Speak Out
UK grad student and new author searches
for freedom of speech
By Adel Iskandar

Adel Iskandar UK graduate student and co-author of Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East
ith all the current turmoil involving the Middle East, it seems convenient to assume that there is little similarity between the U.S. and the Arab world-that somehow the word "Arab-American" is an inherent contradiction. The idea of the clash of civilization has become so popularized that it feeds into this machinery of stereotypical imagery. My personal experience and that of many Arabs proves otherwise.

From my earliest childhood years, like many my age I was completely intrigued by the television. Before the debate on media violence got to Kuwait City, I had already consumed endless episodes of mind-numbing cartoons (even the early Japanese animé) and Arab and American film. In many ways it brought me closer to world's I could not taste and see otherwise. I too had marveled at Mr. T's do from the A-Team and wished I owned the miracle car from Knight Rider. I too had searched the aisles of Kids "R" Us (Kuwait's branch of the chain Toys "R" Us) for that last He-Man sword.

In many respects growing up in the Muslim Middle East is sometimes no different to growing up in the United States. I remember finally mastering the moonwalk, only to realize that by the time I had, Michael Jackson was out of fashion everywhere expect Gary, Indiana. Or worse yet, I was demoralized to learn that Canadians loathed their homegrown Celine Dion more than the world adored her. So my sense of pop culture fashion was slightly lagging, but I had gotten my fair dosage. But the similarities are not limited to the superficialities of recording company ploys.

Instead the Arab peoples, in their quest for freedom of speech, share the very same ideals as in the West.

Curbing Dissent

Ideals may be shared, but freedoms are often not.

The right to speak is the cornerstone of any democratic entity. Infringement upon this right has been the most effective way of curbing all forms of dissent and criticism, something the Arab world has lived with for decades.

Living between East and West since my early childhood, I noticed very early the disparity between the kinds of freedoms people enjoyed in the west and were denied in the Arab world.

One needed to be acutely aware of what to say and when to say it in the Arab world. The caution people exercised simply to be able to survive, especially during times of war, was extremely oppressive.

It didn't take me long to realize that the tyrannical rule of someone like Saddam Hussein and everything that it gave rise to-the blackened smoggy skies over Kuwait from the torched oilfields and the thousands of dehydrated refugees camped out under the scorching desert sun-is a result of restraining people's right to speak.

As a teenager in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion, I lived some of these realities firsthand. Nowhere was it more apparent than during Saddam's media campaign during the first of six weeks of his invasion.

He fabricated and staged an entire scenario selling the annexation as an internal coup (with limited support from the Iraqi army) led by Kuwaiti officers to depose the monarchy. All of this was broadcast to residents in Kuwait and Iraq via televisions and radios courtesy of Saddam's propaganda machine. What he had not accounted for was how savvy this media audience had become. Most people tuned in to other regional and foreign networks like Voice of America, BBC, and for those with a satellite dish, CNN. There was no hiding the fact that it was a full-scale Iraqi invasion. The public was clearly resisting media control in their own subversive way.

Not an overstatement of how freedom of speech is curbed in some places, I'm often reminded by the scene from The Matrix where Neo is interrogated by the agent and he demands his phone call. This is a scene that epitomizes one of humanity's primal fears, the fear of losing one's voice.

"Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a phone call if you are unable to speak?" responds the agent, at which time Neo's lips somehow meld together and his mouth is sealed shut. Real-life Neos are everywhere. People who have something to say, but cannot.

For example, in Sierra Leone's ongoing war, the rebel forces once ravaged the capital Freetown in what they called Operation No Living Thing. They arbitrarily killed, raped, and burned anything in sight. But in history's timeline of atrocities, this operation is most notorious for the rebels' amputation of civilian's hands, arms, feet and tongues. The victims cannot use their hands to vote or work in the diamond mines. The rebels also made sure that some would never speak their mind again.

The voice of Al-Jazeera

For the last two years, since I moved to Kentucky, I have found the best environment in which to enrich my knowledge. It was soon after my arrival that I became intrigued by the workings of one particular satellite television network in the Middle East.

