War in Iraq
What does the war in Iraq mean for the U.S. both in the Middle East and at home? Can the U.S.-led action forever damage perceptions of America and the West in the Arab and Muslim worlds? How does what's happening on the front lines influence the culture and outlook of the Middle East?
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer Caryle M. Murphy was online Monday, April 7, to talk about the latest developments on the war in Iraq, and how they fit into the context of U.S. standing and relations in the region.
The transcript follows.
Murphy currently covers religion for the Washington Post, and is the author of "Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience (Scribner). The book is a study of modern Islam and its religious, political, cultural and social role in the Middle East. It traces the modern reawakening and change of Islam and how it influences governments in the region and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A former Cairo bureau chief for The Washington Post, Murphy was on a reporting visit to Kuwait in August 1990 when Iraq invaded the emirate. She stayed there for 27 days, part of the time in hiding from Iraqi soldiers. In 1991 she won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting and the George Polk Award for Foreign Reporting for her coverage of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and the subsequent Persian Gulf War. She joined the Post in 1976, covering domestic and international affairs and served as the newspapers correspondent in Southern Africa from 1977-1982.
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Caryle M. Murphy: Hello everyone. Nice to be with you today, another "major development" day in the war in Iraq, as US troops try to establish control in central Baghdad against apparently heavy Iraqi resistance. This war is certainly going to be a historical pivot point in US relations with the Middle East. So let's talk...Caryle
Greenbelt, Md.: Hi --
Do you think the next leader of Iraq will be Ayatollah Hakim, who is Shiite and leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq?
And if the next leader of Iraq was Shiite, would this be disconcerting to Saudi Arabia's mostly Wahabi population?
Caryle M. Murphy: There is no way of knowing, of course, who is going to be the next leader of Iraq. One thing we do know, is that he (unlikely to be a she) will be elected-something the Iraqis have not ever had.
Hakim does have a significant following among Shiites in Iraq. He is likely to be a player. But there has always been tension between Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Shiites, and what is not yet known is how much Hakim's sheltering in Tehran all these years might hurt him among Iraqi Shiites.
And yes, the next leader of Iraq, freely elected, could well be a Shiite, though not necessarily a religious figure like Hakim. There are many secular-oriented Shiites who will likely be active in politics in the new era. If Iraq's first elected leader is Shiite, this could make the Saudis nervous. They have a very uneasy relationship with their own Shiite minority.
Alexandria, Va.: A hundred years ago, how did Muslims conceive of Jihad? Has the concept of Jihad changed in response to criticism of it?
Caryle M. Murphy: If we're talking about jihad in the sense of "holy war," I would say that 100 years ago, most Muslims knew that concept existed but they were not inspired to act on it. Don't forget, that 100 years ago, the British controlled Egypt. But from Islam's beginning, most Muslims heeded the words of Prophet Muhammad, who said that jihad in the sense of holy war was the "lesser" jihad. And that the "greater" jihad was everyone's personal spiritual struggle to implement the moral message of Islam, and live accordingly.
It is only in the past few decades that young, frustrated Muslims,many of them misguided by religious fanatics like Osama bin Laden, came to believe that they should act on jihad, in the sense of "holy war." The U.S. financing of the anti-Soviet Afghan guerrilla groups fueled that belief.
Most moderate Muslims believe today that jihad in the sense of holy war must not be undertaken by individuals, but only by a state. And most Muslim states today recognize international law in their relations with other states.
Germantown, Md.: In your book "Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience" you state that the Egyptian press has outdone Nazi Germany in its anti-Semitic content. Could you please explain this further? Thank you.
Caryle M. Murphy: I did not write that. What I wrote was that the Egyptian government "does little to restrain venomous anti-Jewish propaganda in its semicontrolled press" which also prints a lot of racist cartoons.
One sad thing about the Egyptian press is that it is not self-critical or analyzing. It abounds in conspiracy theories. And most of these conspiracy theories have Jews as villains.
Boston, Mass.: A new book entitled "World in Chaos" by Harvard professor, Dr. Philip H. Warner seems to contradict some of the assumptions you made in your book "Passion for Islam." What are your thoughts on this?
Caryle M. Murphy: Can't reply. Haven't seen Warner's book. What does he say?
Arlington, Va.: When the Arab and Muslim world reflexively blames the U.S. and Israel for its own sad state of affairs, doesn't this increase the chances that it will be ignored when it has something substantive to say?
