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msnbc.com
updated 6/26/2006 8:29:05 AM ET 2006-06-26T12:29:05

While much of this week's domestic media coverage of the Middle East centered on the deaths (and torture) of U.S. soldiers, Kristian Menchaca and Thomas Tucker , in Iraq, no single story dominated the Arab press. (In fact, the Menchaca-Tucker story didn't rate at all in the opinion pages of the region.)

While up-to-the-minute developments regarding Iraq, Iran, and al-Qaida all received due attention, Arab pundits behaved rather like their American counterparts when confronted with a rudderless news cycle: they revisited well-worn hobbyhorses and pet causes. For some, this meant tweaking the inefficacy of politicians as much as bemoaning the influence of Westerners.

On June 22, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al Arabi seized upon an intercepted cable written by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad as official confirmation of his long-standing belief that Iraq is lost under U.S. management.

Originally meant only for the eyes of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Khalilzad memo painted a much graver portrait of the situation in Iraq than the one rendered by President Bush only hours thereafter, during his surprise visit to Baghdad's Green Zone on June 13. (The writer also hinted that Bush's super-secret visit, which surprised even Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, belied the strength of the very government the U.S. president had come to champion.)

Noting first that "[e]very confession or race in Iraq has its own al-Zarqawi," Abdel-Bari Atwan continued: "The memorandum of Mr. Zalmay Khalilzad …confirmed the seriousness of the situation in Iraq, whereby the hatred toward the American occupier is increasing among the majority of the Iraqi people, regardless of their confessions. The memorandum talked about [the] two hours of electrical power [available] every day in most of the areas of the capital Baghdad, and only four hours at best."

Still, the paper's editor-in-chief reserved his sternest criticism for what he dubbed Iraq's "silent majority."

"The crime that is more serious than the Iraqi racial cleansing — and the mass killings that are being perpetrated by the U.S. forces and the various sectarian militias — is the silence of the Iraqis, and especially that of the educated elite. The latter neither have the literary nor the moral courage to stand up to the destructive American project and the Iraqi forces that are allied with it, recognize the disaster and draw a true national plan to face it, or it least limit the losses.

"We want this silent majority to enjoy the same level of courage and self-criticism as the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad … and say enough to the Americans and to those who embellished their project and depicted it as though it was the promised paradise and the way towards salvation, luxury, comfort and stability."

Guantanamo editorial
Taking regional leaders to task was also the focus of an unsigned editorial in the same paper on June 21, entitled "The Crime of Arab Leaders in Guantanamo." After positing that the religiosity of the three recently deceased Guantanamo inmates would have precluded their committing suicide (as claimed by the U.S.), the paper demanded a stronger investigative role for the concerned Arab governments.

"All the signs indicate that the three of them died while being tortured by the American, or maybe the Arab, investigators. … In order to reveal the truth, the Saudi and Yemeni governments, should have resorted to the help of international experts in forensic medicine to conduct an autopsy and specify the cause of death. …

"However, this was not done and there is nothing to indicate that it will be done in the near future, for two main reasons. The first is that the Arab citizen [is of] no value [to] his government, nor does he deserve any attention, whether dead or alive. The second is that these governments fear the anger of the U.S. administration in case the American story about the suicide of the detainees [were to be] proven false. …

"The US is condemned and is a criminal for establishing this prison and trying to preserve it. However, the crime of the Arab leaders is much greater because they kept silent and did nothing at all to protect their citizens, which is the opposite of what the European countries have done for their Muslim citizens who were detained, [as] they kept calling for their release until their demands were met."

Close ties with Bush
Similarly, in Egypt, a June 22 report in the Al Wafd newspaper — which is affiliated with the opposition reformist party of the same name — would seem to have been published in the hopes of shaming President Hosni Mubarak over his close ties with the Bush administration.

"The directorate for education in Al-Dakhaliya deprived a student of her results, [in order] to punish her for criticizing the American policy in the Arabic language test and for attacking President Bush," the paper reported. "The administration of the Sharbin secondary school for girls refused to divulge the results of the student Ala' Faraj Mujahed, and the directorate sent a number of investigators who asked her many questions. …

"The father of the student assured Al Wafd that his daughter was an excellent student and that the family had been waiting for her results for 15 days, but in vain. He added he was a simple employee who had nothing to do with politics and did not belong to any party. When he went to see the undersecretary of the Ministry of Education in Al-Dakhaliya to ask about the results of his daughter, the latter told him that his daughter had failed all the tests and that she would be banned from [taking] the exams next year."

(The father's assertion that he belonged to no political party is a reference to the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose members – elected as independents – nevertheless form the largest opposition block in Egypt's parliament. For officials inside Mubarak's regime, it's a fever-pitch concern over the popularity of political Islam that fuels such thorough investigations into the schoolwork of young girls. And while Al Wafd's program of liberal reform shares little in common with the Muslim Brotherhood's platform, both movements have reasons to despise the repressive political climate enforced by Mubarak's ruling party.)

Quality of education was the sub-topic of another barbed editorial in the June 19 edition of the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat. Writing under the headline "Depressing Sermons," regular columnist Hussein Shobokshi related the story of his recent attendance to a mosque for Friday prayers.

"The sermon that was delivered before the prayer addressed the issue of summer vacations, [saying that] travel to atheist countries is religiously forbidden except in cases of urgency," Shobokshi wrote.

"The speaker further added that one who travels to such countries for reasons that are not related to 'education or medical treatment' is contradicting Sharia [Islamic] law. The truth is that such an ignorant suggestion demonstrates the continued strengthening of an extremist ideology, and presents religious explanations that have absolutely no connection to the practices of Prophet Mohammed.

"As the speaker shouted the content of his sermon, he strongly criticized those who commit the 'sin' of traveling to atheist countries. Included in this list were the Saudi national football team, its fans and administration, all of whom are in Germany taking part in the World Cup tournament. Furthermore, participants of diplomatic missions as well as thousands of students who study abroad were included in this list, as the speaker had clarified that the only valid reason to study abroad is if the subject of study is not available in their native country.

"A large number of students abroad study subjects that are available in their homeland, however, abroad, [because] the quality of education and learning is of a much higher level," Shobokshi noted.

"The continuation of such falsehood and fanaticism that cloaks itself in religion is disgraceful. Saudi Arabia's journey in combating extremism will be a lengthy one that does not tolerate any flattery or half[-measure] solutions."

Task for travelers
Though as much as Arab commentators asked their neighbors to take up the task of improving the pan-Arab nation, the Saudi newspaper Al Watan made sure that emigrants who've left the region for America didn't escape the week without being assigned some sort of task for themselves.

"Since the events of September 11 in the United States of America, the U.S.'s look of suspicion and distrust towards the Arab and Muslim world has intensified to the point that it has shifted from a hostility between the governments to a hostility between the people, due to the directed American media that has fueled this inclination," the paper wrote on June 20.

Claiming that "everyone is aware that the Zionist lobby in America plays an active role in widening this gap in the relations between the Arab and the American people," the paper called on Arab-Americans to "regain the understanding and respect they deserve by building bridges of understanding with the American people, and disregarding the horns of sedition that try, every once and a while, to distort the image of Arabs and Muslims and link them to terrorism. If the Zionist lobby is rallying its efforts in America, Arabs in the U.S. are also required to unite and form an element of communication with the American people, as well as an element of pressure on the American administration from within the U.S."

Seth Colter Walls was an editorial staff member of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper in 2004. Prior to joining MSNBC, he was editor of Mideastwire.com , a daily, web-based service that translates key Arabic- and Persian-language stories from the print, radio, and television media of the Middle East.

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