Middle East Media Research Institute
|Focus||Arabic and Persian media.|
|Product||Translation and original analysis services.|
|Key people||Yigal Carmon (President)|
|Slogan||Bridging the language gap between the Middle East and the West|
The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) is a not for profit press monitoring organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C. MEMRI publishes and distributes free English language translations of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Pashto, and Turkish media reports. The institute was co-founded in 1998 by Yigal Carmon, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and Meyrav Wurmser, an Israeli-born, American political scientist. MEMRI states that its goal is to "bridge the language gap between the Middle East and the West". Critics charge that it aims to portray the Arab and Muslim world in a negative light, through the production and dissemination of inaccurate translations and by selectively translating views of extremists while deemphasizing or ignoring mainstream opinions.
Based in Washington, DC with branch offices in Jerusalem, Berlin, London, Rome, Shanghai, Baghdad, and Tokyo, MEMRI was founded in 1998 by Yigal Carmon and Meyrav Wurmser. Wurmser, who later left MEMRI, is an Israeli-born American scholar of the Arab world. She is also a Senior Fellow at the US think tank, the Hudson Institute, who participated in a study that led to the report, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, a paper prepared for Likud party leader and then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
MEMRI's founding staff of seven included three who had formerly served in military intelligence in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). MEMRI president and founder Yigal Carmon states that MEMRI's current staff includes "people of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths [who] hold a range of political views".
- Yigal Carmon – MEMRI's founder and President. Carmon is fluent in Arabic. He served as Colonel in the Military Intelligence Directorate (Israel) from 1968 to 1988. He was Acting Head of Civil Administration in the West Bank and the adviser on Arab affairs to the civil administration from 1977 to 1982. He advised Prime Ministers Shamir and Rabin on countering Palestinian militants from 1988 to 1993. In 1991 and 1992 Carmon was a senior member of the Israeli delegation at peace negotiations with Syria in Madrid and Washington.
- Steven Stalinsky – Executive Director of MEMRI. Stalinsky holds a M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies and a B.A. in Religious Studies. Stalinsky writes articles on the Middle East for National Review and the New York Sun.
- Nimrod Raphaeli – Senior Analyst and editor of MEMRI's Economic Blog. An Iraqi-born U.S. citizen, Raphaeli has a Ph.D. in development planning from the University of Michigan.
- Menahem Milson – Board of Advisors chairman. Milson has been a professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1963, and is currently the head of its Arabic-Hebrew Dictionary project.[verification needed] In November 1981, Milson was the first head of the "civil administration" that Israel imposed on the occupied territories to replace the purely military administration that had been there since 1967.
- Tufail Ahmad – South Asia Studies Project Director. A British journalist of Indian origin, Ahmad studied Social Systems for an M.A. at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University and received an M.A. in War Studies from King's College London.
- Mansour Al-Hadj – Director of MEMRI's "Reform in The Arab and Muslim World project". A Saudi Arabian journalist.
- Mirza A. B. Baig – Senior Analyst at MEMRI's South Asia Studies Project. He is an Indian researcher who studied at the Jamia Millia Islamia for two Master's degrees and obtained an MPhil in comparative literature and a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
The Board of directors and advisors of MEMRI includes Ehud Barak, Norman Podhoretz, Elie Wiesel, John Bolton, Nathan Sharansky, Elliott Abrams, Paul Bremer, Steve Emerson, Edgar Bronfman, Mort Zuckerman, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Jeffrey Kaufman, Oliver "Buck" Revell, Robert Reilly.
Objectives and projects
MEMRI's original mission statement read: "In its research, the institute puts emphasis on the continuing relevance of Zionism to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel." In September 2001, MEMRI replaced it with the current mission statement, which states that the organization "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, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu-Pashto media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East." MEMRI's goals and emphasis have evolved over the years; it originally translated articles in both Arabic and Hebrew.
Concerning this change in their 'mission statement,' Political Research Associates (PRA), which studies the US political right, notes that it occurred three weeks after the September 11 attacks, and considers MEMRI "was previously more forthcoming about its political orientation in its self-description and in staff profiles on its website". PRA considers that "MEMRI's slogan, 'Bridging the Language Gap Between the Middle East and the West,' does not convey the institute's stridently pro-Israel and anti-Arab political bias." It further notes, that MEMRI's founders, Wurmser and Carmon, "are both hardline pro-Israel ideologues aligned with Israel's Likud party".
