Itís hard to figure out just what was news about the critique of Islamic fascism posed by Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera last month. If anything was ìdog bites man,î this was it.
Sultan is a Syrian dissident who has lived for many years in Los Angeles, where she has sworn off Islam and adopted secular humanism. She is a psychologist and feminist, and this wasnít the first time sheís given her opinion. Her Al Jazeera appearance, in a debate against a hotheaded supporter of Islamís war against the West and cultural freedom, was just another one of those split-screen battles of talking heads that have become the staple of cable news.
Nevertheless, in 18 days Sultanís appearance became the perfect storm of an Internet phenomenon that jacked up that obscure cable debate into more than a million visits to a Web site that featured the TV clip; tens of thousands of e-mails within the Jewish community praising Sultan for her courage, while being terrified about Sultanís safety; to the front page of The New York Times (March 11).Howíd that happen?
It all started on Feb. 21 when MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, posted the clip (memri.org) and notified its e-mail subscribers, as it does several times a month. MEMRI, founded in 1998 by Yigal Carmon, a retired Israeli colonel, regularly sends out translations of items in the Arabic and Farsi media. Thirty MEMRI staffers, including Muslims, translate the items into English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, Turkish and Russian, moving the story worldwide, if not onto too many front pages.Usually the MEMRI items range from TV clips of anti-Semitic programs and rabid political speeches and sermons to reasonable political analysis, to what MEMRI calls its ìReform project,î translations of a small but persistent critique of the Arab world from within the Arab media, revealing the existence of dissidents pushing for a liberalization of political, religious, economic and social conditions ó critiques every bit as damning as Sultanís and every bit as courageous for doing so within the belly of the beast, not Los Angeles.ìI got e-mailed a link [to the MEMRI clip] before I knew of the flap it caused,î said Samuel Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism. ìItís a great example of some echo effect, this exponential multiplication you get from e-mails. Why this caught on, I couldnít tell you. There have been critical items in the Arab media before ó a lot was written after the massacre of schoolchildren in Chechnya, for instance.î
MEMRI in recent weeks also has sent out reports from the Arab media on discrimination against Christians in Egypt (March 1); an item on Egyptian intellectuals speaking out against the Muslim Brotherhood Movement and its slogan ìIslam is the Solutionî (Feb. 28); and a sampling of Arab columnists who have criticized justifications for terror (Jan. 19). None of those stories had any legs.
Thomas Friedman, the Times columnist, frequently cites MEMRI, which he calls ìinvaluable.î Referring to MEMRI last year (July 22), Friedman wrote that ìevery week some courageous Arab or Muslim intellectual, cleric or columnist publishes an essay in his or her media calling on fellow Muslims to deal with the cancer in their midst.î
If not for MEMRI, Freedman said, ìwho would have been tuning in to Al Jazeera at exactly that time?î The biggest surprise ìwasnít what she said but to see it on Al Jazeera,î with the verbatim accuracy that a tape provides.
If Sultan was courageous, what are we to make of the Al Jazeera producers, based in the Arab world, who invited her on, and more than once (July 26, 2005)? This is, after all, supposed to be Osama bin Ladenís favorite station.The big story here, Freedman said, is how e-mails gave it traction.
Naomi Ragen, the Israeli novelist who also regularly e-mails her thoughts on Israelís political situation, told The Jewish Week that after she received the MEMRI e-mail, ìI was so impressed I sent it out to my mailing list ó I have close to 10,000 people on my list, and each one of them has their own mailing list.î
This wasnít the first time Ragen noticed how e-mails can drive a news story. After last yearís tsunami, she said, ìI Googled ëSyrian aid to tsunami victims,í and came up with zero.î She e-mailed her list about how the majority of victims were Muslim and yet the Muslims, who love to talk about solidarity when it comes to Palestinians, couldnít have cared less about homeless Muslim refugees in the tsunami.ì
Fox News picked it up,î Ragen said, ìand then all the major networks suddenly had this on their agenda. I know I was the first one to bring this up. Itís amazing what you can do from a little office in the hills of Jerusalem and one computer with an Internet connection.î
Another major Internet advocate of the Sultan story was Joseph Farah, the Arab-American editor of the online World Net Daily news journal, who has often been critical of other Arab Americans who appear in the media as ìas apologists and rationalizers of terrorism and hatred in the Muslim world.î
Farah told The Jewish Week that his column, including a link to MEMRI, ìwas viewed more than 100,000 times.î That, he said, ìdoesnít count, of course, the countless others who e-mailed a facsimile around and brought attention to the MEMRI clip. In the Internet business, we refer to this phenomenon as ëgoing viral.íìWafa Sultanís story went viral earlier this month, and that is what caused The New York Times to take notice. Wafa Sultan would never have made The New York Times without the new media.î
Another Internet promotion for the story came March 8, when the Daily Alert, the excellent news summary (dailyalert.org) e-mailed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, published a summary and link to MEMRIís dispatch. Reformers in the Arab world such as Anneqed.com (ìThe Criticî) also picked up the story.The earliest appearance we could find in the mainstream media came well after the Internet deluge ó an editorial in The Washington Times (March 4) praising Sultanís words as ìthe very definition of fearlessness.îAfter The New York Times published its front-page story on March 11, the International Herald Tribune ran its version, as did The Los Angeles Times, the Pakistan Daily Times and Kurdish Media, an online English language site. But even as of March 14, a search on Yahoo! News for ìWafa Sultanî turned up only eight referrals. That same search on Google News turned up only 63. The story has not really caught on, even with The New York Times on board.Sultanís first English language appearance after Al Jazeera was on Israelís Arutz Sheva (March 9), where she was interviewed on the ìTovia Singer Showî (www.IsraelNationalRadio.com). You can listen and then e-mail it to your friends. n