Washington D.C., Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al Awsat interviews Al Arabiya’s Washington Bureau-Chief, S. Abdullah Schleifer, who has reported on some of the most important events in the Middle East for American networks over the past 35 years. Founder of the Adham Center for TV Journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Schleifer has followed the development of Arabic media and played a part in its advance. Asharq Al Awsat met with Schleifer in his Washington office. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q: How long have you been with Al Arabiya and what do you hope to achieve?
A: I was recruited in December 2005 but I took up my assignment at Al Arabiya in February 2006. My assignment was to come back to America to become the bureau chief in Washington. I had a few things to accomplish. The bureau did not have a chief for a year, so one goal was to provide leadership. Another goal was to establish a balance between positive and negative news coverage from the United States because there are many good things that happen here. For example, we covered the story in Dearborn of how the first Arab American woman judge was appointed by the state of Michigan. We did a similar story on a Saudi American in Texas running for office in a Republican primary. He didn’t win, but he did very well and there were very few Muslims in his district, almost none.
Q: What is your personal position on the differences between Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera?
A: I think the major difference is that Al Jazeera has always had a problem of reconciling its head and its heart. Its head is trained by BBC standards. The problem is not how it did the story, rather the problem is the stories that it decided to do and the stories it decided not to do.
We all have personal sentiments of the heart, but as journalists, we should control them. Those sentiments are valuable if you want to write an editorial or column, but in the best of journalism, you try to differentiate between reporting and opinion as best you can. It is difficult, but you have got to do it. If you are professional, you have to control your feelings.
Q: Do you mean impartiality in reporting?
Al Jazeera deserves credit because it reports what is really there. When it transmitted pictures of newborn babies in Iraq being killed, it was conveying the truth contrary to Rumsfeld’s claim that it was bringing children to cry on camera. The problem is what it didn’t report. It didn’t report on Kurdistan where people were absolutely ecstatic that Saddam was finished. It did not show the joy of the Shia who did not welcome the Americans with open arms as some predicted, but this was due to them being cautious as we had let them down during the 1991 uprising. Therefore, they did not trust our intention to overthrow Saddam’s regime, but they were certainly happy that the era of Saddam Hussein was over. That was the problem with Al Jazeera that it tried to ignore this.
Q: What about the differences between the two channels?
A: Another difference, and this has become more pronounced, is that everybody was very happy about the talk shows [on Al Jazeera]. I however, was not. For me, the positive thing about Aljazeera was the field reporting, not opinion shows. Opinion is only valuable if it is informed. To be informed, you have to have someone out there in the field telling you what the facts are.
I am not saying that Al Arabiya is better than Al Jazeera in every aspect. Honestly, I admire Al Jazeera’s program ‘Min Washington’, (From Washington) and I believe that it is an excellent program that is free from commotion and preserves balance, diversity and richness of information.
I do not want to be portrayed as being completely critical of Al Jazeera and siding with Al Arabiya in my evaluation simply because I work for Al Arabiya, however the concept of Al Arabiya was based on being more professional.
Q: How do you evaluate Arab media in general in the last 20 years?
A: On one hand, much of the Arab media in recent years has not shown interest in accuracy. Part of it was only interested in expressing opinions and nobody checked the facts.
The media is also used as a tool, even the Lebanese press that was said to be free from the power of the state in the seventies and eighties, was used as a tool by other states. I believe that the diversity of the Kuwaiti press was more remarkable than the Lebanese press, as the former was free from the influence of intelligence agencies.
Most people give the credit to Arab satellite television, but the big breakthrough is satellite print journalism. I would say first, Asharq Al Awsat, and after that, Al Hayat, are the real pioneers of the free press in the Arab world. They had a broadness that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. Suddenly you have a group of journalists working in an environment where they are not being intimidated. They are based in London, where the whole environment is conducive to being free of intimidation, to practicing your profession where you are not at the disposal of intelligence agencies – it’s a whole different environment. Such newspapers have helped to widen the margin of freedom, improve the level of media services and have enabled the Arab media to be more professional than it was. Both newspapers represent the turning point in Arab media, despite the criticism that they are both Saudi-owned. From the viewpoint of a neutral media expert, I see both newspapers as professional rivals that accomplished what Jamal Abdel Nasser tried to do for 20 years and never could. Jamal Abdel Nasser and his party attempted revolutions, coups, and assassinations to create a sense of Arab identity and it never happened. Although I do not know Arabic very well, I feel that journalism in the Gulf is more professional than journalism in the Levant, Iraq and Egypt.
Following the newspapers is satellite television. In 1991, when people watched CNN International, the Arabs saw two things – the world of satellite in television and what journalism is. They said, “Let’s do this ourselves.” So you have MBC as the first pioneer, Orbit with BBC, and then Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi and the succeeding channels.
