ARABOPHOBIA AND THE WAR ON IRAQ
As Western preparations for a war on Iraq continue unabated, most Arabs have begun to feel that this is an attack, not just on Iraq, but on the Arabs as a people. The only Arab group outside this consensus are those who believe that anything is preferable to the Saddam Hussein regime and that only the US has the capacity to remove him. It is difficult to explain the American determination to fight this war, no matter what. The huge military build up in the Gulf goes on, despite. UN intervention, formal and popular opposition, and Iraqi ingenuity and compliance. It is noticeable that the US is prepared to apply a diplomatic approach to the much more serious situation in North Korea in a way which would be unthinkable in the Iraq case. Richard Perle, the top-level advisor to the US administration, declared yesterday that the US needs no UN mandate to make war on Iraq and that the weapons inspectors were wasting their time.
The real motives for this projected attack, despite a plethora of public pronouncements, speculation and analysis, are still confusing and mysterious. Many Arabs see in it a variety of sinister plots involving control over their oil, neo-colonialism of their region and the machinations of a hegemonic Israel. Much of this has been ascribed to the Arab obsession with conspiracy theories, and yet there is an anti-Arab theme running through the whole debate over Iraq. This is so pervasive as to appear at first sight implausible, but a deep and unconscious racism imbues every aspect of Western conduct and attitudes towards the Iraqi problem – and by extension the Arabs in general. There are striking similarities between the situation over Iraq today and the Suez crisis of 1956, and again during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
I was in Britain at that time, and I recall that it was Jamal Abdul Nasser who the arch villain, routinely compared to Hitler and demonised as the West’s number 1 enemy. All Arabs were crudely targeted with openly racist cartoons and descriptions. They were depicted as cowards and liars, never to be trusted. In the 1970s the image of Arabs as terrorists – as in the case of the Palestinians – or rich and corrupt gamblers and womanisers – as in the case of Gulf Arabs, augmented these stereotypes. Today in Britain, such overt anti-Arabness is unacceptable. But it has not gone. It merely takes subtler forms. There is a new villain to be attacked – Saddam Hussein. Because he stands accused of many crimes against his people and also neighbouring Kuwait, he has become the perfect surrogate for abuse from the disaffected, the politically simplistic and, above all, the anti-Arab racist. Where such people could not express their contempt for Arabs as inferior openly any more, they can do so via their attacks on Saddam. This new sport has been officially sanctioned since 1991, when Saddam Hussein stopped being useful to the US and he and his country became fair game. In the build up to the 1991 war, this pattern of anti-Saddam abuse was first established.
Ever since the first Gulf war, America and its Western allies have bizarrely portrayed the conflict as a fight with one man, Saddam Hussein, apparently existing in a void in which the 22 million Iraqi inhabitants do not feature. Even the name of the 1991 military campaign against Iraq, ‘Desert Storm’, helped reinforce this concept of an empty land. Absurdly, the Iraqi leader is always referred to by his first name, not in endearment of course but in the Arab view, to denigrate his status; no other president of a sovereign state is addressed in this way. (Arabs call him Saddam as well, but the reasons are quite different. As an Arabic personal name, it is almost unique and hence could be a surname. This implies no disrespect, as in the West). The language used about him reinforces that disrespect: “What we have done is put Saddam back firmly in his cage,” “he knows what he has to do” (Tony Blair, 1998 and 2002); “Saddam is bottled up”, (US Vice-President Dick Cheney, 2001). The epithets regularly applied to the Iraqi leader are so virulent and so extreme as to demonise him beyond reason. All sense of who he really is, a petty local chieftain – albeit brutal and ruthless - and Third World dictator in the mould of many others before him, has long vanished from the debate.
No wonder that in this scenario, the Iraqi people – the real victims of the West’s ferocious sanctions against Saddam Hussein - have been ignored. Their feelings, sufferings and wishes go unremarked, except when it has been politically expedient to adopt one or other group amongst them, the Marsh Arabs, the Shi’a community in southern Iraq, the Kurds. Under the latest UN Security Council resolution (1441) Iraqi scientists and their ‘immediate families’ can be removed out of Iraq for interrogation, like so many inanimate objects. This ignores both the rights and wishes of the people concerned but also the crucial fact that Arab families are traditionally extended. The immediate members make up a fraction of the much larger whole, and all are of important status No Iraqi would submit to any procedure that might endanger this extended family. In response, the US is considering issuing subpoenas demanding their presence outside Iraq.
