Shadid: ‘I thought we might be shot in the head’
An American reporter was shot and wounded in the shoulder in Ramallah in 2002 where Israel warned that foreign journalists were at risk and should not be in the occupied West Bank city.
The reporter was Anthony Shadid, at the time a Washington-based Boston Globe reporter on an assignment in Ramallah. He was standing in the doorway of a shop with Globe stringer Said al-Ghazali when he was shot. He was hospitalized with moderate injuries. Nine years after that incident, Shadid and four other journalists were captured in Libya in March by militia forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. They were held for nearly a week, during which time they were threatened before ultimately being released into the custody of Turkish diplomats. Shadid is The New York Times bureau chief based in Baghdad and Beirut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting twice, in 2004 and 2010. He authored two remarkable books, “Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics of Islam” and “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War.” In an exclusive interview with Sunday’s Zaman Shadid spoke of his extraordinary experiences during the days he was held at the Libya Military Intelligence headquarters and his opinion on the possible implications of Osama bin Laden’s death.
Can you tell me what happened in Libya? And how Turkey had access to Libyan military intelligence services and rescued you. Can you tell me your recollections of the Turkish diplomats?
Our biggest fear when we got arrested was that no one was going to be able to help us, that no one would know where we were and how to get us out of there. And no one really did for the first few days. And almost immediately when we got to Tripoli we got the sense that the situation had changed. We were abducted on Tuesday and we got to Tripoli by Thursday night, and I think, I want to say Friday morning, we had our first meeting with Libyan diplomats, and it was made clear to us that the Americans were not going to be able to do anything, the British were not going to be able to do anything, [but] Turkey was working on behalf of Britain. So our British colleague was able to have some kind of diplomatic representation. It lasted over 36 hours. The Americans had to wait and see if Turkey would accept their diplomatic role. Had it not been for the Turkish diplomats I think we would very possibly still be in custody. The Libyan government insisted that an American diplomat had to come and pick us up on Friday. The Americans refused, of course, they already started bombing at that point. The Americans wanted us to be driven to the border and dropped off, but Libya was not going to accept that. At least they wanted the pretense of having a diplomatic exchange. And that’s where Turkey came in. I have to say I’ve been very impressed with Turkish diplomats in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere since I’ve been working in the region. I was impressed with them in Tripoli as well, and they knew how to handle themselves. They understood the culture and they understood the importance of a certain diplomatic respect, and you could tell that the Libyans appreciated their presence very much. There were three or four times [that] the Turkish Embassy was called. I think the first time was Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday morning, I think three times. Each time saying to come and pick us up, but we were never dropped off. And finally on Sunday they called, the Turkish diplomats met us at the headquarters -- the ambassador and two other diplomats -- and the exchange was made there. We were put in cars and taken to the Turkish Embassy, and the minute I stepped in the Turkish Embassy, I knew that I was going home. It was a very good feeling.
Are you saying Turkish diplomats started that initiative on behalf of British diplomats?
So at the very beginning Turkey was taking care of British interests in Libya after the Brits had closed down their embassy. They weren’t doing the American interests, only after our case came up and they couldn’t figure out how to make an exchange, the Americans asked the Turks to take care of their interests.
What happened to your driver?
We’re still trying to find out about that. Our fear in the beginning was that he was killed because we didn’t see him after we were seized that evening or that afternoon. When we were seized there was a very big firefight or gun battle and we didn’t see our driver after that, so our fear was that he might have been killed. But we’ve been following up since then, and a journalist for The New York Times went into Libya to find out his whereabouts. We’ve heard rumors that he may be in custody. But to be honest, after all these weeks there’s no conclusive word whether he’s alive or not.
What did you feel when you were first caught by the Libyan soldiers? Were they intelligence soldiers? For example, did you feel you might die?
