Republic of Dreams
By OMAR GHANIM FATHI
Published by the New York Times, November 20, 2006
WHEN I was a student, we read many books about Western culture, democracy and the Greek philosophers. We saw movies set in America, where people were able to speak their minds, and we figured that democracy would be the salvation for us and our country.
Our dreams were romantic and rosy. The bitterness and ugliness of the reality we have faced since was nothing we could have imagined.
In Saddam Hussein’s time, in order to be accepted you had to tell the government that you were a Baathist; you had to tell people in your social environment that you were religious; and in fact you had to be somewhere in the middle.
I was a moderate liberal. In my imaginary republic, there was space for everybody — Baathists, socialists, liberals — as long as you didn’t hurt people or persecute them or impose your style of thinking or living on others.
When the Americans invaded, I was ready to shake hands with the devil himself to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I didn’t think the Americans would be able to give us liberty or democracy, but I thought they would give us the space to build that imaginary republic. I didn’t go to work for the Americans, but I published articles in a newspaper they established in Mosul. It was called New Hope. It told the people what the American forces were doing day by day in Mosul, and there was space where Iraqis could write opinions.
I wrote nine articles for that newspaper. One of them won a competition for the best essay on democracy and liberty in Iraq. It was a big competition, and I won. What I said, simply, was that liberty is just like your own spirit, your own soul: nobody can give it to you, but anybody can take it away from you. My photo appeared in the paper with the article.
I was a lecturer at an institute, and I started receiving threats from my students — directly, face to face: “You deserve to die.” And my boss said, “You’ve been a traitor to your religion and your country.” Insurgents slid threatening letters under my door. My mother was terrified. I’m her only son.
The terrorists do not necessarily attack you personally. They attack sisters, kidnap sons, mothers. We are in a war against dishonorable enemies. The only thing that I had, the only weapon to defend myself, was my pen and my words, but the solution for them was not discussion, not disagreeing with me, but shooting me.
They shot dead a salesman who came to our door, because they mistook him for me. We sold the house and went to live with my sister.
Some time later, a friend offered me a job with an Iraqi organization called Development and Democratic Dialogue. Three or four days after I started working there, my friend was kidnapped while giving a lecture at a university. Before he died I’d told him, “Don’t give a lecture in the same place twice.” But that’s what he did. We were like soldiers without weapons: you go and give lectures, but you don’t know what’s going to happen to you when the lecture is finished.
I think the Americans, as we Iraqis understand them, are two entities. There’s the Army in Iraq and the politicians in Washington. The American policy people wanted to give us democracy and liberty the same way you give me a shirt, so I can wear it right away. But the general opinion in my country, especially among extremists, is that America went into Iraq only for one reason: to terminate Islam and Muslims. Those who aren’t so extreme say that America invaded Iraq only to steal the oil.
The American Army, on the other hand, we know for sure is not an abstract entity; it is a bunch of people, every one of them different from the others. They are under very, very intense pressure. People hate them, people are attacking them, and of course this pressure can lead to many mistakes. They destroyed everything and thought they could rebuild from scratch. Maybe this could have worked if people loved Americans or understood what they were doing. But people already hated America.
America should have removed Saddam Hussein and the closest circle around him and appointed a strong government right away. It would have been another dictatorship, but a different kind. It could have imposed martial law, then done the job that the Americans were not able to do, which was to cut power away from the old system by removing those people who might become terrorists in the future.
After four to eight years, we could have had an election, and the new government could have started working on the basis of the new Constitution. Then Iraqi society could have taken baby steps down the long road to democracy and liberty. As it was, the Iraqi people, who had no experience with civilian government or democratic systems, misused these things.
Now the problems of Iraq will not be solved without a long and very bloody civil war. The fragments that will emerge should practice democracy by choosing their own leaders, away from the influence of the Americans — even if those leaders are terrorists. But the people will not enjoy the democracy and liberty that was already given to them, because they refused it.
Omar Ghanim Fathi is an essayist and college lecturer