Information Warfare: May 6, 2003

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The war in Iraq, combined with the rapid 2001 defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan,  and the inability of Islamic terrorists to follow up on the spectacular September 11, 2001 attacks, is having a large impact on how Arabs view the news, and the world. For any number of cultural reasons, Arabs have, especially since World War II, seen "news" differently than people in the West. Demagoguery and sensationalism are more the norm in Arab media. Now that many Arab newspapers have English versions of their reporting on the web, this is easy for anyone to see. But it's been like that for decades. Paranoia, exaggeration and sensationalism give Arab media an unreal, to Western eyes, appearance. Educated Arabs, especially those who went to college in the West, simply become bilingual when it comes to media. They look at Western media and appreciate that the reporting is closer to reality. But they go home and look at the Arab media and appreciate the fact that for their fellow Arabs, this media is also real, even if the Arab news is more fiction than fact. After all, an astute Arab will point out, many Westerners believe in fairytales and ridiculous stories in publications like the "National Inquirer." 

But this is changing in the Arab world. Part of it is because of the millions of Arabs who have traveled to the West, or migrated there. But there's also the fact that fairytales cannot compete head to head with reality. The most blatant example of this was seen, in the Arab media, during the Iraq war. For three weeks, as American troops closed in on Baghdad, the Arab press was full of stories of high coalition casualties and Iraqis preparing to defend Baghdad block by block. Then came the pictures of American tanks roaring down the streets of Baghdad, followed by images of cheering Iraqis tearing down statues of Saddam Hussein. How could this be? Many already Arabs knew how this could be, and were becoming less reluctant to talk openly about it. 

In the 1990s, it became more common for courageous Arab writers and journalists to point out the unreal nature of Arab media. They pointed that every Arab-Israeli war went through the same cycle of illusion and disillusionment. After September 11, 2001, Arabs believed, they really believed, that America would fail in it's attempt to conquer Afghanistan. Once more, illusion and disillusion. But after the Iraq war, many of the Arab media critics received a lot of apologies from readers who had been sending them death threats, until Baghdad fell. 

What this new attitude towards accurate reporting means is that many Arabs are accepting the fact that many of their political and cultural habits are in need of some modification. You can only blame your woes on "colonialism and imperialism" for so long. Arab reformers are urging people to look in a mirror for the main source of the Arab world's problems. But the solution requires a degree of honesty that is not common in the Arab world. 

The idea that the "rule of law" will work in Arab countries is more acceptable now, mainly because so many Arabs have lived in the West and noted that obeying laws does not make anyone less Arab. For most Arabs, the alternative, Sharia (Islamic, or religious, law) is not seen as viable either. Many Saudis are unhappy with the rigid and medieval nature of Sharia. And most Arabs were appalled at how poorly Sharia worked out in Iran and Afghanistan. But too many Arabs want neither Sharia nor western style law and order. This is because the corruption, that kills economic growth and honest government, has been around the Middle East for thousands of years. To succeed in an Arab culture, you have to learn how to cope with the corruption. The easiest way is to join right in. But now many Arabs want to find a way out. Corruption and media fantasies are not producing jobs, economic growth or much of anything else.

The Iraq war was a shock to most Arabs. So many myths were demolished at once that nothing seems certain any more. Decades of ideas that didn't work came to a crashing finale when Baghdad fell. Now untried ideas are no longer dismissed out of hand. Autocracy, corruption and media fantasies no longer have as much appeal as they did earlier. This is where the Information War opportunity appears. The U.S. is producing more radio and TV programs (entertainment and news) for Arab markets that tries to establish a bridge between Western and Arab style news reporting. The stakes are high, for, as Arab news analysts themselves have pointed out, Arab audiences get deceived again and again by the popular, and wildly inaccurate, Arab media. But the disillusionment was so great after the fall of Baghdad, and the number of Arab news critics are growing so much louder, that many more Arabs are receptive to a different approach to news. 

These changes are taking many forms. Even al Jazeera is changing its style of reporting. But more visible change may be coming from competing Arab language TV news operations. A group of Arab-American investors are starting a U.S. based Arab language cable TV operation that would serve up news in the American style, and without the strong anti-American tone now so popular overseas. If this comes off, it should be interesting. Partly because  many Arab-Americans have been getting al Jazeera off the satellite for years, and since September 11, 2001 have discovered that al Jazeera was reporting on an America very unlike the one Arab-Americans were living in. 

In the Arab world, the electronic media is becoming a major battlefield in the war on terror, and one where the battles go on around the clock, 24/7. Victory, or defeat, in this battle will be felt worldwide eventually.


 


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