by Lee Smith
Neither in London, nor in the Arab and Islamic world has there been enough condemnation," says Hazem Saghieh, a columnist for Al Hayat. "Learning to accommodate these horrible acts is a symptom of mental disease." The Lebanese-born Saghieh is one of the pillars of London's Arab press establishment, a large collection of voices dominated, like all the Arab media, by Al Jazeera-style resentment and incitement, but also including a solid core of liberal or liberal-friendly outlets. Elaph, a Web-magazine that is something like an Arabic-language Slate, has one of its main offices in the British capital. So does Saqi Books, founded by Saghieh's late wife, Mai Ghassoub.
But the flagships of Arab liberal media are Al Hayat and the other London-based broadsheet Asharq Al-Awsat, both of which ran several articles in the last month unequivocally condemning the violence and those who justify it. "There are segments of the Arab media that seem to think it is a press freedom to incite people to kill others," Tariq Al Homayed, Asharq Al-Awsat's editor-in-chief, told me in a phone interview. "These people are more dangerous than the criminals themselves."
The origins of the Arab media and Arab liberalism are both found in the Middle East's landmark encounter with Western modernity--Napoleon's 1798 invasion of Egypt. The French scholars that accompanied him brought a printing press, and though the first newspaper published in the region was intended mostly for the French landing force, Napoleon's easy walkover showed Middle Eastern potentates how far the lands of Islam lagged behind its historical rival, Christian Europe. As Muhammad Ali Pasha, the father of modern Egypt, sent military students off to the continent to learn the latest advances in European war-making, one of the delegations included Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi, a young Al-Azhar-educated imam who immersed himself in French culture, history, literature and philosophy, including, among his favorites, Voltaire and Rousseau.
Arab liberals were already fighting a rear-guard battle by the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup d'etat, but when the pan-Arabist demagogue nationalized the press--an example that regimes throughout the region emulated--the liberal era in the Middle East was officially over. Lebanon was one of the few to preserve its free press, until the civil war when many journalists and their press organs scattered, some of them, like Al Hayat, landing in London. And it was there the liberal Arab media enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, thanks to press freedoms unavailable in the Middle East and large sums of Saudi cash. It is perhaps surprising given the kingdom's well-earned reputation for funding global jihad, but most of the liberal pan-Arab media in London and now Dubai is majority-Saudi owned.
Here is the difference between Europe's "moderate Muslim" leadership and the liberal Arab media based there: The former wants much of what a liberal society has to offer, various opportunities and freedoms, as well as entitlements and concessions, in addition to a thick layer of Islam separating them from what they perceive as the sickness of liberal societies, the freedoms and entitlements of others; the latter, at one time anyway, had hoped for Arab societies to be more like Western liberal democracies.
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