Retired IDF colonel Yigal Carmon, the president of MEMRI (the Middle East Media Research Institute), has an impressive CV. He served in the IDF Intelligence Corps, was an adviser on Arab affairs to the Civil Administration in the West Bank and a senior staff member of Israel's National Defense College. He was a senior member of the Israel delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference, an adviser on counter-terrorism to prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, and director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
All of this, Carmon said, made him aware of the need for the organization he founded a little over a decade ago.
"In my long government career, I had the opportunity to see how governments, legislatures and the public at large suffered from lack of knowledge despite the fact that information was available - but in alien languages," he told The Jerusalem Post. "This enabled self-proclaimed pundits, who didn't even know any foreign languages, to hold a monopoly on what was the perceived reality of the Muslim world.
"It reminds me of the bad old times of communism, when there were Sovietologists who didn't speak a word of Russian. Today, there are so-called Arabists who don't speak Arabic. It's untenable that people who don't speak Arabic should be in this business," he said.
The business he was referring to is the monitoring of the Muslim and Arab world, and the accurate translation of what is said on Arabic radio and television, which often differs from statements made to the print media.
There are also many hidden - and sometimes dangerous - messages in Internet publications, discernable only to the most competent of linguists.
"Diplomats and journalists rely on strategic information," said Carmon. "When I started this project, I brought some work to one of the wire services, which had its own translator. When the bureau chief read my report and compared it to that of the translator, he said it was as if they had come from two different worlds. In my perception this illustrated what was lacking due to language barriers."
With these obstacles in mind, MEMRI's mission is to bridge gaps between East and West.
Like any new enterprise, it suffered some teething problems. "In the beginning there were attempts to thwart our work, but we overcame the opposition by the quality of what we do," said Carmon. He added, with no small degree of satisfaction: "We send direct mail to 80,000 subscribers worldwide, but we have millions of hits and individual users of our Web site who aren't part of our subscriber base."
For example, material that MEMRI ran on Wafa Sultan, the outspoken Syrian-born secularist who now lives in the US and is frequently interviewed with regard to her critical views on Muslim terrorism and extremism, attracted so much attention that the Web site had received 16 million hits from 192 countries, he said.
One might expect the founder and president of MEMRI to work out of Washington, DC, where the independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit organization is headquartered. Carmon is indeed a frequent visitor to Washington, but prefers to base himself in the Jerusalem branch office. Other branch offices are located in London, Tokyo, Rome, Baghdad and Shanghai.
The material MEMRI researches is translated to English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. Additional languages are about to be added through the Urdu-Pashtun media project, which will include translations and analyses of media in Farsi and Turkish, in addition to Arabic.
The main topics MEMRI deals with are: Jihad and Terrorism Studies; The US and the Middle East; Reforms in the Arab and Muslim World; The Arab-Israeli conflict; Inter-Arab relations; Economic Studies; The Anti-Semitism Documentation Project and the Islamist Web sites Monitoring Projectd.
Just reading the headings on the MEMRI Web site, without studying the analyses, is a mind-boggling experience. There is an almost overwhelming wealth and variety of material.
Carmon is justifiably proud of the fact that in the past year, MEMRI's 50 salaried staff members have translated and analyzed 10,905 papers.
Would MEMRI be able to function without the Internet? And if so, to what extent?
"We live with the era," he said. "We started our work in a computer age and utilize whatever the Internet facilities enable us to do."
This includes a TV monitor project that puts numerous video clips, on many subjects, at the disposal of interested parties. The video clips are accompanied by brief explanations and are updated daily. For some it is much more important to see and hear someone saying something than to read a report about it.
Asked where he thought MEMRI had been most influential, Carmon unhesitatingly replied: "In explaining the ideology behind terror. In the past, terror was a regarded as a crime, but it wasn't generally realized that it's not a regular crime, and that it's motivated by ideology."
Today, MEMRI could almost qualify as an intelligence organization, given its success in monitoring of terrorist organizations and their activities, as well as the opposition and dissent in the population groups in which terrorists operate.
Its dedicated Web site, the Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor (JTTM), is available to paying subscribers only. The wealth of other information it amasses is freely available online.
"Ten years ago, the volume and quality of reports on the Middle East were not what they are today," acknowledged Carmon. "There was a prism of experts telling us about the Middle East, and we had to take their expertise at face value," he said.
"Today, MEMRI supplies primary sources and allows reporters and decision makers to judge for themselves and draw their own conclusions. We do not engage in advocacy."
