Patt Morrison Asks

Abderrahim Foukara, Al Jazeera's U.S. translator

How do you convey to the world the American ideal of free speech, for example? Abderrahim Foukara does it daily as Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Washington.

Abderrahim Foukara

Al Jazeera Washington D.C. bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times / September 19, 2012)

How do you convey to the world the American ideal of free speech or curious turns of phrase like "stump speech" and "gerrymandering"? Abderrahim Foukara does it daily, as Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Washington. I first met the Moroccan-born journalist at the 2008 Republican convention, where he told me that he had explained John McCain as "maverick" to his Arab-language audiences as a bird that flies a distance from the flock. Now, at a parlous moment in the relationship between there and here, I asked the man who reports U.S. thinking to the Arab world to do some illuminating in the other direction.

What should Americans understand about the response to the "Innocence of the Muslims" video trailer?

[There are] peaceful protesters; [there is] the so-called silent majority. The violent protests may hark back to pure politics or ideology, which may include manipulation [by] groups or movements trying to settle scores with "ruling elites" in the Muslim world or the "West."

There are people saying free speech is one thing but inciting hatred is another. You have to see the background. The Obama administration convinced Pastor Terry Jones [not to publicly burn the Koran]. Some people are saying that's an example that the U.S. is eclectic in how it defines free speech.

Having said this, I admit that not for a long time have I had such a hard time understanding the real reasons behind a story. What I know for sure is that the protests are potentially of consequence to relations between the West and the Muslim world. It's a silly, trashy trailer [eliciting] a reaction with potentially significant consequences.

For Al Jazeera, the challenge has been to reflect the feeling of the majority but not to show the demonstrations to be bigger than they actually are. The danger would be to film those protests as if they were the 1 million marches we had seen toppling Mubarak.

Is it frustrating for the foreign press corps that U.S. foreign policy plays such a small role in U.S. elections?

The U.S. is seen as a superpower. It controls land, it controls sea, it controls space; it has so many military bases around the world, particularly in the Mideast. People in the Middle East and North Africa think of foreign policy constantly, of U.S. foreign policy, and they find it baffling that the people who actually wield that influence are not so interested in foreign policy.

American insularity is partly a function of geography — size and isolation.

The United States is absolutely huge, and I can understand how some Americans can live all their lives without thinking of going overseas. Moving from one state to another is in some ways like moving from one country to another. Isolation was part of the security this country had; 9/11 shattered that. The Middle East has for thousands of years been the crossroads of empires and powers and civilizations. There's obviously a much more heightened sense of history and geography; it's been one empire after another. Partly because of geography, people in the Middle East they feel they're almost constantly under attack, and have almost never had a fair shake at determining their own fates — there's always [something] coming from the outside; whether you agree with that, that's how they feel.

The U.S. is in the middle of election fever, and there's fever in the Muslim world about these protests, but if we all step back and take a deep breath, I think both America and the Muslim world are in it together, with common challenges.

You got your start at the BBC. Is Al Jazeera's journalism any different?

The fundamental principles are the same: You try to get the news from at least two different sources; you tell the story but stay out of it; you should not allow yourself to editorialize within your news story. [But] the BBC World Service reflects a certain British character: Your tone is restrained; you speak and deliver the news with a neutral voice that has nothing personal about it. Al Jazeera is a different tone. This is a channel from the Middle East. This is a turbulent part of the world; there's a lot of angst, and in part, that's why Al Jazeera has garnered the following it has [the Al Jazeera Network, including Al Jazeera English, claims an audience of 220 million households in 100 countries].

All the anger, the anxiety, the hope of the region find themselves expressed on Al Jazeera.

Are your reports ever blocked in the Arab countries you broadcast to?

Al Jazeera has had a problem with almost every Arab government across North Africa and the Middle East. It's not very popular in Syria; the Syrians see us as a tool that supports the Syrian opposition. Until three years ago we didn't have an office in Tunisia; it was shut down. We do not have an office in Algeria. Things got very testy at times with the government of Mubarak. Things are still testy; many Egyptians think Al Jazeera supports the Muslim Brotherhood, or the [other] side. The Iranian government accused Al Jazeera of inciting ethnic Arabs to revolt against the regime in Tehran and shut down the offices. When things began to heat up over the nuclear issue, they saw [they had] a vested interest in cooperation, so they allowed Al Jazeera to operate again.

Do you get the emails every reporter does, that every side thinks you're on the other guys' side?

I joined Al Jazeera barely a year after 9/11. It had a certain perception in the minds of many Americans because the tapes of Bin Laden were broadcast on Al Jazeera, because of Al Jazeera's coverage of the war in Afghanistan. To many Americans it was seen in a negative way. But during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were huge antiwar demonstrations in the U.S., and we covered those. People would come talk to us. "We want to tell your audience in the Arab world that not all Americans are for the invasion."

Did some public figures not talk to you?

That happened, especially in the early days, with all sorts of people. Some were polite about it, some were very blunt: You're Al Jazeera, I'm not going to talk to you.





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