When the tsunami hit South Asia in late December, political leaders in the Arab Middle East responded tepidly, with few public statements of sympathy and only meager promises of financial assistance. But soon, critical voices in the Arab media, along with negative foreign commentary, led to a marked turnaround. Leaders rushed to increase their relief assistance.
The remarkable role of the media in shaping the Arab response to the tsunami has gone almost completely unnoticed in the Western media.
On Jan. 5, the editor of the Palestinian-owned, London-based Al Quds al Arabi - probably the most anti-American of the leading Arab newspapers - described the response of Arab rulers and the wider public alike as "humiliating" and deeply frustrating. Other Arab newspapers such as the Saudi-owned, London-based Al Hayat began publishing article after article lambasting Arab rulers for their absurdly small - and far too tardy - response. Satellite TV stations such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Dubai-based Al Arabiya covered the humanitarian disaster heavily, with Al Jazeera beginning its own heavily publicized drive to collect donations, featuring daily advertisements from figures such as the popular Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Even more remarkable than this outburst of public criticism is that, stung by these criticisms, shamed before their own people, Arab leaders changed their tune. Saudi Arabia, which initially offered only token sums of relief, launched a high-profile telethon to which senior members of the royal family ostentatiously contributed large sums; at last count, more than $82 million had been raised. Other Arab states increased their relief contributions, as well.
The Arab media's success in forcing Arab leaders to change their response to the tsunami is quietly revolutionary. Arab leaders haven't generally been accustomed to paying attention to public opinion, nor to the media, which they generally can control, repress, or shut down. Satellite TV stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya can not be so easily controlled - nor ignored. That humanitarian relief for the victims of the tsunami - rather than more predictable issues such as Israel or Iraq - has become a focus of the Arab media's outrage, and that Arab leaders responded, offers a genuine new road for Arab politics.
It is not only the Arab regimes that have come in for scorn. Several Arab columnists pointedly asked what kind of relief Osama bin Laden has had to offer to the Muslims he claims to represent. Others criticized more mainstream Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood for their efforts. And not a few have criticized the Arab public itself for failing to mobilize in support of the victims of the tsunami in the way that they did for Palestinians or Iraqis.
The Arab response to the tsunami has become a moment for Arab self-criticism and soul-searching, as an impressive roster of Arab journalists and political personalities have demanded a public accounting for the tepid Arab response. The Western media, unfortunately, have focused on reports of the hateful and absurd remarks of a small number of fringe figures involved in this global disaster, or on whether Arabs have been sufficiently appreciative of American relief efforts. Not everything is about the West.
The real story is one inside to the Arab world - of the emergence of an Arab media willing to engage in self-criticism and capable of forcing Arab leaders to act positively in response to a humanitarian disaster.
A small thing, perhaps, but one that contains kernels of hope for the Arab future.
• Marc Lynch is an associate professor of political science at Williams College.