According to polls in the Arab press, the most popular talk show on al-Jazeera—the world's most widely watched Arab TV station—is Al-Ittijah al-Mu'akis (The Opposite Direction). Broadcast live each week since December of 1996, when al-Jazeera first came on the air, the show is hosted by Faisal al-Kasim, a bespectacled forty-two-year-old Syrian. Al-Kasim moderates while two guests debate a topic of his choosing; viewers join in by telephone, fax, and e-mail. No other Arab television personality is as controversial, as despised, or as revered as al-Kasim.
Headquartered in Doha, the capital of the tiny, thumb-shaped Gulf state of Qatar, al-Jazeera draws an audience of some 45 million viewers around the world, including eight million in Europe, where subscriptions doubled after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It operates apparently without editorial constraint from the liberal Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who founded the station to help reverse the authoritarian legacy of his father, whom he overthrew bloodlessly in 1995. The spirit of al-Jazeera's reportage often accords with the anti-Western sentiments pervading both the Arab street and the more educated milieus of the Islamic world, especially when it comes to Osama bin Laden and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But al-Kasim keeps his guns trained on what he regards as the true banes of his people: corrupt Arab governments and pernicious myths among Arabs about themselves. He has a penchant for tackling taboo topics on his show, and the opinions that he and his guests express about them can seem wildly iconoclastic (often, that is to say, true) to viewers brought up on state-controlled media.
I first met al-Kasim late one muggy evening last May, at his villa in a gated Doha residential complex. He appears an unlikely renegade. On television he wears a suit and tie, but he greeted me at home in a baseball cap, a T-shirt, and blue jeans. He is fair-complexioned and diminutive, with trimmed brown hair combed over a balding pate, and he exudes a boyish enthusiasm.
We sat down to a silver tray of tea and sweets, and al-Kasim told me of the cosmopolitan life he has led. Born in a village near Damascus, he spent twelve years in England, where he earned a Ph.D. in English literature at Hull University. He holds Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky in high regard, considering them to be the consciences of the United States; like Vidal especially, he is fascinated by conspiracy theories. He came to broadcasting by chance when, in 1988, he was introduced to the head of BBC Radio's Arabic Service at a party, and was invited to work for the BBC. In 1996, along with many of his Arab colleagues at the BBC, he moved to Qatar to begin work with al-Jazeera, eager to take part in the region's first experiment with free journalism. His goal? "To change the status quo, which is horrible politically, religiously, economically, in every way."
Al-Kasim's first show, he says, "dissected" the Gulf Cooperation Council (the league of oil-rich monarchies and emirates that are responsible for some of the most closed regimes in the Middle East) "like a corpse," and since then The Opposite Direction has addressed an array of previously unmentionable questions in the Arab world, in terms ranging from the contrarian to the outlandish. Is Arab unity an unattainable myth? When was life better, under colonial or Arab rule? ("Eighty-six percent of our viewers who called in said they'd rather be re-colonized," al-Kasim told me. "The Algerians would welcome Chirac, if he decided to return.") Was King Hassan II of Morocco an agent of the Mossad? Should polygamy have a place in the modern Arab world? On that last show two female guests, one liberal and one traditional, traded insults during a commercial break and then began shouting at each other once back on the air, until the traditionalist stomped off the set. "What do you do when someone has been holding his hand over your mouth for years and suddenly removes it?" al-Kasim asked me rhetorically when describing that episode. "You go wild!"
Going wild is hardly behavior that Arab governments tend to encourage. Five Arab countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar to protest al-Kasim's broadcasts, and the KGB-like domestic-security services of a number of countries have at times prevented guests from flying to Doha to appear on the show. In these instances al-Kasim has proceeded anyway, taking phoned-in questions and also directing his cameras to an empty chair to embarrass the governments that forbid his guests from traveling.
"Doing this show is dangerous for me," al-Kasim told me. "I'm blacklisted by many countries, and smear campaigns are launched against me." After he devoted an episode to the "Zionification" of Iraq under the U.S. occupation, al-Kasim alleges, the Iraqi National Congress issued death threats against him and spread rumors on the Internet that he had sold out to Saddam Hussein (who was, oddly enough, a fan of his). A show he did on King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, he says, left the Saudi government "seeing no difference between Satan and me." About all that seems to protect him is his dual Syrian-British citizenship, which dissuades regimes that are reluctant to tangle with the bearer of a Western passport.
The Arabic words for "rotten," "disgusting," "foul," and "corrupt" peppered al-Kasim's speech whenever Arab governments came up in our conversation. But what, I asked, about the Abu Ghraib scandal, for example? Didn't the Americans merit the same censure?
Al-Kasim had opposed the invasion of Iraq, but he was loath to make comparisons of this sort. "Look, we [Arabs] have always been talking about America and the flaws in its democracy. But it's high time we talked about our own illnesses."
