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March 5, 2005

Taysir Doesn't Deserve This


by Ramzy Baroud

Al-Jazeera's correspondent Taysir Alouni is in a Madrid jail for no other reason than challenging the Western and distinctively the American narrative of the Third World.

Alouni is not a terrorist, and Spanish High Court judge Baltasar Garzon knows this very well. In fact, it appears that Alouni was arrested – first in September 2003 – before the charges against him were even engineered.

Various reports spoke of considerable American and Israeli influence in concocting the prosecutors' list. The warm-hearted and brilliant journalist had suddenly become a suspected terrorist mastermind.

Alouni's real crime, however, was his unmatched contribution to journalism during the American war and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

While Washington wished to convey one very well-orchestrated – and largely fabricated – narrative of the war, Alouni, the last standing journalist in Afghanistan, told another.

He was little concerned with what the well-dressed Pentagon military brass had to say about the precision of their "smart bombs," which smartly wiped out entire villages and took the lives of thousands.

Alouni's footage and on-scene reports countered the White House claims. He narrated a completely different story, where flattened houses, blown up bodies and limbless children were the main characters. Alouni's reports were not unsubstantiated propaganda.

They were coming live from faceless mountainside villages near Kabul, from over-flooded and critically under-equipped hospitals, and of course from morgues and fresh mounds of earth, where mass graves were being dug as heaps of bodies stood waiting.

One might make the claim that Alouni's lone well-documented account of Afghanistan will disturb and defy the official American liberation story for many years to come.

According to the prevailing conventional wisdom of US foreign policy, Alouni committed two grand mistakes.

The first is obvious; he exposed the holes in every Department of Defense assertion that Afghans were not targeted by the war and thus offset the outlandish claim that the US military action against Afghanistan was meant to liberate the people of that country.

Second is the less obvious, that deals with the right to narrate.

Throughout history, the West understood the Arab and Muslim world based on its own interpretations of that world, and cared little for the East's own self-perception.

Thus Western designations of the Middle East did not necessarily reflect the Middle East as much as it reflected its interpretation by Western narrators.

Grave Consequences

While such a practice seems harmless as far as literally works are concerned, in politics and war the consequences are grave.

For example, "Saddam cannot be trusted" is a diluted remake of "Arabs cannot be trusted," a uniting theme among many Western intellectuals and Orientalists. The fact that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction changed nothing.

Moreover, the fact that in the town of Fallujah alone, more Iraqis were killed than those who died in the attacks of September 11 should not essentially translate that both tragedies are equal, for after all, the Fallujah victims are Arabs.

(One must mention that the Western narrative celebrated those deaths as a victory against insurgency and labored to pin a civilized face to the mass graves. On the other hand, the mere linking between US foreign policy and 9/11, most recently by University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, could warrant a nationwide backlash and overt charges of treason.)

The tragedy becomes two-fold when one realizes that the dominating narrative of the West has taken over the Arab world as well.

Not only does the West interpret the Middle East to a Western audience, but the Middle East trusts no other interpretation of itself, albeit unreliable and unrepresentative, unless it is Western.

This is, of course, anything but atypical since it widely conforms to the indoctrination process that most colonized Third World countries experienced.

However, as dominating as the Western narrative may be, there have been some serious attempts to confront it. Perhaps al-Jazeera television has been the most successful in that attempt, and undoubtedly, Alouni has been at the forefront of that success.

In the post 9/11 era, the Western media celebrated al-Jazeera, for the latter's mission was seen as complementary to the Western press's constant attempt to "expose" Arab countries and "highlight" their lack of democracy, and so forth.

So it is no wonder why al-Jazeera was quickly labeled the "CNN of the Arab world." This was not a mere badge of honor, but an indication of the faulty assumption that al-Jazeera was a conformist, rather than a truly independent and critical media outlet.

The defining moment was the US war on Afghanistan. It was then and there that al-Jazeera seemed to rebel against the role to which it was entrusted.

It was no longer the island of democracy airing out the Arabs' dirty laundry in accordance with Western standards of right and wrong.

But it loudly violated that unwritten agreement that forbade the historically and culturally subdued from crossing over the great divide, narrating the realities of the Arab and Muslim world, not only to Arabs and Muslims, but to the Western world as well.

Never before in the history of broadcast journalism was an Arab man aired live around the world, every single day, reporting on American war atrocities and helping deconstruct myths that plagued and defined the Western interpretations of Muslims for centuries.

Alouni not only showed footage of blown-up babies, but he helped us understand how fantastically human the Afghans are. Killing them with impunity was no longer an easy option.

This is precisely why Taysir Alouni is in a Spanish jail. The phony charges against him were the work of various intelligence agencies, all of them Western.

He suffers from serious ailments and his pain, says his wife Fatima, is at times unbearable.

I have not met Alouni, but working for al-Jazeera channel myself, his posters surround me. His presence lingers among his colleagues, who are forever grateful for his unequalled contributions to the field of journalism, a field he made very much human, very much personal.

"Free Taysir," a new poster has just been posted on the wall beside me. Free our right of self-assertion, free our narrative, and free our daily existence of the tainted colonial legacy that sees us Arabs as subjects, never orators. Neither Alouni deserves this, nor do we.


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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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