I did. … [We] were picked up at 4 p.m. in the afternoon, and that first night I thought there was going to be a good chance that we may die. We were picked up by the militia. It wasn’t really soldiers, and they were dressed ragged. Equipment wasn’t all that good. It was clear that there were part of some military, but they felt more like militia. And when they threw us on the ground, one of them said in Arabic, “Shoot them!” And his colleague said, “You can’t, they’re Americans.” And that was the closest it came, we were lying on the ground, and I thought we might be shot in the head. But we weren’t. And in that entire night what was scary was that there were gun battles going on every hour or so between the rebels and this militia we were with. We worried the whole time we would be caught in the crossfire.
Can you tell me what you think about the death of Osama bin Laden? What will be the consequences?
I think its says something about how far the region has come since 2001 and obviously it’s been 10 years, but I think more significantly what has happened the past few months has really kind of inaugurated a new era which bin Laden was increasingly irrelevant to. I think his death was kind of an epitaph, an ending to that era, a kind of symbolic moment in [these] 10 years of terrorism, invasion, war, conflict, where we’ve actually opened up a new page in the era of the world that is hopeful, despite what we’ve seen in some countries. His death I think was a marker of that.
What do you think triggered the uprisings in the Middle East?
I was talking to my wife. Its remarkable to us how many conversations you had in December, say, where people talked about the Arab world at its lowest point ever, where people seemed disappointed, dejected, [and] depressed. There wasn’t a lot of hope that … change was going to happen. I think what it needed was a spark, a catalyst, that set in [and] crystallized forces that had been bubbling for years but hadn’t reached that critical mass where they could bring about change.
Let me give an example: In Egypt we had a brief kind of opening back in 2005, the Kabbaya movement that was later crushed, but around that time you had people organizing around women’s rights, youth,[and] labor -- labor most importantly. You had a space for the opposition in Egypt, the growing anger and disenchantment with the reforms for the wealthy class, while the poor were getting poorer. And in the most general terms you had a state failure, a state that wasn’t able to take care of its citizens. That social contract had been in place for over 50 years. Think the culmination of all these things together created a revolutionary climate that needed a catalyst. I think as superficial as it may sound, Tunisia, you know, was that catalyst.
Do you think the impact of social media is being a little bit overstated in the uprisings, or do you think social media had a real profound impact on the uprisings?
I think when you put social media in the context of all media, it does have a place in that. If we talked about social media on its own I don’t think it was a decisive factor in these revolutions. Did it have an impact? Absolutely. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, these revolutions were furthered in some ways because of social media. But I think you have to put social media in the context of Al Jazeera and other Arab satellite networks. Without that combination of both, Tunisia may very well not have happened. And I think Egypt, once it happened, it was inevitable, but was it sped up because of the social media? It might have been sped up, but I think it would have happened with or without social media.
How do you think Al Jazeera changed the public sphere in the region? How did it work?
It’s access. I think that’s the first, the bottom line. Al Jazeera was able to turn an audience that might have been a social media audience of millions to an audience of tens of millions or even hundreds of millions. I think especially early on Al Jazeera had a very canny sense of what the conversation or discussion is with its audience. If you watch the way it packaged the revolution in Egypt as it was going on. It understood its readership and the way it resonated with its viewers. And it’s very powerful. There were moments when you would hear songs by Ummu Gulsum [and] poetry sung by Sheikh Imam. To an Arab audience these resonated with a sense of reclaiming a lost past. It’s very effective.
Let’s go back to Egypt. Do you consider this a revolution or do you consider it a military coup?
That’s a great question. To me right now, I think you’re right to be cautious about the use of the word “revolution.” I think we have to see where this ends up in a year or even five years. Was it a military coup? There’s something grander than that, though. While it may be hard to call it a revolution at this point, it’s not right to call it only a military coup. Without the military stepping in this would be much more of a protracted conflict, but the military didn’t step in until you had a popular mobilization. We are talking about millions who took to the streets to use protest as a method of change. It was a revolutionary action. That might be the best way to describe to it. It’s a revolutionary action that’s yet to emerge as a revolution that qualifies it as something more than a coup.
Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will be given a chance in the democratic system in Egypt afterwards?
