For many years, there was a strange gap in the knowledge of the US public about what was going on in the Arab and Muslim world, and to some extent there still is. Arabic language journals printed supposed Jewish recipes from Matzoth made from the blood of Christian children. Every Friday in Arab capitals, Imams preached sermons broadcast on state television. They called on God to destroy Jewish and Christian sons of dogs and pigs. Journals printed articles praising Hitler for killing Jews. Osama bin Laden and others inveighed against the west. Americans do not read Arabic, so the secret was safe. Most Americas were unaware. Ignorance is bliss. Academics and journalists, whose job it is to explain the Middle East to the American public, generally portrayed Arab countries and their inhabitants as "folks just like us." John Esposito and his viewpoint dominated Middle East academia, and assured Americans that Islam is a democratic and tolerant religion and that all is well in the Arab and Muslim world.
To be sure, some Americans were aware. The Federal Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), paid for by American taxpayers, has been translating some of these materials for many years. However, using the excuse that the materials may be copyright by the translators, access to the translations is limited to federal employees and subcontractors. Did it just happen that way, or did some people feel that too much truth is a bad thing?
Enter MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) which began publishing highlights of the "best" of Middle Eastern print and TV journalism, sermons, and commentary. After 9-11, people started paying more attention. For example, MEMRI published a delightful article from a Saudi journal designed to foster interfaith understanding. It explained that Jews back Hamentashen (Purim cakes) using the blood of non-Jewish children. Due to the sinister Zionist intervention of MEMRI, the editors of the journal were forced to apologize. Eventually, the US government was moved to pressure Saudis to curb extremist Imams as well. No more Jewish and Christian dogs and pigs on state television. Many US academics insisted that MEMRI's translations are distortions. "Not so!" write Saudi historian Hatoon Al-Fassi in Arab News, after her article about extremism in Britain had been translated by MEMRI:
I am not denying the fact that MEMRI's translation of my article was accurate and beautifully written.
But al-Fassi is nonetheless dissatisfied with MEMRI:
I fear misuse of this article, which may be taken out of context to serve a different purpose.
Perhaps al-Fassi is not aware that Israeli journalism is regularly available in English, and that pro-Arab sources regularly publicize only Israeli articles that are critical of Israel or serve to discredit Israel. Perhaps she doesn't know that that is not enough, and that Arabic and pro-Arab journals and Web sites have a stock of bogus "Zionist Quotes" from interviews with Ariel Sharon which never took place and from Israelis who never existed at all.
What was al-Fassi's complaint? She wrote about the situation of Muslims living in Britain in two articles, but MEMRI only translated one, where she discussed extremist fatwas (religious edicts) of some imams and problems in Muslim associations. But, she writes, the Muslims also do a lot of good. For example she writes:
These young Muslim men and women also reacted positively to the Palestinian issue and supported Iraqi resistance. [emphasis added].
Think about it. Remember that Arab News is a more or less official showcase Saudi government English language journal, and try to remember that Saudi Arabia is supposed to be an American ally. The "good" that Muslim associations do, as presented in Arab News newspaper, is that they support the Iraqi "resistance." These are the people who blow up American soldiers and Shiite Muslims praying in mosques. Al-Fassi's complaint is that MEMRI didn't allow her to talk about these good deeds. We can bet they "reacted positively to the Palestinian issue." At least one British Muslim reacted so positively that he came over here to help bomb a cafe, remember? No doubt these are also the folks who marched in London with "We are all Hezbollah" signs.
Ironically, al-Fassi is against "terror" (as opposed to "resistance"). She writes:
In my view, the terrorist attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, had less impact on Saudi society in
comparison to Western societies. We actually felt Sept. 11 on May 12, 2003, when the first wave of terrorist blasts hit Riyadh and when we saw face to face that those responsible for the terrorist attacks were our own children.
It is not just her view. The difference between "resistance" and "terror" as defined in the Middle East (and perhaps by the BBC and others), is that "resistance" is blowing up civilians you don't like, while "terror" is blowing up people you like, or even you. Blowing up people we like is against religion and decency of course, while blowing up people we don't like is a holy religious duty. Right?
Since MEMRI withheld the "information" supplied by al-Fassi, concerning the "good" that Muslim associations are doing by supporting the Iraqi "resistance," perhaps Ms al-Fassi should be grateful to that organization for presenting her views in such a favorable light.
On second thought, maybe MEMRI is not so essential. With that sort of Muslim "advocacy" appearing in English in Saudi government supported journals, who needs translations?
Our Articles and Their Israeli Translations
Hatoon Al-Fassi, Arab News Thursday 14 September 2006
MY ARTICLE for this week should have been on the Sept. 11 attacks and their
repercussions. But there is another important subject, which is somewhat
related and seems to be more demanding. In my view, the terrorist attacks
that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, had less impact on Saudi society in
comparison to Western societies. We actually felt Sept. 11 on May 12, 2003,
when the first wave of terrorist blasts hit Riyadh and when we saw face to
face that those responsible for the terrorist attacks were our own children.
