The annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum, sponsored by the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution and the Foreign Ministry of Qatar, is no way to begin a sentence, let alone an article. One prepares oneself for another “interface,” where liberal Americans and “moderate” Muslims agree to wear fixed smiles and make nice; the sort of meeting where ex-diplomats and future technocrats, laboriously using each other’s first names, divide the pie chart. Actually, though, I am very grateful to have been invited this year and very glad that I went.
There is, for one thing, the interest of visiting Qatar itself, which I had done before and would do again. On one small peninsula on the forbidding coast of Saudi Arabia, a tiny emirate plays host to Al Jazeera and to the key U.S. base in the region. Both the network and the base used to be on Saudi soil until they were, in different ways, asked to move. Qatar itself is also a hereditary Wahabbist monarchy, but several years ago the current emir decided to depose his autocratic father, to abolish censorship, to allow women to drive and to vote and to run for office, and to invite critical Arab intellectuals to come and call upon him. The immigrant workers of the country, mostly Indian, are allowed to follow their own religions and receive a much better deal than their semi-indentured fellows in Riyadh and Jeddah. Since Qatar holds an astonishing amount of the world’s natural gas—a much less toxic resource than oil—and is now perhaps the richest nation per capita on the face of the planet, Sheik Hamad al-Thani took a look at the map a little while ago; noticed the propensity of Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to muscle in on small and wealthy states; and put himself under American protection. He also ranged himself on the side of regime change in the area. There’s no need to idealize this process, which involved a good deal of self-interest, but it remains the fact that Qatar has become a sort of cross between Switzerland and Hong Kong in the region and makes an excellent listening post if you want to pick up on its debates.
I am not allowed to report on any of the sessions at the conference, which is held on an unattributable basis, but to hang around in the lobbies is to have a chance to meet some astonishing people. I shan’t soon forget my conversation with Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the new Iraqi national security adviser, who described how, in the preceding days, he had sat in meetings with Muqtada Sadr’s few parliamentary deputies and with representatives of the Iraqi police and the coalition, to arrange that the Sadr-sponsored mass protest against the occupation went off peacefully. “Just like Trafalgar Square,” as he put it, memorably if a trifle optimistically.
But the two Ibrahims were the stars. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo, is the moral and intellectual hero of the Egyptian civil society movement. His long imprisonment, trial, and eventual vindication—for the crime of monitoring Egypt’s “elections” and of trying to take objective opinion polls—was in some ways the catalyst for the developments that are now occurring in his country. He described sitting in prison, partly kept from freezing by an embroidered coverlet that had arrived with a letter from Nelson Mandela (who knows how chilly jails can be, even in hot countries), and writing an open letter to Saddam Hussein telling him to resign for the good of the Iraqi people. This must have seemed quixotic at best at the time; the jailers certainly thought he was crazy. But last year in Qatar, Dr. Ibrahim helped promulgate the Manifesto of the Muslim Democrats, and this year, he says, he has seen more progress and more protest than it would then have been possible to imagine.
As we were chatting over coffee, an Iraqi passerby, not connected with the conference, came up to introduce himself. He was almost crying as he thanked Dr. Ibrahim for being one of the few Arab voices to have opposed Saddam from way back. “We shall never forget you. Our lives were meaningless. Happiness was impossible. We could not be human. Now our life is more risky but worth living.” If these words were uttered by an outsider, they might sound trite, but I tell you that there is a tone of voice than cannot be faked.
Anwar Ibrahim may also be known to you by reputation. He is the Malaysian reformist—once deputy prime minister and finance minister—who was imprisoned on disgustingly and transparently trumped-up charges, including the bizarre accusation of “sodomy,” in 1998. It took almost six years for him to be acquitted and released and he, too, has a Mandela story. (“When we met, I told him that mine had been a relatively short walk to freedom.”) He has since resumed his public advocacy of increased democracy and his critique of the Islamist self-pity that blames all local faults on Western conspiracies.
Both of these men take a positive view of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who welcomed the collapse of the Baathists in public when we spoke on the same platform in New York two years ago, says that, however unfortunately, the region needed a “shock” from outside. Anwar Ibrahim says that he still opposes the invasion on principle but cannot deny that it has had a positive effect in the Arab and wider Muslim world. These witnesses are brave people whose words command attention.
My friend Marla Ruzicka was murdered by a suicide bomber in Baghdad on Saturday night. She had been working bravely and cheerfully to identify and help the civilian victims of the war and had pursued the efforts of her little organization CIVIC, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, long after many humanitarian activists had given up and fled. Politically, she was somewhere between Global Exchange and MoveOn.org, as she had been when risking her life in Afghanistan, and we had some disagreements. But her concern for the victims was deep and sincere (whatever happened to those “human shields” now that they could be useful?), and she and her Iraqi colleague Faiz, apparently slain in the same attack, will be sorely mourned. The “insurgents” couldn’t have known that they were murdering her, but then, neither could they have cared.
Andrea Dworkin, who was pelted and ridiculed for decades of her life, was another of those rare people who feel other people’s pain as if it were their own. When she first sent me one of her books, I was all ready to snigger. But she could write, and think, and argue, and it was often a pleasure to disagree violently with her, which is more than I can say for some of her detractors. Like many clever and tormented people, she had the gift of getting the gist of supposedly complex questions. It wasn’t OK with her that President Clinton had a special staff of private dicks to “handle” and to slander truth-telling women; it wasn’t OK with her that Serbia used rape as a weapon of ethnic cleansing; and she wasn’t neutral against a jihadist threat that wanted, and wants, to enslave and torture females. That she could be denounced as a “conservative” for holding any of those positions says much about the left to which she used to belong. If she was indeed crazy, I wish she had bitten more of her twisted sisters.