As an American, I might care about what the "Arab street" has to say if it weren't for the constant scapegoating and conspiracy theorizing. How can I take someone who thinks the Mossad destroyed the WTC seriously? How can I take someone seriously who thinks the U.S. wants to destroy Islam while celebrating the man responsible for the deaths of more Muslims in modern times than anybody else?
It is often said that the Arab/Muslim world does not trust our intentions. I believe the feeling is mutual.
Caryle M. Murphy: Your comments are well-taken and they reflect the sad state of affairs we are in today, which is a total lack of communication between the U.S. and the Arab world. But both are at fault for this.
On the Arab side, it is true, as I said earlier, that conspiracy theories abound. And this is an abdication of responsibility on the part of Arab governments and individual Muslims. It is also un-Islamic. Islam is very serious about taking personal responsibility for one's actions and also about not unjustly accusing another. Arabs must leave behind this conspiracy virus to advance.
But, I think one big reason for the continuation of this virus is the lack of free press, lack of political liberties. With more democratic governments, where public debate is allowed, conspiracies theories tend to wane.
On the other hand, the U.S. has contributed to this state of affairs by failing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which generates a lot of hatred for our policies among Arabs. And when Arabs feel helpless to correct what they see as an unfair bias toward Israel from the U.S., they tend to fall into something that helpless breeds: conspiracy theories.
Ponte Verda Beach, Fla.: Ms. Murphy, thank you very much for being with us this morning. It is so nice to have an authority in this area taking questions. Recently, the Conflict Resolution Foundation (CRF), a Washington D.C.-based think-tank concluded a multi-million dollar study on threats to democracies. The study concluded that the rise of radical Islam is the gravest threat in the coming century. What are your comments on this?
Caryle M. Murphy: I am not familiar with that study. But I do think a lot of people think that Radical Islam is a grave threat to the U.S. I agree that Radical Islam is a threat. But I think we ought to put Radical Islam in the proper context: It is still a fringe, minority strain of Islam. And the amount of people willing to embrace it with violent activities are a minority.
Secondly, if we Americans see Radical Islam as a grave threat, we should be doing our utmost to undermine it. How do we do that? Several ways. We quickly, with the backing of the international community, get a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We pour money into education in the Arab world, especially increase the opportunities for Muslims to come study in the US and open satellite campus of U.S. universities in the Middle East. Finally, we condemn human rights abuses by our allies in the Middle East, as the first step in encouraging political liberalization there.
College Park, Md.: Will this war, including the lead up and eventual aftermath, completely undermine the credibility of the US in the world? Given the lies, cash-and-carry diplomacy, and hypocrisy (not to mention the many tens of thousands of civilian deaths) will any nation take the U.S. seriously on matters of morality or ethics? Has the U.S. become the super rogue of the world?
Caryle M. Murphy: You've asked the big question. But already the war has undermined our credibility and standing in the world. How can we reverse that? It will depend on how the post-war period goes in Iraq. I can tell you one thing for sure: After a few months, Iraqis will want us gone. They are a very nationalist, proud people. They will be grateful that we got rid of Saddam Hussein, but they won't want us around for long telling them what to do. And if, as is currently the plan, the U.S. government gives all post-war contracts to U.S. companies, it will be hard to make the world believe that we didn't go to war to make ourselves richer.
Lexington, Ky.: Reporters on the Iraq war have quoted the person in the street in the Arab world talking about "honor" as if it is a very important value. I'm not sure I understand what the word means in the Arab world. Is it a key value? Can you put it in context?
Caryle M. Murphy: You've picked up on a very important point. And this goes to the issue of culture, which we Americans tend to often overlook when dealing with other peoples. In Arab culture, honor is important, and it means having dignity, being treated with respect, and hopefully, never having to lose face. Right now, the Arab world feels it has lost its honor. It was defeated in two wars with Israel, then a strong state (Iraq) was defeated by the U.S.-led coalition in '91-'92, and now it is being defeated again. There is a great sense of humiliation out there. We Americans tend to respond by saying, "get over it!" But until this sense of humiliation is dispelled, it is going to lead to frustration. One way of dispelling it is to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Arlington, Va.: What's your take on this Chalabi guy from the Iraqi National Congress? It's my understanding (and it could very well be wrong) that the problems with leadership in Iraq are very different than those of Afghanistan -- no one really capable opposition leader has risen in Iraq in the way that Karzai did in Afghanistan. Do you think Chalabi is the one to do it?
