A voice of reason. Ziauddin Sardar deconstructs perhaps the "most valuable institution in the Arab world"

Al-Jazeera: how the free Arab news network scooped the

world and changed the Middle East

Mohamme

When I first came across al-Jazeera, in the home of an Arab friend, I could scarcely believe that here, on an Arab satellite channel, an Israeli representative was denouncing the Palestinians and presenting the viewpoint of his government. My first reaction was to ask my host if this channel was a member of the Arab States Broadcasting Union. It was not.

Arabs everywhere love al-Jazeera because of its willingness to criticise Arab regimes and present views that dissent from the official lines. It regularly touches on issues considered forbidden by Arab standards: sex, polygamy, corruption, the torture of prisoners, women's rights and Islamic fundamentalism. It treats its viewers with respect and intelligence. This makes it unique and, perhaps, the most valuable institution in the Arab world.

Yet al-Jazeera is not the product of well-thought-out, long-fostered plans, but an accident of history. The network owes its existence to a dispute between the BBC and the Rome-based, Saudi-owned Orbit Radio and Television Service. Eager to transpose the influence of BBC World Service Arabic radio broadcasts - which attract an estimated 15 million listeners - to television screens, the foolhardy Beeb sought financial backing from the Saudis.

The new TV service would be the largest and most influential media force in the Arab world. But its initial success soon led to disputes over content and editorial independence. The Saudis accused the BBC of violating "orthodox Arab values" and abruptly withdrew their financial support, a mere 20 months after the deal had been signed. Enter the Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who was eager to acquire the trappings of democracy and end censorship in his tiny state. He installed a trusted ally as managing director and hired most of the former BBC staff. Al-Jazeera began broadcasting in November 1996.

Since then, it has generated controversy and ecstasy in about equal measure. As El-Nawawy and Iskandar note, it has both reported on and championed the second Palestinian intifada since its inception in September 2000. It has consistently exposed and criticised Saddam Hussein's brutalities in Iraq, Hosni Mubarak's oppressive policies in Egypt and the autocratic transfer of power in Syria. It scored with exclusive footage of US strikes on Afghanistan. And, most notably, it provided Osama Bin Laden with a voice and allowed, for the first time, a declared enemy of the US to address Americans directly.

All this free speech, argue El-Nawawy and Iskandar, is leading to a major transformation in the Middle East. The values of the channel, its championing of democracy, civil liberties, freedom of expression, dissent and criticism, are having a profound influence on those 70 per cent of Arab satellite viewers hooked on al-Jazeera. In the process, the Arab world is being united, reconnected to its central nervous system, as never before.

I suspect this is little more than wishful thinking. The Arab malaise is too deeply rooted for a mere television station to herald a genuine transformation. The chat shows Opposite Directions and More Than One Opinion, which El-Nawawy and Iskandar use as evidence to support their argument, do not promote moderate views. Rather, they are designed to create controversy through clashes of extremes. Polarisation, as US satellite news channels amply demonstrate, generates voter apathy and inertia, and marginalises moderate voices interested in changing policy.

If this is the result where change is theoretically possible, what effect does the channel have in nations where engaging in the politics of change is theoretically and practically impossible? In truth, people watch al-Jazeera's gladiatorial confrontations of irreconcilables in their homes for entertainment - and then go out to spread conspiracy theories on the street. This is as evident in New York and London as it is in Cairo and Riyadh.

Surprisingly, El-Nawawy and Iskandar fail to mention one show that could have a constructive effect on minds in the Arab world. Islamic Law and Life is an interactive programme presented by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a well-known personality in Islamic circles and member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Each week, al-Qaradawi concentrates on a single topic within Islamic law, such as: Are Islam and democracy compatible? What is the position of non-Muslims in a Muslim society? And does Islam allow sex-change operations? After his initial deliberations, viewers call in to discuss or pose their questions.

Each week, al-Qaradawi surprises his audience with the humanity and pragmatism of his fatwas. It is all right for women not to wear hijab (headscarves), he declared recently, in certain circumstances, particularly if they live in a secular country. It is essential for Muslims in the west, however, to participate fully in the political processes of the country where they live. Join political parties of all shades, he urged, because you are simply "not permitted to refrain from it". How refreshingly different this is from the extremist pollution disseminated by the mullahs who grace television screens in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

While al-Jazeera has certainly dented the western monopoly on news and information, it has far to go before it can lead the Arab street towards enlightenment. Moreover, it is not clear whether it will actually survive for very long. Advertising revenues are exceptionally low; and many in Qatar are questioning whether the government should continue to lose roughly $100m a year to sustain the network.

Nor is the channel as independent as El-Nawawy and Iskandar would have us believe. No Qatari political dissident opposing the monarchy has ever been interviewed on al-Jazeera. On more than a few occasions, the network has reduced its coverage of the intifada following American pressure on the Amir.

There are other concerns, too. How would the television network preserve its independence if, in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia's refusal, Qatar is used by the US as a primary base to launch its attack on Iraq? More importantly, does anyone else, such as the US and British governments, actually watch al-Jazeera and take note of the views broadcast on it, and factor them in to their policy on Iraq, or on the Middle East in general?

Free speech is a wonderful thing, but it makes a difference only when someone listens, and when those who listen are not politically impotent.

Ziauddin Sardar's Why Do People Hate America?, co-written with Merryl Wyn Davies, is published by Icon (£7.99)