We speak with Dr. Faisal al-Qasim, anchor of Al-Ittijah al-Muakis, or "The Opposite Directions." The political debate show is one of the most popular and controversial shows of its kind in the history of Arabic television and has drawn official protest and complaints from officials. Hugh Miles joins the discussion. [includes rush transcript]
One of the most famous programs on Al Jazeera is Al-Ittijah al-Muakis–or "The Opposite Direction." Similar to CNN’s Crossfire, "The Opposite Direction" is a political debate show that features guests with opposing opinions debating a controversial theme. A common format of the show is to put an Arab dissident living in exile against a representative from that country’s government–with explosive results.
Airing every Tuesday for ninety minutes, "The Opposite Direction" is one of the most popular shows of its kind in the history of Arabic television–and one of the most controversial. In fact, as Hugh Miles writes in his book on Al Jazeera, "The show has been the source of numerous international disputes and instigated the severance of diplomatic relations with several neighboring countries."
The anchor of "The Opposite Direction," Dr. Faisal al-Qassim, has become one of the most famous faces in the Arab world. He writes and researches every show single-handedly and books every guest himself. He is author of the book, "Memorize and Shut Up- the Lost Art of Arab Dialogue."
- Dr. Faisal al-Qasim, anchor of Al-Ittijah al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction) on Al Jazeera, which is probably the most controversial talk show in the history of Arab television.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Faisal Al-Qasim joins us today in Doha. Welcome to Democracy Now!
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Thank you very much indeed. Most kind. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, along with Hugh Miles, who wrote the book Al Jazeera. You had the last interview with Saddam Hussein before the U.S. invaded?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, actually, together with the general manager of Al Jazeera, I was the, I think, the last journalist to see Saddam Hussein, that’s right. We interviewed him for about two hours. Two hours and 10 minutes.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: In one of his palaces, al-Faw Palace. But sadly the interview did not go out because it wasn’t — some of it was taped, but rest of it was not taped.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, because he did not want the interview to go out, as simple as that, but we had the time to sit with him and talk about a lot of things.
AMY GOODMAN: Like what?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: All sorts of things, actually, about his ideology, about — I mean, how he’s going to face the American invasion if it happens, and so on. We even talked about his cigars and women, and so on and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, his cigars?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, Actually, I remember at one point I was — I mean, showering him with hard political questions, so he was really fed up sort of. So he said to me, well, why don’t you ask me probably on — about nice women, for instance, and let me talk to you — instead of talking about politics, let me talk about cigars and how he used to, I mean, smoke cigars when he was in prison. And, for instance, he asked me what kind of — do you smoke? I said to him, "No, I don’t smoke actually." He asked the general manager, he said to him, I smoke but I smoke the small cigars. So he said to him, "Look, my dear, if you want to smoke, smoke something big. Smoke the hobble bobble, smoke a pipe or smoke a cigar. So he gave us two cigars. I still keep one.
AMY GOODMAN: What were the hard questions you were asking him?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, the hard questions, actually, I asked him about, in particular, actually, about Baathism and Arab nationalism, in particular, because, I mean, I said to him, "Well, actually, I think you have done Arab nationalism, or pan-Arabism, if you like, you have done it harm more than anybody else," so I was challenging him over his nationalistic views.
And he, in actual fact, he took quite a lot of time to talk about Zionism. Zionism, particularly the influence of Zionism on the United States of America. And I got the impression that the President knew quite a lot, actually, about the Zionist influence on the U.S. For instance, at one point he said to me, "Look, the Zionists are now in the United States of America. Once the United States of America starts falling down, they will go somewhere else. I mean, if Japan becomes, for instance, a superpower, the next day they will be there." So he was sort of obsessed with Zionism.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the issues you take on on a regular basis? Can you talk about some of the more controversial interviews that you have had, causing you to have death threats from, well, all sorts of places?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, actually we try to, I mean, tackle things which happen now. As you know, too many things are happening in the Arab world these days. For instance over the past year, for instance, we did quite a lot on Iraq, on the American invasion of Iraq. I did — I remember I did something a couple of weeks ago, actually, and it created a hell of a lot of problems. We did something about the elections, and I had somebody on the program to talk about Sistani. You know, Sistani, as far as the Shiites are concerned, is a holy man. Nobody can touch him. But I had somebody to tear him into pieces.
