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“Let me change the question,” I said. “Has the Arab intelligentsia helped the U.S.?”
“No. They can’t help it, because they don’t agree with the justification for the war — WMD, ‘Saddam Hussein represents a danger for the whole international community, he has ties with al Qaeda,’ etc. Nobody believes in that.”
“But they agreed with the result, in the sense that they wanted him deposed.”
“Yes, but they would have preferred that the result should have come from within Iraq.”
“But it doesn’t come from anywhere within the Arab world.”
“And why is that?” Khader retorted. “Because all these dictators are fully supported by the United States. All of them. Even the Syrians.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” I said, “it sounds like you’re playing games. It sounds like there’s an opportunity for democracy there, and you’re not taking it. It’s as if you’re saying, ‘I like this gift, but I don’t like the way it’s wrapped, I don’t like the store you bought it from, and the owner of the store killed my uncle.’”
“But believe me, this is the mentality of the Middle East!” Khader exclaimed, suddenly becoming excited. “This is the way things go on in the Middle East! Do you know that the Saudis, for example, will never, everforget that the ruling family in Jordan came from Saudi Arabia? And that they are the legitimate rulers of the Hijaz, which is in the western part of Saudi Arabia? This happened some 70 or 80 years ago, but they didn’t forget it. They never forget. There is a saying, ‘The revenge of an Arab lasts for 40 years,’ and obviously, I’m part of that Middle East. I can’t think otherwise. You say it’s a game, but it’s not a game. It’s the way things go on in the region.”
Khader is obviously an extremely intelligent man who is knowledgeable not only about the Middle East but about Europe and America as well. He speaks fluent French, excellent if heavily accented English, and has taught himself enough Hebrew to be able to follow the main points of Israeli news broadcasts. He is also a skilled debater who frequently tied me up in knots. But did he really share in what he called “the mentality of the Middle East”? After a while I began to feel as if there were two Khaders: one an emissary for Al-Jazeera and the greater Arab world, the other representing no one but himself. I’m not sure if even he always knew which of the two was speaking.
Referring to Iraq, Khader No. 1 said that occupation of any kind, even one that purports to replace tyranny with freedom, is unacceptable to the international community, of which he considered himself a part. Khader No. 2 said that he hoped what has happened in Iraq “will spill over and bring democracy to the whole Middle East, this is my dream.” (And, reading between the lines, to hell with the international community.)
Khader No. 1 eagerly anticipated Bush’s electoral defeat and accused the president’s foreign-policy team of wanting to remodel the world according to their own narrow, belligerent, insensitive agenda. Khader No. 2 compared the Bush team favorably to the “hypocritical” Europeans, whether they were pro-war like Blair and Aznar, or anti-war like Schroeder and Chirac, and said that at least the Bush team had a straightforward policy and were “clear with themselves and their people and the world. The Europeans are not clear.”
Underlying it all was the tricky business of ordinary human pride, of which I surmised Khader possessed his fair share. To be offered freedom (“democracy in waiting,” he called it) by the Americans was humiliating, and so it was to be expected that many Iraqis would reject and fight against the occupation. On the other hand, it came out in conversation that way back when, the Iraqis had also rejected him, Khader. Though he was born and raised in Iraq, he told me, because his family was of Jordanian origin they had been shunned and treated as outcasts by their Iraqi neighbors. “Iraqis do not like foreigners. They are a chauvinistic people,” he said.
After a while we adjourned to Khader’s spacious but drab suite of rooms on the ninth floor of the hotel. Contra critics like Mamoun Fandy, Fouad Ajami, Yigal Carmon and others who claim that Al-Jazeera has built itself a 40-million-strong audience by whipping up Arab emotions and inciting hostility and hatred toward the West, Khader claimed that Al-Jazeera is a scrupulously neutral organization. “Al-Jazeera never does politics,” he told me as he sat on a couch and smoked. “Al-Jazeera reports politics. This is the policy of Al-Jazeera, to report the various positions and policies of all parties in the region.”
Khader readily conceded, however, that the notion of Al-Jazeera reporting politics is a bit contradictory, given that much of the political life in the region exists primarily on the screen of Al-Jazeera itself. Since almost no one in the Arab world actually gets to vote, there aren’t a whole lot of politics to report. (Imagine life as a journalist under Saddam Hussein.) It is a democratic channel in a totalitarian region, which is a bit like being a sex channel in a world in which only royals, presidents-for-life and people in far-off countries are allowed to make love. No wonder, then, that Al-Jazeera is reputed to have a feverish, hothouse quality. “It has become the expression of politics in the whole Arab world,” Khader told me.