[Mermaid]I urge everyone to read the article. Especially Jonathan Davis and
Joe Dees as they seem to be the most affected in their views picked up from
the poisoned platter of media offerings. Ben, I'd be most interested in
hearing your point of view as we have already been involved in a discussion
about validity of sources and their interpretations.
It is a tragedy when language and people's reading time is being exploited
to further hate and political agendas.
Monday August 12, 2002
For some time now, I have been receiving small gifts from a generous
institute in the United States. The gifts are high-quality translations of
articles from Arabic newspapers which the institute sends to me by email
every few days, entirely free-of-charge.
The emails also go to politicians and academics, as well as to lots of other
journalists. The stories they contain are usually interesting.
Whenever I get an email from the institute, several of my Guardian
colleagues receive one too and regularly forward their copies to me -
sometimes with a note suggesting that I might like to check out the story
and write about it.
If the note happens to come from a more senior colleague, I'm left feeling
that I really ought to write about it. One example last week was a couple of
paragraphs translated by the institute, in which a former doctor in the
Iraqi army claimed that Saddam Hussein had personally given orders to
amputate the ears of military deserters.
The organisation that makes these translations and sends them out is the
Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri), based in Washington but with
recently-opened offices in London, Berlin and Jerusalem.
Its work is subsidised by US taxpayers because as an "independent,
non-partisan, non-profit" organisation, it has tax-deductible status under
Memri's purpose, according to its website, is to bridge the language gap
between the west - where few speak Arabic - and the Middle East, by
"providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew media".
Despite these high-minded statements, several things make me uneasy whenever
I'm asked to look at a story circulated by Memri. First of all, it's a
rather mysterious organisation. Its website does not give the names of any
people to contact, not even an office address.
The reason for this secrecy, according to a former employee, is that "they
don't want suicide bombers walking through the door on Monday morning"
(Washington Times, June 20).
This strikes me as a somewhat over-the-top precaution for an institute that
simply wants to break down east-west language barriers.
The second thing that makes me uneasy is that the stories selected by Memri
for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the
character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of
Israel. I am not alone in this unease.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told the
Washington Times: "Memri's intent is to find the worst possible quotes from
the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible."
Memri might, of course, argue that it is seeking to encourage moderation by
highlighting the blatant examples of intolerance and extremism. But if so,
one would expect it - for the sake of non-partisanship - t o publicise
extremist articles in the Hebrew media too.
Although Memri claims that it does provide translations from Hebrew media, I
can't recall receiving any.
Evidence from Memri's website also casts doubt on its non-partisan status.
Besides supporting liberal democracy, civil society, and the free market,
the institute also emphasises "the continuing relevance of Zionism to the
Jewish people and to the state of Israel".
That is what its website used to say, but the words about Zionism have now
been deleted. The original page, however, can still be found in internet
The reason for Memri's air of secrecy becomes clearer when we look at the
people behind it. The co-founder and president of Memri, and the registered
owner of its website, is an Israeli called Yigal Carmon.
Mr - or rather, Colonel - Carmon spent 22 years in Israeli military
intelligence and later served as counter-terrorism adviser to two Israeli
prime ministers, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin.
Retrieving another now-deleted page from the archives of Memri's website
also throws up a list of its staff. Of the six people named, three -
including Col Carmon - are described as having worked for Israeli
Among the other three, one served in the Israeli army's Northern Command
Ordnance Corps, one has an academic background, and the sixth is a former
Col Carmon's co-founder at Memri is Meyrav Wurmser, who is also director of
the centre for Middle East policy at the Indianapolis-based Hudson
Institute, which bills itself as "America's premier source of applied
research on enduring policy challenges".
The ubiquitous Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon's defence policy
board, recently joined Hudson's board of trustees.
Ms Wurmser is the author of an academic paper entitled Can Israel Survive
Post-Zionism? in which she argues that leftwing Israeli intellectuals pose
"more than a passing threat" to the state of Israel, undermining its soul
and reducing its will for self-defence.
In addition, Ms Wurmser is a highly qualified, internationally recognised,
inspiring and knowledgeable speaker on the Middle East whose presence would
make any "event, radio or television show a unique one" - according to
Benador Associates, a public relations company which touts her services.
