BROOKE GLADSTONE: Across the rest of the world this week, there were less measured responses to the tragedy at Beslan. Some columnists, unsurprisingly, framed it in the larger context of the global war on terror. What was surprising was the analysis that emerged in some corners of the Arab press, where commentators reacted with what only could be called shame. Writing in the Jordanian daily Al Dustour, columnist Batar Wardam wrote of the Arab tendency to, quote, "place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists and American intelligence, but we all know that is not the case." "They came from our midst," he wrote. "They are Arabs and Muslims who pray, fast, grow beards, demand the wearing of veils and call for the defense of Islamic causes," he said. "Therefore we must all raise our voices, disown them, and oppose all these crimes."
BOB GARFIELD: More important still was the column written by Abdul Rahma Al-Rashed, who is both a columnist in the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, and general manager of the Al-Arabiya satellite TV network. In his column titled "The Painful Truth: All the World's Terrorists are Muslims," he observed: "Our terrorist sons are an end product of our corrupted culture." He went on, "Most perpetrators of suicide operations in buses, schools and residential buildings around the world for the past 10 years have been Muslims. The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us." Lee Smith writes about Arab media and culture for Slate. He joins me now. Lee, welcome to OTM.
LEE SMITH: Hi. Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: First let me ask you: how representative of Arab media overall was Al-Rashed's reaction to the carnage at Beslan?
LEE SMITH: I think that his column was, was probably the strongest, most forceful expression, and that's why it was reprinted in a number of different English-language venues during the course of the weekend. I mean it's also - he's a significant character, since he's not just a writer, but he's the general manager of a fantastically influential television station. Again, I think his was the strongest expression, though there was certainly a fair amount of outrage.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, in general, what are you seeing more of -- this sort of self-criticism or defensiveness?
LEE SMITH: Usually we see more defensiveness, and I think for the most part we're still seeing that as well. I mean there are a whole bunch of standard formulations that are used in, in the media. I mean there's one that goes something like-- if the worst enemies of Islam had decided to attack the religion, they couldn't have done anything worse than what these guys did. Instead of really criticizing the action, they're still looking themselves to defend Islam. I mean, you know, Islam is a great religion. It doesn't need defense. It's these actions that need to be criticized. Another formulation of something which we've heard since 9/11 -- the people who did this were not Muslims. This is preposterous. Why not just say something like -- they're bad Muslims? They did the wrong thing. But quite clearly they believe there's some connection between their idea of Islam and their terrorist operations.
BOB GARFIELD: There are other pieces written, one by a prominent cleric who blamed the whole Beslan tragedy on the Israelis whom he said had staged the operation to bring discredit on Islam. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
LEE SMITH: Right. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And then there was another in that same newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat.
LEE SMITH: Yes. I mean this was unfortunately a very standard, Arab-world discourse - both the idea of blaming the actual operation on the Israelis or "Zionists" would be the proper phrase. We saw this after 9/11, where many people are still convinced this was a Mossad operation. And then yes, there's a lot of trying to draw equivalences between what Ariel Sharon does and what various Islamist terrorists do throughout the world now.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to Al-Rashed's introspective editorial. Do you think it portends anything greater -- first in the Arab media, but also I think in the Muslim world at large -- I guess I'm grasping at the hope that Beslan will be some sort of turning point when the moral bankruptcy of terrorism becomes plain even to those who have rationalized it and even those who have actively embraced it. Am I hallucinating here?
LEE SMITH: No. I, I think Beslan may play a part of it, but I think probably the more important thing to look at is Al-Rashed's actual position. He's an influential columnist at Asharq Al-Awsat. He has a piece in there at least once a week, usually more often. The fact is, no one really knows how many people read Arab newspapers. You know? Not that many. Many, many more people listen to Arab radio and watch Arab TV. So the really important thing is, is that he's the general manager of Al-Arabiya, and we know that Al-Arabiya has had a lot of problems of late. It's unfortunately looked much too much like Al Jazeera, especially in reporting from Iraq. But the people at Al-Arabiya, you know, when they originally started the network two years ago, they wanted it to be the moderate alternative to Al Jazeera. The idea that the man they have in charge now is a very self-critical, liberal figure, I think that's what's important to look at -- his actual role and how that station will basically affect Arab society. So, yeah, I see the Beslan thing as part of a larger reason for hope, which may just actually have to do with the station itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you know if Al-Arabiya is, is catching on? If its audience is beginning to overtake that of Al Jazeera?
LEE SMITH: One of the problems is, is that we really don't know how many people are watching Al-Arabiya, how many people are watching Al Jazeera, because ratings aren't done in the Arab world the way they're done, for instance, in the U.S. Ratings are very tightly controlled. And I mean also there's a lot of very large sections of the Arab world that are hard to keep track of. Some of the ratings that we do know about though, there was a Gallup poll conducted in Iraq about five months ago, I guess, now where people found out that they watched Al-Arabiya as much as they watched Al Jazeera, and I think Al Jazeera is still probably by popular acclaim the most influential network in the region. But whether or not it's always the most-watched news network at all times, that's really tough to tell.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Lee. Well, thank you very much.
LEE SMITH: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Lee Smith writes about Arab media and culture for Slate.com. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, what recent history can tell us about the upcoming candidates' debates...and the Tao of covering hurricanes.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. [MUSIC]