I doubt anyone would dispute that Al Jazeera is the most celebrated name in contemporary Arab media.
I also think no one would contest the fact that this status presents a curious precedent in the history of the dissemination, either through print or audio-visually, of the value-laden word.
Simply put, Al Jazeera broke the mould.
Before Al Jazeera the world’s media had distinct national identities that obeyed five cardinal rules.
1. They served as the voice of a nation. That voice might be low key and dignified or raucous and strident, but at some level it was presumed to air, implicitly or explicitly, the concerns and interests of the country in which it was based.
2. There was an intrinsic connection between a given media and the political thought and activity of its home base. The verbal and visually illustrated message this voice conveyed was a vital and integral component of the society's public life.
3. It followed that, in general, the power and influence of a given national media was proportional to the power and influence of the country in which it was based. The media of the mightiest was the mightiest media.
4. In addition, every national media was a projection of the predominant character of its home nation. It spoke the national tongue, its points of articulation and emphasis reflected national tastes and preferences, its inflections and intonations were gauges of the national temper. You could even put a face to it; the newscasters, show hosts, and other presenters were almost invariably natives of the land in which the media made its headquarters.
5. Finally, all of these elements were fused together and compressed into the media message, generating, in effect, political-cultural aerosol canisters. These canisters, when pressed, released intensive bursts of identifiable national fragrances, which may have varied in quality and strength, but as the origin was one, the voice was one, and the politics were one - they were ultimately variations on a theme.
These five rules were set out in the 19th century by the media of colonialist empires Britain and France, and continued to apply throughout the 20th century with the rise of the American empire.
The Arab media never departed from these rules. Across the various phases of political awakening and upsurge in the Arab world, the influence of the media (where it emerged) was directly proportional to the influence of the political centres in the region as they rose and fell according to the vicissitudes of their dynamism and fecundity, or stagnation and desiccation.
Yet Al Jazeera managed to depart from the norm. It could do so because these five rules had very little to do with its founding and operations. On the contrary, something completely different applied, and this is what made Al Jazeera an exception.
When confronted with an anomaly of this sort, the first thing we should do is what we do whenever we try to solve a problem: go back to its roots. There, at the very origin, we can find the seed, the primal impetuses, the causes of growth, and the conditions that nourished and directed its course of development.
In the case of Al Jazeera, the impetus for its creation coincided with certain human conditions and a particular climate that prevailed in the Arab world at a specific point in time. In tracing the origins of this anomaly, we must probe three co-ordinates: the historical moment, the human environment and the political climate.
- 1 -
The idea of Al Jazeera germinated and took root in the mid 1990s. It was a moment laden with uncertainty. The sun of a stormy century was about to set and the pre-dawn aura of the coming millenium glimmered in shades of red.
Some corners of the globe saw in this horizon predominantly rosy hues. Not, unfortunately, the Arab world, which was edging perilously close to the fiery-red end of the spectrum.
At the threshold of the 21st century, the Arab world stood more exposed to itself and to others than ever before. It was embarrassingly naked, weak and faint; every wound and putrid sore laid bare, with no antiseptic in sight to clean them and no bandages within reach to staunch the bleeding, to ward off further infection or merely conceal the odious sight.
This was hardly surprising, because by this point in time the Arab world had done more to harm itself than its enemies could ever have prayed for. With a present in the clutches of the past and a past quaking before the tribunal of the present, country set itself against country, domestic faction upon domestic faction, in a frenzy of settling old and seething scores. The result was an orgy of futile self-destruction that lasted a full 20 years, from 1975 to 1995.
During the first 10 years of this period (1975-1985), the Arab world poured itself into the task of loosing its moorings, without pausing to discriminate between which exigencies of change were most demanding and which moorings were still vital for survival.
During the second 10 years (1985-1995), the Arab world, now set adrift, was buffeted by storms and tossed by winds to ever darker and more hazardous waters, with no compass to guide it and no sense of a destination of its own.
The first 10 years – the decade of severing the moorings – was kicked off by Egypt. Proclaiming that the Arab victory of October 1973 heralded an end to the Arab-Israeli wars, Egypt entered a separate treaty with Israel.
It had been driven to this solution by the illusion that 99 per cent of the keys to solving the problems of the Middle East were held by the US and that the future of our economic and social development was contingent upon an enormous cheque signed by Washington and made out to a Marshall Plan for the region.
But Egypt was not alone in succumbing to this illusion. And, the more it caught on elsewhere in the Arab world, the less heed was paid to considerations of Arab national security.
The more Arabs grasped at the mirage of peace around the corner where pots of cash for development were just there for the asking, the more they gave in to the belief that resistance – Palestinian or otherwise – was a blind and obstinate holdout against the golden promise of the future.
