BEIRUT — To grasp quickly the core of the Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirates (UAE) accusations against Qatar, it is best to focus on the demand that the Aljazeera television, radio, and online network should be closed, along with half a dozen other media operations that Qatar initiated or funds. Aljazeera has become a proxy of sorts for all the things that the Saudi-Emirati camp fears will happen in the Arab region and inside their own borders — free flow of information, public debate of ideas, peaceful contestation among different social and political ideologies, all quarters of society holding each other accountable through constitutional means, and activist citizen organizations engaging each other and their governments in a public sphere.
The Saudi-Emirati demand to close Aljazeera mirrors the central modern Arab tradition since the 1950s of governments tightly controlling the flow of information and facts and the exchange of ideas in society. This has destroyed much of the human vitality and national integrity of many Arab societies, leading to the sad, violent state of our region today. It is no surprise that some Arab elites want to keep things this way; Aljazeera shows that the majority of Arab men and women want otherwise.
In my entire career in mass media in Arab countries, I have witnessed first-hand the destructive consequences of governments treating their citizens like children who are not mature enough to know what to access in the realm of knowledge, culture, and ideas. This has been the single most destructive legacy of the military regimes that took power across our region in the 1940s and 50s, manifested in ministries of information that were quickly adopted by all other Arab governments.
The current debate on the ultimatum to close Aljazeera mostly revolves around whether Aljazeera, in fact, was so journalistically unprofessional and politically dangerous that it deserved to be closed. Such discussions are totally tangential to the real issues at hand, because the important debate we should be having is the following: What has been more destructive to the wellbeing of Arab societies: the legacy and impact of Aljazeera in the past 20 years, or the combined impact of the authoritarian information and media systems and mind control institutions that Arab governments have operated for the past 75 years or so?
Aljazeera gained immense, instant popularity across the region because it responded to a very basic human instinct that Arab governments had denied three generations of their citizens: the capacity to live as a full human being, able to speak one’s mind, hear a variety of other people’s views, learn about the real world as it actually is, debate ideas, experience new cultural expressions, and question in public how one’s society was developing and being managed. A foundational element of human dignity is to be treated with respect as a rational, thinking, feeling individual — rather than as cattle to be herded, or a robot to be programmed.
It is no accident that Aljazeera reached its peak during the 2010-11 Arab uprisings, which captured the spontaneous activism of hundreds of millions of ordinary men and women who wanted to practice in their lives what they saw being practiced on Aljazeera’s screens. They wanted to break free from their dead-end lives that were doomed to misery because of the unfair and unjustified total controls that their security-anchored governments exercised on them in virtually every sphere of life except for consumer shopping, real estate speculation, and, of course, emigration.
Aljazeera was the first pan-Arab manifestation of how one could live a life of dignity in one’s one home — but only in the digital media realm. The knowledge and pluralistic ideas that citizens gleaned from Aljazeera did not translate into action in the political realm that shaped people’s life conditions, or other dimensions of one’s life, like education, employment, or culture. By 2010-11, hundreds of millions of Arab citizens who had tasted the sweet nectar of intellectual freedom from a satellite dish agitated spontaneously to achieve freedom in the other dimensions of their lives.
Those protests and uprisings failed, because the local and foreign forces that fought back against the idea of freedom and pluralism as core Arab life attributes were too strong, too brutal, and too organized to be resisted. We have moved since then to today’s armed resistance, civil wars, state collapse, the rise of new groups of militant takfiri-salafists like Islamic State, and widespread direct foreign military intervention on a scale, perhaps, never witnessed anywhere in the world.
We can trace this entire complex cycle back to the foundational weakness in the modern Arab world: autocratic governments’ use of information controls that made it impossible for their citizens to use their full minds. Most Arab governments still do this. The intense focus on closing Aljazeera should remind us of these continuing constraints and crippling traditions that transformed a once promising and dynamic developmental Arab region last century into a hobbled bevy of lands whose hundreds of millions of citizens are only allowed to use portions of their minds.
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative. He can be followed on Twitter @ramikhouri
Copyright ©2017 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
Released: 04 July 2017
Word Count: 836
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