Arab rulers across the Middle East detest free speech. The demand that Al- Jazeera close its operations is no surprise. Al-Jazeera (which means the island) offers talk shows, documentaries, and news in Arabic, the language of the region that reaches more than 350 million Arabic-speaking people from Mauritania to Yemen. Headquartered in Doha, Qatar, a native Arab land, Al-Jazeera has adopted an iconoclastic motto “opinion and the other opinion.”
For most Arab rulers, there is always only one opinion, the opinion of the government, and for them all other opinions are false, alien, and subversive. This commentary analyzes why Arab rulers are hostile to free speech, particularly the home-grown free speech, emanating from within the region, in Arabic dialects and metaphors, by Arab intellectuals, analysts, and critics.
For centuries, the Arab rulers are used to reverence, hand-kissing, and bowing. The Arab rulers, be they military officers, kings, emirs, or presidents, share a similar concept of leadership. They truly believe in their hearts that they are the men-in-authority chosen with divine will. They cherish an automatically presumed self-concept of being noble, just, and sagacious. Witness how General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian martinet, who overthrew a democratically-elected government, smiles with condescending wisdom. Such men as sovereigns (and there are no women Arab rulers) are not open to free speech.
Also historically, the Arab rulers have been tolerant of foreign criticism but not of internal dissent. Even today, the Arab rulers tolerate the non-Arab opinions broadcasted by the BBC, Voice of America, Press TV (Iran), or any other foreign outfit because the Arab rulers rely on an overarching paradigm that the foreigners, including Europeans, Americans, and Iranians, brood ill-will against the glorious Arab civilization that once dominated the world for centuries and gifted the world with the religion of Islam. They dismiss the Europeans as colonists, they deride the Americans as Islamophobes, and they scorn the Iranians as Shias, who are corrupting the true message of Islam that only the Arab rulers understand and have been ordained by Allah to preserve.
Al-Jazeera offers internal dissent, which is interpreted as baghyan (rebellion). The real-time reporting that deviates from the official truth, the “unfavorable” documentaries, and intellectual ruminations, aired in various shows at Al-Jazeera, all are seen as internal threat to political order that the Arab governments have imposed without the will of the people. Unintendedly, for that is the fallout of free speech, Al-Jazeera challenges the historical narrative of infallible Muslim rulers who can do no wrong.
In Arab countries, banning Al-Jazeera is seen as the right thing to suppress fitna (mischief), another convenient concept that the Arab rulers frequently invoke to arrest journalists, lash critics in public, and execute intellectuals and scholars. In Egypt, for example, Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, Sayyid Qutub was hanged in 1966, as both scholars were seen as the purveyors of fitna. President Morsi, elected in 2012, is in prison accused of terrorism and faces capital punishment. Egypt, the most prominent Arabic speaking country, has blocked or banned Al-Jazeera in cahoots with U.A.E, and Saudi Arabia. All are determined to eliminate fitna (fake news, lies, and terrorism) that Al-Jazeera allegedly promotes.
Distortions of Islam
The Arab rulers, the self-appointed defenders of “true religion,” defame Islam as the peoples of the world gather the impression that Islam is hostile to democracy and free speech. Even though the majority of Muslims, living in Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, India, Pakistan, and many other nations, are non-Arabs, the world continues to associate Islam with the Arabs, particularly with Saudi Arabia, where the prophet is buried and where the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic. Despite the expansion of Islam in all continents, what the Arab rulers do or say have significant bearing on the image of Islam for non-Muslims.
Even Islamophobia in the West is a distorted reaction to the Middle Eastern customs that have little to do with the teachings of Islam. Seeing that women cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, seeing that the leaders of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State hailed from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq, and seeing the failed efforts to bring democracy in Arab countries, non-Muslims of the world construct a view of Islam rooted in misogyny, terrorism, and tyranny. The opposition to Shariah in the United States has everything to do with what the Americans witness in the Middle East.
Outside the Middle East, Islam has a different ethos. Consider Pakistan, a country carved out of India in the name of Islam. Only a few days ago, the Supreme Court disqualified a democratically elected prime minister, the highest political office in the country—an unthinkable event in the Arab heartland. In Pakistan, hundreds of newspapers and TV channels are determined on a daily basis to find faults with every aspect of the government and opposition. Although Pakistan has suffered military interventions, free speech has remained vibrant for most of its history. In this country, no credible paradigm paints the ruler as noble, wise, or appointed by Allah. Rulers are seen fallible and replaceable. Sometimes, the military generals get away with murder but this impunity is never associated with the dictates of Islam. In fact, even supporters of military generals advocate equality under the norms of Islamic justice.
Arab rulers detest free speech because they obtain and retain political power without the will of the people. They see free speech as a threat to the unrepresentative form of government they institute. The convenient labels of baghyan and fitna, mentioned in the Qur’an, are arbitrarily invoked to suppress legitimate criticism and dissent. The label of terrorism is also convenient to eliminate opposing viewpoints. The proposal to shut down Al-Jazeera reflects how the Arab rulers build their castles in sand that cannot tolerate the winds of free speech.
(The author has no affiliation with Al-Jazeera.)