ROCKLAND, Maine — Al-Jazeera’s Washington, D.C., bureau chief drew parallels between an uprising in the Arab world and America’s own revolution during a fundraising speech for the General Henry Knox Museum on Thursday night.
The appearance by Abderrahim Foukara drew protesters as well as a capacity crowd of about 350 to the Strand Theatre.
A handful of people stood outside with signs saying his news network is a microphone for terrorists. The protesters were outnumbered by supporters 3 to 1.
Mary Trotochaud of Belmont showed up to support the news network because she has read their news for years.
“We’re supposed to have freedom of the press. It’s essential to democracy. Al-Jazeera gives us an alternative to mainstream U.S. press. They give us a wider view of the world because international news isn’t well-covered in the U.S.,” Trotochaud said.
Police patrolled the building before and during the event, but no one was arrested at the theater, according to Rockland police.
Foukara did not directly address the controversy surrounding his presence at the gala, but was asked by one of the audience members about how Al-Jazeera is perceived in the United States.
The journalist said there is more debate in America about the news network than in the Arab world. This, he said, is likely because the network aired tapes by Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“People in the United States started saying, ‘Is Al-Jazeera the voice of Osama bin Laden? Is it a platform for terrorists?’ The reason Al-Jazeera played those tapes is this: People at that time wanted to hear what the Bush administration had to say. Every time President Bush had a speech it was played in entirety on Al-Jazeera,” he said. “There was immense interest about what Osama bin Laden had to say. If you never air those tapes, basically, Osama bin Laden and what he represents will stay a mystery to a lot of people. You must demystify the man and his discourse.”
The moderator of the evening’s events, Mac Deford, made light of the protests outside the Rockland movie theater, saying the sign holders raised awareness for the event and increased ticket sales to the sold-out speech, which likely raised about $50,000 for the museum, according to executive director Ellen Dyer.
Dyer said Foukara came recommended to the museum as a speaker by the nonprofit’s professional network. It seemed like a good fit to Dyer.
“We saw it as an interesting opportunity to have a conversation about what it’s like to fight for freedom and revolution,” Dyer said.
Foukara’s speech mostly focused on the Arab Spring, the recent pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East.
He argued that “the lack of democracy and participation in the Middle East and in northern Africa could become an existential threat to the political viability of the area.”
To help the political viability in the Arab world, Foukara said America could offer more support to Middle Eastern efforts to develop democracy in that region.
“Democracy might not be a panacea for all ills, but so far it’s the best doctor in town,” he said. “Americans know a thing or two about breaking the shackles of tyranny. They did it when they voted for an African-American president. Many people in this country say the breaking of shackles began way back in 1776 when the British were told what young Tunisians have told their dictators recently,” he said.
Tunisian protesters ousted their president earlier this year.