Caryle M. Murphy: Ahmed Chalabi, like many other exiled Iraqi political activists, has no following inside Iraq right now. (That may change in the future) The only leaders with street followings are the Kurdish leaders (Barzani and Talabani) and Ayatollah Hakim. I think in a way it's good that there's no Karzai for Iraq. Everyone is going to have to start from scratch to prove his/her political credentials in the new era. I anticipate there will be a plethora of political parties. Iraqis will need time to get used to this more open kind of political activity. You gotta remember they haven't had anything like that for 50 years.
Washington, D.C.: You seem sympathetic toward Muslims. How did we become the bad guys to the Anglo-Saxon people (I don't believe that people in the rest of the world view us as a threat). What happened? Why have we been targeted?
Caryle M. Murphy: One thing that happened is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, the only superpower in the Middle East was the U.S. In that time, the U.S. has increased its military presence in the region -- that was a response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. So we have a much bigger profile there. And at the same time, the information revolution has brought American TV, movies, etc., closer to Arab audiences. So again, we're more obvious. Also, there's a lot of frustrated Muslims who see the U.S. supporting governments that don't give Arabs a lot of political freedoms. Finally, you got to realize that if you're Osama bin Laden, and you want to make a name for yourself, you don't go after your own government. You go after the big kahuna. (The U.S.)
Washington, D.C.: You spent time in 1991 in hiding from Iraqi soldiers when you were in Kuwait. How do you think the current war compares, particularly for journalists? Do you suspect they are more of a target now than then? What was your experience like? (And glad you made it back safely.)
Caryle M. Murphy: This war has turned out to be much more dangerous for journalists than the 1991 ground war. That is because there was very little fighting in 1991 compared to today. In 1991, most Iraqi soldiers either surrendered or retreated. Also, in 1991, journalists were not "embedded" with U.S. forces. We were kept behind lines, way away from any "action" for the most part. Being "embedded" gives you access and good stories.But it puts you in harm's way.
My experience in 1991 seems tame compared to what journalists are living through today. I stayed for 27 days in occupied Kuwait, moving from the hotel, to live finally with a Kuwaiti family that had ties to the Kuwaiti resistance. I did this because the resistance had one of the few working phones in Kuwait. (This was pre-cell phones!) Thanks for your concern.
Washington, D.C.: You wrote: "There is no way of knowing, of course, who is going to be the next leader of Iraq. One thing we do know, is that he (unlikely to be a she) will be elected-something the Iraqis have not ever had."
You sound extremely optimistic. Isn't it more likely that the next leader in Iraq is an American military figure, and the one after that is someone who is elected in semi-free elections, where the list of candidates has been purged from radical, yet popular elements by the U.S. government?
Caryle M. Murphy: Of course, I was referring to the period after Iraq's first free elections, which I anticipate will be at least a year after the end of the war. It's true that before that, there'll be a U.S. military governor, working with an appointed Iraqi interim authority. The U.S. says it's going to appoint Iraqis from inside the country and from the exiled community to that authority. As for the election slate in the first elections, I certainly hope the U.S. doesn't veto any candidates. I thought we were trying to install a democracy.
Cumberland, Md.: Ms. Murphy aren't you being rather naive about having Arabs study in the U.S.? Actually Khalid Sheikh Mohammed studied in the U.S. as did all of the 9/11 hijackers; I fail to see where having more potential terrorists study in the U.S. is a big asset. Could you attempt to justify your apparently flawed reasoning?
Caryle M. Murphy: I didn't say I supported "potential terrorists" studying in the U.S. I said "Muslims" and "Arabs." Why do you single out Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Aren't you aware of the thousands of other Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, who've studied in the United States and gone home to be upstanding citizens? My point is, one of the best ways to overcome mutual suspicions and reduce the attraction of Radical Islam is to increase mutual contacts and give Muslims a great education.
Brookhaven, Pa.: Thank you very much for being here today.
A USA Today Gallup poll released today indicates that 89.3 percent of Americans think that the U.S. should give Israel free reign to destroy the terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To what can you attribute this change in public opinion?
Do you think that Palestinian support of Iraq has changed American attitudes?
Caryle M. Murphy: I haven't seen that poll yet. I'm not sure it's a change in public opinion. Americans of course will support attacking "terrorist infrastructures" anywhere. What I'd like to know is what these same Americans would say if asked, "Do you think Palestinians should have their own national state?" I think a lot would answer "yes."
As for Palestinian support for Iraq, I don't think it's greater than Saudi, Egyptian or Jordanian support for Iraq.