He was pleased, however, when he saw someone else trying to create something similar to MEMRI - especially when it was a Saudi prince.
"Part of our success is reflected in the fact that Walid Bin Talal gave $20 million to Georgetown University to create a free on-line database on Islamic studies and the history of the Arab world. As far as I can tell, it is based on the MEMRI on-line principle."
Of all the subject matter MEMRI monitors and analyzes, there are two projects on which Carmon particularly likes to focus. One is reform in the Muslim and Arab world, and the other is anti-Semitism.
"Reforms in the Muslim and Arab world constitute our flagship project," he said. "We are big on reforms. We have helped several reform initiatives, and in 2001 we monitored and distributed dissident voices in the aftermath of the bombing of the World Trade Center.
"When these voices were small and weak, we were able to amplify them by publishing them - and we keep doing that without support from any quarter. We even helped reform Web sites to operate."
MEMRI also renders assistance to counter-terrorism organizations. "We help all security organizations working against terrorism, and we expose anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world," Carmon asserted. "Exposure of this ugly phenomenon provokes instant positive reaction, such as renouncing or backing away in the Arab world, unlike [in] Iran, where exposure prompts more anti-Semitism. One example of this occurred soon after our exposure of an anti-Semitic series on Egyptian television. A series of three articles written by Osama el-Baz in Al-Aharam refuted all anti-Semitic messages. He sent translations of these articles to every member of Congress."
Carmon sees incidents such as this as unmistakable sign of MEMRI's impact.
Unfortunately, he said, anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world was currently on the rise.
"Prior to Operation Cast Lead, the level of anti-Semitism in Arab and Muslim lands, other than Iran, had been reduced," Carmon noted. "Then it went up again, but I believe it will go down again."
Political and religious messages are often reflected in the arts, which is why MEMRI monitored the arts no less than raw politics,he said.
"We do a lot on social and cultural issues," he stated. "We have material on Arab music, culture, cinema and literature. North African cinema is very anti-terror, and in Pakistan there's a rock group that's anti-terror. We keep our finger on the pulse of popular culture."
MEMRI also gets involved in human rights issues. "We received a request from Sini Sanuman, a small NGO in Mali, Indonesia," Carmon related. "Sini Sanuman, which means Healthy Tomorrow, was interested in was getting a clip of the Egyptian television broadcast in which the Grand Mufti of Egypt addressed the subject of female genital mutilation, which he absolutely condemned.
"The NGO wanted to show the clip to Ousmane Cherif Haidara, a prominent religious leader in Mali, in the hope that if what the Grand Mufti said was sufficiently convincing, Haidara would also publicly oppose the practice."
Thinking it might be helpful if American women's rights activists were informed about what happened to women outside the US, Carmon went on the lecture circuit.
"I addressed 15 US women's rights groups about this issue, but they couldn't care less. They're not interested in women's rights in the Muslim and Arab world," he said.
Like all non-profit organizations, MEMRI relies on the support of donors, but under the present economic circumstances, financial support was waning, he said.
"The economic meltdown is a tragedy for us," said Carmon. "Some of our supporters, such as Elie Wiesel, who is on our board, can no longer help us. Others who continue to give are giving less. We are desperately in need of help. While I'm deeply grateful for all the financial support we received in the past, and I understand the difficulties imposed by the current financial crisis, I have to say that it will be disastrous if we can't finance our projects. We already have projects that we cannot implement for lack of resources."
To have made the enormous impact that MEMRI has succeeded in making in just over a decade is no mean feat. Nonetheless, Carmon isn't as happy as he should be. "I thought we would go a lot further in a decade than we have done," he admitted.
Though not an advocacy organization, MEMRI, with its wealth of monitored information, can provide tools for Jewish youth to use in countering anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus. "Jewish youth on campus should be disseminating knowledge of the Middle East," he asserted. "Knowledge was always the Jewish people's survival weapon. Now I encounter terrible ignorance, which impacts negatively on all advocacy efforts."
There was a distinct note of frustration in Carmon's voice as he pointed out there was ample material available on video, "which is the language of the age."
It bothered him, he said, that young people who spend up to 18 hours a day on a computer could, with hardly any effort, disseminate knowledge to the whole world, but for the most part were not sufficiently interested to make the effort.
Now, on the threshold of the second decade of MEMRI's operations, what does Carmon wish for?
His response is simple and broad: "To win the information challenge worldwide."
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