The next day we switch on the Iraqi televisions to find that Iraqis are on the streets in their thousands, shouting against Al Jazeera, threatening Al Jazeera, particularly myself, actually, and they composed many songs, if you like. They are on tapes to criticize Al Jazeera and The Opposite Direction, and so on and so forth. Thankfully, I mean, this is our tenth year, tenth year, but we are still doing as far as the viewership is concerned — we are still doing very well, because, as you know, the Arab area is full of hot events.
AMY GOODMAN: How many viewers does Al Jazeera have?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, as far as I know actually, we don’t have an exact number, but we have at least 35 million viewers. Some people say between 35 and 70. We know for a fact that everybody in the Arab world watches Al Jazeera, yeah, because Al Jazeera has become over the past ten years the main source of information for the Arab people. If you look at the Arab world before the emergence of Al Jazeera, the Arab people used to get their news and information from Western sources, particularly from the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo and the Voice of America.
Nobody used to listen to any Arabic radio or television. And there is a nice joke by the Syrian comedian Dored Laham, he lives in one of the remote villages in Syria. So he said to his friend, "Switch on to the BBC to see what’s happening in our village." So — I mean, which means that the Arab world used to depend on Western media. When Al Jazeera emerged on the media arena, if you like, things began to change. For the first time ever, we have a public opinion, an Arab public opinion formed by Al Jazeera, because Al Jazeera has become the national channel for all Arab countries, from Mauritania to Damascus.
AMY GOODMAN: Today at the Al Jazeera forum one of the commentators talking about Al Jazeera said in the ten years that Al Jazeera has been on the air, they have not criticized the corruption of an Arab government.
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, actually, this is not really true. I would like to talk about my program, I mean, to begin with. Six Arab countries withdrew their ambassadors from Doha because of my program. They were protesting against what was said in the program or on the program. So this is not really true.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassadors to —
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Ambassadors, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: To Doha, Qatar?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Yeah, that’s right. They have been — they severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, because of the program. Jordan — well, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, and so on and so forth, and many Arab countries closed down our bureaus because of Al Jazeera. Why have they closed down their bureaus and severed diplomatic relations with Qatar? To protest against what we said. We said horrible things about the corruption of these governments, about the suppression they exercise over their people, and so on and so forth. So it’s not really true that we haven’t tackled corruption. We have tackled corruption. We have tackled all sorts of things.
AMY GOODMAN: Hugh Miles, you’ve written it’s as if these ambassadors think they are ambassadors to a TV network.
HUGH MILES: Well, indeed. Qatar is such a small country with a population of just a few hundred thousand, half of whom are under 18, maybe a third of whom are members of the royal family. Al Jazeera is really the biggest thing to happen around here for a long time.
AMY GOODMAN: But wouldn’t this indicate that these governments see Qatar, the Emir of Qatar, as running Al Jazeera?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: The ambassadors view that, and they complain, too, — the Qatari government, or they used to, with some logic, because the Emir of Qatar is the principal financier of Al Jazeera. So they attack him. But the fact is the Qataris aren’t involved in Al Jazeera’s output. There’s an editorial team who are responsible, and so when these Arab ambassadors used to attack the — or complain to the Qataris about Al Jazeera’s output, really they were wasting their breath. And to be honest, by and large they’ve now given up, and most of the complaints to Al Jazeera are American or African.
AMY GOODMAN: Are these protests because of your program?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Yes. Well, actually I know that Arab governments have lodged hundreds of complaints with the foreign minister here in Qatar against the program and myself, and as Hugh said, well, many ambassadors were ambassadors to Al Jazeera, because they had nothing else but to watch — to monitor Al Jazeera output, if you like. So I know they created a hell of a lot of hullabaloo against the program, but they have given up, because we haven’t stopped doing what we used to do in the past.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to the U.S. government saying that you act as a mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden or for — overall for terrorists, for running these tapes?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Yeah, very good indeed actually. I wouldn’t go far by answer — in answering this question. I just refer you to Hugh’s book about that, actually. If you like, he measured the time we gave to Osama bin Laden and the time we gave to President Bush and his administration, and it’s nothing. I mean, if we give five hours to President Bush, we give Osama bin Laden five minutes or 10 minutes. So I think Hugh can comment on that actually.
AMY GOODMAN: Hugh Miles?
HUGH MILES: Well, it’s absolutely true. Al Jazeera has given far more time just to American affairs, also to Israeli affairs than they’ve ever given to al-Qaeda, and there are plenty of videos from al-Qaeda which Al Jazeera has never screened, which they don’t regard as newsworthy. They’re not interested in just broadcasting propaganda, so they lock them up, and that’s that.
