Al Jazeera Television: Rhetoric of Deflection
Had the age of enslavement [colonialism] truly disappeared, as Nasser foretold right after the revolution, or had it only been replaced by another form of enslavement? National enslavement, that is, which renders Nasser’s cry “raise your head high, my brother” meaningless.
In this question, al-Qasim emphasizes the divide between the viewers’ passion for national liberation and Nasserism, by stressing that Nasserism is a mere romantic, sloganistic call that has ushered in a new age of enslaving the Arab masses in the name of national liberation and Arab unity. By depriving Arab nationalism of its basic component—a liberational ideology—al-Qasim invites prudent viewers to revise their pro-Nasserist attitude based on facts; facts that he stresses in each of the questions he then poses:
Didn’t Abdul Nasser bolster the one-man regime, which was catastrophic for all Arabs? Isn’t the state of suppression, oppression, tyranny and dictatorship, which has ruined the Arab nation, a mere replica of the Nasser era?
Who passed on the legacy of hero worship and the idolization of leaders who were the Arabs’ worst evil, and what an evil?
While in the preceding questions al-Qasim detaches Nasserism from the audience’s passion for liberation, unity and political progress, in this set of questions he attaches Nasserism to that which the Arab masses hate and object to, a present reality of tyrannical, autocratic regimes that enslave and oppress them. This point of identification between Nasserism and tyranny thus triggers in the minds of the viewers an alternative identification with a less tyrannical Arab regime that meets some of their basic hopes, needs and expectations, i.e. Qatar. Thus, the self-reforming Qatari government that grants citizens an unprecedented level of free speech emerges as the epitome of the alternative regime.
Convincing or not, the explicit, substantive, facts-based argument against Nasserism in the second section of the introduction bolsters what al-Qasim has prematurely and implicitly argued for in the first section of the introduction: Nasserism is sloganistic, romantic and irrational. What is most noteworthy, then, is that al-Qasim has practically eliminated the argument for Nasserism from the entire discourse, presenting the viewers with only one argument, implicit in the first section and explicit in the second, which invites the viewers to judge Nasserism as an unworthy ideology. By extension, Arab unity, the primary objective of Nasserism, also becomes a problematic issue and possibly an unworthy political cause, despite its nobility per se. Al-Qasim thus uses the rhetorical questions characterizing his anti-establishment discourse to create an alternative framework for understanding Arab unity; a framework based on facts, not fancy. The alternative perspective is advanced by al-Qasim in a plethora of discourses, as in the broadcast of August 1, 2000, in which he asks:
Isn’t it time the Arabs abandoned the nationalist discourse that has caused more disunity than unity?
Shouldn’t Arabs approach the question of gathering together [amalgamation] on new bases and away from the outworn and antiquated nationalist slogans?
Shouldn’t the national ideology be replaced by viable and sustainable interests instead of hollow ideology?
Taken at face value by the sympathetic audience, al-Qasim’s rhetorical questions may be interpreted as sarcastic remarks that consequently identify him with the way an ordinary Arab conjures and ridicules the argument of pro-establishment elements opposed to Arab unification. In this sense, the rhetorical questions show al-Qasim’s consubstantiality with the audience’s Arab nationalist beliefs and aspirations. However, what is noteworthy about this passage is that the questions also introduce the audience to another perspective on Arab unification; the same perspective that al-Qasim has previously advanced implicitly in his argument for Nasserism and explicitly in his argument against it. The alternative perspective on Arab unification is a concomitant of a premise that al-Qasim stresses repeatedly, whether he is arguing for or against Nasserism: the irrationality of the “outworn and antiquated nationalist slogans” and “the hollow ideology” that anchors Arab unity.
