In more than sixty years, perhaps 1 percent of Palestinians--some civilians by accident but mostly those engaged in armed conflicts they perpetuated.]

Meanwhile, in the cartoon above, the blissful, naive Arab is being given only words by the United States (presumably not including the $2 billion in aid to Egypt every year, massive aid to the Palestinian Authority, military protection to Saudi Arabia, etc.). This is also a reference to Obama's policy which is only intended to "fool" the Arab world.

Continuing on this theme of intolerance, we next visit a cartoon on the Pope’s visit showing the Catholic leader laying a wreath at a Holocaust monument while the Arabs are being crucified on a “cross” that is a Star of David. In other words, the Pope is part of a conspiracy with Israel against the Arabs, presumably Muslims, who are suffering in the real "Holocaust." There is also a deliberate reference here to the argument that the Jews crucified Jesus, so the Pope is ignoring the real enemies of his own religion, too.

Where else do we hear this argument of the Christian-Jewish alliance against Islam? Why from Usama bin Ladin in the phrase the “Zionist-Crusader alliance” which, for example, was used to incite and justify the September 11 attacks. Thus we see a unity of conception between the supposedly more moderate and the most extremist.

Here is a conception of President Barack Obama, keyed to his Cairo speech.

Not all reactions were so negative as to show the president’s efforts as merely bubbles of illusion that foolish Arabs were chasing. But “support” followed purely political lines. The Saudi and Egyptian media tended to speak positively not because the masses were genuinely persuaded but because government interests required making Obama feel he enjoyed the support of Riyadh and Cairo.

Here is a parallel cartoon

which says that any words of peace from Israel are also illusions—Israel juggled bombs and pretends they are doves. This relates specifically to Israel's call for a demilitarized Palestinian state, which would have as much of an armed force which the Palestinian Authority has now: the highest ratio of armed men to civilians of any entity in the world. [Incidentally, while Israel is usually portrayed as a black-hatted, black-coated Haredi (traditional Orthodox) Jew, here it is at least updated to a Dati (Modern Orthodox) Jew. None of Israel's top leaders have ever come from either of these groups.]

So the message is: the United States and Israel are enemies; they don’t want peace and you cannot make peace with them. Well, if they are enemies and they want war, what do you do? You fight them and kill their people. So these cartoons are not only hate propaganda but they are incitement to terrorism.

Here is a cartoon that illustrates that point

And it is very important because it shows the three alternatives the Arabs are debating. (Remember the cartoon is meant to be read from right to left).

In the first window is a brave, manly Arab who is fighting. He says: 1) "We fight for victory and liberation!'

The second panel is na├»ve: 2) "We fight [struggle] to achieve peace" But people have already been told that the other side doesn’t want peace.

The third shows a demoralized Arab hanging his head in shame: 3) "We fight to get back to the negotiations." This symbollizes Saudi Arabia, the number-one target of al-Jazira's Qatari patrons.

So to negotiate is shameful.

Here’s a different topic:

The caption appears to quote American leaders: "We will not allow foreign intervention in the Lebanese elections" but, the cartoon says, America is the subverter  of Lebanon's elections. This is ironic, of course, since Iran and Syria have poured in money, built up the intimidating Hizballah apparatus, and murdered Lebanese politicians and journalists. But everything is America’s fault. All America did is have Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden show up for brief visits.

The real culprits cannot be blamed because a) it is forbidden to criticize fellow Arabs and Muslims (unless for being too soft on America and Israel, which sort of reinforces the point) and b) the cartoonist has to consider that Iran, Syria, and Hizballah kill people for criticizing them. (Incidentally, the American looks like George W. Bush which shows how much the change of administrations really means in large sectors of the region!)

This is one of special interest and important. Pay close attention. What do Arab institutions think of the two-state solution? It is presented in Europe and America as something they are eager for, but:

Here we see that Israel would be mighty and a Palestinian state small and weak. This is also related to the demilitarized state issue, but negates the fact that the Palestinians have a state which could provide a national homeland for Palestinians, resettle refugees, develop living standards, etc., as if that would be of no importance. Moreover, even if the Palestinian state would be weak vis-a-vis Israel there are also a dozen other Arab armies in the area.

So what’s the solution? Sink the Israeli boat or give it to the Palestinians!

And here we see the stark Arab choice:

Weapons and bullets are the choice of far more than the olive branch. Those who prefer the former are Syria, Hamas and Hizballah while the "suckers" are the Egypt-Saudi-Jordan camp.

In fact

Peace (the dove) is not something to be sought after, it is a prison punishing and paralyzing the Arabs. Peace is a trap. Democracy doesn't work, only armed resistance does.

These cartoons are not atypical. They represent overwhelmingly mainstream Arab thinking on the part of governments and peoples. The prevailing Arab world view inculcated by teachers, pounded in by mosque sermons, daily reinforced by the media, justified by government speeches is one of hatred, conflict, and the glorification of violence.

No one knows—and bemoans—this more than do the real Arab moderates. Even governments—like those of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—manipulate these symbols even as they know that they constrain their freedom of maneuver.

“Remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” That was said by President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address. Today, the Islamists want to gobble up those who ride the tiger of conflict and hatred.

Where are the cartoons favoring peace with Israel? There are virtually none, ever. Where are the cartoons portraying the United States in a favorable light? I'm sure some can be found but very few, and not commissioned by al-Jazira. Without a culture of peace and compromise, which recognizes some right and rights on the other side, there cannot be peace or compromise.

Remember that probably all the cartoonist who created the works above are Arab nationalists, not radical Islamists.

True, the majority of Arab regimes are more worried about Iran and radical Islamism than about Syria. They know the United States can be an important protector for them. These governments don't want war with Israel either. But they are terribly constrained by their own interests, the views of their populations (reinforced by themselves), the powerful (as seen in these cartoons) cult of romantic violence, the deep distortions in popular (and elite) understandings of Israel and the West, and the pressures of radical neighbors or internal subversive groups.

Pay attention to these cartoons because they show what the real Middle East is like, and it has nothing to do with the nice, moderate statements made by Arab leaders and Islamist movement leaders, as well as their serving intellectuals, made to Western audiences in English. This is a tragedy for everyone.

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