Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Freund-Young Round 2: Iraq's liberal urges

(Because these damned text boxes are too small, Chuck's comment runs over into the following box. Better than cutting)

By arguing (in his March 30 entry) that the future of Arab liberalism is so dependent on American actions, Michael does me a service: He legitimates my (American) presence in our exchange. I'm therefore loath to challenge the point. But while U.S. power is obviously the elephant in everyone's living room these days, I don't think it's capable of playing the central role Michael assigns it.

It's not that I necessarily disagree with the list of actions Michael requires. The U.S. has the moral responsibility of enabling legitimate (as defined by Iraqis) representative government to emerge in Iraq. If it fails, the cause of Arab liberalism will have been greatly harmed. But no U.S. action can effectively overcome the excuse-making, blame-shifting victimology now endemic to the Pan-Arabist worldview (as well as to the academic "Orientalist" critique and to street conspiracism) that Arab liberals are already challenging.

It is Iraqis who are necessarily at center stage in this process, and despite the wave of negative stories about civil disorder and incipient religious tyranny, there are promising indications that important segments of Iraqi society are organizing themselves along liberal lines with no input from the U.S. As I noted in a recent Reason Online story at least 40 political parties have organized in the capital; university faculties are preparing for an era of academic freedom; Iraqi writers are preparing to rebuild their wrecked literature; artists have begun meeting; newspapers have started to appear in Baghdad, and so on. Magazines, books, and TV are on their way. Iraq's national debate has yet to begin in earnest, but these are promising signs.

A particularly interesting event just took place in Sharjah in the UAE. Representatives of three Arab TV services appeared before a university audience to defend their war coverage. Charged with misleading viewers, Al-Jazeera's Faisal Al Qassem typically suggested that any misunderstandings were the fault of the audience. There were also claims that "Baghdad Bob" Al-Sahhaf was more accurate than were embedded U.S. reporters, and that Peter Arnett's firing was a case of censorship. On the other hand, Al Arabiya was accused of being a pro-Western tool. [Continued below]

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