How is Saddam Hussein’s execution playing in the Arab media? Depends on your sectarian filter. Arab media watcher Marc Lynch says that even the few outlets representing Shiite and Sunni viewpoints are themselves starting to come apart at the seams.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the Iraqi government arrested three people it says are implicated in the creation of a cell phone video of Saddam Hussein's execution. Meanwhile, millions across the world went online to watch that grainy footage. It shows guards shouting the name of radical Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.
The heckling only added fuel to the sectarian strife plaguing Iraq. So did the timing. While both Sunni and Shi'a celebrate the Muslim holiday Id al-Adha, for Shiites, it started Sunday. For Sunnis, it started Saturday, the day Saddam was executed. And Saddam was Sunni.
Marc Lynch follows the Arab media, and he says this apparent sign of disrespect towards the Sunnis is dominating the region's coverage.
MARC LYNCH: And it really turned any possibility of there actually being a debate about what Saddam Hussein had done to the country or whether the trial had been fair or what it was going to do to Iraq. All of those things got swept away by just really almost universal outrage over the timing.
BOB GARFIELD: The festival of the Id commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. It's the feast of sacrifice, which carries no small amount of irony in this case, no?
MARC LYNCH: Well, it goes beyond irony, because one of the things that the Iraqi insurgency and Saddam himself have been trying to do for the last year or so has been to build a whole narrative of Saddam's martyrdom. And what the timing actually does is to give a really powerful boost to that particular narrative.
So it essentially goes beyond irony and actually gets to something that is very politically dangerous.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there any consensus in the media about what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was thinking in scheduling the execution for this particular day?
MARC LYNCH: They had to know what the response was going to be. There's a general consensus that it was intentional. What that intent was is very much debated.
BOB GARFIELD: And who's getting the blame for the timing here?
MARC LYNCH: The dominant belief is that it has to be an American decision. But the hostility to the Americans goes right up against the growing sectarian hostility, and that's where the cell phone video has been particularly devastating, which really made it look like sectarian lynching rather than any kind of execution after a trial.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you discern a difference in the coverage among the various pan-Arab satellite channels, whether Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya?
MARC LYNCH: Initially, there was, I would say, a pretty clear distinction. Before the execution, when it became clear that it was going to happen soon, I saw that the Al-Arabiya coverage, and that's the Saudi-owned station and one which tends to be more pro-American in its coverage, it was covering the story very heavily – I would say more heavily than Al-Jazeera was. And it was, I think, trying to portray it as generally a positive thing, whereas Al-Jazeera was covering it in a very somber way. They weren't trying to whip up a frenzy over it, but there was this palpable air of melancholy.
But then, when it happened on the Id, you saw a convergence pretty quickly, and you saw the pro-Saudi press, and also Al-Arabiya, pretty much agreed with the Al-Jazeera and the more Arab nationalist types that this was deliberately offensive to the Sunnis, that it was a disaster.
BOB GARFIELD: On your blog on Tuesday, you wrote about an episode of the Al-Jazeera program, The Opposite Direction, featuring guests with polar-opposite views. Tell me about that episode.
MARC LYNCH: This one was something special. They had one Sunni guest and one Shi'a guest. And it started off relatively calmly, with the Shi'a guest, who was defending the execution, he got to speak first and he talked about how Saddam was not a victim, not a martyr. He was a mass murderer. And then the Sunni guest accused the Shi'a of being an Iranian, and it went downhill from there.
They almost came to physical blows. The Shi'a guest stormed out of the studio and left an empty chair for a good 10 minutes, until he eventually was persuaded to come back. And there was a lot of really, really intense sectarian venom being unleashed.
And to see it so nakedly and so intensely on what is probably the most popular political television show in the Middle East was really pretty sensational.
BOB GARFIELD: On Monday, the Iraqi government closed down the Baghdad office of Al-Sharkia, which is a Dubai-based satellite channel. Their charge was that the station was inciting sectarianism in its coverage of the execution. Now, this is a Sunni-sympathetic channel.
But I'm curious - in terms of promoting sectarian violence, is there more danger of a Sunni station telling Sunnis, you know, what they expect to hear, or from something like The Opposite Direction, which was, you know, sort of explicitly incendiary, seeming almost to be designed to incite more Shi'a-Sunni violence?
MARC LYNCH: The Iraqi media overall has become increasingly sectarian, and you're getting to a situation where a lot of the communities tend to only watch their own media, and it helps to fuel the conflict.
The Opposite Direction, and just Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya in general, because they're broadcasting from abroad, they actually do reach across the communities, so, in a sense, they almost become a substitute for a genuinely national media, and at least gives the chance to have a dialog.
I wouldn't say that The Opposite Direction program was inciting violence so much as giving voice to these real intense sectarian angers and fears and hatreds that have been unleashed by the last few years of violence. So, in a sense, it's an honest reflection of what people are actually saying.
Whether it's better to have that kind of raw, passionate argument on TV or to keep it off the air, I think that's a really tough question.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Marc, as always, thank you very much.
MARC LYNCH: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch teaches political science at Williams College. You can read his ongoing analysis of Arab media at abuaardvark.com.