During the week of my visit al-Jazeera was running promos for the upcoming episode of The Opposite Direction. In them, al-Kasim told me, he asked questions that his viewers weren't hearing anywhere else on Middle Eastern airwaves. "Isn't it fitting," he said to the camera, "that we address the subject of the savage Arab prisons of Abu Qarib [roughly, "close to home"] instead of talking about the American [abuses in] Abu Ghraib? Shouldn't we thank the American media for exposing the practices in American Iraqi prisons … in the hope that perhaps our Arab media might expose Arab security services, with their Nazi-like actions against Arab inmates?"
Al-Kasim arranged for me to watch the broadcast of the show from the control room in al-Jazeera's headquarters—a modest complex of boxy low buildings of white cement and blue-tinted glass, located on the dusty grounds of Qatar's state television station. He met me in the newsroom, wearing a dark-blue suit and a red-and-white paisley tie, his face dusted with the makeup he himself applies. One of his guests soon arrived—Fuad Alam, an Egyptian general and a former assistant interior minister whom one knowledgeable source had described to me spitefully as a "war criminal," a "specialist in torture." A silver-haired septuagenarian in a drab olive suit, with droopy eyelids and phlegmatic mannerisms, Alam bore a swarthy resemblance to a Brezhnev-era Party boss. Facing off with him would be the Tunisian Khaled Chouket, the director of the Holland-based Center for the Support of Democracy in the Arab World. Chouket, in his thirties and with a pugilist's build, walked in wearing a charcoal-gray suit, his eyes dark and fierce, his black hair cropped to a V in the middle of his brow.
Soon the cameras rolled. After a provocative pre-recorded introduction and brief biographies of his guests, al-Kasim introduced a live Internet poll of viewers on a question related to the topic of the day (a feature unknown in the Arab media before The Opposite Direction). In this instance the question was "Are Arab regimes refraining from condemning the abuse in Abu Ghraib because they're committing far worse atrocities in their own prisons?" (The vote, announced at show's end, revealed that 84 percent of respondents thought so.)
Al-Kasim turned to Chouket, who started off hot. "The record of Arab regimes," he said, "is disgraceful and outrageous … worse than that of the occupier or the colonialist … We export not only oil but techniques and tools of torture … Our states, run by ministries of the interior and the security services, are regimes bereft of legitimacy and based on violations of dignity and human rights." His accusations applied, he said, to Arab states "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf." He segued into testimony describing "standard daily practices" in all Arab prisons, which he depicted as "man-made hells" where prisoners hang by their ankles and are skinned alive; where savage dogs "rip chunks of living flesh from inmates' bodies"; where torturers tear out their subjects' fingernails and hair, administer electric shocks, hack off body parts, deprive prisoners of food and sleep, and submerge them in dungeons filled with icy water.
Al-Kasim then turned to General Alam, addressing him respectfully as "your eminence the general." As Alam responded, he emphasized his words with flourishes of a pen, drawing attention to his meaty and powerful hands. Chouket's assertions, he said dismissively, were "far from reality and the truth," and he declared it "slanderous" to claim that there is "a culture of torture in the Arab world." Rather, he said, "as in every country on earth," there are "excesses" and "deviations." Nowhere in the Arab world are abuses practiced methodically, he argued—in contrast to what goes on "in Abu Ghraib and all American prisons without exception." Predictably, he soon moved on to "safer" subjects, complaining that the United States claims to be the "defender of democracy" even as it "attacks Arab and Islamic civilization and culture"—and as it supports Ariel Sharon.
Al-Kasim countered, "But Arab leaders destroy entire cities and kill thousands [of their own citizens] … How many Israelis has Sharon killed?"
Chouket interjected with a question one rarely hears in the Arab media: "How can we struggle against Israel with tyrannical and authoritarian regimes that violate people, with oppressed peoples that hate themselves, with terrorized peoples?"
The episode's climax came midway through, when Chouket, angered by the general's refusal to recognize the prevalence of torture in Egyptian prisons, shouted, "In Egypt in the 1960s, when entire political groups [were being destroyed], you were a member of the mukhabarat [secret police] and in charge of an organization condemned to this day for crimes against humanity and war crimes!" He soon began lamenting the state of Arab society. "Our political life is closed, and our freedoms usurped, and our people are oppressed and fearful, and if you don't say what the ruler wants, you're exiled beyond the sun!"
The show was refreshing in the liveliness and openness of its debate, and its being beamed around the Arab world simply could not have been imagined even a decade ago. Yet it was also emblematic of the problems afflicting Arab society—pitting a grim, powerful, and reality-denying general against a man who can question authority only because he lives in Holland. After the show was over and the guests had departed, al-Kasim and I walked out into the humid night. As we discussed the evening's conversation, I asked him if he hadn't let the Americans off too easily about Abu Ghraib. He dismissed the question. "The U.S. put the Japanese in camps during World War II; it had McCarthyism; and now they have Bush," he said. "But it will all pass. Democracy corrects itself." His mission, he clearly felt, was to help this process along. But standing on the sidewalk that night, outside the studio and far from the cameras that take him into the homes of millions, al-Kasim seemed very much alone.