Al-Jazeera Director In Washington; Plans To Meet With Obama Administration Officials


A left-wing news agency has reported that the director of Al-Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, is in Washington this week for the first time, as part of a U.S. tour where he pans to meet with Obama administration officials. According to the report:

The director of the Arab satellite television network al-Jazeera, Wadah Khanfar, is in Washington this week for the first time, part of a brief tour of the U.S. that will also take him to New York. The visit comes just weeks after a deal between al-Jazeera and U.S. cable distributors made al-Jazeera’s English-language channel accessible to viewers here. Khanfar says that now, with al-Jazeera English (AJE) available in major cable markets, U.S. citizens will be able to decide for themselves what the network is all about. Khanfar’s visit signals a significant departure from the President George W. Bush years, which saw the administration frequently and harshly criticising the Qatari-based network for its coverage of the two ongoing U.S. wars in the Middle East and for broadcasting recordings made by militants.  However, on his current visit, Khanfar says he plans on meeting with officials from the Barack Obama administration at both the White House and state Department. Such meetings would have been unthinkable under Bush, when administration officials widely condemned al-Jazeera and its allegedly biased reporting for causing the U.S. headaches in Iraq.

The report goes on to discuss comments made by Mr. Khanfar in a talk at the New America Foundation where he criticized “the failures of the U.S. media”:

Khanfar also had harsh criticism for the U.S. media’s handling of conflict in the Middle East. “In the last eight years media failed people. A lot of the media followed official lines,” he said. “They were overcome by patriotic feelings.” Khanfar went on to say that giving a voice to the antagonists, something critics deride as evidence of al-Jazeera bias is actually a sign of objectivity. “Our slogan is ‘the opinion, and the other opinion’,” Khanfar said. Khanfar believes the U.S. media failed in reporting on the region in part because of their lack of a nuanced understanding of the history of the Arab world. He accused a number of Western journalists of “reading a Wikipedia article” and then showing up on television screens as “experts” reporting from Baghdad. Khanfar holds that media can “play a role in bridging the divide” between the U.S. and the Arab world – a divide that Khanfar believes might not be as wide as many would imagine. “Arabs are not anti-American… Al-Jazeera is not anti-American,” said Khanfar. “Al-Jazeera was started in a Western model. We embraced freedom of expression and these are American values.” Khanfar believes that al-Jazeera, which receives heavy subsidies from the government of Qatar, succeeded “because people did not see it as a spokesman for the Qatari government.”

Mr. Khanfar also spoke before a small group at the MIddle East Institute, a U.S think tank whose largest supporters are international oil companies and whose board includes John Esposito, a well-known academic supporter of the Brotherhood.

The Jerusalem Post has run an article which explores the role of the Muslim Brotherhood at Al Jazeera. According to the article:

The meteoric rise of the network and its increasing popularity have led many political and media commentators in the Arab world to wonder exactly who or what was behind what appears to be its main purpose: encouraging opposition and promoting incitement against Arab regimes, exposing the corruption of their leaders and their entourage, while holding to an extreme Arab nationalist attitude against the US and Israel and extolling the values of conservative – and sometimes extremist – Islam. It did not take long for one name to emerge: the Muslim Brotherhood. This hypotheisis is supported by a number of facts. The director-general of the network, Wadah Khanfar, was a member of the organization in Jordan, where he was arrested. Today he is one of the closest advisers of the emir. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi is also a member of the inner circle of the emir and is known to work closely with Khanfar. Both support Hamas. Arab researchers have succeeded in uncovering a number of other Brothers working for the network, but it is surmised that there are many more. The general consensus is that Qaradawi is the visible tip of the iceberg. In an article published in 2003 in the London-based Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat, Maamun Fendi, a well-known Egyptian liberal thinker today living in the US, wrote that some 50 percent of the network’s personnel belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. He added that their influence in Qatar was rising both in the network and among government circles. According to him, the Brotherhood had intended to hold its world summit in Qatar in 2003 but had to scuttle its plan when it became known. These summits are usually held in a European capital far from Arab countries, in conditions of the utmost discretion, if not secrecy. Fendi believes that Qatar, by embracing the Brotherhood, an extremist Islamic organization quite popular in the Arab world, while hosting American bases, has found the perfect formula against retaliation by Arab leaders and attacks by all other Arab and Islamic extremists including al-Qaida.

