"Be Cursed You Iraqi Optimist!"


On Sunday evening, I was invited to be part of the audience during the taping of a CNN talk show titled "Voices of a New Generation" that will first appear on CNN International Tuesday evening at 6:00 pm GMT. The show is part of the Eye on The Middle East series that the station is filming this week throughout the region.

The idea was that a panel of young people, two from Lebanon, an Iraqi, a Saudi, a Jordanian, and an Egyptian, would discuss various issues of the day, and interact with the audience. Interesting moments ensued, but perhaps the most remarkable thing was how the Iraqi was angrily taken to task by both the Egyptian and Jordanian panelists, and by some people in the audience. The Iraqi, Ahmad Shames, heads an organization to promote democracy called the Iraqi Prospect Organization. On his first attempt to make it to Baghdad Airport to fly to Beirut for the show, he couldn't take his flight and had to return to the city. His car was shot at and not long afterwards he found himself some 100 meters away from a car-bomb explosion. Despite this, Shames was upbeat about Iraq's future, but also underlined that Iraqis had very little patience for the surrounding Arab countries, which, they felt, were fueling the war in Iraq.

The optimism infuriated the young Egyptian woman on the panel, a member of the Kifaya movement opposed to Hosni Mubarak's rule, who joined after being beaten by police. She accused Shames of arguing the American line in Iraq, and affirmed that Iraqis were opposed to the occupation, and that "we all read the [anti-war] blogs." The Jordanian participant suggested that Iraqis could be descending into a form of paranoia when it comes to the behavior of surrounding Arab countries, and wondered what Shames suggested the Arab states do.

While just one aspect of the show, these exchanges were interesting because they showed the extent to which many Arabs adhere to ideologically-charged certainties when it comes to Iraq, which no amount of actual experience by Iraqis will undermine. When CNN ran a series of interviews with Iraqis denouncing "terrorism" in their country, the Egyptian accused CNN of filtering out the interviews that didn't match its agenda. The terrorists, she said, were also resistance fighters.

In reality, it was the Egyptian who could not stomach an Iraqi narrative that failed to quite match her own agenda and preconceptions. A liberal at home, she was all hardened Arab nationalist when it came to distant Iraq, where she probably never set foot. The problem for her was America, and while one can perhaps make that argument, far more disturbing was the Egyptian's virtual labeling of Shames as a renegade, though he argued in favor of using the U.S. occupation to advance Iraqi national interests.

The Jordanian, in turn, never explained why the burden was on the Iraqis to be less than paranoid vis-a-vis their Arab neighbors, given that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria all have in different ways allowed the Iraqi insurgency to continue, even while insisting, on their scout's honor, that they oppose terrorism. The Washington Post has a good piece in today's newspaper qualifying that as far as Jordan goes, less than two weeks after the bombings in Amman. Some people, it seems, were not as disturbed by the hotel bombings as you might think.