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.