The organization indirectly gained public prominence as a source of news and analysis about the Muslim world, following the September 11 attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism by the Bush administration. According to MEMRI, its translations and reports are distributed to "congresspersons, congressional staff, policy makers, journalists, academics, and interested parties". According to PRA, MEMRI's translated articles and its commentary are routinely cited in national media outlets in the United States, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times, while analyses by MEMRI staff and officers are frequently published by right-wing and neoconservative media outlets such as National Review, Fox News, Commentary, and the Weekly Standard. PRA writes that both critics and supporters of MEMRI note its increasing influence in shaping perceptions of the Middle East. It has maintained longstanding relations with law enforcement agencies.
In 2012, Haaretz reported that Israeli intelligence agencies have reduced their monitoring the Palestinian media with MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch now providing the Israeli government with coverage of "anti-Israel incitement" in social media, blogs and other online sources. The Prime Minister's Bureau has stated that before the government cites information provided by the two sources, the source of the material and its credibility is confirmed.
The Tom Lantos Archives is a joint project between The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and MEMRI. An August 22, 2011 announcement that the Department of State's Office of International Religious Freedom in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor had awarded a $200,000 grant to MEMRI to conduct a project that documents "anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and Holocaust glorification in the Middle East" noted that "through translations and research, MEMRI aims to inform and educate journalists, government leaders, academia, and the general public about trends in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Middle East and South Asia, thus generating awareness and response to these issues." The project holds an annual event on Capitol Hill.
The MEMRI Reform Project covers social, political, religious, and economic reform, ranging from women’s rights and education to democratization of the Muslim world. Translated Reform Project video clips and reports have been used in mainstream media.
MEMRI monitors primary sources in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu/Pashto media and other material from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, and Arab and Muslim communities in the West. These include newspaper articles, sermons, speeches and interviews, websites, TV broadcasts, and schoolbooks.
MEMRI provides translations and analyses into: English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese.
MEMRI is registered in the US with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. They have a policy of not accepting money from governments, relying instead on around 250 private donors, including other organizations and foundations.
MediaTransparency, an organization that monitors the financial ties of conservative think tanks to conservative foundations in the United States, reported that for the years 1999 to 2004, MEMRI received $100,000 from The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Inc., $100,000 from The Randolph Foundation, and $5,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation.
MEMRI's U.S. income statement of June 2004 stated that its total U.S. revenue was US$2,571,899, its total US functional expenses were $2,254,990, and that it possessed net assets of $700,784. Charity Navigator, an organization that evaluates the financial health of America's largest charities, has given MEMRI a four-star (exceptional) rating, meaning that it "...exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its Cause" when rated on its financial health.
The organization's translations are regularly quoted by major international newspapers, and its work has generated strong criticism and praise. Critics have accused MEMRI of producing inaccurate, unreliable translations with undue emphasis and selectivity in translating and disseminating the most extreme views from Arabic and Persian media, which portray the Arab and Muslim world in a negative light, while ignoring moderate views that are often found in the same media outlets. Other critics charge that while MEMRI does sometimes translate pro-US or pro-democracy voices in the regional media, it systematically leaves out intelligent criticism of Western-style democracy, US and Israeli policy and secularism.
MEMRI's work has been criticized on three grounds: that their work is biased; that they choose articles to translate selectively so as to give an unrepresentative view of the media they are reporting on; and that some of their translations are inaccurate. MEMRI has responded[disputed ] to the criticism, stating that their work is not biased; that they in fact choose representative articles from the Arab media that accurately reflect the opinions expressed, and that their translations are highly accurate.
Accusations of bias
Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper at the time, wrote in a public email debate with Carmon in 2003, that his problem with MEMRI was that it "poses as a research institute when it's basically a propaganda operation". Earlier, Whitaker had charged that MEMRI's role was to "further the political agenda of Israel." and that MEMRI's website does not mention Carmon's employment for Israeli intelligence, or Meyrav Wurmser's political stance, which he described as an "extreme brand of Zionism". Carmon responded to this by stating that his employment history is not a secret and was not political, as he served under opposing administrations of the Israeli government and that perhaps the issue was that he was Israeli: "If your complaint is that I am Israeli, then please say so." Carmon also questioned Whitaker's own biases, wondering if Whitaker's is biased in favor of Arabs—as his website on the Middle East is named "Al-Bab" ("The Gateway" in Arabic)—stating: "I wonder how you would judge an editor whose website was called "Ha-Sha-ar" ("The Gateway" in Hebrew)?