Its characteristically critical coverage and provocative talk show style attracted audiences throughout the Arab world and outside, including myself. In an area where freedom of the press is not protected by legal or legislative bindings, Al-Jazeera was quite the ugly duckling. More important than anything else was its ability to give voice to those whose critical views had been silenced for decades under the iron firsts of the region's authoritarian regimes.

The majority of press the station got in the U.S. was extremely favorable with some even calling it the "sole voice for democratic expression on Arab TV screens."

It wasn't until September 11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan that overnight, I found my soon-to-be dissertation project all over national television. The obscure double-barreled name "Al-Jazeera" struck the top of every news bulletin in the United States. But the picture wasn't rosy.

While Al-Jazeera's connections had secured it access to the Taliban, and was able to get exclusive Bin Laden videos, the American press launched a campaign that discredited the network, accusing it of serving Bin Laden's cause.

This came to me as a surprise and I was adamant about ensuring the whole picture got out to the American public. The early calls sounding in executive hallways for closing down the network would undermine the only free-wheeling open network in the region, in what I felt would be a major blow to democratic expression in the Arab world.

The book with the longest ever subtitle, "Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East," a collaboration with a friend and colleague Dr. Mohammed el-Nawawy in Pensacola, Florida, emerged out of this vision.

Part of the argument in Al-Jazeera is built on the idea that there are often drastic results to curbing public expression. There is no clearer example than that of the diabolical Bin Laden. What fertile grounds, besides restrictive coercive governance and the absence of free expression, could breed such criminal and morbid lunacy? Had there been open democratic discussion among the public in the Arab world, militant fanaticism would not have won so many recruits.

With such grave consequences, I feel there is absolutely no substitute to an immediate change in Middle Eastern policy that respects freedom of speech, enshrines it in national constitutions, and broadcasts it on the airwaves. Anything short of this would be a treatment of the symptom, not a cure for the disease. These are the policies that we need to support.

The Book Trail

To best explain the only network with the courage to speak out in the Arab world, someone had to do the speaking.

Mohammed and I found ourselves in the right place at the right time to do so. The book was on an absolute fast track to meet the market's demand for information about Al-Jazeera and Arab media. Having been invited to speak at the prestigious Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City (C-Span's BookTV), it's been the most rewarding experience in my life, and quite the trip for a graduate student.

Out of the blue, I was being asked to do interviews on radio shows from L.A. to towns whose names I couldn't pronounce.

A few days ago, I was invited to present on coverage of the Intifada and Israeli Incursions in the U.S. & Arab media at the Foreign Policy Association in NYC.

What more could an advocate of "free speech" ask for (pun intended)?

However, this few-month "excursion" has had less glorious moments.

In one interview with a Vancouver radio station, the show's host interrupted me to ask me if I knew through my contacts with Al-Jazeera where Bin Laden was!!! Not sure whether the interviewer was being serious or facetious, I answered "Bin Laden was on the cover of TIME."

He didn't sound too amused.

My co-author has also faced quite some backlash. He received an email from a former student who said she was disappointed by his defense of Al-Jazeera and was outraged by the book's title. She remarked that the words "Arab" and "Free" should not be in the same sentence together and that it was an oxymoron.

No comment!

Once you've been given the mic to speak, that is when people want to know who you are speaking for. You must be representing someone else or are advocating the agenda of some group.

Especially with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its highest point in years, readers often remark that one writer is either pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. Somehow one cannot be both. It is a true crisis of representation. A crisis where everything people say must be attributed to someone other than themselves. One cannot speak solely for him/herself.

One of the more dramatic examples was when I was told by a staff person at ABC that the reason I was selected for Politically Incorrect was to present the "Arab" side.

I naively asked, "which Arab side?"

He replied pressingly, "all of them."

The thought of representing the entire Arab world, and to be expected to answer in defense of anything Arab, seemed preposterous.

On the set of the show, this point was reiterated to me when one of the coordinators said that Bill Maher was adamantly pro-Israeli and that I was invited on the show to be heckled by him.

