God and Al-Jazeera

Siti Fatimah was born a Muslim, but tried to change her name to Revathi Masoosai before marrying a Hindu man.

This created a crisis, since multi-ethnic Malaysia has both civic and Muslim courts. After the birth of the couple's daughter, the Muslim grandparents urged a Sharia court to give them custody of the baby. They won and Revathi was sent to a rehabilitation center for apostate, wayward Muslims.

"I will make her a Muslim child. That's why I took her," said the grandmother. "Her mother has no choice. ... She asked me if I can allow her to convert out of Islam. I said, 'No way, you must remain in the religion. You cannot leave, it's the law here.' "

This kind of human drama makes for gripping television news. At one point, the Hindu husband briefly managed to talk to his wife through a metal gate before being confronted by a guard -- on camera.

Welcome to Al-Jazeera English, a news channel that few Americans get to see. It is operated by the controversial global network that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the "mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda."

Al-Jazeera English has struggled to find a U.S. audience because cable-television executives believe Americans are not ready to see world events -- many tied to religion -- through a Middle Eastern lens. Also, it's easy to question the perspective of a network funded by a billion dollars or more from His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar.

But Americans need to hear the kinds of voices featured on a network that reports from the developing world back to the west, said Nigel Parsons, a BBC and Associated Press Television News veteran who is managing director of Al-Jazeera English.

"But it's not just about telling the rest of the world what is happening from inside the Middle East out. It's also about telling the rest of the world about America," he said, at a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C. "America is often accused of not understanding the outside world, ... of being very insular and of not understanding the events that shape its policies."

However, it's possible to turn that equation around, because the rest of the world "actually understands very little about the United States," he said. "We hear about New York, we hear about Hollywood and we hear about things that go on inside the Beltway here in D.C. We don't hear much about that big bit in the middle."

The result is a kind of two-sided blind spot.

On one side, said Parsons, are millions of Al-Jazeera viewers around the world who previously had little or no chance to learn about "what makes America tick," including the diversity of religious and political beliefs found in U.S. churches, synagogues and mosques. On the other side, he is convinced that few Americans have been exposed to the variety of religious and political perspectives found in the many cultures of the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world.

That Al-Jazeera English report on the apostasy charges against Revathi Masoosai, for example, ended with a stark contrast. A "Sisters in Islam" spokeswoman backed the views of legal scholars who insist that Article 11 of Malaysia's constitution protects freedom of conscience and religion. But a conservative Muslim leader stood his ground, insisting that to "be a Malay is to be a Muslim" and that the nation will collapse if believers are free to convert to another faith.

The report ended with that question unresolved, which is the tense reality in Malaysia and many other parts of the Muslim world.

Parsons said it would be wrong to claim that Al-Jazeera English is promoting the spread of some form of "moderate Islam" -- a loaded label the network never uses -- because what is "moderate" in one Muslim culture would be called "apostasy" in others.

However, the network has pursued a "reformist agenda" that often clashes with state-controlled networks in the Middle East. Parsons proudly noted that Al-Jazeera has been forced, at one time or another, to leave almost every nation in the region -- except Israel.

"We are not going to see major changes in that part of the world overnight," he said. "Arguments and debate and dialogue are going to have to come first. We cannot afford to have news and information going in one direction and that's that."