To Arabs, Resolution 1441, unprecedented in its harshness, evokes nothing less than the image of a sadistic UN schoolmaster flogging an errant Iraqi pupil. At the same time, strenuous Western efforts have been made to groom Iraqi opposition groups for government - though they are notorious for being disunited, unstable and fractious - without the slightest concern for their legitimacy in Iraq or their acceptability to the Iraqi people. Undeterred, the US backed a major Iraqi opposition conference held in London in December to elaborate a future post-war strategy for Iraq. Reports from the conference spoke of petty squabbling and rivalry amongst the 50 or so groups there, while the US envoy was making ‘the real decisions’, in private meetings alongside the conference.
Likewise, the planning of the war on Iraq and its aftermath is callously unconcerned with the human consequences. Arab states considered necessary for launching the war have been ruthlessly coerced into acquiescence with the American plan, irrespective of the effects on their populations and governments. Thus, the Syrian president was invited to make a first ever official visit to Britain, part flattery, part arm-twisting. A sop to Arab feeling comes in the shape of Sawa, a sugary US radio station in Arabic recently established and aimed at wooing younger Arabs to the American point of view. In London, Tony Blair is trying to host a conference on Palestine during January, presumably ahead of the attack on Iraq. Worthy as this imitative would appear, one must suspect that it is yet another sop to the Arabs and a ploy to ensure their compliance over Iraq. There is open talk of an interim US governorship for Iraq after the anticipated fall of the present regime and an imposed leadership, possibly chosen from the same unreliable Iraqi opposition parties. As preparations to attack an Arab country intensify, the US continues its unabashed support for the Arabs’ greatest enemy, Israel, without regard for their sensibilities or the suffering of the Palestinians.
It might be argued that all this is no more than evidence of what nations do to others when they are going to war. But it is difficult for Arabs to see it as anything other than a perpetuation of Western colonialism in their region. This had at its basis a racist disregard for the needs and wishes of native peoples who were there to be exploited or manipulated at will. Their lives were considered worthless and their cultures inferior. Iraq’s earlier history under British rule in the 1920s when popular opposition was ruthlessly crushed with military force, including mustard gas, is a vivid reminder of this. In a 1921 official communication, Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, wrote: “I am strongly in favour of using poison gas on uncivilised tribes”. And afterwards, he added that the gas used against the Iraqi rebels had “excellent moral effects”. The creation of Israel in 1948 against the will of the native population is another classic example. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for this, consigned the Arab majority to the status of ‘non-Jewish communities’. And that dismissal of the indigenous population set the scene for the subsequent takeover of Palestine by European Jews.
The current US intent to wage an unprovoked and hugely destructive war on Iraq, its manipulations and political machinations are all redolent of this earlier colonialist tradition. The racism underlying this emanates from an anti-Arab culture in the US that gained strength after September 11th, though it was well established before Arabs are harassed and intimidated and 2000 are held without trial in US jails. Hundreds of Arabs responded to a recent call form the US authorities to submit themselves for questioning, and when they did so, many of them were immediately arrested and held without trial. Hollywood has made several overtly anti-Arab films, most notably the 1994 ‘True Lies’ that depicts murderous Arab terrorists bombing American cities. The mass media and countless cartoons depict Arabs in overtly racist ways and go unpunished. .
In view of the Arabs’ love affair with the West, and especially, with the US, it is important to be aware of this climate of anti-Arab hostility. Some of it overlaps with anti-Muslim hostility. And it is that climate which makes it possible for Palestinians to be killed in Israel on an average of three a day and for that to be a minor item in the news or not mentioned at all. And it is also that which will make a war on Iraq conceivable and eventually acceptable to Western leaders and many of their populations.
(In Arabic) Dar L-Adab January 2003