Now that they had flown me out to L.A. and I was in the studio greenroom half an hour before taping, I knew they wouldn't turn their back on me.

So I mustered the energy to say, "The only person I'm speaking for today is me."

That gave me relief that lasted until the camera started rolling.

Author's Note: I cannot overstate the support I have gotten from everyone at the University of Kentucky and the city that I feel has adopted me. Had it not been for their commitment to challenge me, none of this would have come to fruition.

Silence Came Early

For most four-year-olds, the kindergarten classroom can be quite intimidating. Even more so for this one child. For days he has not uttered a word to anyone. The first week's report to his parents was even more alarming. There was consensus that little Adel's complete silence was evidence that he had a disability which prevented him from understanding and responding to his teachers. His parents remember vividly the meeting they had with the teacher who tested the little boy.

"How old are you?" she asked the child. His mother patting him on the back urging him to speak, he stared back at the teacher with a blank face.

"Do you like to play?" No reply.

"Ok then, what's your name?" Silence. The principal urged the family to seek schooling for their child in a special needs institution but the parents refused and convinced him to reinstate their son.

Many years down the line, there are few days when I find myself regressing back to that time in my life when I had nothing to say or worse yet, that I felt unworthy of speaking. In retrospect, I'm comforted in knowing that unlike many circumstances that I have witnessed, my silence was voluntary rather than imposed.

When I moved to North America in 1993, I realized how intangible culture really is. During my undergraduate days at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, I dedicated much of my time to advocating for Arab and international students on campus, a task that gave me both pleasure and pride. I became a liaison for a small group of disenfranchised minority students that forged a new home in this new land. But with speech comes privilege. In numerous circumstances, I would try to raise issues to university councils, municipal committees, and other boards, but to no avail. What had I done to earn the right to speak? If the "license" doesn't come soon, one is prone to losing hope and resorting instead to silence.

Two weeks before appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, I received a call from the show's producer, a surprisingly soft-spoken lady who during a screening courteously asked me if I had stage fright, if I ever got anxious on a set, or ever got stumped and couldn't reply during a question/answer period. I instantly recalled the kindergarten teacher's question session. This was the time to exercise my right to speak. So I took a deep breath and said, "No."

Making the rounds
with Bill Maher

Going on the show was like stepping in to the ring with Tyson (minus the ear bite). Lacing up the gloves, Bill Maher is out of sight until recording time. He is in the confines preparing his battle plan.

Guests are taken aside one at a time to a small undecorated room containing little more than two chairs. The show's writer interrogates each guest on their stance, as if to ask whether they prefer the upper cut or jab.

Once on the set, the coliseum pillars are in the background, the studio audience is peering, you're seated in what looks like the four corners of a ring-armed with nothing more than a cup of coffee. Maher comes in with his well-researched portfolio and handy note cards. The countdown announces the commencement of round one.

The highlight of the show, at least for me, was when I informed him that although I am an Arab, I am Christian. Before recording and during commercial breaks, he had addressed me and another guest as "the Muslim folk." In an attempt to showcase his ignorant assumption that Arab and Muslim are synonymous and perhaps to score a few points with the judges, I chose to correct him on the record instead. Finally the moment came in the second round where I made my announcement. It was a head blow. He stuttered and looked perplexed for a couple of seconds. It felt like a KO and I was jubilant. My celebration was short lived; he would soon recover to show me whose home turf this was.

Shows like Politically Incorrect are hard to come by these days. While Maher may not have the loyal admiration of wide viewership, he has set a precedent with his program. One of the few shows now on TV where "anything goes," it is reminiscent of some of Al-Jazeera's programs. But things haven't been the same for Maher since Sept 11. The cancellation of PI, announced less than two weeks after the episode I was on, demonstrated that network officials are not prepared to take risks with the politics of patriotism.

Many media critics and activists have argued that unplugging the show is a sign of our rapidly diminishing civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech. Interestingly, many of these critics could not swallow Maher's cynicism until he became their sacrificial lamb. However, there is an element of irony here. Why would one hold a show conveniently titled "politically incorrect" to a code of political correctness?