Iraqi Fulbrights share their perspectives
Zina Abdul Latif was having a hard time keeping back the tears. It may have been memories of her brother, killed in Iraq last year at the age of 22. Or it may have been all the memories combined—of her home in Baghdad, of her life under Saddam, and of her relatives who are still there, suffering.
“I feel the American pain when they say they want to pull out. But if you’re losing one soldier, we’re losing 100 in return,” said Latif.
It was the day before the Nov. 7 midterm election, in which voters would deliver the Bush administration a sharp rebuke over its Iraq policy. But Latif and her fellow speaker, Bilal Wahab, were urging Americans not to abandon their home to violence and chaos.
The two Fulbright scholars at the School of International Service (SIS) shared a personal perspective at the SIS talk, “Thinking about Iraq: A Discussion with AU’s Fulbright Scholars.”
Both expressed misgivings about elements of American policy, but urged Americans to keep the U.S. troops in Iraq. “It’s going to be a waste of all these human souls if we say we’re just going to give up,” said Latif, who recalled life under Saddam as “a prison.”
Coming from a secular Baghdad family, she described living with “a sense of slavery,” in which “Saddam used to say, ‘Saddam is Iraq and Iraq is Saddam.’” But while she felt the overthrow of Saddam was worthwhile, she painted a horrifying picture of life in Baghdad today.
Death threats for personal gain have become common, Latif said. In her own family, a relative was threatened with death unless he handed over his house to the blackmailer. “People are greedy. They want free houses and whatever they can get, and they’ll use whatever card they have,” she said.
Fearing for their lives, Iraqis are turning for protection to their own connections, whether it’s militias, tribal groups, or anyone who seems to offer a safety net. And Latif sees no sign of future harmony.
She said that the Iraqi government needs the U.S. troops on the ground while the army and police are trained, although she expressed doubts about the efficacy of training by Americans who lack a deep understanding of the culture.
Wahab also felt it was worth the price to topple Saddam. “Saddam was a dictator, a tyrant, a brutal murderer,” he said. The invasion of Iraq by the United States was due, at least in part, to an “awakening” after Sept. 11 that led the United States to recognize the importance of spreading democracy and freedom in the world, he said.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “there are signs this noble cause is faltering.”
While there has been mismanagement on the American side, he ascribed the current chaos in part to the lingering impact of decades of dictatorship, and in part to a lack of national identity. “I know what hatred can do,” he said.
He believes that U.S. troops need to stay in order to stop the civil war. But now, he said, “Americans say out loud, ‘This is not our war.’ Then what are you doing there?”
There does need to be a change in strategy, he said. “America should understand its mistakes and correct them,” he said, although he warned that this is less likely if the debate does not include Iraqi voices.
Both speakers agreed that a federal approach to the government of Iraq holds the most promise. “Iraq would be easier to manage,” Latif said.
Both are also concerned about the suppression of religious freedom. Latif warned that a puritanical approach to religion is triumphing to such a degree that music isn’t even played at weddings, and shops no longer play music, but religious broadcasts from Saudi Arabia.
“I’m worried,” she said. “I see religion taking over . . . We believe in God and want religion to be a part of us. But I want to walk in a Baghdad street and be able to buy a CD mix of songs, not just the Koran.”
Wahab said he wants to be able to pray at a mosque freely, without having the sermons dictated by the state as they were under Saddam. And he wants women to be allowed to wear veils in photographs if they choose.
But religion is only meaningful, he said, when people are free to exercise personal choice. “In Islam, you can’t drink alcohol. But what’s the value of not drinking alcohol if you can’t find it?” he asked.
Latif works at the Iraqi embassy, and an embassy representative was in the audience. Wahab is from Iraqi Kurdistan and has spoken about Iraq in National Review Online, on National Public Radio, and elsewhere. Both are Fulbright scholars at SIS.
The talk was moderated by Iraq specialist Carole O’Leary, who is on the faculty at SIS and the Center for Global Peace.