October 19, 2019

Al-Jazeera and the glorification of barbarity

I have often wondered why some of the best thinkers of our time refuse to believe in human progress. After all, there was a time when tens of
thousands of ordinary citizens flocked to the gates of the Roman Coliseum to enjoy the sight of wild beasts tearing human beings to pieces. Today, such a sight would evoke revulsion and disbelief.

Of course, inhumanity still exists, but it is no longer laudable or fashionable in the public sphere. With the exception of exhibition killings by jihadist recruiters, cruelty is no longer a catalyst of mass arousal. Even the Nazis tried to hide their deeds from the eyes of history. Be it for fear or shame, the trend is clear: The norms of civilized society are moving forward, and it is those norms, not their exceptions, that shape the minds of our youngsters and invigorate our hopes for a better world.

All this was true until about four weeks ago, when the royal procession of Samir Kuntar brought barbarism back to the public square. Kuntar is the killer who smashed the head of a 4-year-old girl with his rifle butt in 1979 after killing her father before her eyes. The mother, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally suffocated her 2-year-old child while trying to keep her from giving away their hiding place.

Kuntar was tried, convicted and sentenced to 542 years in prison and never expressed any remorse. He was released by Israel on July 26 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2006.

As anticipated, Hezbollah’s mass celebration in Beirut in the presence of its leader, Hassan Nassralla, evoked a chivalrous scene from a fairy tale gone awry. One by one, the whole Lebanese leadership stepped up to “brother Kuntar” to shake the hand and kiss the cheeks of that archsymbol of barbarity. There was Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, President Michel Sulayman, even the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — a whole nation bowed down to a moral deformity in a Hezbollah’s fatigue and a “Heil Hitler” salute.

The focus of my attention naturally turned to Al-Jazeera because, with its outreach of 50 million viewers from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, this pan-Arab satellite channel is considered the conscience and future of the Arab world.

“What would they tell their children?” I thought. “How would they present a Lebanon — once the crown jewel of the Arab world — kneeling before a child-killing psychopath?”

A chill went down my spine when British-accented announcers introduced Al-Jazeera’s English channel correspondent Rula Amin in Abeih, Kuntar’s home village, and translated the wisdom of Kuntar’s words from the original Arabic. Imagine a voice cast in an impeccable Oxford accent articulating in obvious empathy: “He has returned to a hero’s welcome…. After 29 years in [an] Israeli prison, Samir Kuntar spent his first day of freedom vowing to continue to fight against Israel. He says he hopes to see the enemy again very soon.”

Shakespeare, Milton and Churchill must be turning in their graves, I thought, hearing their cherished English language at the service of a homecoming tribute to a child murderer. The book by Isaac Newton that I always keep on my shelf lowered its eyes in shame when the translator read: “Kuntar is a hero; he is a freedom fighter,” and my favorite John Locke’s, “A Treatise of Humane Understanding” turned purple as another translator, sounding exactly like Sir David Frost, consummated the festival with: “At this time yesterday I was in the hands of the enemy, but today I am eager to meet them again, and I pray to God that I will be able to meet them very soon.”

It was not the content, mind you, only that dissonance between the cultured respectability of an Oxford accent, with its emphasis and intonation, and the unmistaken sympathy with the newly anointed hero of inhumanity, and the alarming signals my brain kept sending me: “This is how civilized people used to speak in the old days.”

Thank God, I thought, we Americans speak in a different accent; no child would grow up to tell us: “I recognize your accent from Kuntar’s celebration in Abeih.” And I quietly prayed that my mother tongue, Hebrew, would never crawl to such lows.

Then came Kuntar’s birthday party, initiated and choreographed by Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Beirut and aired on Al-Jazeera TV July 19 (translation by the Middle East Media Research Institute). There was orchestral music, a huge birthday cake and infinite admiration by Bin Jiddo, Al-Jazeera bureau chief and master of ceremony, announcing: “Brother Samir, we would like to celebrate your birthday with you. You deserve even more than this…. Happy birthday, brother Samir.”

How amateurish was the Coliseum in Rome compared with modern-day satellite rituals of death and brutality. Imagine millions of living rooms watching their new role model, child-killer Kuntar, lowering a huge butcher knife onto his birthday cake to the sound of fireworks and male chorus: “This is the sword of the Arabs, Samir. Don’t cut the picture, cut on the side.”

Imagine millions of schoolchildren and educators receiving a lesson in moral philosophy from their new master: “To be honest,” Kuntar says, “our operation had both civilian and military targets…. There are no civilian targets, it’s ‘civilian’ in quotation marks. The Zionists themselves define the Israeli as a soldier who is on leave for 11 months every year.”

Imagine millions of democracy-hungry Arabs watching their most trusted TV station presenting a lesson in practical democracy, while the orchestra in the background is waiting for the next tune. Kuntar says, “[The assassination of Sadat] was a most wonderful operation…. It was a wonderful historical moment, which I hope will recur in similar cases.”

In a previous op-ed (New York Times, January 2007) I wrote: “It is important to extend a hand to the network because it can become a force for good. As Al-Jazeera on the whole feels the heat of world media attention, we can hope that it will learn to harness its popularity in the service of humanity, progress and moderation.”

Most analysts in the West felt that way in 2007: “Al-Jazeera is democracy in its infancy” was the prevailing mantra, and “you don’t slap an infant on the wrist before it learns to stand on its feet.”

That was in 2007, when we were still hopeful that the station’s lopsided reporting and anti-Western rhetoric could somehow be mitigated through professional dialogue. These hopes have all but dissipated this past year, when the station has committed itself unconditionally and unabashedly to the service of Hamas and Hezbollah. Today, we have much deeper concerns with Al-Jazeera — it is no longer a clash with journalistic standards but a clash with the norms of civilized society.

Why my friends in the mainstream media kept (and keep) silent about the Kuntarization of Al-Jazeera is a puzzle that I find hard to reconcile. Why the Wall Street Journal was the only major newspaper to allow discussion (Opinion, Aug. 16) of the ongoing Kuntarization of Arab society still challenges my understanding. Our charming infant is smashing windows now and poisoning pets in the neighborhood — a slap on the wrist is perhaps way overdue.

On Aug. 6, after the Israeli Government Press Office suspended services to the network for staging Kuntar’s birthday party, Al-Jazeera’s general director, Khanfar Wadah, admitted in a letter quoted in the newspaper, Ha’aretz, that “elements of the programme violated Al-Jazeera’s Code of Ethics” (Ha’aretz, Aug. 6). The letter did not specify though what items of Al-Jazeera’s code of ethics Wadah considered violated. Some regard this gesture to be an “apology” — it is not. An apology spells out the offense and outlines corrective actions.

Al-Jazeera owes a definitive public apology to be aired at least as broadly as Kuntar’s birthday party, not only to Israel but primarily to its viewers in the Arab world for attempting to turn their children into the likes of Kuntar; to the journalism community, for robbing the profession of its nobleness; and, most urgently, to us, citizens of this planet, for re-legitimizing barbarity in the public square.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org), named after his son, which promotes dialogue and understanding.