Al Jazeera responds to Obama on the yarmulke issue

Al Jazeera responds to Obama on the yarmulke issue

In a private meeting a few weeks back, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly complained to American Jewish leaders that he was being portrayed in the Arab media as too close to Israel.

“Every time I’m shown on Al Jazeera they show me at the Western Wall with a yarmulke on, President Obama said,” according to ABC News.

This morning, I asked Al Jazeera’s director general, Wadah Khanfar, to respond directly to Obama’s critique. Khanfar is in Washington this week — his first-ever trip to D.C. — and the Middle East Institute hosted an on-the-record briefing with him this morning.

“Of course it’s not true” that he’s only showing wearing a yarmulke, Khanfar said with a smile. “I’m not sure if he’s watching Al Jazeera.”

He admitted that the Arabic satellite network did “show a clip of him wearing the yarmulke” when he visited Jerusalem, and maybe “a promotion where it introduces the leader in other ways.” But if so, it would have been a promo among other clips, he said, and in any case, Al Jazeera had “covered his speeches, his policies, far beyond summarizing that one single shot.”

Khanfar seemed optimistic about the Obama administration, saying that the Middle East had suffered greatly during the past eight years, and that the hostility toward the United States was “also very harmful for a lot of people in the region.”

“Even for Al Jazeera,” he said, “America is inspiring,” pointing out that the network was founded in 1996 on the Western model. “People [in the region] do not hate America. People love American values. People would love to see American values active in their lives.”

Now, he said, there is a “new window of opportunity” for the United States to return to its previous relationship with the Middle East.

Khanfar also defended the satellite channel against charges that it was sensationalist.

Everyone has his own editorial philosophy,” he said, noting that Al Jazeera had a “code of conduct and ethics” and guidelines for its reporters. Every organization has its own “spirit of reporting,” he said, and Al Jazeera’s ethos was “putting people at the center” and not deferring to governments and their “narrow” agendas.

“We put a lot of anger and frustration on the screen,” he admitted, “because that is a reality in the Arab state.”

“We should not forget that we have the most complicated hotspots in the world,” he continued. “Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Palestine, Iran… I can count forever… Mostly every day headlines will be about explosions, suicide bombings, people angry.”

“In our case we cannot afford to have comfortable debates about healthcare” on television, he said with some evident emotion.

What was his agenda in Washington? He didn’t say, but one comment offered a clue: He said that Al Jazeera’s biggest business priority is distribution in the United States. The English channel was recently made available on cable in the Washington metro area, something he hoped would be a first step toward broader availability.

See Marc Lynch, who was also at the breakfast, for more.