Tribune reporter discusses Mideast

By Libby Pearson

Middle East correspondent Steve Franklin spoke yesterday about the development of civil freedoms in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Speaking at “Reform in the Arab World: A Journalist’s Perspective,” Franklin stressed the similarities and differences between the concerns of a journalist and those of an academic.

“I’m not an academic,” said Franklin, who is a staff reporter for the Chicago Tribune. “So my vision is limited to what I see.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and moderated by Professor Noha Aboulmagd Forster, Arabic Languages lecturer in the College.

Franklin described Iraq and Saudi Arabia as being “two societies that were closed for a long time, and have now opened up.”

The bulk of his observations were vignettes. He talked about visiting the hole where Saddam Hussein was captured and finding an Arabic copy of Crime and Punishment inside. He described the utter shock expressed by both the Arab world and the United States at seeing Hussein’s capture on television.

Franklin spoke on the after-effects of Iraqis living for so long in a “republic of fear.” Because Hussein thought that mental illness was a problem of the Western world, there was only one psychiatric hospital in all of Iraq, he said. When Franklin visited this hospital after Hussein’s capture, he found the doctors reporting that the public—rather than suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—suffered from having no feelings at all.

Franklin, challenging what Forster characterized as the homogenizing of Iraqi opinion by the American media, described the feelings and goals of different Iraqi groups after Hussein’s capture. He characterized each group as “looking for re-identification.”

Franklin then discussed the Christians, approximately three percent of the Iraqi population and mostly Assyrian Chaldeans, who feel that their situation is better than before. They have a greater opportunity now to express their culture. However, he said that the Chaldeans are afraid that their rights will be dissipated if an Islamic republic, as opposed to Hussein’s secular republic, is formed in Iraq.

Franklin spoke about human rights in Iraq, particularly the rights of anti-government speech and opportunities for women. When recounting a visit to the Iraqi Woman’s League, an underground organization, he noted their motto, “We were here before; we’re back again,” as a general cry from all human rights organizations in Iraq.

Franklin said that the sentiment of renewal in Iraq is apparent in the number of banners one sees on the streets during any given day. “These people can’t make enough banners. Banner makers have practically become millionaires,” he said.

Franklin covered the Gulf War for the Tribune and recently returned from Baghdad. He described the changes since the end of the Gulf War in terms of a turn toward extremism that some Saudi groups had taken. Franklin noted that most of the 9/11 attackers were Saudi.

Criticizing the structure of the Saudi government—which consists of a sickly king, the ruling Crown Prince Abdul who does not have the support of all the family, and vast numbers of princes who control the rest of the government—Franklin said that the government has slowly acknowledged the ability of Saudis to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

Franklin said that Saudi Arabia will not collapse, but it will slowly change. He described the explosive population growth and the corresponding decline of wealth. He said that many in Saudi Arabia do not work and have no experience of working.

Forster questioned the definition of democracy that America is using in the democratization in Iraq. “Iraq is a crucible, a lab test for democracy. What kind of democracy will there be? Could it be religiously oriented? We at universities are obsessed with terms and labels,” Forster said, calling into question the equation of democratization with attempts to overcome terror.