By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News 35th Anniversary Supplement (April 20, 2010)
In 1975, when the Green Truth was launched, the Muslim world was seething with anger against the United States. This anger reached its crescendo four years later in 1979 when deviants, a term that was not in vogue then, seized the Grand Mosque and created havoc. Those were not the days of cell phones and the Internet; therefore, people believed rumors. People had heard of Juhayman, the leader of the deviants, but they believed that he was an American agent. The Muslim world from Pakistan to Indonesia was on fire. The sentiment was heavily loaded against the Americans. There were protests in front of American embassies across the Muslim world. All these were recorded in the pages of Arab News during its first four years. Of course, there was not much independent coverage of the siege of Makkah. Information was difficult to come by, and government agencies were very leery of sharing information with the media. This was evident from the stories that we carried in those days about the siege.
As it turned out, all those responsible for the carnage in Makkah were local fanatics who had twisted the ideology of Islam to achieve their own aims. The year 1979 was also when Iran was undergoing cataclysmic changes. The overthrow of the Shah further increased anti-American sentiment in the region. The editorials of those days did talk about the dangers of anti-Americanism, but the Arab street was by and large convinced that America was out to destroy the Muslim world.
However, as we go through the pages of the newspaper from the mid-1980s, one notes a perceptible shift in the mood of the people. The anti-American clouds had by and large cleared. The focus was firmly on the Soviets who were eying Muslim countries. Afghanistan had become the USSR's target, and Arab News' pages were filled with the Russian atrocities in Kabul and the Panjsher Valley. The stark black-and-white photos gave a complete picture of what was happening there. In Pakistan, Gen. Ziaul Haq had firmly taken the country into the American fold. Most Muslim countries were now arrayed against the now-defunct communist Soviet Union. Pakistan became a front-line state. The United States was now the Muslim world's chief ally. Money and arms and fighters flowed into Pakistan. Zia became a hero, and so did President Ronald Reagan. The Arab News front pages bear testimony to what seemed like an unshakable alliance. The back pages of Arab News also had stories about Rambo movies with Afghan themes.
In the mid-1980s Haj reporting was not noteworthy, but one group which found a special place in Arab News pages were the Afghans. Young Saudis who came back from the battlefront told their stories of heroics in combat, and they were prominently featured in Arab News pages. There was euphoria, and it was obvious from the letters to the editor. The end of Communism was being predicted and seemed a near certainty. The inside pages or the international pages had pictures of proud Afghans on the battlefield with American Stinger missiles on their shoulders. When victory came in Afghanistan, there were cheers in the Muslim world. "Kabul has fallen, and so too will Communism," wrote a letter writer.
The victory in Kabul was the high point of American-Muslim ties. But then Zia was assassinated and the Mujahedeen fighters who played a key role in ending the Cold War fell upon each other. Soon Afghanistan was in ruins, and then the tone of Arab News also became glum. There were appeals in the newspaper from various visiting delegates and government ministers to intervene in Afghanistan and to bring about a compromise between the warlords. All of them were invited to Makkah, and all of them signed a peace treaty; however, that treaty was consigned to the dustbin the moment they landed in Peshawar and resumed bitter combat in Afghan cities and villages. The United States, having achieved its objective of dealing a mortal blow to the Communist Soviet Union, left Afghanistan in shambles and never bothered to look back. It was about this time that the late Kahil was at his sarcastic best. His cartoons captured the essence of what was happening. The editorials struck a very somber note and did warn of what was to come.
And then Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait. The Gulf was on fire. There was uncertainty. The newspapers of that period are full of anxious expatriates streaming out of Kuwait and heading home. There were stories of gas masks being supplied. There was a fear of Saddam using poison gas. The Muslim world, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a massive diplomatic offensive to make Saddam see reason. He wouldn't. His men plundered Kuwait and were issuing inflammatory statements. All these were very ably and aptly covered by Arab News. In the end, the military option remained the only way to liberate Kuwait. An international force led by the US military gathered in Saudi Arabia, and Saddam and his men were driven out of Kuwait. Kuwait was destroyed, and parts of Saudi Arabia weathered Scud-missile attacks. This was the time when Arab News under Editor in Chief Khaled Almaeena became the voice of the Muslim world. Arab News stories were regularly quoted by the world media, and the front pages were regularly quoted on world television in prime time. The coverage was impeccable, and almost everybody who visited Saudi Arabia in those days took home a copy of the Green Truth as a souvenir.
Unbeknown to the journalists, there was something rumbling under the desert. The arrival of Americans in Saudi Arabia did not go down well with a tiny group of conservative Muslims, and they used it to create fissures in society. It was this that led to some angry individuals to plot against the United States, and lawless Afghanistan became a refuge for these disgruntled elements. This anger of this tiny minority resulted in Sept. 11, 2001. And then the world was divided into Muslim and non-Muslim. Arab News played its part in trying to bridge the gap but there were fanatics on both sides. And they fed each other.
After 9/11, Arab News pages display a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose about halting the bloodshed. Almaeena, James Zogby, Michael Saba and Robert Fisk were writing on the Opinion and Op-Ed pages about the disastrous consequences of the so-called war on terrorism. "It cannot be fought only militarily," they were suggesting and were denouncing the collective punishment of Muslims. On Sept. 12, 2001 as Arab News condemned the atrocity in the strongest possible words, it expressed full sympathy for the Americans. Writing from Boston, Almaeena wrote a most memorable piece about how the 9/11 bombers had killed humanity by their act.
That widespread sympathy for America and Americans was to dissipate as George W. Bush launched a series of ill-timed and ill-thought out measures. America was again the most hated country, not just by Muslims but by all justice-loving people in the world. One only needs to go through the editorial and Op-Ed pages of Arab News to understand what the people in the Muslim world were going through. The Iraq War only hardened Muslim sentiments against America. While there was little sympathy for Saddam Hussein, the massive killing of Iraqis fueled unprecedented anger in the Muslim world. The coverage of the Iraq War in Arab News shows that to the fullest.