A Moment of … Delicacy from the New York Times

The print edition of the Observer newspaper in Britain carries a supplement of articles from the New York Times. I’ve never seen an explanation as to why this is. But it is.

This week the lead article in the section is headlined ‘Tilting Away From Strict Islam’. In it Tim Arango explores the relationship between Islam and democracy. The country, he tells us, is ‘a volatile laboratory for testing how Islamic a democracy can be, and vice versa‘. The struggle between social liberals and strict Islamists over bar culture provides him with his theme:

In January, bars and clubs, including the Writers Union, were raided in what many Iraqis saw as a government move toward a stricter interpretation of Islamic law. But soon after, as protests for reform began about other issues, the boozy haunts were allowed to reopen.

The reader might reasonably wonder what these other issues were, but the article, at least in its British incarnation, was remarkably unforthcoming. Arango tells us later that ‘inspired by uprisings by Arabs elsewhere, Iraqis held their own protests in Tahrir Square’ in late February. The authorities attacked the protesters and the protests did not ‘blossom nationally’. But apparently the government did decide to ‘dial back the crackdown on night-life’.

But why were the protesters taking to the streets in Iraq? The New York Times doesn’t give us much of a clue. But the Guardian, the Observer‘s sister paper in London, published a piece by Sami Ramadani that sheds light on their grievances. Ramadani quoted some of the slogans:

“Nouri al-Maliki is a liar.” … “The people’s oil is for the people not for the thieves”; “We want dignity, jobs and services”; “No to terrorism, no to Saddam’s dictatorship, and no to the dictatorship of thieves”; “No to the occupation”; “We are not Ba’athists, repression is Ba’athist”; … “Sunnis and Shia, this homeland we shall never sell”.

Thanks to government repression it is not easy to establish a clear picture of the protesters’ concerns. Amnesty International has ‘found disturbing evidence of targeted attacks on political activists, torture and other ill-treatment of people arrested in connection with the protests, and attacks or threats against journalists, media outlets, government critics, academics and students’. But for the New York Times to be so vague about the grievances of the Iraqi people in a country that is, after all, still occupied by 50,000 American troops seems to me to be extraordinary.

My guess is that Tim Arango could give us a pretty good idea of what these ‘other issues’ are. He is based in Baghdad and I am sure he is a diligent journalist. Perhaps the paper’s editors will allow him to do his job.

And if it refuses to publish stories that explain what is going on in Iraq, it can hardly be surprised if its writers seek solace in the Writers Union.

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17 thoughts on “A Moment of … Delicacy from the New York Times

  1. Tim Arango

    April 27, 2011

    Dear Mr. Hind:
    It is with great relish that I take the time here to respond to your critique of my recent Week in Review piece about Islam and democracy. Had you read the original article or perused The New York Times’ coverage of the ongoing protests in Iraq you would have discovered that your points of criticism do not hold up to scrutiny.
    Your first point states the following: “But why were the protesters taking to the streets in Iraq? The New York Times doesn’t give us much of a clue.”
    Here is a passage from the piece in question that seems to have eluded you: “In late February, inspired by risings by Arabs elsewhere, Iraqis held their own protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square; their grievances included inadequate government services, corruption and the slow creep of Islamic interference in the personal freedoms of the young.”
    You then continue with a more general critique of The Times’ coverage of the protests in Iraq, a gripe that you surely wouldn’t be able to make had you taken the time to read our numerous articles over the last several months about the grievances of Iraqis. It is astonishing that you would take the liberty to make the following statement, without seemingly reviewing our coverage: “… for The New York Times to be so vague about the grievances of the Iraqi people in a country that is, after all, still occupied by 50,000 American troops seems to me to be extraordinary.”
    For your benefit, and those that read your blog, I’ve compiled a list of links here of our coverage of the protesters in Iraq, which I’m sure you’ll see details both the issues that have motivated Iraqis to take to the streets and the crackdown on them by the Iraqi authorities.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/world/middleeast/14iraq.html

    http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/iraqi-youths-long-for-their-own-moment-in-the-arab-spring/

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/08/world/middleeast/08iraq.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/26/world/middleeast/26iraq.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/24/world/middleeast/24kurd.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/world/middleeast/15iraq.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/25/world/middleeast/25iraq.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/24/world/middleeast/24iraq.html

    I hope this is helpful. Feel free to email me anytime should you have issues, criticisms or concerns with our Iraq coverage.

