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MEMRI and Islam

This Middle East media institute is a potent partner in the anti-terrorism information war, writes Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 20:06 IST

MEMRI, the Middle East Media & Research Institute (http://www.memri.org/) is a very potent participation in the internet anti-terrorism information war and the war of ideas.

In a nutshell, it produces English translations of Arabic and Farsi newspaper--columns, speeches, articles and TV shows, usually opinions. The speeches, articles and TV shows are almost always strongly anti-Israeli, anti-Semitic, anti-West, anti-Christian (crusaders!), anti-American and other subjects along these lines. The authors are primarily based in the Middle East, stretching from Algeria to Pakistan, Turkey to Sudan. The newspaper coverage mostly relates to the tabloid media, opposition papers, Islamist newspapers, etc.

The primary cause of its popularity is that it sheds light on Arabic and Iranian thought, which would otherwise not be available to the generally English dominated think tanks, newspapers and interested parties of this side of the war on terror. As we also know, the local English language press in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa region) is usually elitist, tightly government controlled and the tenor of those newspapers and TV series is much more subdued and liberal than some of the other woollier and foaming tabloids.

Another aspect, which is usually ignored or not considered, is the Friday sermon in the mosques. These prayers are the most important ones of the week and over the years; I have observed a definitive rise in incidents following Friday prayers where the sermon was particularly vituperative. Rest of the day, it's less in intensity.

Many of these sermons are carried live on TV, many of them either state sponsored as in Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and most other MENA states, or they belong to opposition parties such as with Hamas in Lebanon and Palestine.

What MEMRI does is to have a team of researchers, analysts and translators who monitor the publications and speeches, turn them into English language translations and squirt them out into the internet either as well as updating their web site. Their web site is quite popular as evidenced by its Google page rank of 7/10 (BBC is 9/10, Al-Jazeera is 7/10) and immediately after publication, a whole host of other mailing lists, web sites, media organisations and think tanks pick them up to further propagate the translations.

In many cases, I have observed a reaction from the governments to questions raised by the international press (based upon MEMRI's translations) to their government spokesmen. Sometimes the reaction is adverse (nudge nudge, its freedom of speech, etc.) or its positives (thunderous denunciations of the beards).

As you can appreciate, this does not go down very well at all. Mainly speaking, it does not matter at all to the original authors, who don't give two hoots to what the western press, opinion makers or governments say or do about their utterances. After all, their audience or constituency are their local readers or local mosque worshippers, and they do not give a toss either.

But the main impact of this is not locally in the MENA countries, but in the MENA country intelligentsia, the media and the government. The major criticisms of MEMRI are therefore on these pages rather than deep down where the local original speech/article was written.

The first complaint is that it is a Jewish owned organisation. Obviously, the whole host of anti-Semitic rhetoric is levelled against this type of operation. A further criticism comes from the fact that some of the founders and staff actually worked in Israeli organisations, governmental and/or military. It is claimed that MEMRI is biased for Israel and anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, etc.

It is true that MEMRI rarely, if at all, comments on Israeli publications and some of the hot-headed speeches from some of the rabid wing of Israeli politics.

The second complaint against MEMRI is that it is not balanced. That in itself is a fair point, with almost all the translations homing into the foaming speeches and articles emanating from the MENA media. But then, MEMRI never claimed to present a fair, balanced and objective viewpoint. On the other hand, show me one media site immune to criticism on this point?

Even the BBC, the famed fair, objective and balanced media in the world, is frequently attacked for being biased, tilting once towards this side or that, and definitely not balanced. The BBC is even attacked by the ruling parties in the United Kingdom, and it is routinely attacked in the USA for being the publicly financed bogeyman, overrun with liberal thoughts and deeds.

Slightly down the scale is the NPR (National Public Radio) in the USA, which is again publicly funded. Take a gander at any other public institution, whether you are talking about the NY Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Sueddeutsche, Le Monde, Liberation', Reuters, Associated Press, AFP (Agence Française de Presse), The Times, The Telegraph, Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, LA Times, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, or Shimbun Konkan or Asahi. So if one draws a continuum between left leaning to right leaning, MEMRI definitely belongs to the right, but then there is never anything right in the middle.