IRIB’s Ghoroghi is not feeling threatened. He believes Iran’s way—Muslim solidarity—is a much better way than what the U.S. has brought to the region. When asked whether the sectarian violence Iraqis are committing against other Iraqis would suggest there is no one pan-Islamic solution that will work all over the Muslim world, he reiterates the Al-Alam position. He explains that in the chaos the U.S. has created, Al Qaeda has moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, and it is Al Qaeda that spreads sectarian extremism. When asked about the Shiite militias and violence committed against Sunni Iraqis, he insists that were it not for Al Qaeda, Iraqis wouldn’t be extreme. “If Al Qaeda is stopped, the Shiia won’t kill the other people,” he says.
He is quick to add that the U.S. isn’t serious about stopping Al Qaeda. If they were, he says, the U.S. would push ally Saudi Arabia to cut its financing of Al Qaeda and push its ally Pakistan to stop Al Qaeda from operating out of its country.
“Extremism,” he says solemnly, “is dangerous.”
While the three messages—Iran’s goodness, pan-Islamic identification, and Iran as Islam’s defender—are almost overtly pervasive, there is also another subtle sub-current in Al-Alam’s programming that seeks to acquaint viewers with the Shiite sect of Islam, its history, theology, accomplishments, and glories. (Most Arab Muslims are Sunni.) Thus Iran, through Al-Alam, is simultaneously claiming a place of honor for the sect while preaching the irrelevance of sects. Though the potential contradiction could weaken Al-Alam’s coherence, Iran needs to communicate both messages to reconcile Iran’s Shiite identity to its majority Sunni viewers. “Iran considers itself a regional power, and by all right it should be,” says Bill Berkeley, author of a forthcoming book on the Iranian hostage crisis, “but because it’s Shiite, it’s held in contempt.”
Under different circumstances, simultaneously propagating these contradicting messages would be a juggling act of rattled cobras, and Al-Alam ordinarily would have to contend with the reality that Iran is separated from the Arab world (already not monolithic and not united) by language, theology, culture, and history—and has been for centuries.
But Iran is betting that these differences can be overlooked by appealing to the uniting effect of anti-Americanism, fueled by the US’s own policies in the region. And so far, it seems they’ve gambled well.
“America no longer represents its ideas anymore. You tell U.S. about democracy human rights, where are they in Guantanamo, Abu Ghreib,” explains AUB professor Nabil Dajani. “It opens the doors for Iranians to easily get in. So the success of Al-Alam is not because they are smart, but because they have such stupid enemies. The Americans,” says Dajani dejectedly, “are giving them this opportunity on a golden platter.”
Though the competition for Arabic speaking audience’s hearts and minds has meant viewers have increasing choices, which across the board by those interviewed is seen as a good thing, Al-Alam (or Al-Hurra for that matter) has not proven to be a ratings giant. In a poll done by the Arab Advisors Group in 2006 in Morocco, only two out of 700 respondents said they watched Al-Alam. 131 said they had never heard of it. Out of the 198 who had an opinion on the channel, 49 percent said it was “somewhat trustworthy” while 31.8 percent said it was not. Anecdotally, those interviewed said the channel is not capturing a large market share, and is regarded with the same suspicion as other state-run channels in the region.
Once satellites were allowed into Iraq, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya quickly dominated the ratings, as they do in other Arab countries, say their executives. Neither of the Arabic mega-channels seems threatened by Iran’s foray into the Arabic news business.