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Does the free exchange of ideas bring freedom? Not when rogue states use media to intimidate their critics. That’s common practice for the Iranian government, which controls dozens of TV channels in Arabic. In this clip, the host threatens an American journalist based in Baghdad: Reuters bureau chief Ned Parker. Mr. Parker fled Iraq to safety in the United States — but most victims of media intimidation in the Middle East are local Arab voices with nowhere to run.

 

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Jihadist social media has captured the world’s attention — but in the Middle East, jihadist television reaches an even larger audience. Here’s a clip from Wesal TV — a channel originating in the Gulf and featuring Saudis, Kuwaitis, and others — in which the host directly incites a massacre at a military hospital in Yemen.

 

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Many believe that in Saudi Arabia, the global capital of Islam, hardline clerics dominate the public discussion. But in reality, there’s a competition going on between Islamist voices on the one hand, and more progressive, liberal voices on the other. The contest was recently described on the Saudi-owned channel MBC by Iman al-Humoud, a popular Paris-based Arabic broadcaster who studied Saudi media for her recently-completed doctoral dissertation at the Sorbonne.

 

Iranian broadcasting as a tool of intimidation

Jihadist television in Arabic

Liberals in Saudi media

Arab voices against extremist television

Russian television in Arabic

Teaching critical thinking in Arab countries

Saudi comedy for social change

The Culture of Lawfulness Project

Abuse of history by sectarian extremists

Nasser al-Qasabi versus ISIS

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While extremists broadcast hate on Arab airwaves, liberals in the region been stepping up to challenge them. These clips from the Gulf show a politician, a government, and a liberal writer beginning to act against TV channels that incite to violence. They show that opponents of extremism anywhere have allies in the Arab world. The question is whether all these actors will come together in a campaign for change.

 

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Vladimir Putin wants to overtake the United States as a power broker in the Middle East. As part of his strategy, he’s fighting a war of ideas against Washington on Arab airwaves. These clips from the Russian TV channel RT Arabic highlight a disinformation campaign aiming to disorient Arab audiences and turn them against their friends. Maybe it’s time for the world’s liberal democracies and their Arab allies to wage a thoughtful response.

 

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Arab liberals believe the region’s schools need to teach critical thinking to prepare children for a generation of progress.  But to bring critical thinking to Arab schools won’t be easy: bureaucracy slows change, and most teachers were not taught critical thinking themselves. Arab liberals see new media as a potential means to jumpstart the process. Here’s a moment from an online learning course by Egypt’s Tahrir Academy.

 

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Can comedy bring social change? A handful of Saudi liberals hopes so when in 1993, they launched a TV show called Tash Matash. Over 17 seasons, it spoofed hardline clerics and conservative mores in the kingdom. Saudi women have since gained new rights, and clerics’ authority has begun to recede. In retrospect, many Saudis credit Tash Matash for having subtly promoted liberal values.

 

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The United Arab Emirates is using media, schools, and professional training to promote a culture supportive of the rule of law. Here’s a clip from a class for children, developed by the “Bureau for the Culture of Lawfulness” and now in use across the country. The people behind it aim to foster a culture that has overcome the legacy of hardline Islamic teachings and archaic tribal arbitration systems.

 

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Sectarian extremists in the Middle East today use history as a tool to inflame their followers. Here’s a sermon from an Iranian-backed TV channel in Iraq in which the preacher references the killing of Shi’ite patron saint Husayn to pin collective guilt on all Sunni Muslims today. History is full of heroes who built bridges and fought for peace. For liberals in Arab lands today, it is the brightest spots in the region’s history that need to be remembered and retold.

 

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Some Arab liberals see satire as a means to prosecute jihadists in the court of public opinion. Here are some excerpts from the hit TV show Selfie, starring Saudi comic Nasser al-Qasabi. Warning: The humor is very dark, and the climax is painful to watch.

 

© 2017 Joseph Braude