Nobody, so far as I know, disputes the general accuracy of Memri's
translations but there are other reasons to be concerned about its output.
The email it circulated last week about Saddam Hussein ordering people's
ears to be cut off was an extract from a longer article in the pan-Arab
newspaper, al-Hayat, by Adil Awadh who claimed to have first-hand knowledge
It was the sort of tale about Iraqi brutality that newspapers would happily
reprint without checking, especially in the current atmosphere of war fever.
It may well be true, but it needs to be treated with a little
Mr Awadh is not exactly an independent figure. He is, or at least was, a
member of the Iraqi National Accord, an exiled Iraqi opposition group backed
by the US - and neither al-Hayat nor Memri mentioned this.
Also, Mr Awadh's allegation first came to light some four years ago, when he
had a strong personal reason for making it. According to a Washington Post
report in 1998, the amputation claim formed part of his application for
political asylum in the United States.
At the time, he was one of six Iraqis under arrest in the US as suspected
terrorists or Iraqi intelligence agents, and he was trying to show that the
Americans had made a mistake.
Earlier this year, Memri scored two significant propaganda successes against
Saudi Arabia. The first was its translation of an article from al-Riyadh
newspaper in which a columnist wrote that Jews use the blood of Christian or
Muslim children in pastries for the Purim religious festival.
The writer, a university teacher, was apparently relying on an anti-semitic
myth that dates back to the middle ages. What this demonstrated, more than
anything, was the ignorance of many Arabs - even those highly educated -
about Judaism and Israel, and their readiness to believe such ridiculous
But Memri claimed al-Riyadh was a Saudi "government newspaper" - in fact
it's privately owned - implying that the article had some form of official
Al-Riyadh's editor said he had not seen the article before publication
because he had been abroad. He apologised without hesitation and sacked his
columnist, but by then the damage had been done.
Memri's next success came a month later when Saudi Arabia's ambassador to
London wrote a poem entitled The Martyrs - about a young woman suicide
bomber - which was published in al-Hayat newspaper.
Memri sent out translated extracts from the poem, which it described as
"praising suicide bombers". Whether that was the poem's real message is a
matter of interpretation. It could, perhaps more plausibly, be read as
condemning the political ineffectiveness of Arab leaders, but Memri's
interpretation was reported, almost without question, by the western media.
These incidents involving Saudi Arabia should not be viewed in isolation.
They are part of building a case against the kingdom and persuading the
United States to treat it as an enemy, rather than an ally.
It's a campaign that the Israeli government and American neo-conservatives
have been pushing since early this year - one aspect of which was the
bizarre anti-Saudi briefing at the Pentagon, hosted last month by Richard
To anyone who reads Arabic newspapers regularly, it should be obvious that
the items highlighted by Memri are those that suit its agenda and are not
representative of the newspapers' content as a whole.
The danger is that many of the senators, congressmen and "opinion formers"
who don't read Arabic but receive Memri's emails may get the idea that these
extreme examples are not only truly representative but also reflect the
policies of Arab governments.
Memri's Col Carmon seems eager to encourage them in that belief. In
Washington last April, in testimony to the House committee on international
relations, he portrayed the Arab media as part of a wide-scale system of
"The controlled media of the Arab governments conveys hatred of the west,
and in particular, of the United States," he said. "Prior to September 11,
one could frequently find articles which openly supported, or even called
for, terrorist attacks against the United States ...
"The United States is sometimes compared to Nazi Germany, President Bush to
Hitler, Guantanamo to Auschwitz," he said.
In the case of the al-Jazeera satellite channel, he added, "the overwhelming
majority of guests and callers are typically anti-American and
Unfortunately, it is on the basis of such sweeping generalisations that much
of American foreign policy is built these days.
As far as relations between the west and the Arab world are concerned,
language is a barrier that perpetuates ignorance and can easily foster
All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that barrier
for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the
It is not difficult to see what Arabs might do to counter that. A group of
Arab media companies could get together and publish translations of articles
that more accurately reflect the content of their newspapers.
It would certainly not be beyond their means. But, as usual, they may prefer
to sit back and grumble about the machinations of Israeli intelligence
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