    With respect,
    Tim Arango
    Baghdad Bureau Chief
    New York Times

    Reply
  2. Dan Hind Post author

    Dear Mr Arango,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to reply to my note on your article ‘Tilting Away From Strict Islam’.

    You write:

    Here is a passage from the piece in question that seems to have eluded you: “In late February, inspired by risings by Arabs elsewhere, Iraqis held their own protests in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square; their grievances included inadequate government services, corruption and the slow creep of Islamic interference in the personal freedoms of the young.”

    It eluded me because it does not appear in the version of the article printed by the Observer. As I wrote in my original post, I was referring to the article in its British incarnation.

    Having looked through the articles you attached it is clear that the New York Times has paid sustained attention to the protests in Iraq. However there does not seem to be any reference to the US occupation as an issue for the protesters. Disquiet over the way in which Iraq’s oil sector has been managed also seems to be absent from your coverage, although it may have eluded me.

    It is never easy to understand what motivates a protest movement. Perhaps the ongoing US occupation and the way in which the government has managed the country’s most important source of revenue don’t greatly concern the Iraqi people. Perhaps it really is enough to say that “their grievances included inadequate government services, corruption and the slow creep of Islamic interference in the personal freedoms of the young.”

    Or, perhaps, national self-determination, Iraqi control of the oil industry, and the end of foreign occupation also feature in the protesters’ demands. If they do, I hope that the New York Times will give them due prominence in future.

    With respect,

    Dan Hind

    Reply
    1. Tim Arango

      Dan,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I would add one thing in response
      to your response regarding the protesters motives in terms of the
      American military presence.

      That particular aspect as a grievance of the protesters was on display
      in a big way on April 9 when Moktada al-Sadr urged his followers to
      the streets. And we indeed covered that, with the headline “Iraqis
      Protest US Military Presence.” Here is the link:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/world/middleeast/10iraq.html.

      This was followed up by another piece about an anti-American photo
      exhibition held by the Sadrists in Parliament:

      http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/04/19/sadrists-present-anti-american-message-in-photo-exhibition/

      Prior to the Sadrist protest against the Americans, that issue was not
      a defining aspect of the protests.

      Cheers,
      Tim

      Reply
      1. greg Muttitt

        I think where the issues cross over (even before those Sadrist protests) is in what Tim Arango hints at as “a shaky democracy imposed by American force”. Actually, that’s quite an understatement and is perhaps too generous to US intentions. More accurate would be “an utterly dysfunctional electoral democracy which few Iraqis see as legitimate or representative, imposed by American force”.

        Ok, my version’s not quite so snappy. But the serious point is that the US didn’t try to establish a democracy and find it difficult to do so in Iraq’s conditions. Rather it sought to establish a form of democracy where the only politicians that could effectively compete were those who served its interests (or at least shared its ‘values’).

        Witness for example who Bremer selected in 2003 as Governing Council members, ruling out those with the wrong ideology. Or his first criterion for interim prime minister that he should thank the US for liberation. Or Rumsfeld’s 2005 memo that said “The Coalition will not let a thousand flowers bloom”. Or Feith’s reflections on the dangers of home-grown political movements. Or Crocker’s / O’Sullivan’s efforts to cultivate ‘moderates’ in 2007 (who were in fact the most extreme sectarian parties and politicians). These and more are examined in my new book – http://www.fuelonthefire.com (sorry for the plug).

