As I mentioned before I left, I spent last week in Doha for the Brookings Institution's annual US-Islamic World Forum. I'm still catching up, especially since I spent the last two days in an intense closed workshop. It's hard to really write anything interesting about these kinds of conferences, since so much of it is just networking and private conversation. Who really cares who I had lunch with or who bought drinks for whom or who's my new best friend forever? I'll spare you all that and just make a few observations.
On the wider conference, I don't have much to add to what's already been posted by Tamara Wittes, Marc Ginsberg, Joe Klein, and others. There were far fewer fireworks in the plenary session this year compared to last year. This might be because, as some have speculated, that the fire has gone out of US-Islamic relations as we come to the end of the Bush era. But more likely, it's because where last year's plenary featured the leading Islamist figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the pugnacious Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, this year's featured former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and current US Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad, along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. You just wouldn't expect as much tension from a panel made up of Americans and officials from American allies; even host Martin Indyk noted the remarkable convergence in their remarks.
Beyond that, Iraq came up only rarely, even if it was difficult to find much optimism from any of the Arab participants (as opposed to the American contingent where views fell along predictable divides). The US elections absolutely dominated the conversations, with Obama the runaway favorite. Most of the Arab participants I talked to seemed fascinated by Obama, and frightened by McCain (though one or two seemed worried about how Democrats would deal with Iran - a point to which I'll be returning soon). Clinton rarely came up at all, one way or the other. Contrary to the odd but predictable notion now making the rounds, of the forty-plus Arab participants, journalists and local Qataris who I asked, not a single one mentioned "Obama's really a Muslim" as the reason for their support. A lot of people expressed their doubts that Obama would really be "allowed" to win. The highlight for me came when I had the honor of introducing Obama adviser Susan Rice to the Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who had written a series of cautiously enthusiastic articles about Obama in a Qatari newspaper.
A few of my conversations merit posts of their own. I spent the better part of an hour talking to the Egyptian superstar televangelist Amr Khaled, about his views on sharia, the current situation in Egypt, the Rowan Williams sharia courts controversy and about the fallout of the 2006 Danish cartoons crisis. Much more on this soon.
I also spent most of one day over at al-Jazeera, where I met with station director Wadah Khanfar, Faisal al-Qassem (host of the ever-popular program The Opposite Direction), and a whole bunch of other people. I particularly enjoyed meeting their new media team, thanks to my friend Mohammed Nananbhy, and the enthusiastic group behind al-Jazeera Talk. A lot of those conversations focused on the horrific attempt by the Arab Information Ministers to impose controls over political discourse on satellite television. Opinions differed on how serious a threat this posed. I'll write about this in detail very soon. For now, just one detail which I found absolutely fascinating: Khanfar has five television screens in his office. Three of them were tuned to al-Jazeera stations (including AJ English), one to AJ's chief Arabic competitor al-Arabiya, and the other to.... Iran's Arabic language station al-Alam. That speaks volumes about the trend in the region (and about the irrelevance of America's al-Hurra, but that's for another day).
And then, there's the plane ride home. A friend of mine said no when I asked if we could switch seats so that I could sit with another friend, forcing me to sit next to some guy I didn't know for a 15 hour return flight. Turns out that the guy was Howard Gordon, the show-runner of "24", whose career reads like a list of my fanboy life (X-Files, Buffy, Angel) and more importantly turns out to be an absolutely great person. That was cool. No word on whether my recalcitrant pal was the biggest 24 fan in the world, which would be ironic. And no, I'm not going to tell you what happens on 24 this year.
Finally, can I say that I wish that I had learned about the Qatar Living site before I came through and not after! I highly recommend it to anyone traveling through Doha.