“The struggle of man against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting. ” — Milan Kundera.
This struggle is played out every day, in our living rooms, in news media, in the scholarly articles that some of us read and we are quite oblivious of this battle. The warriors in this struggle are numerous, the foreign correspondent is the “foot soldier”, the self-proclaimed “pundits” are the “commanders”, the op-ed columnist is the “general” while scholars might be the “Sun Tzus” of our time. Let me dissect the role that each plays with a few typical instances —
The Iran-Iraq War : 1980-1988 — Iran’s official history of the war shows that Iraq first used chemical weapons against its combatants on 13th January, 1981 — killing seven Iranians. Between 28 December 1980 and 20 March 1984, there were 63 separate chemical weapons attacks by the Iraqis. The world did not react. Never since the First World War had chemical weapons been used on such a scale and yet so great was the fear and loathing of Iran, so total the loyalty of Arabs to Saddam Hussein, so absolute the West’s support for Saddam against the spread of Khomeini’s revolution, that they were silent. These news items were never reported in the Arab press. In Europe and America, they were regarded as Iranian propaganda. Only in 1984 did New York Times grudgingly admitted that “Iraq used chemical weapons in repelling Iranian offensive.” The criticism was mild. There was no official criticism of Iraq’s policy.
In 1994, the “United States Chemical and Biological Warfare-related Dual-use exports to Iraq and their possible impact on the health consequences of the Persian-Gulf war ” report acknowledged that government-approved shipments of chemical weapons were sent by American companies to Iraq from 1985 or earlier. Throughout the war, America supplied Iraq with battlefield intelligence — which was used by the Iraqis to defeat Iranian offensives using poison gas.Iraq captured Fao on 19th April, 1988 using gas. They then used hydrogen cyanide gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja , by dropping it from jets, accusing the Kurdish Iraqis of collaborating with Iran. The chemicals were German, the jet was American and the 5000 dead, Iraqi Kurds.
This was one of the charges which the West used when it invaded Iraq in 2003. “Saddam gassed his own people.” They forgot to mention how and why.
Israel-Palestine : Peace Process & after ..
25th February, 1994 : Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli Army reserve officer in uniform, decided to massacre Palestinian worshippers in the mosque at Abraham’s tomb in Hebron. He was an educated man, an American-born doctor. More than fifty Palestinians died. 170 were wounded. The survivors literally beat him to death. Israeli military killed 25 out of the 50 or so total dead : enraged Palestinians as they tried to storm the mosque in the aftermath.
Within hours, the Associated Press altered the statistics. It claimed that Baruch killed only 29, and these were the official statistics. The identity of the Israeli suicide killer underwent a mysterious transformation. He was a Jewish settler and a reserve army officer in uniform. But he was called “an American Jewish immigrant”. His Israeli identity had begun to fade in twelve hours and American was touched by the crime. The man was not called a “terrorist” by any Western news outlet. Bill Clinton described the events as a “terrible tragedy” — the victims were not victims of terrorism, but of a tragedy, like a natural disaster, earthquake, tsunami perhaps!
These double standards in reporting are not the only instances. Palestinians are repeatedly demonized and bestialized in news reporting in the West. Here’s a small sample —
Rafael Eytan, the former Israeli chief of staff, has referred to Palestinians as “cockroaches in a glass jar” .Menachem Begin called them – “two-legged beasts”. The Shas party leader suggested that God should send the Palestinian “ants” to hell, also called them “serpents”. In August 2000, Ehud Barak called them “crocodiles”. Israeli chief of staff, Moshe Yalon described them as a “cancerous manifestation” and equated the military action in the occupied territories with “chemotherapy”. In March 2001, Israeli tourism minister, Rehavem Zeevi, called Arafat, a “scorpion”.
Clearly brutal, inhuman tactics are permitted against animals. If only enough people are convinced about the Palestinians being sub-human ! My last piece of evidence regarding the high standards of journalism that we seem to uphold is …
Thomas Friedman : The celebrated New York Times op-ed columnist, author of numerous books (“The World is Flat”), who reaches out to a very wide audience in America and Europe — is an example of the rot that has set in journalism. Here are some of his choicest remarks —
“Let’s all take a deep breath, and repeat after me: Give war a chance.”
“This is the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the U.S. has ever launched — a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world.”
“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”
“…I never believed or wrote that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could threaten us…….the right reason for the war was not W.M.D. It was to deal with the problem of P.M.D. — people of mass destruction.”
“This war is the most important liberal revolutionary U.S. democracy-building project since the Marshall Plan. We got off to an unnecessarily bad start but it’s one of the noblest things this country has ever attempted abroad, and it’s a moral and strategic imperative that we give it our best shot.”
