AL-JAZEERA is in mourning since the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of US forces.
The grieving should come as no surprise, as the most popular cable news network in the Middle East, with a growing worldwide audience for its Arabic and English channels, has lost its best source of publicity.
The Qatari network, undermined by WikiLeaks cables depicting it as a foreign policy bargaining chip for its Emir owner, was, after all, the official broadcaster of messages from the late and evidently still lamented al-Qa’ida leader.
Bereft of one of its biggest stars, it is turning to the next best option: wistfully opining the passing of an “intriguing” and “popular” man, to paraphrase The Independent’s Robert Fisk, who gave one of the first interviews to al-Jazeera English following the confirmation of bin Laden’s killing.
Amid the generous obituaries, the network’s reporting and commentary likes to admonish those Americans celebrating the bloody end to bin Laden’s (if not al-Qa’ida’s) reign of terror.
Despite its often refreshing, original and well-reported take on international stories, al-Jazeera is once again giving voice to the basest form of moral equivalence.
In reader comments and blogs on al-Jazeera’s official website, the talk turned nasty, as blatant anti-Americanism spilled over into threats of bloody reprisals for bin Laden’s killing and Hamas’s tribute to bin Laden as an “assassinated Arab holy warrior” received disproportionate airtime.
The outpouring prompted one British MP to condemn the network for allowing illegal messages of “hate, violence and revenge”.
Critics will say the US should have expected this reaction, but do the cable network’s Doha masters need to actively encourage the channels, especially in Arabic, to whip up anti-American frenzies?
In a rant on its website opinion pages by University of Exeter lecturer Larbi Sadiki, “(Barack) Obama and Osama” were deemed very much alike, even if Osama – in a portrait that reminded one of Deepak Chopra – was really just a misguided bloke in search of “godly transcendence”.
“These two sculptors, Obama and Osama, are examples of how extraordinary men when struck by the power of ideas, ideals and dreams, regardless of the cause, go on about sculpting their Galateas, their statues, dummies or puppets,” Sadiki wrote.
“Each is in love with a statuesque vision, a set of ideals or dreams that they have sought to breathe life into.
“Otherwise, how can one explain why a man who could have nymphs, Bentleys, yachts and everything money can buy opts for the ‘illusionary’, to paraphrase Marx, rewards of the hereafter?
“Osama could have opted for al-Walid bin Talal’s lifestyle. This is where he puzzles. It has to be the power of faith.” Sadiki adds the seemingly perfunctory recollection that Osama was a mass murderer. However, “Obama and Osama share a realist’s vision of how power is wielded.”
For Hosham Dawod, a researcher of Iraqi origin at the French Institute of Contemporary Anthropology, al-Jazeera’s first reaction to Monday’s news was, shockingly, of “barely concealed grief, sadness and frustration”.
Depictions of bin Laden were “peaceful and even humanist”, he told Le Monde. “It was not neutrally stating facts or even discussing what (his) organisation has done for the last 20 years.
“At no moment did al-Jazeera judge it necessary to give time to those hit by these attacks targeting innocent civilians, even in Arab-Muslim territory without even mentioning the thousands of victims in Europe and the United States.
“Al-Jazeera went so far as to use a shocking and distinctive terminology elevating victims of American and Western bombardments to the level of martyrs (chahid) while the victims of al-Qa’ida were in the end only ordinary deaths (maqtoul).”
For Dawod, the reaction to bin Laden’s death demonstrates the fundamental “incoherence” at the network, and more broadly of Qatar’s “diplomacy”.
“One day they are on the side of the West, such as at the moment in Libya, the day after backing Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, or trying to convince France to bring Syria’s Assad to the 14th of July military parade.
“With al-Jazeera (after the bin Laden killing) instead of witnessing news we have the feeling of attending a commemoration.”