Eventually, the situation reached a stage where the Arab world seemed on the verge of jettisoning its all-embracing Arab bond. The ties of common language, history and culture went overboard as Arabs hastened to hem themselves into narrow geopolitical frameworks in the hope of luring even narrower interests.
The once expansive geographic swathe of the Arab world was torn into patches of sub-regional clusters, all inexorably moving away from one another. One emerged in the Gulf coalescing around Riyadh; another in the Fertile Crescent with Cairo and Baghdad dominating its poles, and a third in North Africa, over which Morocco and Algeria vied for leadership.
As the grip of self-deception grew tighter and vantage points further apart, Arab national security was left with nothing to stand on, apart from some wobbly substance called "international legitimacy."
Out of resignation or sheer laziness, the powers-that-be in the Arab world began to play this card incessantly, overlooking the fact that legitimacy needs power to back it up. Law without the power to enforce it leaves rights and principles naked and defenseless.
Ten years of idle illusion were followed by ten years of frenzied folly. Lebanon, by now, had been sucked into the vortex of civil war, which handed the country torn and bedraggled to an Israeli occupation that dug its claws into the heart of Beirut.
To the east, Iraq and Iran had plunged into eight long years of mutual destruction, wreaking untold havoc on Arab national security, resources and morale.
Meanwhile, Arab fundamentalists suddenly turned their sights further north, having woken up one night to discover their enemy was no longer Israel but the Soviet Union and that it was their foremost religious duty to wage holy war against atheism in Afghanistan.
Then, all of a sudden, Iraq pounced on Kuwait and the world pounced back and defeated Iraq, and from there it was on to the Oslo quagmire.
While the Arab world was being eroded at the fringes, social political and economic plights were gnawing away at the bases of legitimacy of many Arab regimes, inviting the spectre of civil strife.
At the same time, wherever one looked one found evidence that Israel, as small as it was, was stealthily asserting itself as the predominant regional power in the Middle East. More ominous yet, this was occurring at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union – the earthquake that shook the international balance of powers to the ground.
Soon afterwards, the region was thrown into panic as alarms sounded the advent of a new global order in which there was no place for the Arabs, and sirens warned of an encroaching globalisation that would swallow them whole if they didn't seize the opportunity (for which they were unprepared) to catch up with modern technology (for which they were ill-equipped). The Arabs thus found themselves teetering at the brink of a new century, facing the inevitable fate of sliding or being pushed in without knowing how to swim.
In general, at this historic moment in the 1990s, the Arab world appeared to have forfeited all control over its own destiny.
It seemed that it no longer had any choice but to reap the consequences of its self-inflicted wounds and then bow to the dictates of the contemporary era and the laws of the times, which only recognise and pause to heed those who have power and know how to use it.
- 2 -
The human state in the region was, on the surface, reminiscent of Winston Churchill's vivid depiction of the British nation during that critical moment at the outset of World War II after the German invasion of Europe and the fall of Paris in June 1940.
In The Gathering Storm, the famous British statesman writes that England resembled one of those crustaceans that had been dashed by a storm against the rocks and now lay with its shell broken and its tender flesh exposed.
However, Britain realised what had hit it and, driven by the pure will to survive, began to swim, forcing itself onwards, until it reached a sheltered cove on the shores of one of the British isles.
There, in the safety of that refuge, it summoned its instinctive powers of resistance until it grew a new shell, and once this was hard enough to protect the tender flesh below, it took to the open seas again.
To a considerable extent, this was the state of the Arab world in the mid-1990s: its outer shell was smashed. However, rather than having been tossed by a storm, it had hurled itself against the rocks.
Still, the body inside could be rescued, despite the severity of the wounds. And in the heart, there was sufficient will to summon the power of resistance and search for safe refuge.
Yet, for humans, unlike marine animals, summoning the power of resistance is a process that must engage, not the physical instincts, but the mind: the seat of the will, the guardian of the collective memory and the repository of cultural legacy.
And, by its very nature, the first thing the mind requires in order to function is knowledge. Knowledge begins by asking questions such as: Where are we? What's out there?
How do we get a closer look? How do we ascertain our findings? How are we going to deliberate over these matters among ourselves? Then, how are we going to put our ideas to the test as the first step towards getting on our feet again, toward locating that outlet or current or platform that will serve as the beginning of a bridge connecting us to the world abroad and the contemporary age?
What is important, here, is not so much which questions we ask but that we continue to question. The spirit of inquiry must spur us around the clock. It must keep us alert during the daytime and vigilant until dawn.
It must urge us forward to explore unfamiliar worlds and new horizons. The answers we come up with may prove right or they may prove wrong. In both cases we ultimately gain.