What I am talking about today is our position among Muslims who live in the
West in general and our role in promoting extremism among them, particularly
among the young Muslims of Britain. I have already written two articles on
the topic. In the first article entitled "British Muslims Between Two
Identities and Interests," printed on Aug. 15, 2006, I pointed out that
Britain's discrimination and sidelining of immigrant Muslims has been one of
the main causes of creating a culture of extremism among Muslims in Britain.
I also mentioned some violent British responses in Manchester in the 1990s.
In the second article entitled "Extremism of Muslims in the West and Our
Responsibility" published on Aug. 21, 2006, I pointed out that certain
expressions of extremism among young British Muslims were mainly caused by
certain "fatwas" or religious edicts issued by some of our scholars.
According to letters I received from readers, similar extremist practices
are found in the United States as well as in other European countries in
varying degrees. These people hold a unilateral interpretation of the
religion to be responsible for this phenomenon.
In the second article I mentioned activities of the Islamic student
associations in Manchester. The article was translated into English by a
pro-Israeli research center called the Middle East Media Research Institute
(MEMRI) and many foreign websites reproduced the article mentioning their
original source - MEMRI. As a result I received several letters from many
unknown readers. I had no knowledge of MEMRI until my husband explained to
me what the organization was and what its activities were. Established in
1998 in Washington by Yigal Carmon, a retired Israeli general, MEMRI's main
objective is to monitor what is published in the Arab, Persian and Turkish
After 2001, MEMRI's activities became even more important and the
organization worked toward translating articles and reports on political,
intellectual and economic developments in the Middle East. MEMRI focuses on
issues related to terrorism, extremism and Islam as well as on US relations
and Arab-Israeli ties. Carmon worked for years for the Israeli intelligence
service. After retirement he was selected as an adviser to Yitzhak Shamir
and Yitzhak Rabin on terrorism. MEMRI's board of directors includes a number
of researchers, mostly Jews and specialists in Arab studies. Fundamentally
MEMRI is a right-wing organization which supports the Zionist, Israeli
I am not denying the fact that MEMRI's translation of my article was
accurate and beautifully written. However, I would like to point out that
intentionally or unintentionally MEMRI failed to translate my first article
which dealt with Britain's discriminatory practices and which, in an
objective manner, presented an accurate picture of what is happening there.
Articles appearing on MEMRI's website are read by specialists who look for
exciting and spicy news in order to use them for other purposes.
I received a letter from a reader in Manchester who asked me to provide him
details of Friday sermons which I said favored Arabs and sidelined women. My
intention was to discourage British Muslims from being inducted into
extremist ideology as it will benefit neither their societies nor their
religion but rather be instrumental in making people run away from them and
thus isolating them. I also feared that this trend was our creation. But the
British writer was not interested in that part of the story. It appears that
he wanted to collect information on religious activism within Islamic
associations in Britain, perhaps to stop them or restrain their activities
or perhaps from some other motive. Providing such information would be the
last thing I would do.
In fact, Islamic student societies in Britain are doing many good things.
The associations have been able to establish their presence after exerting
great effort. The message of my article was primarily addressed to us in
order to point out how the religious opinions of some of our scholars lead
some youths to adopt extremist views.
Many of our religious edicts are publicized by looking at Islam from one
angle, something that gives the impression that one view is the only correct
one and thus placing other Muslims with differing viewpoints in a difficult
position. In my article I criticized the Juma sermon at the university
mosque, as it was no different from our Juma sermons that ignore public
issues as well as private concerns. The university mosque is for students
and most of the scholars who delivered sermons were Arabs. They criticized
British Muslims for not learning Arabic - as if learning Arabic is the
solution to all their problems. They often ignore the problems faced by
Muslims in the West, including cultural differences and how to protect their
identity and religion.
At the same time, Muslim students in Manchester have interacted and been
vocal on Arab and Islamic issues including the conflicts in Bosnia and
Kosovo. I know some women students who are members of Islamic organizations
and they joined relief convoys from Manchester University in support of the
Bosnian Muslims. They went alone to help their Bosnian sisters - this was
something that presented a noble image of Muslim teenage girls. When the
issue of Kosovo came to the fore, I cooperated with these girls to raise
donations and enlighten the public on crimes committed against Muslims in
Kosovo. These young Muslim men and women also reacted positively to the
Palestinian issue and supported Iraqi resistance. They organized
demonstrations calling for the rights of Muslims and a stop to injustices
against them. They also participated in seminars that dealt with social,
political and intellectual issues.
I am not writing this article to express my fears about the selective
translation of my article by MEMRI. I am happy with every word in that
article. The translation of that article shows that there are no borders
that separate different parts of the globe, and that our words can reach
east and west within seconds. I am against the concept of isolation and
approaching things in a different manner for local and external consumption.
I consider the concept of seclusion to be naןve, especially in our age of
openness. However, I fear misuse of this article, which may be taken out of
context to serve a different purpose. In those circumstances, I don't have
any choice except to continue writing in defense of what I believe.
- Hatoon Al-Fassi is a Saudi historian based in Riyadh. She can be reached
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