Thursday, April 22, 2010

Arab News — a Voice for the Muslim World

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News 35th Anniversary Supplement (April 20, 2010)

In its 35 years of relentless and proactive journalism,
Arab News has distinguished itself from other newspapers in the region by highlighting issues of concern to the Muslim world. The reason for this was simple. Saudi Arabia is the land of the two holy mosques and the cradle of Islam. The one billion followers of this faith look for direction from the leadership of this holy land. The word of the custodian of the two holy mosques is received with respect, admiration and attention.

In the history of the contemporary Muslim world, 1967 is remembered as a catastrophic year. It was in this year that the Muslim world suffered unimaginable convulsions because of Israel taking control of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

That Muslim defeat led to a rethinking. The idea was to rise from the ashes of defeat. Among the many leaders who were deeply distressed by the turn of events was King Faisal. As custodian of the two holy mosques, the Muslim world was naturally looking to him for direction. That momentous decision came in 1969 with the formation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Arab News was still six years away from being born. There was not a single Saudi newspaper in English to chronicle the events of those tumultuous years.

However, among the local and international stories concerning the Muslim nation that appeared in the first five years of Arab News’ existence were stories about pan-Islamism and the activities of the OIC. There were many expectations from the organization. Its extraordinary summits in Arab capitals and in Makkah received widespread coverage on the pages of Arab News. Editorial comments of those years bear testimony to the newspaper’s unwavering support to all causes Muslim and to the OIC in particular.

As years passed and Iraq and Iran fell upon each other, the unity that later was to become the hallmark of the Muslim Ummah became a mirage. Euphoria turned to depression, and the headlines were an indicator of what was happening. In the 1990s, OIC became the brunt of many jokes. It was reduced to an exclamation. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called it, “Oh I see!” Nobody took the organization seriously. Its press releases and statements found their way into the pages of Arab News occasionally. It mostly appeared on days when there appeared to be a severe shortage of news.

To make matters worse, the OIC leadership itself had little interest in getting the word out. Its secretaries-general were diplomats who saw their appointments as a last stop before retirement. They never entertained the media; they were bureaucrats first and last, and as most bureaucrats they held media persons in contempt. So much so that one OIC secretary-general in the 1990s ordered his media department to keep away from journalists and not to share stories with them.

During the summits that took place in the decades leading up to 2000, OIC coverage in Arab News was confined to what was released by the Saudi Press Agency. In fact, some important stories about OIC, which has always been headquartered in Jeddah, were datelined Cairo, Rabat or Khartoum.

The scenario changed dramatically with the arrival in Jeddah of Turkish historian and academic
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. A man who had his fingers on the pulse of the Ummah, he understood the importance of Arab News and the English media and most importantly our online edition. He realized how important it was for the OIC to convey its message in English for a global audience. Arab News has had the good fortune of receiving his comments and notes even while he was at the most important of meetings.

He created a media department that focused exclusively on the English media. This was the time that Arab News carried important stories and seminal changes about the OIC. The exclamation mark was gone. People were still cynical about the organization, but they no longer ignored the organization. Western leaders made it a point to visit OIC headquarters in Jeddah and to explain their points of view. Press conferences with world leaders were held at the OIC headquarters, something that was unthinkable. Ihsanoglu actually encouraged media people to ask tough questions.

Arab News was at the forefront of chronicling those changes. Among the most important OIC stories that got front-page play was the organization’s initiative to bring Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites together for a larger cause. This summit was held in Makkah with the Holy Kaaba as a backdrop. Before these meetings was OIC’s relentless but peaceful campaign against Islamophobia in the West. The Danish cartoons that denigrated Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) became the most important issue for the Muslim world. For Denmark, it was merely a freedom-of-expression issue; for Muslims it became a life-and-death issue. Many Muslims were outraged beyond words. Both sides remained firm in their positions.
OIC demanded an unqualified apology, and this was on the front page of Arab News. It was then picked up by all Western news agencies. The Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons in the first place started contacting Arab News. It became a global reaction of Muslims.

In his meetings with Arab News Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena, the OIC chief acknowledged the immense importance that Arab News held on the world-media scene. Three weeks later, Javier Solana, key Western leader, came calling on the OIC secretary-general and explained his point of view. Arab News dutifully gave prominent space to Solana’s statements in which he explained the European governments’ difficulties in bringing the newspapers under government control. Of course, as an Arab News editorial of those days points out, nobody wanted European governments to take control of their newspapers. Muslims only wanted the newspapers to understand that freedom of expression should come with responsibility.

Over the years Arab News has played a key role in highlighting issues concerning the Muslim world with a sense of purpose. Arab News is conscious of the fact that it is read and is seen by a large number of the people, Muslims and non-Muslims, as a voice for the Muslim world.

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