"What's the chatter in the Arab world?"
That's a popular question at each and every milestone — dubious or otherwise — along the road of America's engagement in the Middle East. It's also a question people tend to want to have answered right away. The story of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death has proved no different in that regard.
The only problem with such a rapid reaction check is that those who are quickest in putting pen to paper — or giving voice to a thought — will be overrepresented. While politicians and jihadists seem to have their talking points always at the ready (regardless of the event), neither class is particularly reflective of the thoughts or passions of the broader public they each hope to influence.
So, to get a better sense of how a story is playing out on "the street," you actually have to wait a few days.
While Abdel-Bari Atwan donned his familiar Bush-bashing persona in the June 9 edition of Al Quds Al Arabi — saying that al-Zarqawi's death meant little, and even wondering whether the U.S. had delayed its announcement of al-Zarqawi's death to coincide more neatly with the announcement of new ministers to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's cabinet, other commentators took a more positive view of al-Zarqawi's end.
One even chose to view it as some kind of turning point, albeit one with an unpredictable trajectory going forward.
Writing in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, Mahmoud al-Rimawi predicted that the primary beneficiaries of al-Zarqawi's death would be Sunni politicians, who the columnist said had been tainted by dint of sectarian association with al-Qaida's chief murderer in Iraq.
Calling the post- al-Zarqawi era a "golden opportunity" for Sunni political development along more constructive lines, al-Rimawi warned that the chance would prove wasted if al-Zarqawi's death were to inspire an indiscriminate backlash against Sunnis by the rest of Iraq's population.
Inside Iraq, Sufian al-Khazragi commented on the Kitabat website that the reputation of Hibhib, the village where Zarqawi met his end, can now rest on more than its plentiful supply of cheap arak (a potent alcoholic drink made from aniseed).
"He might have drunk such arak," al-Khazragi noted, since al-Zarqawi "certainly never hesitated to drink the blood of innocent Iraqi people. News media reported that some [Jordanians] collapsed on hearing the news that he had been killed. We say to those people that he was an ugly criminal who placed the severed heads of Iraqis in fruit boxes and discarded them in the street — not for cooperating with the Americans, not for living in a state where the Zionist flag flies, but simply for being Shiite."
(Those hoping for a quick reversal of fortune for the U.S. after al-Zarqawi's death should note that the Kitabat writer does not discount the possibility that discarding severed heads in fruit boxes may not be such an ugly crime, so long as the erstwhile owners of those heads were cooperating with Americans.)
Not immune to satire
But the choicest bit of commentary in the wake of al-Zarqawi's death came in the June 12 edition of the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al Awsat, whose editor-in-chief penned a satirical commentary under the headline "Our Condolences."
"Our deepest sympathies go out to the extremist websites," Tariq Alhomayed wrote. "Our sympathies also go out to all the conspiracy theorists, who said that al-Zarqawi was a fictional character created by the Americans, to justify their shortcomings in Iraq at the expense of innocent Iraqi and Jordanian lives. …
"We should also comfort the wounded Arab media, which has lost a major source for extremist videotapes. These recordings became the benchmark of excellence in our industry, where the criterion for success was set by the most ignorant of individuals, particularly when it comes to standards of professionalism in journalism. We sympathize with all of them. The writers, journalists and the TV channels."
Lest anyone mistake his point, the editor closed by noting: "We can never claim that al-Zarqawi spent his days … encouraging Iraqis to read more, grow better harvest[s] or build schools. Al-Zarqawi's hands are smeared with the blood of Muslims from all sects. … It is because of this that we extend our condolences to those who followed and loved al-Zarqawi, as well as those who had high hopes for him. We say [this] not out of sympathy or spite, but rather to document our position for the record, since the most distinctive features of our nations are absentmindedness and negligence."