So why do opinions continue to conflict and even clash with such obstinacy and pride? Perhaps a ray of light will illuminate.
At that particular historical moment, just as the Arab world was in this state, a tiny spot situated on a slip of land reaching out into the waters of the Gulf was in search of itself.
It was trying to discover a foothold on life and a path to the future. The people there knew they did not possess the power of the mighty, the wealth of the rich, or the arms of conquerors. Nevertheless, through sheer determination they arrived at a conception for a homegrown civilising project that would present itself to the region and pray the region responded.
At that moment in the mid-nineties the idea of Al Jazeera was born. The name itself was inspired. Translated as "The Island", it signified a refuge from the ocean's surging waves and ferocious predators. But, even setting aside its project for the future, its very choice of location begged several critical questions:
- Could it, in that location, rise to the tasks expected of it at this particular historical moment, even if those tasks were not yet exactly clear?
- If so, would it then be able to sustain the push and pull of the tides, the rush of conflicting currents?
- If it could surmount these difficulties, could it take itself to sea and venture towards broader and deeper horizons?
- In so doing, would it be able to safeguard its existence, its accomplishments and aims, in spite of its location in a small country that lays no claim to superior might, wealth or influence?
- In sum, would it be possible to produce a powerful media without a great power behind it?
At that particular time, with the knowledge of who they were and who they were not, and what they hoped to accomplish, some people on that slip of land jutting out into the Gulf knew what they had to do.
They saw an opening, they peered closer, they looked around and took stock of what was out there, they listened to the voices coming from the sea and on the wind, and then they took the leap.
- 3 -
The climate that prevailed at the time was relatively favourable to a meeting between a project hoping for a breakthrough, and a small country with no power or influence to speak of but a powerful cultural ambition.
That meeting between ambition and need felt right. Of course there were some moments of doubt and confusion, but at that juncture of history at the transition from one century to another, the world was moving and shifting in a way that seemed conducive to making this meeting a success.
For various reasons, the conventional foundations of power were changing and one of the most significant historical changes was that strength increasingly began to rest, not on mass, but energy.
The ability to act was no longer contingent upon imperial might but upon the will, the stamina and the acumen to map out the future and stake one's place in it through an open-eyed process of trial and error.
To be fair, a few similar ventures emerged at the time. However, Al Jazeera had the advantage of being an exception to the five conventional rules for powerful media.
It had the vision at a time when it was possible to stand on one's own without the stamp of a particular nation's sovereignty, power, identity and policy.
A national tongue or predominant dialect was not an obstacle. And, it did not have to rise to some demand for political-cultural aerosol canisters. Al Jazeera, thus, stood out from the rest.
The horizons before it were wide open and unrestricted: news sources, ideas and knowledge are not obstructed by guards or kept under lock and key.
Above all, it boasted incredible diversity in professional skills and experience, in personal background and origins, in outlook and fields of expertise, in political ideology and temperament, all of which made for a very fertile human amalgam and a stimulating and prolific give and take of ideas.
The point of departure for this exception was where vision superseded might. When a human demand or quest finds a vision, the usual calculations fall to the wayside, barricades lift, red lines vanish.
After all, it is the intrinsic nature of vision to soar above rugged terrain, over barriers and through the air, oblivious to climatic changes, hot and cold, clear and cloudy.
At this point a qualitative shift occurred - from the calculations of launching a project, to the chemistry of realising a vision.
The story of Al Jazeera, as a project, is well known: you can point to its place of birth on a map, the date of inception is public record, you can look up the names of its founders and staff on file and, anyway, a good many of them are now household names in the Arab world.
However, adding these factors together does not define Al Jazeera. To explain that phenomenon we have to move from arithmetic to another branch of science.
In simple maths the sum is the product of its component parts, each of which, regardless of how many they are, retains its discrete identity.
This is not the case in such sciences as physics and chemistry, where processes such as catalysis, fusion and synthesis become the keys to unravelling mystery.
In these sciences, energy, as opposed to mass, creates an amalgam that is much stronger than the sum of its component parts.
This is precisely what occurred when a historical moment, a human condition, a political climate, a spot on the globe and a civilisational drive converged to produce that unique and now world-famous experiment in history's chemistry and physics.
Mohamed Hassanein Heikal is the most prolific and influential presidential chronicler in Egypt's modern history and has been translated into 30 languages. He started his professional career as a trainee with the Egyptian Gazette in 1942 and worked for several papers and magazines. As chief editor of Al Ahram for 17 years, he turned it into one of the biggest media organisations in the Arab world. He has written many books such as Autumn of Fury, The Road to Ramadan and The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations. Some of his works have been translated into 30 languages.