Gained in translation: Why MEMRI is a source of English versions of Arabic texts that are designed to mislead and disinform

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Article/book #: 27546
Title: Gained in translation: Why MEMRI is a source of English versions of Arabic texts that are designed to mislead and disinform
By: Mohammed El Oifi  
Published in: Le Monde Diplomatique
Date of issue: October 2005
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item:
Commentary (by a person who is not a member of the UCC Palestine Solidarity Campaign ):

Also available in Persian.

Despite the manifest bias and propagandistic adulteration it is interesting to see just who uses MEMRI translations extensively, e.g.: Thomas Friedman, Kevin Myers, Elie Wiesel, …


»The Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (Memri) was founded in 1998 by a former Israeli military intelligence officer, Colonel Yigal Carmon. It translates Arab and Iranian media into European languages, and according to its website “explores the Middle East through the region’s media. Memri bridges the language gap which exists between the West and the Middle East, providing timely translations of Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural and religious trends in the Middle East”.
Memri says its purpose is to “inform the debate over United States policy in the Middle East. Memri is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, organisation with branch offices in Berlin, London, Jerusalem and Baghdad, and has a project active in Sweden. Memri research is translated into English, German, Hebrew, Italian, French, Spanish, and occasionally Turkish and Russian.” This service is offered free of charge to media, institutions and western political leaders, particularly members of the US Congress.«

»Everything depends on the choice of texts and sequences that Memri translates. It tends to present minority views in Arab media as being majority views. The non-Arabic speaker with access only to these translations might have the impression that Arab media is dominated by a group of fanatical anti-western and anti-semitic writers, opposed by only a few rare and brave journalists, those Memri calls “liberal or progressive”.
This explains why Arab, and occasionally European, writers have several times accused Memri of being a propaganda organ working for the Israeli government, Likud, and their pressure groups. Three of six founding members worked for Israeli intelligence.«

»More importantly, Memri serves the Israeli strategy of hindering relations between the Arab nations and the West. On an Al-Jazeera programme Carmon countered these accusations by saying that Memri is pursuing a scientific objective: transmitting the views of the Arab media on Middle East events to a western audience. This should not be accepted without reservations.«

»Memri’s damage-limitation exercise distorts the West’s image of Arabs and of Muslims by presenting them as hateful and fanatical.
The growth of Arab satellite television channels has emancipated public opinion, and Middle Eastern leaders have lost some control over the media. As a result Israelis have begun to take a direct interest in the Arab media and its content. This may explain why Memri was set up in February 1998, a year and a half after the launch of Al-Jazeera.«

»Memri is frequently criticised for the quality, and sometimes even the integrity, of its translations. After the 7 July 2005 London bombings, an Islamist living in Britain, Hani al-Sebai, was invited to take part in an Al-Jazeera programme, More Than One Viewpoint. Sebai said of the victims “there is no term in Islamic jurisprudence called civilians. Dr Karmi is here sitting with us, and he’s very familiar with the jurisprudence. There are fighters and non-fighters. Islam is against the killing of innocents. The innocent man cannot be killed according to Islam.” The Memri translation read: “The term civilians does not exist in Islamic religious law. Dr Karmi is sitting here, and I am sitting here, and I’m familiar with religious law. There is no such term as civilians in the modern western sense. People are either of dar al-harb or not” (9). Note the introduction of the contested term dar al-harb, which is Arabic for house of war (denoting the part of the world populated by unbelievers), a term not used by the speaker. In a country at war on terror, the use of that term implies that anything goes. Memri also omitted the condemnation of the killing of innocents.«

»Halim Barakat, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, also suffered from this approach. He claimed that an article he wrote for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, “The wild beast that Zionism created: Self-destruction”, was reproduced by Memri under the hate-inducing headline, “Jews have lost their humanity”. Barakat denies having used that phrase. “Every time I wrote Zionism, Memri replaced the word by Jew or Judaism. They want to give the impression that I’m not criticising Israeli policy and that what I’m saying is anti-semitic.” As soon as the translation was posted on the Memri website he received threats. He was told that he had no right to teach at a university (he has taught for more than 30 years) and that he should leave the US. Another Georgetown professor attacked him in an article based only on Memri translations, without checking the Arabic texts.«

»In June 2004 Memri triggered a campaign against a London visit by the well-known Islamist scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, commissioned a study of the “Islamic conspiracy dossier” to obtain an impartial view (11). His counter-dossier concluded that the campaign was part of an “apparent rising tide of Islamophobia” aiming to “close off any dialogue between London and mainstream representatives of one of the world’s great religions”.
The Livingstone commissioned report analysed all Qaradawi’s works, and discovered that nearly all the distortions came from “material produced by the Middle East Research Institute” which “was set up by a former colonel in Israel’s military intelligence service”. It concluded that Memri systematically distorted facts, not only relating to Qaradawi but to many other Muslim leaders, and the report was intended to set matters straight.«

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