USA: A clear message on Iraq

The Boston Globe
Our war, through their eyes, is not a pretty picture. As they see it, war with Iraq weakens America and strengthens a mutual enemy -- Muslim fundamentalists.
A small delegation of women journalists and media professionals from Morocco visited Boston this week to ''break the ice between the US and Muslim countries," as they explained in French, through a translator.
When the discussion turned to war in Iraq, their message was loud and clear, in French or English.

''C'est une catastrophe," said Hinde Taarji, a journalist and author of several books, including one about women and Islam.

''C'est terrible," said Maria Latifi, director of an educational television station in Morocco.

The others in this band of four Muslim women echoed these sentiments.

They came to America, first, to get the word out that not all Muslim women are swathed in veils and burkas, living lives of oppression and misery. But they also have a larger mission, to fight on behalf of those who still struggle.

To that end, they seek a longstanding weapon of mass influence: American moral authority. Yet, in their eyes, that sharp and precious tool is dulled by America's policy in Iraq.

Didn't they and other progressive Muslims see the proudly purple fingers of voters in Iraq?

No, said Latifi. They ''went completely unnoticed." People see ''the mayhem . . . the sectarian war."

''They see a country sinking," she said.

And, as she pointed out, they see it everyday, as America does, via CNN.

Because of the negative perception in the Muslim world of what is happening in Iraq, these women believe hard-line religious fundamentalists are gaining strength.

Bahia Amrani, founder and publisher of a newsweekly magazine, Le Reporter, said that America does not understand that democracy cannot be secured through force. Before people can fight for freedom on their own behalf, she said, ''There has to be a fight against illiteracy, poverty, exclusion."

This perspective on democracy comes from citizens who live in what is considered an emerging democracy.

''We are in a situation of transition -- the process of democratization," said Fatiha Layadi, the director of communication and press for the Kingdom of Morocco and part of this women's delegation.

Morocco achieved independence from France in 1956 and is governed by a parliamentary monarchy. Under King Hassan II, who ruled from 1960-99, the country went through ''les annees de plomb" -- the years of lead. This was a period of repression and political unrest that was fiercest in the 1970s and 1980s. Newspapers were closed and books banned. Dissidents were arrested and executed; people ''disappeared." During the 1990s, pressure from the United States and European countries led to improvements.

Under King Mohammed VI, who took over in 1999, Morocco is achieving what are viewed as slow, incremental reforms. The press is freer, and the king is allowing public review of Morocco's past human rights violations. This delegation of women is also touting the promise of a new family law code. Proposed by the king and passed by the Moroccan Parliament in 2004, the law recognizes women as equal to their husband; it allows divorce, child custody, and inheritance rights that were previously denied them.

Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen and now a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School, calls Morocco ''one of the credible, emerging democracies" in the Muslim world. The family law code makes Morocco ''one of the leaders in the Islamic world" when it comes to women's rights.

Still, religious fundamentalists still fight hard against reforms.

For these Moroccan women, the pressure America applies to the cause of women's rights is very important. They see tangible results in Afghanistan. But in their view, American policy in Iraq is now ''helping fundamentalists, preventing the voice of modernity from being heard."

These women should be invested in democracy as the key to greater freedom for all. But they are not invested in the US fight in Iraq and its stated goal of establishing some form of democracy in that country. They believe fundamentalists are drawing strength from the war and that strength threatens progressive goals.

Many American see what they see, too. How sad for that to be our common ground.

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist, May 7, 2006
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company