Q: Who is responsible for the lack of freedom within Arab media? Do you blame the governments or the organizations themselves?
A: There are several factors involved here including politicization of the media and the Arab governments are partly responsible for that as well as Arab journalists.
I wish that Arab reporters would learn from the accuracy of the scholars Bukhari and Muslim [both of whom authored collections of Hadith, narrations about the life of the Prophet Mohammed] both of whom did not only rely on two sources but also evaluated the narrators and the extent to which they could be trusted, rejecting those who were not trustworthy, which is something that not even western media has reached despite its progress. The Arab reporter must realise that his or her credibility is much more important than putting out information to suit the party or parties with which the journalist or editor sympathizes.
Q: How do you evaluate American media?
A: Whilst the Muslims do not have freedom in the Arab world; in America I think we have too much freedom. In the Arab world what you can say is journalists should have the freedom to work, but here, what you can say is journalists exercising their freedom should be responsible. Sometimes there is a lack of responsibility in that they do not consider the impact of their stories. Another difference is, until recently, the American media was too much entertainment-oriented, and the Arab world was too political.
In America we have a new additional problem, again, opposite. In the Arab world, the Internet and blogging is positive because you don’t have freedom and the Internet and blogging allows freedom because it allows room for reports that were previously prohibited.
In the old days in America, if you picked up a newspaper like Newsweek, or the Washington Post, or the New York Times, you knew that the writers were people who were trained as journalists, that if they lied or made up news and it was found out, they would be thrown out. That happens every once in a while.
But with the Internet, where anybody can post anything, for all you know the whole thing is a fraud. There are no criteria. The Internet is not a source. The Internet has everything from responsible newspapers to filth and lies. Secondly, if you read the Washington Post or New York Times, in the reporting they try to be detached. Then you go and read the columns and you have a liberal and a conservative. With the internet the blog is entirely liberal and no good can come from a conservative point of view or vice versa.
Q: What do think western journalists, particularly American journalists lack in terms of knowledge about the Middle East?
A: One thing they miss is the importance of religion in the Muslim world. Now they see the importance because it’s hitting them in the face with Islamism. But religion has always been important – it is just that it was not political. American reporters also need to know that some Arab politicians say one thing behind closed doors and something completely different in public.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the interesting experiences that you have had throughout your journey in Arab media?
A: There have been many interesting experiences but one that I remember well took place in 1980 during an Arab summit in Taif in Saudi Arabia. I was the only foreign reporter permitted entrance to the vicinity of the holy places, as I am a Muslim. A number of the leaders who were taking part in the summit decided to perform the Umrah pilgrimage including Saddam Hussein and the late Hafez al Assad. With my own eyes, as the two leaders circumambulated the Kaaba, I saw one of them violently push the other and hit him with his hand. I was so surprised. The incident reflected the extent of hatred between the two men from an early stage.
Q: Is it true that you met Al Qaeda’s second man, Ayman al Zawahiri, during your stay in Egypt?
A: I knew him but I never interviewed him [as a journalist]. I had known him since 1974 when he was about 16-years-old. He was secretive about his activities and nobody knew what he was doing. I thought that perhaps he was from the Muslim Brotherhood or the like but I never imagined that he was a follower of the Tafkir ideology and a preacher of violence. He speaks English fluently and studied in international schools in Maadi. He comes from a wealthy family and is related to Abdul Rahman Azzam, the first secretary-general of the Arab League. He came to the same university as me and showed an interest in me, an American who embraced Islam. During that period in Egypt in the seventies, the universities were suffering from conflict between Islamists, nationalists and leftists. Zawahiri took notice of me because, as well as being American, I was formerly a communist and had turned to Islam. After a short period of knowing each other, we agreed to disagree. To him Islam was a political phenomenon, for me it is purely a spiritual relationship with God.
– Schleifer served as a reporter for the U.S. network NBC in the Middle East at the beginning of his career between 1970 and 1983. He was predominantly stationed in Beirut before taking on the position of Bureau Chief in Cairo.
– Schleifer met most Arab leaders and covered some of the region’s most important events before leaving to establish the Adham Center for Television Journalism in AUC.
– In 1988, CNN International chose Schleifer to be its representative in Cairo. At a later point, he covered Desert Storm for NBC in Saudi Arabia.
– Schleifer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania where he obtained an undergraduate degree in Political Science. In 1980, he obtained his Masters Degree in Islamic Studies from the American University in Beirut.
– Abdullah Schleifer became a Muslim in 1964 and is married to a Sudanese woman called Tayba Hassan Khalifa al Sharif, a relative of the Sudanese leader, Sadiq al Mahdi. She works for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Khartoum.