Norman Finkelstein has described MEMRI as "a main arm of Israeli propaganda".In 2006, Finkelstein accused MEMRI of editing a television interview he gave in Lebanon in order to falsely impute that he was a Holocaust denier. In an interview with the newspaper In Focus in 2007, he said MEMRI uses "the same sort of propaganda techniques as the Nazis" and "take[s] things out of context in order to do personal and political harm to people they don't like".
Several critics have accused MEMRI of selectivity. They state that MEMRI consistently picks for translation and dissemination the most extreme views, which portray the Arab and Muslim world in a negative light, while ignoring moderate views that are often found in the same media outlets. Juan Cole, a professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan, argues MEMRI has a tendency to "cleverly cherry-pick the vast Arabic press, which serves 300 million people, for the most extreme and objectionable articles and editorials... On more than one occasion I have seen, say, a bigoted Arabic article translated by MEMRI and when I went to the source on the web, found that it was on the same op-ed page with other, moderate articles arguing for tolerance. These latter were not translated." Former head of the CIA's counterintelligence unit, Vincent Cannistraro, said that MEMRI "are selective and act as propagandists for their political point of view, which is the extreme-right of Likud. They simply don't present the whole picture." Laila Lalami, writing in The Nation, states that MEMRI "consistently picks the most violent, hateful rubbish it can find, translates it and distributes it in email newsletters to media and members of Congress in Washington". As a result, critics such as Ken Livingstone state, MEMRI's analyses are "distortion".
A report by Center for American Progress, titled "Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America" lists MEMRI as promoting Islamophobic propaganda in the USA through supplying selective translations that are relied upon by several organisations "to make the case that Islam is inherently violent and promotes extremism".
MEMRI argues that they are quoting the government-controlled press and not obscure or extremist publications, a fact their critics acknowledge, according to Marc Perelman: "When we quote Al-Ahram in Egypt, it is as if we were quoting The New York Times. We know there are people questioning our work, probably those who have difficulties seeing the truth. But no one can show anything wrong about our translations."
In August 2013, the Islamic Da'wah Centre of South Australia questioned the "reliability, independence and veracity" of the Middle East Media Research Institute after it posted what the centre called a "sensational de-contextualised cut-and-paste video clip... put together in a suggestive manner" of a sermon by the Sheikh Sharif Hussein on an American website. According to the two-minute video, which was a heavily condensed version of the Sheikh's 36-minute speech delivered in Adelaide on 22 March, Hussein called Australian and American soldiers "crusader pigs" and stated "O Allah, count the Buddhists and the Hindus one by one. O Allah, count them and kill them to the very last one." According to MEMRI's translation, he also described US President Barack Obama as an "enemy of Allah, you who kiss the shoes and feet of the Jews" and predicted that "The day will come when you are trampled upon by the pure feet of the Muslims." MEMRI's rendition moved leading Liberal senator Cory Bernardi to write to the Police Commissioner charging that under Australia's anti-terrorism laws, the video clip was "hate speech", and requesting that action be taken against Hussein. The South Australian Islamic Society and the Australian Buddhist Councils Federation also condemned Hussein's speech. Widespread calls from the public for the deportation of Hussein and his family followed news reports of the video. A police spokeswoman stated "Police will examine the entire content of the sermon to gain the full context and determine whether any crime has been committed." Hussein himself declined any comment on the contents of the video. However, the Da'wah Centre charged that by omitting the context of Hussein's statements, MEMRI had distorted the actual intent of the speech. While admitting that the Sheikh was emotional and used strong words, the Centre stated that the speech was delivered in relation to the mass rape cases in Iraq, the birth defects due to use of depleted uranium and the Burmese Buddhist massacre. This, the Centre claimed, was omitted from the edited MEMRI video.
Alleged translation inaccuracy
The accuracy of MEMRI's translations are considered "usually accurate" though occasionally disputed and highly selective in what it chooses to translate and in which context it puts things, as in the case of MEMRI's translation of a 2004 Osama bin Laden video, which MEMRI defended.
