The Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI for short, is a Middle Eastern press monitoring organization located in Washington, D.C., with branch offices in Jerusalem, Berlin, London, Rome, Shanghai and Tokyo. It provides translations of Arabic and Persian media as well as "original analyses of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East."
MEMRI was founded in 1998 by Israeli Yigal Carmon along with Dr. Meyrav Wurmser. The organization became more prominent after the September 11, 2001 attacks, due to increased Western public interest in Arab and Iranian affairs. At that time, it expanded its staff considerably, setting up new branches outside the United States in early 2002.
A free source of English language translations of material published in Arabic and Persian, MEMRI publishes its analyses and in-depth reports on its Web site. Regularly quoted by major international newspapers, the organization has attracted both criticism and support for its work.
Objectives and projects
MEMRI's mission statement states 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-Pashtu media, as well as original analysis of political, ideological, intellectual, social, cultural, and religious trends in the Middle East."
MEMRI's translated articles and media analysis focus on the following areas:
- Jihad and Terrorism Studies Project
- U.S. And the Middle East
- Reform in the Middle East and North Africa
- Arab-Israeli Conflict
- Inter-Arab Relations
- Antisemitism Documentation Project
Starting in October 2006, they added The Islamist Websites Monitor Project focusing on the translated news, videos, and analysis of "major jihadi websites".
When founded in 1998, MEMRI's 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 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Intelligence Branch 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 Terrorism from 1988 to 1993. In 1991 and 1992 Carmon was a senior member of the Israeli Delegation to peace negotiations with Syria in Madrid and Washington.
- Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli received a Ph.D. in development planning from the University of Michigan. He spent most of his professional career at the World Bank, and has consulted for the International Monetary Fund. Dr. Raphaeli, an Iraqi-born Israeli, joined the Middle Media Research Institute (MEMRI)as a senior analyst in 2001.
- Prof. Menahem Milson (Academic Advisor), is a professor at Hebrew University in Arabic literature, and has served as head of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. He has published extensively on modern Egyptian writers. His book on Egypt's great humanist, Najib Mahfuz - Najib Mahfuz: The Novelist-Philosopher of Cairo appeared in 1998. Between 1976 to 1978, then-Minister of Defense Shimon Peres appointed Milson as an adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli military where he became the No. 2 adviser. In 1981, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon returned Milson as head of the Civil Administration of the West Bank and Gaza. Milson served in that position until he resigned in 1982.
- Meyrav Wurmser (founding Executive Director) left MEMRI in early 2002 to join the Hudson Institute and was replaced by Steven Stalinsky. Wurmser was one of the authors of the 1996 Clean Break document.
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 U.S. 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.
MEMRI's work has been attacked 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 their translations are sometimes inaccurate.
- Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, has been one of the most outspoken critics of MEMRI, writing: "My problem with Memri is that it poses as a research institute when it's basically a propaganda operation," and that "the stories selected by Memri for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel." Whitaker has also complained that "MEMRI's website does not mention you [Carmon] or your work for Israeli intelligence. Nor does it mention MEMRI's co-founder, Meyrav Wurmser, and her extreme brand of Zionism.... Given your political background, it's legitimate to ask whether MEMRI is a trustworthy vehicle."
- Leila Hudson writes in the journal Middle East Policy, "MEMRI simultaneously highlights stories emphasizing the most extreme stereotypes of clashing Arab and Islamic civilization, which would not otherwise come to light. In effect, it amplifies the noise that most effectively distracts from the projects of engagement and negotiation. This is compounded by the interlinked series of websites, blogs and forums on the right wing of the think-tank periphery. Like the Israeli disinformation site Debka.com, MEMRI produces and amplifies noise, while buttressing the weak 'clash of civilizations' theory with selective extremist writing.
- Messaoud Saidani in the engineering department of Coventry University says that although MEMRI presents itself as Middle East Research Institute it does hardly translate any controversial articles that appear in the Israeli audio-visual media. It concerns itself with Arabic, Persian and Turkish translations but not Hebrew translations although most of its members are in fact Jewish. Not only that, but MEMRI selects bad apples from the Muslim world and blows them out of proportion to give a distorted impression of the Muslim and Arab worlds. Also, it claims to be a non-political non-partisan organisation, but almost all its founders had served in the IDF and the intelligence services.