According to a report in a Mideast business publication, Wadah Khanfar was born and educated in Jordan where, consistent with a Muslim Brotherhood background, he was educated as an engineer. The same report indicates that he also was a student activist, organizing a student union an activity also consistent with a Muslim Brotherhood background. In a TV interview, Khanfar stated that started his career as a journalist as an analyst on African affairs, mainly on Al Jazeera, while living in South Africa where is was doing graduate study in international politics and African studies at the time. He also described himself in the interview as “a researcher and consultant in Middle Eastern economics and political affairs.” In 1997, Khanfar became the Al Jazeera correspondent in South Africa. However, while living in South Africa, Khanfar was also was the Director of Human Resource Development for the International Islamic Federation of Student Organizations (IIFSO), an organization closely tied to the global Muslim Brotherhood. A memo purporting to be a 1998 briefing document prepared for the South African President Thabo Mbeki has long been posted on the Internet and describes the IIFSO as working closely with Hamas:

According to information HAMAS members in South Africa does not recognise the MUSLIM YOUTH MOVEMENT (MYM) as the official organ representing the Muslim youth in South Africa. HAMAS is of the opinion that the MYM have lost their control of the youths representation. Based upon this situation HAMAS, with the help of the INTERNATIONAL ISLAMIC FEDERATION OF STUDENT ORGANIZATIONS (IIFSO) are busy to establish institutions for the Muslim youth in South Africa to take over the role of the MYM. These youth centres are implemented in Pretoria and Cape Town.

The memo also identifies an individual called Wahdan Abu Ahmed KHUNFUR who it says was a Trustee of the Al Aqsa Foundation in South Africa as well as a Hamas contact. The Al Aqsa Foundation is one of the organizations comprising the Union of Good, the worldwide coalition of charities collecting money for Hamas and directed by global Muslim Brotherhood leader Youssef Qaradawi. The memo appears to be genuine, containing substantial detail and matching the time that Khanfar was known to be living in South Africa, but cannot be verified as genuine or that these are the same individuals. It should be noted, however, that a Jordanian newspaper reported recently that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave Qatari officials a file demonstrating Khanfar’s Hamas/Brotherhood connections.

In 2003, Khanfar became head of the Al Jazeera Baghdad bureau and shortly thereafter station General Manager. A recent report in Nation Magazine attributes the support by the Al Jazeera television station for Islamic movements to Khanfar’s influence. According to the Nation report, Al Jazeera coverage changed when Khanfar took over in March 2003:

“How things are covered, the prominence of things, what words are used–sometimes you do see that very clear Islamist subtext, depending on the issue,” says Alberto Fernandez, the director for press and public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near East Affairs at the State Department. “We see the unconditional support of Islamic movements, no matter where they are: Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan,” says a Jordanian official who did not wish to be identified because of what he characterized as the deteriorating relations between his country and Qatar. Dozens of hours of viewing Al Jazeera for this article confirm the charge. Whether it’s reporting the Hamas perspective from the occupied territories without mention of the Palestinian Authority’s version of events, or the fawning depiction elsewhere of Islamist parties and militias as the grassroots reflection of Arab sentiment, Al Jazeera has moved away from its ideologically diverse origins to a more populist/Islamist approach. After the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Al Jazeera replaced its longtime secular bureau chief in Baghdad, Faisal Yasiri, with Wadah Khanfar, who had reported from Afghanistan after the American invasion in 2001 and then Kurdish-controlled territory as the war with Iraq was launched in 2003. Shortly thereafter, the secular head of Al Jazeera, Mohammed Jassem Ali, was ousted and replaced by Khanfar, whom nine current and former employees of the station interviewed for this article characterize as an Islamist. It was around this time that Jazeera’s Iraq bureau “became a platform for [Sunni] extremists,” says Shaker Hamid, a secular Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad from 1997 to 2000, who left to work at another Arab satellite station after getting what he says was a better offer. “I can’t say that Jazeera’s rhetoric is completely against Shiites,” Hamid says. “The Americans introduced this, but the media should not make it worse, and Jazeera did.”

The report goes on to say that the trend toward Islamism at the station is continuing:

Former employees of Jazeera interviewed for this article say the newsroom is becoming more religiously conservative. “Everyone is complaining about the new trend now–that the liberals, the secular types, the Arab nationalists are getting downsized and the Islamic position is dominating the newsroom,” says Hamid, the former Baghdad correspondent. Mirazi, the former Washington bureau chief, told Al Hayat: “From the first day of the Wadah Khanfar era, there was a dramatic change–especially because of him selecting assistants who are hard-line Islamists.”

A previous post discussed the recent opening of Al-Jazeera’s cable launch in the Washington D.C. area, representing the station’s first entry into a major U.S. commercial market.

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