Reinventing Arabism

BAGHDAD, IRAQ — BAGHDAD, Iraq - I got a tour the other day of Baghdad's rebuilt airport, which is now quite beautiful, but still hasn't opened out of security concerns.

Our tour guides even took us through passport control to show off their new computers that will check for incoming terrorists. As they showed us around, a question occurred to me that I posed to them: "What happens if someone gets off a plane with an Israeli passport?" After all, Iraq under Saddam Hussein not only didn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, it considered itself at war with Israel.


All of the officials present shrugged their shoulders and agreed that they hadn't thought about it - and that's one of the most interesting things about Iraq today. It is the only Arab country where the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the first topic of conversation with intellectuals and media elites. Make no mistake, the average Iraqi dislikes Israel and sympathizes with the Palestinian cause as much as any Saudi or Egyptian. This is an Arab country - never forget that.

But here's what is new and will have a big impact on inter-Arab politics, if Iraq can be rebuilt: Many Iraqis today express real resentment for the other Arab regimes, and even toward the Palestinians, for how they let themselves be bought off by Mr. Hussein.


They feel that Mr. Hussein used the Iraqi people's oil wealth to buy popularity for himself in the Arab street - by giving Palestinians and other Arab students scholarships and nice apartments in Baghdad, and by paying off all sorts of Arab nationalist writers and newspapers. And then these same Arab intellectuals and media gave Mr. Hussein a free pass to torture, repress and starve his own people. In other words, "Arabism," in the minds of many Iraqis, is the cloak that Mr. Hussein hid behind to imprison them for 35 years, and now that they can say that out loud, they are saying it.

You'd never know this from watching Arab satellite television such as Al-Jazeera. Because although these stations have 21st century graphics, they're still dominated by 1950s Nasserite political correctness - which insists that dignity comes from how you resist the foreigner, even if he has come as a liberator, not by what you build yourself.

But the truth will come out. "Iraq is going to be the Arab libido," a Lebanese aid worker in Baghdad said to me. "You know, when you have those naughty dreams that you can't tell anyone about and then suddenly you're on the couch talking about them - that's going to be Iraq." It's going to be where all the taboos that are not supposed to be spoken get spoken. Indeed, they already are.

Hassan Fattah is a young Iraqi-American journalist who has returned to Baghdad to start a terrific newspaper called Iraq Today (www.iraq- Before the fall of Baghdad, though, he worked as a reporter in the West Bank. "I sympathize with the Palestinian cause," he said, "but after the fall of Baghdad, when I told Palestinians that I was an Iraqi, they would say to me, 'You sold us out. You sold Iraq for nothing.' I was called a traitor. The average Palestinian wanted to see us fight - to resist - America, and the American 'occupation,' because that is what they understood."

Of course, Iraqis want to run their own government as soon as possible, said Mr. Fattah - but not in order to join the old Arab nationalist parade, but rather to focus on themselves.

"Iraqis know Saddam was a fake," he explained. "His Arabism came at their expense. For Iraqis it was not Arabism, it was torture and subjugation. [Now] there is this feeling that the Arab world has lashed out at us because we did not 'resist' the Americans. It was because Iraqis have learned the lessons of phony Arabism - that Saddam could send $35,000 to the families of [Palestinian] suicide bombers, while leaving his own people starving and living on $2 a day.

"That's why there is a dramatic gulf now between Iraqis and a lot of other Arabs. Young people here want to move on. In 10 years, this will be a very different place. If I can be a part of it, it will be like Hong Kong or Korea - but with an Iraqi face."

Talking to young Iraqis such as Mr. Fattah, you sense how much they want to break the old mold - how much they want to be Arabs, with an Arab identity, but to build a modern state that actually focuses on tapping its people's talents and energies, rather than diverting them, and one that seeks to base their dignity on what they build, not on whom they fight.


Root for them to succeed, for having such a state in the heart of the Arab world would be a very, very good thing.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.