'Mission Al Jazeera': From US Marine Officer To Foreign Correspondent

A review of Josh Rushing's book Mission Al-Jazeera:Build a Bridge, Seek the Truth, Change the World

Why is a 14-year veteran U.S. Marine officer, a Texan, working for Al Jazeera, the so-called terrorist network? Al Jazeera is not the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda, as U.S. propaganda claims. It is the only nongovernmental 24-hour news network to reach the Arab world, and its cutting-edge technology allows it to be viewed by 100 million people all over the world, which means that it is aired mostly to a non-Arabic audience.

Al Jazeera English (www.-aljazeera.net/English), first launched on Nov. 15, 2006, is viewed by people who can speak English as their first, second or third language. The network is very popular in Europe but not widely available in the United States, except on the Internet.

Al Jazeera does not worry about its news content being "fair and balanced" as much as it tries to "speak truth to power." In other words, the network seeks to remake the international news paradigm by presenting stories from the perspective of the developing world, the poor countries, instead of from the perspective of the wealthy nations only, as the BBC does. Josh Rushing (a reporter for Al Jazeera who now lives in Washington, D.C.) likens Al Jazeera to "David standing up to the Goliath of the Western world."

Al Jazeera also takes on controversial issues that most of its viewers have not heard about-including homosexuality, women's rights and critiques of the Koran and policy initiatives in the Middle East. It invites Israelis to speak more than any other network in the world outside of Israel. The network is not without its critics-from all sides of the political spectrum-but it appreciates such assessments as a validation of its credibility.

The network was created and is supported by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar. Located on a small peninsula on the northeastern coast of Saudi Arabia (population 841,000) Qatar is one of the most liberal countries of the Arab world. The emir is one of the richest men, too, and he is trying to win the power game against his rival, Saudi Arabia, through Al Jazeera. He also played the power card by giving the Americans permission to build a base in Qatar for the U.S. Central Command.

How did Rushing become a reporter for Al Jazeera? After finishing high school, Rushing enlisted in the Marines and then earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas in classical civilization and ancient history. He subsequently served as a Hollywood military movie consultant and also as a consultant for the television show "JAG."

Before the war in Iraq began, Rushing, then a lieutenant, was assigned to the headquarters of CentCom, in Doha, Qatar. CentCom is responsible for all military matters in the region from Sudan to Kazakhstan, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. A curious fellow, Rushing excitedly took on his task as media spokesman by studying Arabic as well as the culture of the Middle East. This work helped him to form relationships with journalists from Al Jazeera, one of several news outlets he had been assigned to serve.

It was not long, however, before he realized that the military had not planned its media strategy for the war. Worse yet, the military did not know much about Al Jazeera or the negative sentiments against the United States that pervaded the region.

"Al Jazeera offered us a chance to engage the ideologies that fueled 9/11," said Rushing, who tried to convince senior officers to pay attention to Al Jazeera in order to convey America's purpose in the region and the larger war on terrorism. His ideas for "building this information bridge" were not only brushed aside; he was even called a traitor. Eventually Rushing also found out that the military would process news from Iraq through the Bush administration's political handlers, who pursued a "public relations" effort.

Public affairs and public relations are vastly different, Rushing explains. Public affairs is designed to inform the public about what is going on, while public relations explains the reasoning behind the decisions. P.R. is akin to propaganda. So instead of being the "constitutional watch dog" that he had been trained to be, Rushing was pressed to be a P.R. flack "promoting the whims of politicians." And while he claims he was never directly ordered to lie, it was clear to him that he was expected to follow a script.

Rushing's brief service in the war took an unexpected turn after he inadvertently and unknowingly became the main character in an independent documentary called "Control Room," which reports how the United States was perceived internationally in its war with Iraq. Although Rushing at first believed in the cause of the war and that it could serve a greater good, the film portrays him as a changed marine with a conscience. He speaks about his empathy for dead Iraqis, his view of the war and his growing skepticism when he learned that the world saw America's action in Iraq as "naked aggression."

His appearance in "Control Room" did not win him any favors with the Pentagon, and he-and his wife-were silenced from speaking to the press. Once the film became more popular and he more famous, Rushing understood that his career with the Marines was over, so in August 2004 he resigned his commission. Later the opportunity to work for Al Jazeera opened up as a consequence of his appearance in the film.

Rushing's goal in working for Al Jazeera is to help Americans discover the Middle Eastern point of view, especially since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved that the United States could no longer afford to isolate itself from the rest of the world. He says that America-and its leaders-must realize that other people's perceptions of our country matter, especially since we are a global political and economic power; and he confesses that he is "dumbfounded" that most Americans still are neither interested in nor knowledgeable about the Arab world.

This book will be an eye-opener for readers, as they watch a gung-ho marine stationed at the command center of a war being transformed into a correspondent for Al Jazeera. It reads quickly and clearly and provides yet another eyewitness testimony about how the war in Iraq has been waged.

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at KalamazooCollege in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at olgabonfiglio@yahoo.com.

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