Following the 7 July 2005 London bombings, Al Jazeera invited Hani al-Sebai, an Islamist living in Britain, to take part in a discussion on the event. For one segment of the discussion in regard to the victims, MEMRI provided the following translation of al-Sebai's words:
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 at war or not.
Al-Sebai subsequently claimed that MEMRI had mistranslated his interview, and that among other errors, he had actually said:
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.
By leaving out the condemnation of the "killing of innocents" entirely, Mohammed El Oifi writing in Le Monde diplomatique argued that this translation left the implication that civilians (the innocent) are considered a legitimate target. Several British newspapers subsequently used MEMRI's translation to run headlines such as "Islamic radical has praised the suicide bomb attacks on the capital" prompting al-Sebai to demand an apology and take legal action. In his view, MEMRI's translation was also "an incitement to have me arrested by the British authorities".
Halim Barakat described MEMRI as a "a propaganda organization dedicated to representing Arabs and Muslims as anti-semites". Barakat claims an essay he wrote for the Al-Hayat Daily of London titled The Wild Beast that Zionism Created: Self-Destruction, was mistranslated by MEMRI and retitled as Jews Have Lost Their Humanity. Barakat further stated "Every time I wrote Zionism, MEMRI replaced the word by Jew or Judaism. They want to give the impression that I'm not criticizing Israeli policy, but that what I'm saying is anti-Semitic." According to Barakat, he was subject to widespread condemnation from faculty and his office was "flooded with hatemail". Fellow Georgetown faculty member Aviel Roshwald accused Barakat in an article he published of promoting a "demonization of Israel and of Jews". Supported by Georgetown colleagues, Barakat denied the claim, which Roshwald had based on MEMRI's translation of Barakat's essay.
In 2007, CNN correspondent Atika Shubert and Arabic translators accused MEMRI of mistranslating portions of a Palestinian children's television programme.
Media watchdog MEMRI translates one caller as saying – quote – 'We will annihilate the Jews'," said Shubert. "But, according to several Arabic speakers used by CNN, the caller actually says 'The Jews are killing us.'
CNN's Glenn Beck later invited Yigal Carmon onto his program to comment on the alleged mistranslation. Carmon criticized CNN's translators understanding of Arabic stating: "Even someone who doesn't know Arabic would listen to the tape and would hear the word 'Jews' is at the end, and also it means it is something to be done to the Jews, not by the Jews. And she (Octavia Nasr) insisted, no the word is in the beginning. I said: 'Octavia, you just don't get it. It is at the end.'" Brian Whitaker, a Middle East editor for the Guardian newspaper (UK) later pointed out that the word order in Arabic is not the same as in English: "the verb comes first and so a sentence in Arabic which literally says 'Are shooting at us the Jews' means 'The Jews are shooting at us.'"
Naomi Sakr, a professor of Media Policy at the University of Westminster has charged that specific MEMRI mistranslations, occurring during times of international tension, have generated hostility towards Arab journalists.
Brian Whitaker wrote in a blog for The Guardian newspaper that in the translation of the video, showing Farfour eliciting political comments from a young girl named Sanabel, the MEMRI transcript misrepresents the segment. Farfour asks Sanabel what she will do and, after a pause says "I'll shoot", MEMRI attributed the phrase said by Farfour, ("I'll shoot"), as the girl's reply while ignoring her actual reply ("I'm going to draw a picture"). Whitaker and others commented that a statement uttered by the same child, ("We're going to [or want to] resist"), had been given an unduly aggressive interpretation by MEMRI as ("We want to fight"). Also, where MEMRI translated the girl as saying the highly controversial remark ("We will annihilate the Jews"), Whitaker and others, including Arabic speakers used by CNN, insist that based on careful listening to the low quality video clip, the girl is saying "Bitokhoona al-yahood", variously interpreted as, "The Jews [will] shoot us" or "The Jews are killing us."
MEMRI stands by their translation of the show, saying: "Yes, we stand by the translation by the very words, by the context, by the syntax, and every measure of the translation."
In response to accusations of inaccuracies and distortion, Yigal Carmon, said:
As an institute of research, we want MEMRI to present translations to people who wish to be informed on the ideas circulating in the Middle East. We aim to reflect reality. If knowledge of this reality should benefit one side or another, then so be it.
