Dialogue is crucial

by Beacon Staff • March 22, 2006

"When I had my first conversation with one of the soldiers, I was in my car and he asked me to pull over," he said.,Three years ago, Tariq Arif, then 23 years old, was hopeful that the American invasion of Iraq would benefit him and fellow Iraqis. Within three months, that optimism had vanished.

"When I had my first conversation with one of the soldiers, I was in my car and he asked me to pull over," he said. "I told him, 'Hey, how are you? Can I know your name?' And I was really disappointed when he told me: 'shut your [expletive] mouth and keep looking at the ground.' I say to myself, 'is that a real American man?'"

Bassam Ali, 28, lives in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood.

He has bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture and urban design and is eager to earn a doctorate from an American institution.

"Before the American invasion," Ali said, "we lacked for financial resources . now we lack for security. So which time is better, I don't know."

These excerpts are from text and voice interviews obtained using Skype, a free Internet telephone service.

In February, a colleague casually suggested that it would be easy to contact Iraqis using this program, and during a recent break, I did just that.

This endeavor is simple yet profound. I call it "Peace Through Skype," and it holds the potential to completely alter the way human beings communicate and understand one another.

Terrorists have long been using technology to foment fear and anarchy.

Al-Qaeda has been particularly tech savvy, organizing attacks through a cheap global network consisting of chat rooms, Web site message boards and e-mail.

The tragic irony is that these mechanisms were invented and perfected in the same democratic and free-market societies that terrorists want to destroy. The question, then, is, why aren't these societies using these same tools to stop them?

If democrats the world over take a page from the extremist playbook, we can counter their message of hate and violence with one of compassion and understanding.

Latif al Moula is a 45-year-old Baghdad pharmacist. His family survives on his monthly salary of U.S. $100. Al Moula said he still struggles with the realities of the war.

"Do you believe we don't have electrsity [sic] most of the day?" he told me. "Can American people live in dark all that time every day? Do you know we are [an] oil country and we didn't have petrol for our cars? Is that called fredom [sic]?"

Ali Hajde, 23, hails from the Kurdish city Khanaqeen. From high school, he went right to work as a translator for American forces.

The job endangers his life, but Hajde remains optimistic.

"Most of them [U.S. soldiers] treat me well and respect me," he said. "It will get better, we hope so."

The half-dozen Iraqis who responded to the message I sent requesting a dialogue are gracious, open-minded, well-educated and well-informed people.

They are desperate to talk, to tell their stories and help the world understand that "most of Iraqi people are good and peacefull [sic]."

These Iraqis do not hate America, and most certainly not Americans.

Conversely, they admire the United States for what it traditionally stands for and for all it has achieved.

That is why they, and so many others in the world, are angry, because the Bush administration's arrogant adventurism-culminating in the fantastically flawed freedom-fighting foray in Iraq-has stolen a precious, widely held notion that America is a force for good.

With the Bush administration engaged in dangerous duels with the governments of Iran, North Korea, Syria and other "outposts of tyranny," it is imperative that Americans engage in their own duels-duels of dialogue-with the people of these countries.

The State Department's billion-dollar public diplomacy program is appreciated, but not sufficient. Global communication begins with us.

What might happen if ordinary citizens around the world formed relationships with each other founded on mutual respect?

Those in democracies might demand the same expression of empathy from their elected leaders. Those in unrepresentative states might be more empowered to push for reform.

This isn't rocket science. It's just simple communication that's free and easy. So let's get talking. A better world depends on it.