        The result has been a political class that cares little for the interests and needs of the people they are supposed to represent. Many are corrupt, many are sectarian and most are driven only by self-interest. The result was an eight-month stagnation after last year’s elections before a government was formed (and even then only after a Supreme Court intervention by 4 Iraqi civil society groups). At protests last summer against the fact that Iraqis still only get a couple of hours of electricity per day, some demonstrators carried chairs to symbolise the fact that their politicians were squabbling over their seats at the table while nothing was done to improve services for ordinary people.

        We see those factors again in the Iraqi protests of the last couple of months, which Tim refers to. Ironically, the biggest Iraqi manifestation of the ‘Arab spring’ has been in Sulaimaniyah – reflecting the fact that the most authoritarian and least democratic parties in post-Saddam Iraq are the Kurdish ones.

        One other comment on Tim’s article: Tariq Harb is hardly a good model of ‘moderate’, progressive Iraq – he is Maliki’s lawyer and has supported the government’s undemocratic tendencies, such as by helping kill the case last year that called for the laws to be observed which require parliamentary scrutiny of oil contracts.

        It seems at first strange in the context of the Arab revolutions that Iraqis are protesting against a government which was elected last year. But while the US has generally claimed (especially since 2006) to be pursuing reconciliation of Iraq’s people by working with its more reasonable politicians, recent events again demonstrate that it’s in fact the other way round. In fact there is hope for Iraq’s future in spite of rather than because of US interventions. Iraq’s people are very capable and desirous of democracy, and hate corruption and sectarianism. It’s the politicians that need to be moderated.

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  7. Jimmy West

    Tim Arango is attempting to play you. The Sadrist are not the protests that are ongoing. He knows that, he chooses to lump them together indicating he’s dishonest or just unable to grasp what goes on in Iraq. As a reader of The Common Ills, I know the New York Times ignored the protests. I know they sent the bulk of their reporters off to Cairo and then off to Libya and ended up playing catch up on the protests in Iraq.
    Ned Parker of the Los Angeles Times helped kick start the protests with his scoop that Nouri had more secret prisons in Iraq. This was backed up shortly afterwards by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. This is what started the protests.
    The New York Times ignored the secret prisons. The New York Times ignored it when reporters were beaten in a Baghdad cafe though the Washington Post covered these beatings (beaten for covering the protests).
    Instead of lecturing you for not reading his entire body of work, Tim Arango should be attempting to explain why his paper can’t shut up about Moqtada al-Sadr’s protests while ignoring the very real protests that are ongoing across Iraq. As The Common Ills noted Saturday, Motada al-Sadr saw less than 1/2% of his Baghdad supporters turn out for a protest in Baghdad Saturday but the press couldn’t stop raving about how powerful he is.
    I also love how C.I. pointed out in yesterday’s snapshot that the protests go back to at least Feb. 10th and the NYT doesn’t even start covering them until Feb. 15th.

    Reply
    1. Tim Arango

      I appreciate you saying that you read the Common Ills. i do as well, and find it interesting. However, why would you say that because you read the Common Ills, you know the Times has ignored the protests? Why wouldn’t you go read the Times as well? all you need to do is go to http://www.nytimes.com, type in ‘iraq’ in the search, and you’ll find the stories.

      Reply
  8. Jimmy West

    “Prior to the Sadrist protest against the Americans, that issue was not
    a defining aspect of the protests.” This would be called a “lie.” I’m e-mailing C.I. so she can serve Tim his lunch today at The Common Ills. He really is uninformed or dishonest.

    Reply
    1. Dan Hind Post author

      Hi, Jimmy, do encourage C.I. to post a comment here on this issue. I am keen that we understand as much as possible about what concerns the Iraqi people and how what they are doing relates to wider developments in the Middle East.

      Reply
    2. Tim Arango

      Thanks Jimmy. I would love to hear your explanation as to what you mean by a “lie.” to say that the American military presence as an issue has been a defining aspect of the protests in Iraq, would simply not be true. the protests that we’ve covered all along have been about a medley of issues, from corruption, to services, to a lack of civil liberties to Bahrain to detainees. The American military presence was the subject of the Sadrist protest on April 9.

      Reply
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