Muhammed Mekki carries a crisp, colorful 250 dinar note — the Iraqi currency — in his wallet.
Prior to the Iran-Iraq War, the bill was worth $750 in American currency.
“It’s 12.5 cents now,” Mekki says.
The bill, which Mekki — the Iraqi American president of Penn’s Muslim Students Association — showed to a captive audience of 11th graders at the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Philadelphia earlier this month, helps him to add an element of tangibility to his message.
“I tried to problematize the situation, to paint the picture of complexity to a group of students that had not been exposed to that type of complexity,” he says. “I think it was a great experience for me to be able to share my experiences and hopefully help the students in shaping their own understanding of why the United States is going to war and what that means for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
As both a sophomore in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business and a student with several family members currently living in Baghdad, Mekki understandably has strong views on America’s war with Iraq.
As the United States launches a war that the government has entitled “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Mekki is skeptical of the government’s true intentions.
“The rhetoric from the White House has shifted from regime change to humanitarian concerns,” Mekki says. “Because who is going to speak out against liberating the Iraqi people from an oppressive dictator?
“But what I’m trying to say is that it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Mekki adds. “Stopping oppression is a great thing, but I’m skeptical that it’s priority number one from the White House.
“I think oil plays an undeniable role in this. I think that the security of Israel plays a role in this war. I think an American re-envisionment of the region plays a role in this war.”
He also realizes that Middle Easterners may see U.S. involvement in Iraq as an attempt to criticize Muslim beliefs.
“A lot of the governments in the Middle East are authoritarian regimes, and they don’t reflect the true nature of Islam,” Mekki said, “but a lot of Muslims living in those countries feel this is an attack against Islam.”
Moreover, Mekki worries that the repercussions of the war are not being duly considered.
“If things turn around and the U.S. and other world countries help with developing an infrastructure, setting in place or giving the opportunity for Iraqis to have a system of self-rule and not imposing our own system on them and then swiftly leaving the country… then I would be satisfied.
“But I’m just skeptical at this point, and kind of afraid.”
Yet according to friends, Mekki approaches the situation with a hopeful and proactive outlook.
“It’s been very emotional for him,” roommate and College sophomore Brendan Houser says. “But he’s focused on what’s going to happen next and after the war is over.
“He’s looking toward a positive future for the country.”
“Right now, it’s a scary time,” Mekki says. “I’ve been having difficulty getting in touch with my family. Lines are busy, it’s hard to get through and talk to them and see what they’re feeling.”
“And they’re even afraid to talk about it,” he continues. “It’s a hard time for them over there, and for us over here worrying about them. Although the United States said it’ll be a swift war, there’s always that fear that something will go wrong, and it’s not going to be that way.”
Mekki’s thoughts are preoccupied with the effects the war will have on his family and Iraq as a whole — previous wars involving Iraq over the last several decades and the leadership of an oppressive dictator have resulted, according to Mekki, in “the loss of life savings, along with the loss of family members, along with the lack of hope for the future.”
And while Mekki says that “there’s dissatisfaction with the way the government is running among the majority of the people” in Iraq, he is concerned about the war’s results.
However, he adds that some Iraqi Americans are optimistic.
“This is the first time that a glimpse of hope has been in the Iraqis… in the future of the Iraqi people,” Mekki says. “For that reason, a lot of Iraqi Americans have felt that it’s kind of an exciting time for the possibility of a great change, a true liberation as the U.S. government has been framing it.”
And although Mekki remains critical of this viewpoint, he too sees the possibility for change.
The politicized branch of the MSA — Penn Muslims for Justice — “is going to remain involved in campus debates about war, about the impact of war,” Mekki says.
He has also focused on his goals for the MSA as a whole.
“He’s got a pretty strong vision for the future of the MSA,” Houser says. “He feels it’s important for the MSA to clarify what Islam is.”
Meanwhile, Mekki is looking toward the future — he has intentions of traveling to Baghdad to see his family in August if the war is over.
“If the face of the country changes and the economic situation changes, I may see myself working in the country in a decade or so,” he adds. “That’s the part of me that’s sort of hopeful and hoping for a different system in that country after all the dust settles.”
“All I hope for,” Mekki says, “is that this will be the last instance of demoralization of the Iraqi people and that it will usher in a new era.”
Copyright Daily Pennsylvanian