Like everyone you know, Raed Jarrar has an opinion on Iraq.
Unlike most everyone else, he grew up there.
Jarrar—an outspoken antiwar activist who will address the antiwar rally in Portland on Sunday, March 18 (see page 8 for details)—was born in Baghdad to a Sunni father and Shiite mother.
Like most of the people Jarrar knew in Iraq, he left the country after the U.S. invasion. He wrote his master's thesis at the University of Jordan on local methods of reconstruction in postwar Iraq. A 29-year-old self-identified "secular Muslim," Jarrar has been living in the United States for the past two years, working on a nonprofit venture to connect Iraqi leadership with members of the U.S. Congress.
Jarrar spoke with WW by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.
WW: What was it like living in Iraq under Saddam Hussein?
Raed Jarrar: It was OK. You [could] get your Ph.D. for free. Iraqi universities were among the best universities in the Middle East and Iraqi hospitals were among the best hospitals as well. That said, there [was] a very low limit for self-expression and there [were] preset venues for political and social and religious expression. It was making people feel claustrophobic and oppressed. So, there were some good things about life and some bad things. But at least everyone knew where the red lines were and how you would put yourself in danger.
Before the war, did you think it was a good idea for the U.S. to attempt "regime change" in Iraq?
No. I was completely against the war. And I believe that foreign intervention, especially in the cases of the Middle Eastern countries, does nothing more than silencing the movements of change from within, like myself or my friends, us who were teenagers or university students, who were working for a change from within. Foreign interventions harm people like us.
But if the Americans hadn't invaded, do you believe that internal resistance would have been able to depose Saddam?
If Iraqis decided to change their political regime, it's their business. If they decided not to change it, it's their business as well. My uncles were deported outside the country because we come from an Iranian descent. Many relatives died during the Iraqi/Iranian war and we were living with daily oppression. So, when I say that it's fine with us to have an oppressive government that we have to change, I mean it and I know what I'm talking about.
When did you start actively speaking out against the war?
A few weeks before the war started, I decided to go back to Baghdad [from Amman, Jordan]. And I decided to dedicate myself full time to try to end this war and end the occupation. I thought that this is a priority and I thought it's my duty as well, as someone who can speak English, to try to reach out to the other side and try to change the situation while I was on the ground in Iraq.
Do you ascribe any responsibility to Iraqis for the civil war?
The current civil conflict—Iraqis in general don't view it as a civil war—is caused by the foreign intervention. If we took into consideration Iraqi Sunnis and Shia have been living together for the last 1,400 years and they had one period of civil conflict that happened 600 years ago and they have never had any ethnic or sectarian clashes in the last century, and that they started having more political tension among themselves in the last three years, after the presence of the U.S., I think the clear conclusion is what's happening now is caused by the foreign intervention, because it didn't exist before then.
This past summer, you were prevented from boarding a JetBlue flight at JFK airport in New York because of a T-shirt you were wearing that had Arabic script on it. Have you taken any legal action against JetBlue or the airport?
You can find all the details on my blog. [But] the TSA people told me that wearing Arabic script and coming to an airport in the U.S. is like wearing a T-shirt that reads, "I'm a robber," and going to a bank. It was very unpleasant and unconstitutional. And I told them that I will follow up on this and try to take the case to a constitutional rights organization. And this is what I'm going to do.
Have there been other incidents like that for you living in the U.S.?
I didn't have many incidents like that because I don't expect to have such incidents. I came here by choice and I'm becoming a taxpayer by choice. I decided to come to the U.S. because the U.S. has a very easy immigration system and the U.S. has a constitution that protects your rights. I'm paying 100-percent taxes and I'm expecting 100-percent rights.
Have you gotten that? Has that been your experience?
I guess I have. I don't really remember having any other oppressive situations.
Large rallies and protests have taken place every March for the past three years to mark the anniversary of the 2003 invasion, and yet the war goes on. What can you hope to accomplish with this year's rally/protest?
The war keeps going, but every day we are one day closer to the end of the war and one day closer to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. One march alone doesn't actually change the policy, and even thousands of marches can't change it alone. [M]arches and people contacting media and people contacting their Congress members and people voting out Republicans from the Congress and people taking the issue in a serious way and considering it a personal issue, how to end the war—all of these things work together. Jarrar's blog is Raed in the Middle (raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com). The site meter counts 1,676,139 hits as of Tuesday morning.
His parents now live in Jordan, but still own a house in Baghdad.