In an email debate with Carmon, Whitaker asked about MEMRI's November 2000 translation of an interview given by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to Al-Ahram al-Arabi. One question asked by the interviewer was: "How do you deal with the Jews who are besieging al-Aqsa and are scattered around it?" which was translated as: "How do you feel about the Jews?" MEMRI cut out the first part of the reply and combined it with the answer to the next question, which, Whitaker claimed, made "Arabs look more anti-semitic than they are". Carmon admitted this was an error in translation but defended combining the two replies as both questions referred to the same subject. Carmon rejected other claims of distortion by Whitaker, saying: "it is perhaps reassuring that you had to go back so far to find a mistake... You accused us of distortion by omission but when asked to provide examples of trends and views we have missed, you have failed to answer." Carmon also accused Whitaker of "using insults rather than evidence" in his criticism of MEMRI.
Whitaker claims that although Memri's translations are usually accurate, they are selective and often out of context. He stated: "When errors do occur, it's difficult to attribute them to incompetence or accidental lapses... there appears to be a political motive."
Response by MEMRI
MEMRI responds to criticism by saying that the media had a tendency to whitewash statements of Arab leaders, and regularly defends its translations as being representative of actual ME viewpoints, even when the translations themselves are disputed: "MEMRI has never claimed to 'represent the view of the Arabic media', but rather to reflect, through our translations, general trends which are widespread and topical."
Praise for MEMRI
One beneficial side effect of the focus on the Middle East is that we now have available much more information on the discourse of the Arab world. The most powerful medium for this is (naturally) a Washington-based think-tank, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), started in 1998 by the former Israeli intelligence officer and Arabist Yigal Carmon. MEMRI aimed to bring the previously largely enclosed and unknown Arab talk about the west to western eyes and ears: it is a sobering experience to read on the internet MEMRI's vast store of translations from many media, and to note how much of what is written is conspiratorial, vicious and unyieldingly hateful. MEMRI and Carmon have been accused of selecting the worst of a diverse media: however, the sheer range of what is available weakens that criticism, as does support for the initiative by Arab liberals. The Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, for example, wrote in the spring 2002 issue of Dissent that Arab intellectuals have allowed a mixture of victimhood and revenge to take hold of popular culture, with few if any dissenting voices.
Thomas L. Friedman, a political opinion columnist for The New York Times, has praised MEMRI, and has credited MEMRI with helping to "shine a spotlight on hate speech wherever it appears". Friedman has written in The New York Times that "what I respect about Memri is that it translates not only the ugly stuff but the courageous liberal, reformist Arab commentators as well." In addition, he has cited MEMRI's translations in his op-eds.
Wading or clicking through MEMRI's materials can be a depressing act, but it is also illusion-dispelling, and therefore constructive. This one institute is worth a hundred reality-twisting Middle Eastern Studies departments in the U.S. Furthermore, listening to Arabs—reading what they say in their newspapers, hearing what they say on television—is a way of taking them seriously: a way of not condescending to them, of admitting that they have useful things to tell us, one way or the other. Years ago, Solzhenitsyn exhorted, "Live not by lies." We might say, in these new circumstances, "Live not by ignorance about lies, either." Anyone still has the right to avert his eyes, of course. But no one can say that that is not a choice.
Nordlinger also wrote:
It seemed imperative to learn more about the Arabs—to learn, for example, what they were saying to one another, in their media, in their schools, and in their mosques, The Arab world had always been dark this way; it needed to come into the light. And this is where www.memri.org proved "invaluable", as everyone has said... In fact "'invaluable' was written so often before MEMRI's name that one could have been forgiven for thinking the word was part of the name. MEMRI served as an antidote to darkness, as a way not to be ignorant.
According to Nordlinger, one of MEMRI's early notable successes was its exposure of Muhammad al-Gamei'a. Al-Gamei'a had served as head of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York and as Al-Azhar University's representative to the United States and frequently participated in interreligious services. However, upon returning to Egypt in October 2001, Al-Gamei'a gave an interview to an Islamic website in which he stated, among other things, that Israel was responsible for 9/11 and that "If it became known to the American people, they would have done to the Jews what Hitler did!" and that "[the Jews] are riding on the back of the world powers." MEMRI's translation of Al-Gamei'a's interview was later cited by The New York Times, which hired two independent translators to confirm the MEMRI translation. Nordlinger wrote that MEMRI's work has "never been found to be anything but honest, accurate, and meticulous" and that because of MEMRI's work: "the sheikh was exposed."
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