Cumberland, Md.: Islamic terrorists site various roots for their rage, but these roots seem to change and seem more opportunistic than realistic. Can't we actually conclude that they (Islamic fundamentalists/terrorists) are anti-Western and seek to destroy Western civilization and impose an Islamic state on the world?
Caryle M. Murphy: Yes, Muslim terrorists are anti-Western and want to destroy Western civilization. But most Muslims are not terrorists. What concerns me is that the big pool of Muslims starts to be sympathetic to the arguments of Muslim terrorists when they perceive that the West (i.e., the U.S.) is dismissive of Muslims' concerns.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think "installing a democracy" will work? Isn't it unlikely to expect that a government and political system put in place by the U.S., as opposed to taking root from the inside of Iraq, to succeed?
Caryle M. Murphy: I was being a bit flip when I said that. And I am not sanguine about the success of U.S. efforts to bring democracy to Iraq. There are big obstacles: People who have lived in a terrorist state for decades will have to learn new political discourse and habits, especially the spirit of compromise, on which democracy rests. And you are right. Any U.S.-installed regime will be suspect. That is why it's essential to get Iraqis involved quickly in drafting a new constitution and new rules for politics in Iraq. There won't be Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq, but at least there will be a start towards a more representative government, hopefully.
Fairfax, Va.: Are we going to insist that Saudi Arabia (as well as the other despotic regimes in the Middle East) become a democracy? I think not, and it reveals the self-centeredness of our policies. And the Arabs can easily see through the high-sounding rhetoric.
Caryle M. Murphy: It'll be a long time before Saudi Arabia becomes a democracy, if ever. And it's unlikely we're going to insist on it. So some Arabs, yes, will see a double standard in our rhetoric.
Sacramento, Calif.: In response to the question about Hakim becoming the next leader of Iraq, do you think the ideology of Perle, Wolfowitz, and other presidential advisors will play a role? They have for years been against the Iranian Shias and have said so clearly in their own publications (such as the A Clean Break policy created for Israel -- http://www.israeleconomy.org/strat1.htm) that lays out the plan for taking over the Middle East. So in the immediate post-war time period, to what extent will America step in to see that these presidential advisers' visions are realized?
Caryle M. Murphy: Perle and Wolfowitz seem to prefer Chalabi over Hakim because Chalabi is a secular politician. It's an interesting idea you raise, that a Shiite leader in Iraq who is pro-U.S. could be seen as a U.S. ally against Shiite Iran. These presidential advisers seem to be playing a huge role right now in selecting the interim Iraqi authority that will be set up under the U.S. military governor.
Washington, D.C.: In listening to so much dialogue over the past few weeks, and indeed since Sept. 11, I'm struck by how few people in the U.S. seem able to make the distinction between religious and political Islam, and that not all Muslims are jihadists. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about how bloodthirsty and terrorist-like they think Islam is. In other parts of the world, including the Middle East, people seem able to make the distinction between Americans and American government and foreign policy. What do you think accounts for the disconnect in terms of American understanding?
Caryle M. Murphy: These people have not read my book, "Passion for Islam." Another reason for the disconnect is the "mouths" on TV and radio who don't know anything about the Middle East or Islam but keeping maligning the religion because it must make for good ratings.
Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Murphy,
You talk about all of the things that can be done to help successfully resolve our conflicts with the Middle East. Are you hopeful that this will occur? To what extent do you think the United States (and specifically the current and prospective subsequent administrations) will carry out the ideas that you and others champion?
Caryle M. Murphy: I am not hopeful in the short run. I am pessimistic. I'm afraid we're going to be preoccupied with Iraq, trying to get sucked into a quagmire, and that this will distract us from more pro-active efforts to get at the roots of terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Also, if there's another huge terror attack in this country, we can forget those efforts, as well as the civil rights protections we have long enjoyed in this country.
Washington, D.C.: Why don't we just stop supporting Israel if it pi**es so many people off? What, they won't eat if we do? Are they helpless to defend themselves? Clearly they create as many problems as Palestinians or anyone else over there.
Additionally, my brother has been reading Lawrence of Arabia's writings from the 1920s and apparently Lawrence wrote that Arabs hate anyone who isn't one of them.
Caryle M. Murphy: The U.S. must always support Israel. Israel has to exist. But if we don't find a way to create the same kind of justice for Palestinians -- a state of their own -- the U.S. will see a lot more terrorism directed against it. The problem is that Americans are not telling their senators and congressmen this.
Arlington, Va.: I have read that Ahmed Chalabi was convicted in Jordan of financial crimes but skipped the country before he could be jailed. Wouldn't his installation in a position of power be a slap at the Jordanians which would unnecessarily complicate things even more? Should we be in bed with convicted criminals?