- According to Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan, 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" Similarly, Ibrahim Hooper, a director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, stated in the Washington Times that "MEMRI's intent is to find the worst possible quotes from the Muslim world and disseminate them as widely as possible."
- William Rugh, former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, describes MEMRI as a service which "does not present a balanced or complete picture of the Arab print media.... Quotes are selected to portray Arabs as preaching hatred against Jews and westerners, praising violence and refusing any peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue."
- Laila Lalami has written that, "There are three general observations that can be made about MEMRI's work. One is that it consistently picks the most violent, hateful rubbish it can find, translates it and distributes it in e-mail newsletters to media and members of Congress in Washington. The second is that MEMRI does not translate comparable articles published in Israel, although the country is not only a part of the Middle East but an active party to some of its most searing conflicts. For instance, when the right-wing Israeli politician Effi Eitam referred to Israel's Palestinian citizens as a "cancer," MEMRI did not pick up this story. The third is that this organization is now the main source of media articles on the region of Islam, a far greater and far more diverse whole than the individual countries it lists.
- Ken Livingstone, former British MP and former Mayor of London, has accused MEMRI of "outright distortion". Journalist Rima Barakat wrote of the January 2005 Greater London Authority report that: "A study was commissioned to investigate the 'Islamic conspiracy dossier.' This dossier was compiled to defame a renowned Muslim scholar and was presented to British officials in an attempt to prevent a renowned Muslim scholar, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, from entering Britain to participate in a London conference. The report found that "nearly all the distortions came from material produced by the MEMRI.
- The accuracy of MEMRI's translations is sometimes disputed.. For example, a controversy arose over MEMRI's translation of the Arabic words "ay wilayah" in the 2004 Osama bin Laden video. Osama bin Laden's statement was widely translated as: "Every state that does not toy with our security has automatically guaranteed its own security". The US media in general translated "state" as nation-state, and viewed Bin Laden's statement as a warning to the US to stop intervening in the Middle East in order to guarantee US security. But MEMRI interpreted "state" in the sense of a US state rather than a nation-state. MEMRI's translation was widely reported since it differed from most earlier translations and since MEMRI's "Special Alert" published along with Bin Laden's speech the weekend before the 2004 presidential election stated that: "Osama bin Laden ... included a specific threat to 'each U.S. state,' designed to influence the outcome of the upcoming election against George W. Bush." The media watchdog site mediamatters.org noted that: "MEMRI's translation has been challenged by a number of scholars and experts," of whom they quote Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan; Omer Taspinar, a foreign policy studies research fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and director of the RAND Corp's Washington, D.C. office. They include Juan Cole's statement that bin Laden: "cannot possibly mean that he thinks Rhode Island is in a position to [trifle with Muslims' security]" Brian Whitaker went even further, commenting that it was "a clever bit of election propaganda on MEMRI's part, implying that Bin Laden wanted Americans to vote for Kerry
- Professor Halim Barakat of Georgetown University cited MEMRI's translations of his own articles as an example of such distortion: "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.
- On his blog for The Guardian, Brian Whitaker wrote that in a translation of a Hamas video showing Farfur, a Mickey-mouse figure, eliciting political comments from a young girl, the MEMRI transcript misrepresents the segment, by attributing a sentence said by the mouse figure ("I'll shoot") to the child, and ignoring the child's statement ("I'm going to draw a picture") Also, where MEMRI translates the girl as saying "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 variously interpreted as saying, "The Jews will[are] shoot[ing at] us" or "The Jews are killing us." Whitaker concluded: "The effect of this is to devalue everything Memri translates - good and bad alike. Responsible news organisations can't rely on anything it says without going back and checking its translations against the original Arabic."
- According to Le Monde Diplomatique, MEMRI translations sometimes remove content, or even add Arabic terms not present in the original, with intent of making the statement seem more controversial. The author writes:
- « 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.»
Response to criticism
MEMRI has responded to the attacks of critics, arguing 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.
On claims of bias
- Yigal Carmon, MEMRI President, has responded: "You are right: we do have an agenda. 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."
- "Whatever the agenda, the research has to be scientific. If it isn't - if we were trying to prove that some phenomenon existed when it didn't, or vice versa - it wouldn't be an agenda, it would be bias."
- Addressing the issue of supposed bias, John Lloyd has noted in the New Statesmen that "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... 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.
