Gained in translation
Why the Middle East Media Research Institute is a source of English versions of Arabic texts that are designed to mislead and disinform.
By Mohammed El Oifi
THE Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) was founded in 1998 by a former Israeli military intelligence officer, Colonel Yigal Carmon. It translates Arab and Iranian media into European languages, and according to its website “explores the Middle East through the region’s media. Memri bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological , intellectual, social, cultural and religious trends in the Middle East” (1).
Memri says its purpose is to “inform the debate over United States policy in the Middle East. Memri is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, organisation with branch offices in Berlin, London, Jerusalem and Baghdad, and has a project active in Sweden. Memri research is translated into English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, and occasionally Turkish and Russian.” This service is offered free of charge to media, institutions and western political leaders, particularly members of the US Congress.
The Memri television monitor project also tracks the main Arab and Iranian television channels. It occasionally subtitles and distributes short, carefully selected programme extracts that it sends free of charge to western television stations or broadcasting regulators.
Everything depends on the choice of texts and sequences that Memri translates. It tends to present minority views in Arab media as being majority views. The non-Arabic speaker with access only to these translations might have the impression that Arab media is dominated by a group of fanatical anti-western and anti-semitic writers, opposed by only a few rare and brave journalists, those Memri calls “liberal or progressive”.
This explains why Arab, and occasionally European, writers have several times accused Memri of being a propaganda organ working for the Israeli government, Likud, and their pressure groups. Three of six founding members worked for Israeli intelligence (2).
Memri has had some successes. In 2001 it launched a mostly baseless campaign to denounce Palestinian school textbooks for inciting anti-semitism (3). In 2004 Memri and a French website called Proche-Orient.info (which later closed) emphasised the “excesses” (4) of the Hizbullah television station Al-Manar, which was then banned in France, leading to protests from Reporters Without Borders. It also campaigned against the Zayed Centre in the United Arab Emirates, which was also closed (5).
More importantly, Memri serves the Israeli strategy of hindering relations between the Arab nations and the West (6). On an Al-Jazeera programme Carmon countered these accusations by saying that Memri is pursuing a scientific objective: transmitting the views of the Arab media on Middle East events to a western audience (7). This should not be accepted without reservations.
Although the Israeli-Arab conflict is focused on the control of land in Palestine, it is inseparable from the symbolic struggle in which both sides attempt to win hearts and minds so as to legitimise their view of events. Power struggles only obey local logic up to a point, so outside support is decisive. It is particularly important for the Israelis since the war in Lebanon and the first intifada (1987-1993), both of which badly harmed Israel’s international image.
Memri’s damage-limitation exercise distorts the West’s image of Arabs and of Muslims by presenting them as hateful and fanatical.
The growth of Arab satellite television channels has emancipated public opinion, and Middle Eastern leaders have lost some control over the media. As a result Israelis have begun to take a direct interest in the Arab media and its content. This may explain why Memri was set up in February 1998, a year and a half after the launch of Al-Jazeera.
Carmon has strong roots in Israel. He is an Arab speaker, and has been counter-terrorism adviser to two prime ministers, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. He has strong support in Washington; he works with Meyrav Wurmser, formerly of Memri and now head of the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute, sympathetic to US neoconservatives. Memri also has the support of many donors, including one of the largest foundations of the US right, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Memri has taken Arab liberals hostage by creating the strange category of “liberal or progressive Arab journalist”. To qualify, a journalist has to oppose all forms of armed resistance in the Arab world, particularly in Palestine and Iraq; denounce Hamas and Hizbullah; criticise Yasser Arafat and praise Abu Mazen; plead the cause of “realism” – the acceptance of the current balance of power, and therefore foreign domination; approve of US policy in the Middle East; encourage Arabs to be self-critical and renounce “conspiracy mentality”.
Aspiring candidates must also show proven hostility to nationalism and political Islam, and even contempt for Arab culture. Criticism must be specifically directed at religious leaders and, more broadly, at any society that supposedly fails keep pace with an enlightened Arab leader. They must praise individual freedoms but without insisting on political liberties, still less national sovereignty. When writing about political reform, they must pick out republican regimes, particularly Iraq prior to US occupation, and Syria or Egypt. Political reform in Saudi Arabia should not be mentioned, which is unsurprising given that most Memri-approved journalists write for a press that is financed by Saudi princes and businessmen (8).
