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Has the world changed, or just our MEMRIs of it?

June 8, 2007 |  6:33 pm

Back in the early aughts, I wrote a column about the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) that came to an angsty, forelock-tugging, hand-wringing, chin-stroking inconclusion: MEMRI's agenda was pretty obviously to find the most extreme and daffy points of view in Arabic and Farsi media and present those as representative of the mainstream, but (forelock-tugging alert) it was also true that the kind of wackiness found at MEMRI had far more mainstream currency than many Americans (still in the grip of the unexamined except-for-a-few-bad-apples-most-Muslims-are-good-hardworking-folks platitudes that had currency at the time) were aware. So who was to blame? MEMRI for trying to make Muslims look like nuts, or Muslims for making MEMRI's job so easy? How to decide? My hands wrung, my heart ached, beads of cartoon flopsweat flew from my brow...

A few years on, I think there's less need to draw the conclusion, because to a substantial degree the dilemma has gone away. Liberal and rational Arab pundits—once as rare as Halley's Comet in the MEMRIverse—now appear with great regularity (albeit usually posed against fiery imams or maniacal theologians in televised debates). Whether this is a matter of conscious choice by MEMRI or a reflection of greater openness in the increasingly competitive Arab media market is an interesting question, but it certainly makes for a more entertaining selection. Case in point is this edited Al Jazeera exchange between Arab Students Union Chairman Ahmad Al-Shater and Syrian author Nidhal Naisa, featuring some astonishingly forthright criticism from Naisa:

Nidhal Naisa: "This decline is evident in... Take, for example, that show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.' This shows demonstrates the degree of decline in values and knowledge in these societies. With all due respect to the host of the show, this isn't the issue... He sits opposite that 'genius' guest, who came from I don't know where. They bring this young 'genius' guest, and he brings along his wife and his whole tribe. They sit the guest down opposite the host, who asks him: 'What is the capital of Egypt - is it Cairo, Mairo, Fairo, or Makro?' The 'genius' scratches his head, and says: 'Could you please eliminate two answers?' The host eliminates two answers, and leaves Cairo and Mairo. Then he says: 'Can I please phone a friend?' He phones a friend, and the whole neighborhood comes over..."

Faysal Al-Qassem: "It's not as bad as that, Nidhal."

Nidhal Naisa: "I swear, Dr. Faysal, it happens with even more idiotic questions."

More of those comedy stylings in the transcript here, but it's worth watching Naisa's televised performance with subtitles, because his delivery is as sprightly and absurd as something out of Moliere. The reason satire closes on Saturday night (or I guess Thursday night in Qatar) is that telling audiences they're stupid is never much of a crowd pleaser. But there's also a truth that the clergy never forget: Making fun of a pious extremist is a great way to get under his skin.

I haven't given up my ambition to write a song using all these cutesy acronyms for Middle East watchdog/research/anti-defamation groups, something like: "My CAMERA brought back the MEMRI of  the FLAME of our love when we still CAIRed for each other out on the MESA." Meanwhile, it's encouraging to see Naisa and others like him working the comedy club/religious debate circuit. 

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