- Carmon replied to Whitaker's complaint that his and Wurmsyers backgrounds were not detailed on the MEMRI Web site by saying, "As for myself, I make no secret of my past. I appear regularly on various media outlets, including Al-Jazeera, and my background is always mentioned. [Whitaker] omitted the fact that I retired from service over 10 years ago." Carmon also noted that Meyrav Wurmser had left MEMRI many years before Whitaker made his complaint that her background was not outlined on the MEMRI Web site' In the same interview Carmon also stated "Memri is not a news agency or a press review service".
On claims of selectivity
- In response to the selection of material portraying the Arab/Muslim world in a negative light, Carmon stated, "In 1994-5, before MEMRI was formally established, I taped TV broadcasts of [Palestinian Authority chairman] Arafat calling for jihad. The reaction to that tape was: 'Kill the messenger'.... And I protested by saying, 'But it's not me [calling for jihad]; it's him [Arafat].'... I asked a very senior journalist, 'Why are you criticizing our work? We're merely revealing the truth.' [He replied] 'There is no such thing as truth.... Every news item must be judged by the question of whom it serves. And you are serving the enemies of peace.' Horrified, I retorted, "And you're the one who's considered the reliable journalist, while I'm seen as biased?' So he said, 'If you want to play naive, do it with someone else, not with me. You know I'm right.' 'No,' I said. 'I do not know that you're right. There is such a thing as truth, and it is impartial'"
- "We aim to reflect main trends of thought and when possible general public opinion. We feature the most topical issues on the Middle Eastern or international agenda.... We also translate discussions on social issues, such as the status of women in Egypt (Special Dispatches 392, 393, January 2002) and debates on Al-Jazeera TV which reach an estimated 60 million viewers. When controversial matters are aired before such a large audience, Memri does not need to fight shy of translating their contents. Are the examples chosen extreme? While some of the topics covered do seem extreme to the western reader, they are an accurate representation of what appears in the Arab media... if mainstream papers repeatedly publish the Jewish blood libel; accuse Jews and Americans of deliberately spreading Aids or the US of dropping genetically modified foods with the intention of harming people in Afghanistan (the latter allegation made by no less than the editor in chief of the most important government daily in Egypt) Memri is entitled to translate these articles... there are even more extreme views - like those expressed by most Islamist organisations - which we rarely translate."
- "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. You [Brian Whitaker] accused us of distortion by omission but when asked to provide examples of trends and views we have missed, you have failed to answer."
On claims of translation inaccuracy
- New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger has stated that "No one disputes their translations..
- MEMRI asserted that: "the U.S. media in general mistranslated the word" wilayah and that the modern standard Arabic definition of "wilayah" as "province or administrative district" as in Arabic name of the United States of America, (الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية), was what bin Laden meant, rather than nation-states. MEMRI cited a post on an Islamist website which made the threats to US states explicit. Robert Fisk said in an interview that "(bin Laden) always had this notion... this idea that the American people would shrug off the American government, and would -- their individual states of the union would become individual countries". Conservative commentators asserted that this was bin Laden "voting" for John Kerry, but the later consensus within the Central Intelligence Agency is that the video as a whole was most probably meant to assist George W Bush's re-election.
- Thomas L. Friedman, a political opinion columnist for the New York Times, credits MEMRI with helping to "shine a spotlight on hate speech wherever it appears" and "presenting the voices of the... courageous Arab or Muslim intellectual, cleric or columnist (who) publishes an essay in his or her media calling on fellow Muslims to deal with the cancer in their midst. The truth tellers' words also need to be disseminated globally." Friedman quotes Husain Haqqani, author of the book 'Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military': "The rulers in these countries have no interest in amplifying the voices of moderates because the moderates often disagree with the rulers as much as they disagree with the extremists...You have to deal us moderates into the game by helping to amplify our voices and exposing the extremists and their amen corner.
- Brad Sherman, a Congressman and ranking member of the United States House of Representatives International Relations Committee's Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Non-proliferation, wrote the introduction to a MEMRI report on Arab and Iranian reactions to 9/11: "Since MEMRI's inception eight years ago, Americans and others in the West have had at least one outstanding source of information on the media of the Arab world, Iran and Turkey. MEMRI provides timely translations of materials that you will find nowhere else. As a member of Congress on the House International Relations Committee, and the top Democratic member of its Terrorism Subcommittee, I have utilized MEMRI.org to better understand the Middle East and its political culture.
- Jay Nordlinger, the managing editor of National Review, wrote: "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."
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