Friday, April 9, 2010
Dining With Al-Qaeda by Hugh Pope
Hugh Pope studied Persian and Arabic at Oxford and then in Syria. He subsequently spent thirty years as a correspondent in the Middle East for Reuters, The Los Angeles Times. London's Independent and the Wall Street Journal. Currently he is with the International Crisis group in Istanbul.
According to this extraordinarily experienced man- who was lucky to escape alive from an interview with a young Al-Qaeda missionary in Saudi Arabia shortly after 9/11- the great locomotive of American journalism is the optimistic hope for a better world. With respect to the affairs of the Middle East the intended projection is that peace is always burning bright at the end of the tunnel, an "it can all get better" machine that acts as a kind of formaldehyde applied to the consciousness of the folks back home. It helps to preserve a status quo hooked to a train of problems which is often most accurately described as brutal and corrupt.
I was lucky to write for the Wall Street Journal ( writes the author) yet even in this most prestigious of American newspapers I found it hard to keep my stories out of the ruts of traditional coverage of good "moderates" versus bad "radicals", a misleading focus on an Arab-Israeli "peace process" that has yet to proceed anywhere, and the way many people overemphasize the role of "Islam" as an analytical tool in assessing the Middle East.
The idiosyncrasies of the region, I believe, are more the product of universal problems of inequality, circumstance, and international politics, not uniquely Middle Eastern religions or ideologies. The lives of Middle Easterners, the majority of them only a generation or two away from an illiterate peasant background, differ greatly from those of Americans and Europeans, especially members of Western elites likely to read newspapers that I wrote for. This is not because there is some insoluble "clash of civilizations" but because of bridgeable disparities in education, security, prosperity and expectations.
Reality is a broad spectrum, and the common zone between the diametrically different world views, between Iraq and the U.S. for example, overlapped only a short hand span in the middle. My editors advised and protected me, making sure I maintained the trust of our readers by staying on this reservation. We often put layers of distance in our stories so as not to upset people's comfort zones. The cause of reporting complex and disturbing truths often seemed hopeless.
To win a Journal editor's heart I had to find a conceptual scoop and then to illustrate it through a main character or institution facing a dramatic junction. I had to supply a novelist's clarity about people's intentions, failures, and sense of mission. This was always an uphill battle when writing for an American public. Middle Easterners rarely had that American talent to communicate their life story and future goals in the first ten minutes of an acquaintance. In fact, most people spent a lifetime trying to hide any such personal information. It could take weeks to establish any real level of trust.
Indeed, the whole concept of a life goal was somewhat irrelevant to people who couldn't be sure who'd be ruling their country next week, whose families made such demands of loyalty that individual freedom was a filmy dream, and whose chance of selling out and moving to the next city to start all over again was virtually nil. On top of that was the whole tradition of fighting not to lose face. This meant never admitting fault, even at the cost of a life of lying and cheating.
These Middle Eastern facts of life were all iron balls chained to our mission to fit stories into the worldview of American editors and readers. Not only could readers not really imagine the dreary limits of life outside the world's richest country, but they could also really engage- or so we were led to believe by editors- only with stories that implied a plan to change the world, to carve out a personal dream, and to surmount some great obstacle that lay in the way of success. Hence Americans correspondents' understandable tendency to stick to writing about Americans, or those who had converted to American values in some way.
Once I made an appointment with the opinion-page editor. The opinion page's floor was very different from the open-plan Wall Street Journal newsroom, being a cozy, ivory tower of a place where the floor had a carpet and people talked in hushed voices. The editor was charming and gentlemanly. We could easily agree on things like the great corruption of the UN "oil-for-food" program that had kept Iraq on life support since 1996; we could not agree on what was to my mind the greater policy corruption that led the United States to impose sanctions on the country in the first place. It was the old problem. Whatever the flaws of their governments, I sympathized with the people of the Middle East with whom I lived, eaten, chatted, and slept as their guest; their main contact with Middle Easterners were right-wing Israelis or exiles, who painted an often bitter, politicized, and unrepresentative picture of the region.
I gamely tried to make the case that the United States had to change its blank-check policy to Israel. It should see that a traumatized and dictatorial Middle East would be unable to cope with any hurried attempts at democratization. The editor gamely offered to consider printing commentaries of mine if I saw to write them. I noticed, however, that he seemed uncomfortable, perhaps even nervous, as if someone had warned him that I was mentally unstable.
"Please take me into your team, here in New York," I was to suggest hopelessly as my time ran out. "At least when you discuss the region you'll have someone who's lived in many of the countries there."
"Thanks for the offer, Hugh," He replied, "but we're kind of homogeneous here."
I felt especially awkward at the memorial service for my colleague Daniel Pearl in New York. What I remember him talking about was exposing hypocrisy of all kinds, whether in the Middle East or in U.S. Policy. He had been furious, Mariane later told me, when the Journal, fearful of offending its readers, had refused to use a story he had written about how Muslims had become so prejudiced and angry at the West that many truly believed a baseless rumor that Israel was behind the September 11 attacks. It wasn't just thoroughness, as the memorial speakers said, that caused him to stay for a month in Khartoum to pin down a story proving that the United States bombed an innocent medicine factory in Sudan in 1998.. He had no choice, in fact, if he wanted the detail he needed to get his report to run on the front page.
What they did not say at his New York memorial service was that his decision to stick it out in Khartoun was the result of his determination to expose a U.S. wrong. Nobody seemed to acknowledge that. And that led to something else that shocked me most about his killing, a lesson that helped staunch my tears: neither had the ignorant bigots who cut off his head cared a whit for Pearl's attempt to get more justice for Muslims.