The crisis in the Gulf has entered its third week, since a number of Gulf States including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain together with Egypt have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing it of destabilising the region. The crisis in the Gulf is complex and multilayered, and has understandably triggered varied responses inside and outside the region. What is baffling and frankly disappointing is the manner in which prominent Western media outlets have decided to take sides in the crisis.
The Economist wrote an incoherent article saying that American President Trump’s support for Saudi actions also damages America’s credibility. The article also claims “the accusation that wealthy Qataris fund terrorism is unproven.”
The New York Times (NYT) went even further, writing an editorial claiming that attacks on Qatar- based Al-Jazeera channel are “misguided.” The editorial said that “Qatar’s critics accuse the station of supporting Sunni Islamist terrorism and Iranian ambitions, but Saudi Arabia is hardly innocent when it comes to spreading Islamist extremism or supporting terrorist groups.” The editorial also assertively described the Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood as a “loose political network” that renounced violence, basing its argument on a link to another editorial defending the Muslim Brotherhood without providing solid evidence for such a passionate defense.
The Guardian has also joined the chorus, describing criticism of Al-Jazeera as “muzzling journalism,” part of an assault on free speech that should be condemned and resisted.
Moreover, these editorials are taken by Al-Jazeera and other Qatari outlets as certificates of “good behaviour” from the West. I stopped counting the number of times Al-Jazeera quoted those pieces in its 24/ 7 Arabic coverage of the Qatar crisis. In addition, such editorials are used deviously and indirectly to loosely blame the West collectively, not just the Trump administration, for the ongoing Gulf crisis. Those manufactured perceptions will fan more flames and feed existing hatred among many devoted Al-Jazeera Arab followers.
The behaviour of those Western media outlets reminds me of a similar pattern in Arabic media that I have witnessed from a very young age. Whenever a crisis emerged in the region between Arab states, Arab pundits and newspaper editorial boards took sides and started to shower opponents with accusations. The result has always been a constant state of polarization and confusion in which public opinion is shaped by distorted truth. I grew up yearning for the day I could read Western editorials and opinion pieces, assuming (rather naively) that the level of depth and professionalism would be much better. And it was; when I first moved to England, reading the printed editions of most prominent American and British outlets was simply a pleasure. Depth and nuance and covering various angles of conflicts have always been the staples of Western journalism.
Not any more. Recently a new trend has emerged, in which liberal journalists seem to think that defending Islamism, particularly after the failure of the various Arab uprisings, is a moral duty against the various autocratic leaders in the Middle East. Editorials defending political Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and its patron nations like Qatar has become a recurring theme. Legitimate accusations against Islamists are downplayed, dismissed, or ignored altogether. Balance, nuance, and depth in covering the region’s complex crises have become a rarity these days; shallowness, instead, is now the journalistic neo-norm. The easy way to defend the Brotherhood Islamism and its patron Qatar is to write about Saudi Salafism and Egypt’s Sisi oppression. Both are indeed facts, but both are also part of a complex and intertwined net of events in which Islamists are not innocent victims.
Qatar’s support of the Brotherhood’s style of Islamism is problematic mainly because of its deceptive faux moderate veneer and its disingenuous support of democracy, while it is as autocratic and oppressive as the autocratic leadership they claim to oppose. If Qatar is truly moderate, it will not tolerate Al-Jazeera Arabic’s open sectarian tone, and it will not allow its Doha- based anchors and scholars to spread hatred and xenophobia. Since 2011, none of the Qatar-based activists, pundits, or scholars has once advocated harmony or reconciliation; instead they feed more anger, hatred, and division.
In 2016, well before the current crisis, an opinion piece in the Guardian highlighted what is wrong with Al-Jazeera, and how it is now a shadow of its former idealistic self. Sadly, Al-Jazeera has ignored calls for balance and continued with partisan venom in its coverage of the region’s crisis Western media defend an Al-Jazeera that once was, not the current channel, which is an ugly version of its earlier form.
As much as I respect all the above Western outlets, I hope they reconsider their stance. The last thing Western media should do in handling the poisonous climate in the Middle East is to be seen as taking sides. Standing with Al-Jazeera or against boycotting Qatar may sound moral to the editorial boards of the top liberal Western outlets, but it is not; it is actually an act of counter-muzzling of the truth in a region where the shades of grey are not that distinctively lighter from each other. One can stand with free speech, but also against hatred, dualism, and deception.