Caryle M. Murphy: He did skip Jordan when the charges were imminent. He maintains he was innocent of the charges. Jordan has bigger problems to be concerned about, like a huge anti-war and anti-U.S. sentiment in its own country, not to mention a huge and angry population of Palestinian refugees.
Davis, Calif.: Ms. Murphy,
As a first-generation American whose parents travelled here from Iran for a better education, I just want to tell your readers about my family. Both of my parents spend countless hours volunteering for non-profits here and in local schools. They tutor (American and Middle Eastern) students in math and science for free, because they believe that education is something everyone is entitled to. They work with many other local organizations and are respected community figures who use the science and engineering background they got in Iran and then in the States to conduct research to improve healthcare here. At 19 and 21 respectively, my sister and I too have literally spent thousands of hours each volunteering in community food kitchens, tutoring, mentoring, working with local non-profits and so on. I work for a defense contractor right now and in my extra (unpaid) time I am coordinating my company's program to volunteer at local schools and give local school-children access to the resources we have to offer. We are Muslims, yes, and like the hundreds of other Muslims I personally know here and abroad, we are peaceful and just want to contribute to the societies we live in. I am so incredibly sorry for the things that so-called "radical Muslims" have done. Believe me, as those of us who are Muslims living in America suffer more from their actions than any other group. But I am even further disheartened when I read comments from fellow Americans who misunderstand Muslims and our societies. Of course misunderstanding by the Muslim world is also partly to blame. But it is never best to fight misunderstanding with the refusal to listen or to try to understand. Here's proof that encouraging education will help solve our problem, so rather than live for our fears we should try to make it happen.
Caryle M. Murphy: Thanks for checking in. Proof that not all Muslims who come here to study end up like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Arlington, Va.: The administration, before the war started, was putting forth all sorts of rosy scenarios with regard to what would happen in Iraq. They continue to appear to be saying that Iraq will end up finding it's Jefferson and Adams and will be a peaceful and prosperous country that loves America which will be a catalyst for other countries in the region. This seems to be hopelessly naive to me. Isn't it likely that they will end up with a government like Iran's for example? What would stop the majority from electing a radical Islamist president who hates us? Has the administration overestimated what it can accomplish with this war?
Caryle M. Murphy: Rosy indeed. And naive. What some on the US administration appear to think is that a more representative government in Iraq is going to be less anti-Israeli and less anti-U.S. But you know what's going to happen in Iraq? The same things that are happening in other Arab countries! So, I expect to see two years from now in Iraq that there will be a range of Islamist political parties, as well as secular parties. I don't expect to see a radical Muslim elected as president. And I expect that any "representative" Iraqi government will have to respond to Iraqi public opinion, which will be anti-Israeli as long as Israel occupies the West Bank and Gaza, and anti-U.S. as long as we continue to allow that occupation.
Jonesboro, Ga.: Even though I do not see any form of democracy/representative form of government in the Middle East in the near future, do you think that the despotic rulers/kings of that region are quaking in their boots today with the U.S. talking about such freedom?
Caryle M. Murphy: Yes. But I think they're more afraid of their own people, who are very angry, very frustrated.
Annandale, Va.: Have you heard if there's any interest among the Iraqis to see the return of the monarchy, even a constitutional one? Do you know if the heir apparent (who ever that is) has expressed interest in being a figure head leader to Iraq?
Caryle M. Murphy: Can't say if there's any interest among Iraqis for that, because they're not allowed to say what they think. There is a monarchist party, supporting the heir apparent, whose name I don't recall. Unlikely he'll ever get the job.
Washington, D.C.: Ms. Murphy --
The AP carried a story today on the imminent breakdown of order in Afghanistan and the revival of Taliban power in some zones. America promised support and help to his country, but has failed to deliver much beyond superficial help. Why should Iraqis believe that the U.S. will truly help them get on their collective feet, rather than just exploiting them for oil and retreating?
Caryle M. Murphy: If you were Iraqi, what would you think? The last time America had staying power overseas was post-World War II Germany and Japan, and then, sadly, in Vietnam. Let's hope our politicians don't give us another black eye in Iraq. Now that we've gone in, we've got to stay the course and put Iraq back on its feet economically and politically. And then we have to let them run their own affairs.
Caryle M. Murphy: Thank you all very much. I enjoyed talking with you. To know more, read "Passion for Islam"! Caryle
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.