Paying for Iraqi voices

Anthony Barnett
2 June 2004

Most of you will find the Iraq roundtable published in this edition of openDemocracy difficult to read. I’m asking you to give it time. Try and absorb its serious, tough atmosphere, as chances are weighed and prospects assessed by Iraqis from Shi’a, Sunni, Kurdish and Jewish backgrounds. I was proud to be there and found it moved me in an unexpected way.

It isn’t a dramatic report from the ground, of the sort we have published from Fallujah (Jo Wilding) or Sulaimaniya (Wendell Steavenson) or from Baghdad (Yahia Said). It does not tell you what to think, at least not until the end, when quite suddenly everyone agrees on what matters. No, what is important is the “structure of feeling” that is conveyed. To read and absorb it as a whole means, for a non-Iraqi, to reach out and understand what it might be like to be an Iraqi.

Iraq is near an abyss. It could be torn apart from within, by the stupidity of the occupiers, or by provocation of neighbouring elements. The debate in the west is about what should be done to Iraq: to withdraw, put in the United Nations, pack even more military punch. I’d expected educated Iraqis to reflect these differences. Instead, they explore the dangers of division, consider how best to work around America and measure the likelihood of mutual assent. The explosive potential of the differences between them is palpable but not expressed directly in words; these are men and women who want to be proud and patriotic of their country after decades of humiliation.

It is not, then, a “sexy read”. But it is one of the reasons why openDemocracy exists – to bring the voices and arguments of those outside the power centres to the larger world, edited to the highest standards, widening their community of influence.

It also poses the painful tension at the heart of openDemocracy’s existence as a global magazine published on the web. To secure our independence, you who wish to read it and can afford it, must subscribe. By doing so you will be paying for something we must keep free. “How”, as one of our external directors put it, “do you get people to pay for what is free?”

One answer is to make it unfree. We can’t and won’t do this. We are closing our archive of articles more than three months old. But the whole point of openDemocracy is that our debates are open to the world as they happen, not least because we want them to carry on being read in countries where people literally cannot pay like Iraq and Iran. The fact that we are indeed being read there alters and expands the value of reading it everywhere around the world.

So will you choose to pay for a resource that will remain free? Because, put bluntly, it costs money to make it possible to publish Iraqi voices.

How much does it cost? There are two answers. The first is the core expense of running an office, and developing an editorial and publishing team – this costs a lot. The second is to measure the hours taken in organising a meeting of this kind: transcribing, editing and polishing a long conversation, clearing their words with each contributor, and taking care to make the presentation attractive.

The second costs, at minimum, £3,000 ($5,000). And it contains a further element that cannot be so finely calculated yet is perhaps the most significant of all – building the mutual trust and respect to make Iraqis feel that creating such a dialogue is worthwhile.

In this sense, the Iraqi roundtable is also an investment in the human future – theirs, yours, ours. That is why every subscription to openDemocracy counts and every donation helps. Please add yours.

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