Driving through the streets of Baghdad last week, I was struck by the number of satellite dishes for sale everywhere. After years in which the appliances were banned by Saddam, freedom is sprouting all over the skyline. There is still an almost total absence of local media, so that Iraqis know nothing of what is going on in their own country except by rumour. But those who can afford a dish are eagerly beginning to learn about the world. They can get the BBC, CNN and even the Fox Channel; though these are not, alas, the only ones they are watching. Unless we are careful, we are about to lose a crucial propaganda war.
I myself flicked through the channels on the rather antiquated television set in my room at the Baghdad Sheraton and found broadcasts from Abu Dhabi and from Iran. I watched footage of ayatollahs in southern Iraq and images of the Palestinians suffering at the hands of the Israelis. I sat there captivated by the repeated, stylised pictures: a boy throwing stones at an Israeli tank; the Israelis moving in and shooting; the bulldozing of Palestinian homes. Then there was the Arabic-language news from the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera and from its new Dubai-based rival, Al-Arabiya. If Hezbollah’s channel is not yet bringing Iraqis its regular shots of black-clad marching soldiers of Allah, it cannot be long.
What we too often fail to grasp is that these and similar channels are also on offer in the UK, and are widely watched. Whatever we may think of the merits of Western television, we must accept that, in many Muslim minds, it is tainted, in Britain as much as in Iraq. They may see the odd black or Asian newscaster; but every time an expert opinion is canvassed, the face of that expert is white.