Wadah Khanfar is unapologetic.
“Do you think Arab media outlets should have a democratising agenda?” I ask.
“As a matter of fact, yes I do.”
Khanfar, speaking emphatically yet eloquently, emanates confidence. It’s just before sundown, the sky is the same stormy shade as his suit, and we have settled into the shadows of an unlit room. Khanfar is the President of the Al Sharq Forum, an independent think tank for policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and former Director General of the Qatari-funded news organisation Al Jazeera. The Palestinian journalist and political analyst is at the University of Sydney to present a public lecture for Sydney Ideas, USyd’s in-house equivalent of The Festival of Dangerous of Ideas. His self-assurance is warranted: few individuals are better placed to speculate on the future of the MENA region.
The MENA region is in a state of flux. Some see bloodshed and write off the tumult as senseless chaos, but Khanfar views the turbulence as a symptom of necessary transition. In an article published last month by Chatham House, he identifies this historical juncture as an “interregnum” — the twilight zone between the collapse of an old order and the rise of something new. Khanfar embraces the end of what he believes is an illegitimate and ineffectual state system. This system was imposed on the region from above by Western colonial powers, characterised by arbitrary borders that ignored the relationship between territory and identity, comprised of authoritarian states that failed to care for the nations they claimed to represent, and undermined by geopolitical power projection. Beyond the debris, Khanfar envisions a regional order founded on “the ideals of its people: democratic stability.”
The media, he tells me, has a moral responsibility to spearhead the charge towards democracy.
“The struggle for democracy in the Middle East is a struggle for life. Without it we will continue the cycle of death. And [the media] cannot be actually reluctant in embracing or acting on that.”
Skeptics scoff when Khanfar claims to know what the Arab people want – I repeat: “democratic stability” – pointing to the connection between Al Jazeera’s agenda and that of their Qatar funders.
Al Jazeera’s partisan coverage of the 2011 Arab uprisings raised questions, such as: was Khanfar standing in Tahrir Square with the Egyptian people or with the House of Thani, long-time supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood? Did the outlet’s acute criticism of Muammar Gaddafi have anything to do with Qatar supplying Libyan rebels with weapons, equipment and money? Can Al Jazeera’s feverish coverage of the Syrian conflict be attributed to the Qatar’s role in the anti-Assad coalition?
For example, a 2015 study by Zainab Abdul-Nabi from the University of Sydney highlights how Al Jazeera barely took notice of the Bahraini uprising and when it did comment the coverage was “propaganda-oriented.” According to the study, the news network failed to mention the history of unequal power relations between Bahrain’s ruling Sunni minority and Shia majority, the pro-democracy nature of the demonstrations, and the Shia protesters’ call for unity between Shias and Sunnis. At the beginning of the uprising the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Qatar, deployed 1500 Saudi and Emirati troops in Manama to quell dissent. The mission to suppress sectarian conflict was, in part, an attempt to limit Iran’s influence in the Gulf. Qatar shares an oilfield with Iran and courts the theocratic, Shia state cautiously. Adbul-Nabi concludes that, on the whole, Al Jazeera echoed the regime by representing protests as sectarian clashes instigated by aggressive Shia rebels.
Abdul-Nabi grills Khanfar over Al Jazeera’s contentious coverage of Bahrain during the Sydney Ideas Q&A. Khanfar is not phased by her shrewd, plucky questions; he’s used it to, and probably thinks she’d make a good journalist. He says the decision to cover Egypt, Libya and Yemen at the expense of Bahrain had more to do with population size than politics; it was an “editorial decision rather than a political decision.”
In September 2011, after serving Al Jazeera for eight years, Khanfar abruptly stepped down from his post after Wikileaks published a 2005 cable revealing a cosy relationship between the ‘by Arabs, for Arabs’ network and the US. Criticism centred on his decision to delete grisly images of wounded Iraqis to please US officials. Doha strengthened the perception that Al Jazeera was a vehicle for diplomatic manoeuvring by replacing Khanfar with one of their own, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani of the royal family.
When I ask if Al Jazeera was nominally independent but, in reality, somewhat indentured to the Qatari and US governments, Khanfar simply states, “It is not true, actually.”
He insists that he shut down all disgruntled government officials, regardless of nationality, with the same line: “‘If we are going against the professional standards of journalism, you have a point…but if you would like to use us as a propaganda tool to prevent us from broadcasting the truth as we see it on the ground, sorry we cannot do it regardless of the cost.’”
He cites the 2001 US bombing of Al Jazeera’s Kabul office and the 2003 US bombing of the Baghdad office, in which cameraman Tareq Ayoub was killed, as evidence that “our relationship with the Americans has actually never been a relationship of closeness and love at all!” Indeed, the Bush administration was furious with Al Jazeera for ostensibly empowering terrorists by broadcasting videos of Osama bin Laden. Then again, geopolitics is not a matter of love.
Khanfar acknowledges that balanced reporting is particularly tricky – and vital — in war-torn regions because journalists are often embroiled in the crises they are covering. Many journalists wonder whether, in striving for objectivity, they are failing to challenge the dominant narrative and thus passing up an opportunity to change the terms of the debate. This ubiquitous question is magnified when reporters have a stake in how things play out on the ground.
In other words, it’s hard not to shout when shit gets personal.
I appreciate Khanfar’s frankness when he says, “I am Palestinian myself and I know that [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is a matter of occupation.”
“I do understand that human beings are not machines, they’re not robots…you love to defend your cause if you feel this is a cause of justice,” he continues. But “the opinion that you support and the opinion that they support should be equally presented to the public and the public should be the judge.”
Khanfar is avowedly liberal – he spends much of his Sydney Ideas speech explicitly lauding liberalism. But for Khanfar, liberalism is secondary to democracy. Liberalism is a maybe; democracy is a must.
He is determined to debunk the false dichotomy between Islam and democracy. This is a fiction largely dreamt up in the minds of Westerners who mistakenly conflate Islamism – the ideology that takes Islam as a basis for statehood – with Salafi jihadism. Similarly, authoritarian Arab regimes have drawn on the discourse of terrorism to vilify Islamist movements, quashing opposition before it evolves into an existential threat. The July 2013 coup in Egypt, in which General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected president in Egypt’s history and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a blow for Khanfar. In a November 2011 article for The Guardian Khanfar cited Turkey’s Justice and Development (AKP) Party as a “source of inspiration” for Islamists and indicated that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda Party were potentially democratising forces. Now he is less optimistic, stating, “political Islam at this time is going through a major crisis” and mumbling about the post-coup fragmentation of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Khanfar would like to see Islamist parties modelled on Europe’s Christian democratic parties, “getting to the point where they are accepting that they are part of the scene and they cannot shape everything on their own.”
He describes both democracy and political Islam in the MENA region as unfinished projects. According to Khanfar, this revolution is slow, ugly, gruelling – and possible.
The full audio of Khanfar’s appearance at Sydney Ideas is available here: