Monday, September 24, 2007

Mission Al Jazeera: Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World

A 14-year veteran U.S. Marine officer, a Texan, working for Al Jazeera, the reputed “Terrorist Network”?

First of all, says author Josh Rushing, Al Jazeera is not the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda, as U.S. propaganda claims. It is the only nongovernmental 24-hour news network to reach the Arab world and its cutting edge technology allows it to be viewed by 100 million people all over the world, which means that it is aired mostly to a non-Arabic audience.

Al Jazeera English (www.aljazeera.net/English), first launched on November 15, 2006, is viewed by people who can speak English as their first, second or third language. The network is very popular in Europe, however, and not widely available in the United States except on the Internet.

The news content of Al Jazeera doesn’t worry about being “fair and balanced” as much as it tries to “speak truth to power.” In other words, the network seeks to re-make the international news paradigm by presenting stories from the perspective of the developing world, the poor countries, instead of from the perspective of the wealthy nations only, as the BBC does. Rushing likens Al Jazeera to “David standing up to the Goliath of the Western world.”

Al Jazeera also takes on controversial issues that most of its viewers have not heard about including homosexuality, women’s rights and critiques on the Koran and policy initiatives in the Middle East. It invites Israelis to speak more than any other network in the world outside of Israel. The network is not without its critics—from all sides of the political spectrum—but it appreciates such assessments as a validation of its credibility.

Al Jazeera was created and is supported by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. Located on a small peninsula on the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia, population 841,000, Qatar is one of the most liberal countries of the Arab world. The emir is one of the richest men, too, and he is trying to win the power game against his rival, Saudi Arabia through Al Jazeera. He also played the power card by giving the Americans permission to build a base in Qatar for U.S. Central Command (CentCom).

But how did Rushing become a reporter for Al Jazeera? He begins with some autobiographical background. After high school Rushing enlisted in the Marines and then earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in classical civilization and ancient history. He subsequently served as a Hollywood military movie consultant and participated in overseeing the TV show, JAG.

Before the war began, Lieutenant Rushing was assigned to Doha, Qatar, headquarters for CentCom, which is responsible for all military matters from Sudan to Kazakhstan, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. A curious fellow, Rushing excitedly took on the task by studying Arabic as well as the culture of the Middle East. This work helped him to form relationships with journalists from Al Jazeera, one of several news outlets he had been assigned to serve as media spokesman.

It wasn’t long, however, before he realized that the military had not planned its media strategy for the war. Worse yet, the military did not know much about Al Jazeera or the negative sentiments against the United States that were pervading the region.

“Al Jazeera offered us a chance to engage the ideologies that fueled 9/11,” said Rushing who tried to convince senior officers to pay attention to Al Jazeera in order to convey America’s purpose in the region and the larger war on terrorism. His ideas for “building this information bridge” were not only brushed aside, he was even called a traitor. Eventually, Rushing also found out that the military would handle news from Iraq through the Bush administration’s political handlers who pursued a “public relations” effort.

Public affairs and public relations are vastly different, says Rushing. Public affairs is designed to inform the public about what is going on while public relations explains the reasoning behind the decisions. PR is akin to propaganda. So instead of being the “constitutional watch dog” that he had been trained to be, Rushing was to pressed to be a PR flack “promoting the whims of politicians.” And while he claims he was never directly ordered to lie, he certainly knew he had to follow a script.

Rushing’s brief time in the war took an unexpected turn after he inadvertently and unknowingly became the main character of an independent documentary called Control Room, which reveals the international perceptions of the United States’ war with Iraq. Although Rushing at first believed in the cause of the war and the way it could serve a greater good, the film portrays him as a changed Marine with a conscience. He speaks about his empathy for dead Iraqis, his view of the war and his growing skepticism of the cause when he learned that the world saw America’s action in Iraq as “naked aggression.”

His appearance in Control Room did not win him any favors with the Pentagon as he—and his wife—were silenced from speaking to the press. Once the film became more popular and he more famous, Rushing understood that his career with the Marines was over so in August 2004, he resigned his commission. Later, the opportunity to work for Al Jazeera opened up as a result of his appearance in the film.

Rushing’s goal in working for Al Jazeera is to help Americans discover the Middle Eastern point of view, especially since September 11 proved that America could no longer afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world. He says that Americans—and our leaders—must realize that others’ perceptions of our country do matter, especially since we are a global political and economic power and he confesses that he is “dumbfounded” that most Americans still are neither interested in or knowledgeable about the Arab world.

The book is an eye-opener for readers as they watch the transformation of a gung-ho Marine stationed at the command center of the Iraq War become a correspondent for Al Jazeera. It reads quickly and clearly and provides yet another eyewitness testimony of how the war in Iraq has been waged.

This book review was published in America magazine on September 10, 2007.

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