June 23, 2003
It was Thomas Jefferson who once said, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.“
Reflecting on these words of wisdom, on the heels of Jason Blair affair at the New York Times, may not be the most congruous thing to do, but I have been focusing on the national preoccupation, the war, and subjecting the Jeffersonian observation — now that there isn’t a functioning government in Baghdad, but plenty of budding newspapers all over Iraq — to the test in that country. I hate to be the bearer of bad news and prove the old man of the beloved republic wrong, but in the land that gave the western civilization its jump-start, Jefferson does not bode well, at least, relative to the Kurds.
Thanks to 146.000 American soldiers, there is freedom of speech in Baghdad. People may not feel safe, but, at least, they feel free to express whatever crosses their minds, and these days, plenty do. A cursory look at the wire reports about the chattering that goes on as news has made me worry if democracy is going to be the right prescription for the old romping grounds of the butcher of Baghdad. I am afraid it will bring the tyranny of majority over minority, subject the Kurds to the rising tide of either Arab nationalism or fundamentalist Islamic theocracy, and force America to make some very unpleasant choices giving her well wishers a big grimace and moving the mirth of its adversaries into high gear.
The incongruence of Jeffersonian observation hit me right in the face when I read an account of an Arab woman in Baghdad who confided to a western reporter about the American troops who were patrolling her streets with the following rhetorical question, “what is this, Palestine?” Here is something we Kurds should have told the Arabs, I said to myself, when they were patrolling our streets — and should have added the use of poison gas against our kin and kith for those who may invoke the biggest lie in the Middle East that the Arabs and Kurds are brothers and all are “Iraqis”, the code word for how to rob the Kurds of their rights and wealth. I then thought of late baker Omar and his infant son, whose statues now welcome visitors to the Kurdish city of Halapja, in southern Kurdistan. They stand not on their feet, erect and triumphant, like other statues do all over the world, but on the ground, prostrate, in the act of death courtesy of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons. I imagined him telling a masked reporter just before his last gasp, “What is this, hell?” and collapsing on his already dead boy on the steps of his home.
A few days later, another reporter wrote of another Arab woman, and this one was in Kirkuk, or should I say, al Tamim. The Kurds, who had always constituted the majority of the city’s population, at least in modern history, and always known their city as Kirkuk till Saddam Hussein told them otherwise, woke up one morning, in 1976, to discover that from then on, they were of al Tamim. Saddam Hussein had decreed it, and they had better get used to it. A year before, with the conniving of the United States, he had killed many rebel Kurds, subdued many more, uprooted tens of thousands, and dangling the bundles of ten thousand dinnars per household as incentive, urged all Arabs from Iraq proper to settle in the abandoned Kurdish homes and fields, some of which were sitting on some of the biggest oil wells in the world.
The reporter did not care to find out if this, apparently, resettled Arab woman called the liberated city, Kirkuk or al Tamim — it would have made a perfect question and revealed her loyalties, but he did report her anger at the Kurdish leaders who had said that the Arab minority, which was native to Kirkuk should not fear the onslaught of the Kurds, but those who had been settled there with the help of Saddam Hussein would be better off to leave. Not wanting to understand the distinction that the Kurdish leaders were making relative to the members of the dominant race, the woman had lashed out, “What are we, fake Arabs?”
So, tomorrow, when there is one adult one-vote principle established in Iraq, 80 percent or so of the population that is of Arab ancestry will have to make a choice about the “fake” Arabs versus the real ones, and if history is any guide, the expressed feelings of those two women, shared by the silent majority, if for nothing else than their love of oil, will translate into the rule of majority over minority, or should I say, the tyranny of hungry over the powerless. It was Saddam’s insatiable appetite for oil that turned him into a monster that subjected the Kurds to the gas attacks and kept the people who work at the White House awake at all hours lest he replicate what he did in Halapja, say, in Washington, DC. It will surely pass into history as an ultimate irony if those who chased him back into his liar complete what he intended to do, deprive the Kurds of their rights and wealth, under the new and grandiose name of “democratic government”. Only fools will disregard these pervasive and corrosive murmurs of indifference and hostility relative to the Kurds.
A better course for the Kurds would be to invest in their own future, reject the counsel that ties them with the Arab majority, and move in the direction of the time-tested maxim: “good fences make good neighbors.” Patrick Henry is what the Kurds need in this hour of their national trial, as he put it, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death [;]” and not Thomas Jefferson. If Iraq were a natural state, an Arab one in other words, the old man of the beloved republic may have had no asperity cast on his observation; but because it is a house of cards, and the current resident of the White House refuses to see it as such, he too may have his reputation ruined for thinking that he could go against the truth.