Bassam, my dejected Iraqi friend

The real losers in the conflict are the very Arabs Hamas and Hizbullah claim they are fighting for.

arab jordan lebanon (photo credit: AP)
arab jordan lebanon
(photo credit: AP)
'I approve all recent Israeli actions against Hizbullah," said Bassam, a 28-year-old architect from Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, in a recent e-mail to me. I first wrote about Bassam in March, after contacting him using Skype, the free Web-based telephone service. Finding him was easy. After searching "Iraq" and "English" I sent a mass message explaining who I was and what I sought. Bassam was one of a handful who then contacted me. Bassam, whose Shi'ite surname is being withheld for his protection, is the only Iraqi with whom I still keep in touch (the others, I fear, have succumbed to the staggering civilian death toll in Iraq). There is no way to independently verify he is who he says, but after speaking twice, and exchanging e-mail and photographs every few weeks, it seems a fabrication would require a particularly disingenuous scheme. Despite Iraq's infinite sectarian slaughter - caused largely by American incompetence and insensitivity - Bassam considers the United States "the city on the hill," and yearns to climb to it. His goal is to add a PhD from an American institution to the bachelor's and master's degrees he already claims. LIKE SO many Arabs, Bassam's present is so bleak he lives only for his future. He has completely shut out the violent world around him, feeding instead on inner strength. "I will keep fighting for my aim even if it takes 20 years. I'll knock [on] every door, I'll ask lay and wise persons, and I will do it, not for me but for my entity," Bassam wrote last month. To hasten his hike up the hill, at his family's urging Bassam escaped Baghdad's bloodshed for Beirut's beachside beauty. That was late May, but the violence he fled has caught up with him. Just before Hizbullah's self-aggrandizing attack against Israel, Bassam was especially enthusiastic. "I don't know where to start from. The beautiful city [I] am working in (Beirut), the home that my family has been compelled to leave it (Dora), the GRE [and] TOEFL tests… or the combination of felling [sic] lonely and safe in same time," he said in an unusually upbeat tone. Now that Hizbullah has again dragged Israel into open warfare, Bassam's attitude has soured tremendously. He did not perform as well as hoped on the GRE and TOEFL exams, so he registered to take them again in August. But with Beirut under attack, the tests - a major impediment to studying in America - have been postponed indefinitely, he said. BASSAM'S IRE is not directed toward Israel, but Hizbullah. "Damn them and their stupid ideology," he said, recounting an incident where he was threatened for browsing Web sites depicting the Prophet Muhammad. "I bet if Muslims here smelled a Jewish person a mile away, they'll pursue him till taking him a prisoner or killing him…. The matter for liberals would be similar if one opened his mouth saying his mind," he wrote bitterly. Bassam went to Beirut to bring himself closer to a fruitful life. Instead, members of his own community have again snarled him in the shackles of tyranny and terror. He is the real victim of Hizbullah's and Hamas's unyielding war against Israel; and he is not alone. Across the region, millions of energetic, thoughtful and intelligent young Arab men and women are hostages to a reckless minority reluctantly supported by a humiliated majority. Their potential, until recently buttressed by Israel's withdrawals and Lebanon's reforms, has again been dealt a debilitating blow. FOR AS PAINFUL as Islamic terrorism is for its non-Muslim targets, it is the Muslim world that truly suffers. The war between "Islam and the West" - as it is so often labeled - pales in comparison to Islam's intra-cultural conflict. Terrorists cannot bring down democratic societies; we are too strong and they are too weak. But terrorists are wrecking havoc on the very people they feign to protect. When the smoke finally clears from this mini-war both sides will bury their dead, but Israel will continue in prosperity while the Arabs will continue in misery. Why? Because Israel wants peace but does not need it, while the Arabs - inasmuch as those dictating Arab politics - need it but do not want it. THERE IS one remedy for this downward spiral, but it is a harsh one. True Arab moderates - not the autocratic regimes whose historically crushing rule gave rise to violent extremists in the first place - need to take the difficult and dangerous step of denouncing Arab extremism. Critics argue that the moderates are too weak for this - but so was David Ben-Gurion in 1948 when he shelled the Altalena because it was ferrying weapons for the Jewish terrorist group, Irgun. When the Lebanese government is willing to destroy Hizbullah rocket positions, then Israel will surely talk. When Arab moderates stir up people like Bassam into a peaceful force as powerful as Hizbullah's violent one, then there will be justice for all. Israel did not start this war, and Israel cannot end it. It ends only when Arab societies realize they need teachers, not more martyrs. The writer is a Jewish American journalism student in Boston.