ROCKLAND, Maine — A controversy is brewing over the selection of an Arabic news network journalist as this year’s keynote speaker at a gala fundraiser for a museum that honors an American Revolutionary War hero.
Some people are upset that the selection serves to legitimize Al-Jazeera, which they believe is a mouthpiece for Islamic militants and terrorists.
“I think it’s very insulting that the museum would even consider inviting a person like that,” Pete Harring, a member of the Maine tea party, said Tuesday afternoon.
Abderrahim Foukara, Al-Jazeera’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief, will speak at the Strand Theatre in Rockland on July 28. General Henry Knox Museum Executive Director Ellen Dyer said that a supporter of the Thomaston museum knows the journalist and helped to make the connection.
“The museum saw the opportunity for a very timely discussion about what is going on in the Arab world right now,” Dyer said Tuesday afternoon. “Of course, the whole world has been watching, and having a very interesting discussion about modern foreign relations — and what it means to fight for freedom and revolution.”
But some others are seeing the opportunity to advocate against a group that they associate with militant Islam and which they feel may even be a front for recruiting home-grown terrorists.
Enough people have written angry emails, made phone calls and otherwise registered their dissatisfaction with the decision that officials have moved the post-speech reception from its usual spot — the downtown Rockland branch of Camden National Bank. Instead, the reception will be held at an undisclosed private home, Dyer said, adding that she does not know if protesters will picket the speech.
The reception is only for select ticket holders and museum supporters.
Harring of the Maine Tea Party said he believes some people are likely to protest.
“It just seems a little weird,” he said. “Al-Jazeera, they’re not exactly pro-American … A lot of people are not real happy with extremist Muslims and Al-Jazeera seems to have a tendency to promote terrorist acts.”
According to Dyer, Foukara is not being given any sort of award.
However, that’s not how it seems to Mackenzie Andersen of East Boothbay, who said she accepts the “commonly held belief that [Al-Jazeera] is a front for recruiting jihadists.
“First of all, I think the event should be called off. I think there should be an investigation into who, exactly, is behind making this happen,” she said. “By honoring Al-Jazeera, they’re creating respectability. They’re making it socially acceptable.”
Foukara is a native of Morocco who studied in the United Kingdom before joining the BBC World Service in 1990, according to biographical information on the museum’s website. He worked there as a producer, reporter, anchor and teacher for nine years before becoming an Arab World affairs reporter for The World, a co-production of the BBC, Public Radio International and WGBH Boston. In 2002, Foukara joined Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel as a Washington-based reporter and is now the bureau chief.
Justin Martin, who will teach journalism at the University of Maine this fall, has been working at the American University in Cairo. He said Al-Jazeera is considered to be an “extremely legitimate news source” globally, with hundreds of reporters in the U.S.
“It’s one of the largest, most comprehensive news networks around the world,” he said. “I would challenge anyone who feels that these networks are apparatuses for terrorism to first see if they’ve ever watched it.”
Its coverage of the recent deadly tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., was as “genuine and sincere” as any U.S. network coverage, he said.
“There’s not very much agenda pushing. I’m more shocked when I watch Fox News,” Martin said.
The annual gala fundraiser is one of the museum’s biggest events, Dyer said, adding that tickets are still available. Foukara follows in the footsteps of philanthropist Doris Buffet, last year’s speaker, and CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, who headlined the event in 2009.
“I anticipate that this will be a success as well,” she said of Foukara’s speech. “We’re trying to promote an open conversation about what’s going on in the world now. Free speech is very much in keeping with what the Founding Fathers were trying to fight for.”
Tickets for the 2011 General Henry Knox Museum gala are $35 for general admission and $25 for museum members. The event helps raise money to maintain a replica of Montpelier, the Thomaston mansion that was home to Gen. Henry Knox, who served as George Washington’s secretary of war.
For more information, please call 354-8062 or visit the website www.knoxmuseum.org.