By virtue of its prevalence in al-Qasim’s discourse, this controversial premise becomes a new perspective through which the viewers must look at and assess their stance on Arab nationalism and its concomitant Arab unity. The new perspective that anchors al-Qasim’s arguments for and against Arab nationalism indicates in turn a consistent and calculated effort to divide the prudent Arab viewers from the precepts of Arab nationalism, and to nudge them towards a more viable and pragmatic course of action that guarantees “sustainable interests” in lieu of Arab unification. It is at this juncture that a new point of identification is created by al-Qasim; a point that connects the viewers with the pragmatic, less ambitious, business-like attitude of the Qatari government towards Arab nationalism and Arab unity.
This alternative perspective on Arab unification is implied by the expression “amalgamation,” takattul, which anchors the second rhetorical question. Takattul can initially be read as a mere synonym for unity. However, since “amalgamation,” as a political term, implies the coming together of sovereign states as a means of serving the separate interests of each (e.g., NAFTA, ASEAN and the European Union, to which al-Qasim makes numerous references), the term then does not imply strictly the fusion of various political entities into only one entity as does the term it replaces—unity. Rather, amalgamation becomes an alternative to it. And as such, it serves as a euphemism for disunity or at least a diluted form of Arab unity. In this capacity, the euphemism identifies the frustrated, but prudent Arab viewer with the policies and perspective of the Qatari state, whose representatives speak constantly about Arab solidarity, coordination and cooperation.
Given this backdrop of a consistent effort to undermine and block the viewers’ Arab nationalist sentiments and aspirations, the previous examples suggest that the anti-establishment overtone of al-Qasim’s discourses on Arab unity is far from representing a substantive, liberational rhetoric that endorses the radicalism of the pan-Arabist viewers. On the contrary, textual evidence indicates that al-Qasim’s initial identification with the beliefs and attitudes of the pan-Arab audience entails an effort not only to block the viewers’ radical beliefs and passions, but also to identify the audience with the policies and perspective of the Qatari state by creating a need for an alternative framework of interpretation. This framework is stripped of principles, less ambitious and reconcilable with the pragmatic policies of the Qatari state.
In conclusion, al-Qasim’s discourses on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab nationalist aspirations are consistent in terms of their style and implications. Stylistically, his discourses on the two issues are characterized by his use of rhetorical questions that initially enable him to tap into the radical beliefs and attitudes of the majority of the viewers. But al-Qasim’s rhetorical questions do more than demonstrate his identification with the audience; they also allow him to create a need for, and provide the viewers with, alternative lines of reasoning, or alternative perspectives. By skillfully attaching the alternative perspectives to the viewers’ own concerns, fears, passions and wisdom, al-Qasim simultaneously detaches the alternative perspectives from the policies and concerns of the Qatari establishment. By doing so, he minimizes both the risk of alienating the anti-establishment viewership and the appearance of endorsing the policies of the Qatari establishment. In the final analysis, however, the alternative perspectives reveal a relentless effort by al-Qasim to moderate the viewers’ radicalism by deflecting it towards perspectives that bolster the Qatari establishment’s policies and strategic interests. In the process, the question of Arab unification, despite its nobility, emerges as a romantic, impractical or even irrational objective; the question of armed resistance in Palestine and Iraq, despite its legitimacy, also emerges as unnecessary, impractical and even harmful.
In a more extensive study, Al-Sadi (2011) finds that what is ultimately implied by al-Qasim’s anti-establishment discourse is also implied by the overall anti-establishment discourse of Al Jazeera. On the question of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for instance, the channel’s pre-war discourses reflected a fatalistic attitude, whether this fatalism was justified on a religious basis, as in the case of the host Dr. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or on a secular basis, as in the case of Sami Haddad and others. The fatalistic argument subtly gears the viewers towards a passive wait-and-see position toward the war. In the post-war discourse, the channel’s political rhetoric reflected an effort to redefine the outcome of the war, depicting it implicitly as a “historical opportunity” to democratize the Arab world. By doing so, Al Jazeera’s post-war discourses problematized the question of anti-occupation resistance, thus lending credence to Qatar’s position as expressed by its foreign minister, who asked rhetorically: “Why should we resist occupation?”
 This article is derived from a doctoral dissertation entitled “Al-Jazeera Television: Intifada on the Air” (University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, May 2011).