But I should point out, as well, that there was an error actually in your initial introduction, where you said that the Al Jazeera bureau has been accidentally targeted twice. Well, it hasn’t. It was being deliberately targeted by the Americans. After the bombing in Afghanistan, when fortunately no one was killed, General Tommy Franks admitted that Al Jazeera had been deliberately targeted because, quote, "it was the site of known al-Qaeda activity."
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about your brother who lives in Egypt, and then I also want to ask why you do this. Your life has been seriously threatened. What happened to your brother?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, actually what happened to my brother, I remember once, for instance — I mean, let me tell you something that over 200 volumes of writings have been written on the program. 99% of them are really negative, because the Arab governments had nothing to do but to tell their hacks, if you like, to write against myself and against the program. Hundreds of cartoons have been drawn.
I remember in Egypt at one point, for six months they had nothing to do but to attack the program. You open any Egyptian magazine or newspaper, and you find a piece or two or sometimes five criticizing the program. At long last, I think, they said, well, actually this is not really working, criticizing the program and doing cartoons. So why don’t we resort to something else? So I have a brother in Egypt. He’s a pop star. So they sent him a couple of security men. They took him from his flat in Cairo.
AMY GOODMAN: He’s a singer?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: He’s a singer. And put him on the first plane leaving Cairo. So they said to him, "Where would you like to go? We have three planes. One going to Amman, the other to Iran, the third to the Sudan." He said to them, "Why should I go to the Sudan or to Tehran? Send me to Amman." So the guy went to Amman, with nothing with him actually. He couldn’t take even his pajamas.
So he went to Amman, and I brought him to Doha. He stayed with me here for about three months, and then he went back. So it was some kind of punishment, if you like. I have been blacklisted — I know that for a fact — by many Arab countries. I can’t go to many Arab countries. But, well, actually this is not going to stop us doing what we have been doing all along.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your mission?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: My mission is actually, well, liberating the Arab world, liberating the Arab world from dictators and despots and horrible traditions, political, social, cultural, and so on and so forth. And I think we have succeeded hugely, thank God. I remember before starting — before starting — before doing this program about ten years ago, I honestly used to think about certain political issues in the Arab world, and I used to look around thinking that somebody is eavesdropping on my thought. I was really frightened of even thinking. I used to behave like a child. We couldn’t even think about certain sensitive issues. That was taboo. I have broken or torn to pieces all Muslim and Arabic icons, be they political, cultural, social, economic, and so on and so forth. Thankfully we have slaughtered too many sacred cows.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet the fiercest critic of Al Jazeera is the United States.
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Which is —
AMY GOODMAN: Saying you are a propagandist .
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Which is a shame, actually. But let me tell you something. I don’t want to defend the United States actually. It is true that the American administration has been exercising a lot of pressure on Al Jazeera, but it’s not as much as the pressure exercised by Arab governments. Let me tell you something. An Arab leader once saw President Bush. He said to him verbatim, "Mr. President, you are sending too many missiles to Iraq and Afghanistan. Why don’t you send one to Al Jazeera?" One of the Arab presidents — one of the Arab rulers — he’s not a President.
AMY GOODMAN: Which one?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, I’m not going to mention his name, actually, but this is an example of how the Arab governments have been trying to pressurize the American government to pressurize Al Jazeera.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your last show and the next one are on Hamas.
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you saying?
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Well, actually, you know, I mean, Hamas has achieved a landslide in the Palestinian elections, and it’s not only a landslide, it’s a turning point, as far as democracy is concerned in the Arab world. Last week I did something about Hamas, and I had two guys, one to say that Hamas — the victory of Hamas reflects the mood of the Arab street, if you like, from Mauritania to Lebanon, and if elections are held in any Arab country, the supporters of Hamas or the resistance movements in the Arab world would win, if you like. Somebody else was saying, "Look, this is a step backward," if you like. "If you vote for these horrible people, it means you are going back to the middle ages."
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Dr. Faisal al-Qasim.
DR. FAISAL AL-QASIM: Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: He is the host of Al Jazeera’s program, The Opposite Direction. We have also been joined by Hugh Miles, author of Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World. It was — it has been published — is coming out in the United States both in paperback as well as hard cover, and it’s been published in Britain, as well.
HUGH MILES: Thank you very much.