Memri is frequently criticised for the quality, and sometimes even the integrity, of its translations. After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, an Islamist living in Britain, Hani al-Sebai, was invited to take part in an Al-Jazeera programme, More Than One Viewpoint. Sebai said of the victims “there is no term in Islamic jurisprudence called civilians. Dr Karmi is here sitting with us, and he’s very familiar with the jurisprudence. There are fighters and non-fighters. Islam is against the killing of innocents. The innocent man cannot be killed according to Islam.” The Memri translation read: “The term civilians does not exist in Islamic religious law. Dr Karmi is sitting here, and I am sitting here, and I’m familiar with religious law. There is no such term as civilians in the modern western sense. People are either of dar al-harb or not” (9). Note the introduction of the contested term dar al-harb, which is Arabic for house of war (denoting the part of the world populated by unbelievers), a term not used by the speaker. In a country at war on terror, the use of that term implies that anything goes. Memri also omitted the condemnation of the killing of innocents.
Halim Barakat, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, also suffered from this approach. He claimed that an article he wrote for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, “The wild beast that Zionism created: Self-destruction”, was reproduced by Memri under the hate-inducing headline, “Jews have lost their humanity”. Barakat denies having used that phrase. “Every time I wrote Zionism, Memri replaced the word by Jew or Judaism. They want to give the impression that I’m not criticising Israeli policy and that what I’m saying is anti-semitic.” As soon as the translation was posted on the Memri website he received threats. He was told that he had no right to teach at a university (he has taught for more than 30 years) and that he should leave the US. Another Georgetown professor attacked him in an article based only on Memri translations, without checking the Arabic texts (10).
In June 2004 Memri triggered a campaign against a London visit by the well-known Islamist scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, commissioned a study of the “Islamic conspiracy dossier” to obtain an impartial view (11). His counter-dossier concluded that the campaign was part of an “apparent rising tide of Islamophobia” aiming to “close off any dialogue between London and mainstream representatives of one of the world’s great religions”.
The Livingstone commissioned report analysed all Qaradawi’s works, and discovered that nearly all the distortions came from “material produced by the Middle East Research Institute” which “was set up by a former colonel in Israel’s military intelligence service”. It concluded that Memri systematically distorted facts, not only relating to Qaradawi but to many other Muslim leaders, and the report was intended to set matters straight (12).
Memri is also guilty of basic factual errors. According to its “experts”, Abdel Karim Abu al-Nasr is a Saudi national, because he is a leader writer for a Saudi newspaper, whereas he is a prominent Lebanese journalist (13). In a long paper on Saudi Arabia, Memri wrote that Crown Prince Abdallah Ibn Abdel Aziz (now king) belonged to the Sudeiri branch of the royal family, which would surprise anyone who knows the country (14).
Memri’s efficiency results from close coordination with people actively involved in political propaganda campaigns. Arab journalists are given carrot-and-stick treatment; “liberal” or “progressive” journalists are invited to friendly research institutes in the US, visa formalities are simplified, and they are given access to the media and US leaders. Those whom Memri categorises as hatemongers are given a hard time; the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman has referred to the “expertise” of Memri and its founder, and recommended that “the US state department should issue lists of the top 10 hatemongers, those who advocate acts of terror” (15).
However, it has yet to be proven that former or present members of Israeli intelligence services are the best architects of the bridge that needs to be built or rebuilt between the Arab world and the West.
(1) Memri.org includes these subjects of study: “The jihad and terrorism studies project, US and the Middle East, reform in the Arab and Muslim world, the Arab-Israeli conflict, inter-Arab relations and the antisemitism documentation project”.
(2) Brian Whitaker, “Selective Memri“, Guardian, London 12 August 2002; he demonstrates how Memri changes any translation once it has been contested.
(3) See Lisa Morena, “A textbook case“, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, July 2001.
(4) In October 2003 the Al-Manar satellite station broadcast an antisemitic series that included scenes of “ritual murder”.
(5) See a report by Memri on the closure of the Zayed Centre by Steven Stalinsky, “The Think Tank of the Arab League“, 11 September 2003.
(6) See Guy Bachor, “Israel’s strategy in its relations with Europe”, in Yediot Aharonot , Tel Aviv, 25 February 2004.
(7) See the Min Washington programme, “Memri and the Image of Arabs in the West” (in Arabic), 13 September 2002.
(8) Bilal al-Hassan, La culture de la capitulation, Riad El-Rayyes Books, Beirut, 2005, a good summary of al-Hassan’s beliefs, although unfair to some authors quoted.
(10) The Min Washington programme, op cit.
(12) كين لفنغستون.. الحوار بين شرائح المجتمع البريطاني, Al Jazeera, 20 January 2005.
(13) Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, 13 December 2004
(14) “Saudi Arabia: the Structure of Royal Oligarchy“, Memri, 12 September 2002. The Sudeiri include the recently deceased King Fahd, Prince Sultan, Prince Na’if and others who are opposed to Abdallah.
(15) Thomas Friedman, “Giving the Hatemongers No Place to Hide”, New York Times, 22 July 2005. See The Spiegel online, english edition for a reprint of the article.