I tell you, to me the most fascinating element of all these revolutions and uprisings is that very question. What is going to be the emerging relationship between political Islam and the state? And we can’t underestimate the influence of Egypt on the region. So many of these currents, ideologies, perspectives, have started in Egypt and spread to the rest of the Arab world. Now Egypt has lost the weight that it once had in the Middle East; I think there is a sense that it wants to reclaim it. I think these debates that are going on in Egypt today, [such as] what role will the Muslim Brotherhood play […] what rules will they have to play in the emerging political system? How will they function with other political parties, will they create coalitions or go on their own? All these questions that I think will be answered in the next year will have far-reaching repercussions on the Arab world. I have to say I’m very optimistic about it. It’s a long overdue reckoning and reaching a new accommodation between political Islam and the state.
What do you think will happen in Syria?
It’s difficult to see what the end game will be. At the beginning of the uprising the government was using a mix of concessions and crackdown, and lately it’s been much more crackdown. We’re not seeing much more efforts for reform on the part of the Syrian government. I think there’s a notion there they can end this uprising through force. But you don’t know what’s going to happen in the long term. What you’re seeing right now is a dangerous exacerbation of sectarian tension. You’re seeing a military acting against majority groups, the Sunni groups, the Muslims in Syria. This sectarian violence is dangerous. You’re also hearing reports that the Sunni business elite in Damascus, less so in Aleppo, is losing a little bit of faith in the government. But I think in the broadest of terms, Turkey is going to have a role in this. Turkey perhaps has the greatest influence in Syria at this point. So what I think Turkey pushes this government to do is going to have a lot of influence.
Do you think Turkey has influence in Iraq as well?
I think Turkey has more influence across the region than what people realize. I think in Iraq I was struck when I was working on a story about Turkey’s reach in Iraq, [that] you can make the argument that Turkey has more influence than Iran or even the United States. And it’s because … Turkey’s approach is a very sophisticated one. I think it’s seen as soft power in lot of ways. There’s an incredible amount of influence it has through its economic presence, through the trade across the border through businessmen operating from Arbil to Basra. It also has a diplomatic presence that has remained very open-minded. While the Americans will not talk to the Sadrists, while the Iranians have difficulty talking to the Sunni parties, Turkish diplomats are able to talk to everyone from the Sadrists to the Malikies to … [the] Alawis, who see them as their allies. It’s remarkable to see how Turkey transformed its role in Iraq in the past few years, it’s almost unrecognizable when you compare it to 10 years ago.
How did you feel when you won the Pulitzer Prize for the first time?
Of course, my happiest moment was the birth of my daughter and son. But I have to say winning the Pulitzer the first time ranked up there. I was in Baghdad at the time, and it was a very difficult time, where fighting had become much worse. You’re obviously happy about winning the Pulitzer Prize, but it’s more the work you did there had some impact. People were reading it, that people cared to read it, and I think that was what felt really worthwhile. I think a lot of these stories are frustrating when it feels like no one really cares about them and [the] Pulitzer was in some way recognition that people did care about the stories.
Another question about Osama bin Laden: Do you think the way he was buried at sea was a little bit suspicious?
Americans would understand that there would be suspicion about that. I think you’re right. And I think a lot of people in the Middle East are questioning that. Are they trying to hide something? Was it really bin Laden? I’m sure they’re trying to prevent the idea of a shrine or a pilgrimage or something like that. But if that was the case they could have buried him in Saudi Arabia. There would be no shrine there; it would be a very simple grave. You know it probably was a mistake to be honest. One, I think it offended religious sensibilities. Two, it raised suspicion that wouldn’t have to be there necessarily.
Do you think the celebrations in New York and also Washington were merely patriotic? I know he was a mass murderer and that he was a terrorist, but do you think it’s appropriate to celebrate someone’s death in that way?
You know that’s a good question. And I think a lot of people have raised that point. Why all these celebrations when we are we still talking about death? I think Arabs are often criticized for celebrating death when it happens. Why do you celebrate this? Was it a moment for the United States that’s hard for us to understand abroad? It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in this part of the world.