Saturday, June 18, 2005

Morning notes, June 18

Yesterday I received a gracious email from Mr. Khaleel in Iraq, responding to mine the day before pointing to my Thursday post. Out of courtesy I have asked his permission before publishing what he wrote, but I can share that from the start of my blogging experience last year, I think I have made a meaningful connection that would have been unthinkable before weblogs. Our written conversation is more than satisfying; it is important. When two old men from opposite sides of the world, from cultures that are as distant from one another as Iraq and the US, can have a dialogue, hope rises in both of us that our grandchildren will be able to live in a better world than we see at the moment.

If we do nothing more than discover newspaper and magazine clips, post them and exchange reactions, I think that what we both say will have meaning for more people than just the two of us.

In the past I have had visions that seem too ideal to become real. That is why I registered as a conscientious objector and served in the Army with no training in weapons or hand-to-hand combat. I have been living with that idealism for a long time. It has become less stringent, but as I get older I have also become more outspoken. I can look back with both sadness and satisfaction at my life, but my stubborn insistence on looking for peaceful ways to resolve conflict has not dimmed. Even if I die as the result of the most savage violence, I will do so with the hope that defeating it through transformation would be more desirable than destroying it altogether.

So here are a couple of stories that give me hope...

Erbil, 17 June (AKI) - The al-Qaeda network in Iraq has threatened anyone who collaborates with the Iraqi government with serious consequences, whether they take part in the creation of the new Iraqi constitution, or enter into direct talks with the Iraqi government or cooperate with them. The threat comes as Sunni Muslims struck a deal on Thursday with Shiite leaders in the government to allow more Sunnis to join the committee that will be drafting Iraq's constitution.

A message, attributed to the terrorist network and published on the internet, said that "whoever deals with the Iraqi government in one way or another will be hit with the wrath of the mujahideen and, we swear to God, we will kill all those who enter into talks with the Iraqi government or have links with them."

The threat follows an announcement by certain tribes and prominent citizens of the northern city of Mossul, who have agreed to collaborate with the Iraqi government to hand over extremists and the terrorists found in the city, especially those that are part of the al-Qaeda linked militant group, Ansar al-Sunna, the main terrorist group believed to have its strognhold in Mossul.

This is from an Italian newspaper.
I find it hopeful because it indicates that some kind of critical mass seems to be forming in Iraq not being orchestrated from Washington. When Sunnis, Shiites and "certain tribes and prominent citizens" do something that provokes such threats, it means that political forces are presenting a serious threat to the forces of killing and blackmail.

From the same source...

Baghdad, 17 June (AKI) - The group of Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's pointman in Iraq, launched a scathing attack on the Al-Jazeera satellite TV network on Thursday. A message posted to several Islamic websites read: "Al-Jazeera television besmirches the image of the mujahadeen in the eyes of its viewers, using the language of the United States." It is signed by Abu Maysira al-Iraqi.

"We have had enough of al-Jazeera's bias - and of the efforts you make to kowtow to the crusaders and the traitor government (of Iraq). Publicise the fact that you sit on the fence, why your channel is the mouthpiece of the Americans, and that you do not transmit the true words of the mujahadeen," the message continued.

"Your systematic distortion of the image of the mujahadeen is nothing more than an attempt to discredit us. Your brothers at al-Qaeda's information division in Iraq will continue to tell the truth and broadcast it," the message said.

This is attributed to the famous and illusive al-Zarqawi, described as "al-Qaeda's point man in Iraq." Again, when threats are this extreme, they indicate a serious level of alarm. In this case, when they are aimed at Al-Jazeera, the language is even more telling. The man on the street in America hears the name "Al-Jazeera" and immediately thinks CNN or Fox, but on the "other side." I have not spoken with a single person who has any idea that there can be differences of opinion in the Middle East beyond the cartoon images we are fed daily. (The image of Al-Jazeera in America has been tainted by that network's distribution of beheadings. We have a high threshold of tolerance for worse images in games and films, presented as entertainment, but when the images are real, we have a different reaction. Somehow we have not been able to connect our appetite for violent entertainment with an appetite for war. Any efforts on the part of Al-Jazeera to change that image have a long way to go. Note this snarky comment suggesting that anything they do is too little, too late.)

Finally, here is a post from Abu Aardvark, a blog that I have been following for some time.
My take on the discusion is pretty simple.
Discussions are always preferable to fighting. No matter what they say, this strikes me as an exciting development.

Right now (2:45 EST) star al-Jazeera talk show host Faisal al-Qassem is hosting a show called "Behind the News" focused on a new video from al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri laying out his concept of "reform": it begins with the sharia, jihad is the only route to reform, freedom for the umma must come first, no real reform is possible until the current regimes are gone, American-style "reforms" don't cut it, and at any rate real reform must come from within Islam and not from America, and "reform can't come from demonstrations and protests" - a direct criticism of Kefaya and the recent protest movements.

Zawahiri's extended discourse on reform is itself an important commentary about the changing terms of debate in the Arab and Islamic worlds - rather than setting the terms of public discourse, Zawahiri is responding.
Qassem turns the event of this tape into an opportunity for a remarkable and exceptionally interesting discussion on this topic: is al-Qaeda relevant in the context of the current push for reform?

Rather than just air or report Zawahiri's remarks, the program presents short excerpts and then gives the guests a chance to comment and respond to each of Zawahiri's points in turn. This turns Zawahiri's tape from a monologue into a dialogue. The three guests - Montasser al-Zayat (the ubiquitous Islamist expert from Egypt), Mohammed Abu Roman (a liberal from Jordan), and Ahmad Baha al-Din Shaaban (a leader from Kefaya) - have the chance to rebut Zawahiri's arguments and defend themselves against his claims. Right now, as I'm writing this, Shabaan (Kefaya) is responding directly and powerfully to Zawahiri and claiming the mantle of reform for his and like-minded democratic movements.

Qassem refuses to let any of his guests get away with easy answers. When a Jordanian says that Zawahiri has no place in the current debates, Qassem demands to know why the Muslim Brotherhood is so powerful in places like Egypt and Jordan if Islamist ideas are so irrelevant. He stopped Zayat cold with a question about Kefaya and Islamists in Egypt.

Is al-Jazeera doing a positive or negative thing by airing these clips of Zawahiri making his arguments and then giving articulate spokesmen of other political trends the chance to respond, at length and in depth? Does this unduly legitimize al-Qaeda and Zawahiri by taking his ideas seriously and broadcasting extensive clips of him speaking, or does it help to "wage the war of ideas" by putting those ideas up for intensive scrutiny and debate? Serious people can disagree about the answers to those questions.

I think that this is al-Jazeera at its best - debating the big issues, with everything on the table. Others, on both sides, will no doubt see it as al-Jazeera at its worst: either for giving Zawahiri a platform, or for giving the others the chance to dispute him.

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