“The next six months in Iraq… are the most important… ” November 2003 .. “Iraq will be won or lost in the next few months.” November 2004 … “We’re in a six-month window here…” September 2005 … “We’re going to know after six to nine months…” January 2006 … “It’s going to be decided in the next weeks or months…” April 2006 … “We’re going to find out… in the next year to six months.” May 2006
“It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not.”
“Let’s at least have a real air war. The idea that people are still holding rock concerts in Belgrade, or going out for Sunday merry-go-round rides, while their fellow Serbs are ‘cleansing’ Kosovo, is outrageous. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.”
“Let’s at least have a real war. It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted…Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.”
On Racist stereotypes
“If you can’t explain something to Middle Easterners with a conspiracy theory, then don’t try to explain it at all – they won’t believe it.”
“After every major terrorist incident the excuse makers come out to tell us why imperialism, Zionism, colonialism or Iraq explains why the terrorists acted. These excuse makers are just one notch less despicable than the terrorists and also deserve to be exposed.”
“Had we properly occupied the country, and begun political therapy, it is possible an American iron fist could have held Iraq together long enough to put it on a new course.
As long as voices like Friedman’s are heard above saner voices like Amira Hass, Robert Fisk, Eva Stern … journalism is going to be a “cheerleader for war” . But why is he so important ? What happened to our scholars, our professors, academics –who know better ?
Academia : I recently came across a book by Marc Gopin, visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and a visiting scholar in the programme on negotiation at Harvard. His book was titled “Holy War, Holy Peace : How Religion can bring Peace to the Middle East. ” It sounds very promising. But when you are confronted with phrases like “universalist mythic constructs” and “romanticised, amoral constructs of culture” and “fundamental dialogic immediacy” and “prosocial tendencies” .. you begin to lose hope very quickly. The author goes on to talk about the “the Abrahamic myth of a loving Patriarch and a loving God who care for a special people has created a home and a meaning system for millions of human beings.” The author grew up, in a ” self-consciously exilic spirituality”. He mentions the “interplay of political and mythic interdependencies” and the “ubiquitous psychological process of othering” . He wants to “problematise” intervention at “elite levels”. He says that a rabbi was “awash in paradoxicality” which proved that “cognitive dissonance is good for intractable conflicts”. There was more : “dialogic injuries”, “cultural envelope”, “family psychodynamics” , “the rich texture of hermeneutic possibility” , “porous barriers of spiritual identity” and, my favourite — “social intercourse” ! “Dialectic apologetics” makes a guest appearance, alongside “persecutorial othering” and several other “otherings”, including a reference to “pious transformation of old cognitive constructs as an end to othering : remythification. ”
Why this preposterous academic language ? This snobbishness. There is no such “exclusivist, secret language” in the works of Edward Said, Avi Shlaim, Martin Gilbert or Noam Chomsky. This prevents the masses from understanding the issues in their complexity. Academic rigour can go hand in hand with clarity. If our academia continue to encourage such mumbo-jumbo, it is no wonder that the masses look at Thomas Friedman for understanding and answers. It is up to the students in universities to rebel against this — the merest hint of “emics” and “constructs” and “otherings” or “hermeneutic possibilities” and we should walk out of class, shouting Winston Churchill’s famous retort — “This is English up with which I will not put. ”
Cinema and Mass Media : There is a routine bestialisation of Arabs and Muslims in Western cinema. I have several instances —
In the movie, “O Jerusalem” based on the eponymous book by Lapierre and Collins, there is an honourable, kind-hearted, moderate Arab who is friends with a Jew.
Similarly, the movie Exodus, based on the Leon Uris’ novel of 1948, also has a “good Arab”.
In the much-acclaimed “Ben Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia”, there are “good Arabs” who lend horses !
“The English patient”, a brilliant movie, has a blatantly racist scene (which has no place in the book on which it is based), where a British army officer is torturing a suspected German spy by chopping off his thumb. For this barbarous act, he calls a Muslim woman nurse forward, saying — “The Muslims, they understand this sort of a thing. What’s the punishment for adultery ? ” This abhorrently racist dialogue has no basis in the book.
Once we have thus established that there are “good Arabs”, out there, somewhere — we are, of course, free to concentrate on the rotten kind and treat them as we will !
Unless we can put an end to this “language war”, the slow and seductive radicalization of pubic opinion by propaganda , the historical conflicts in the Middle east shall linger. Peace can only be achieved with understanding. We have our “eyes wide shut” right now.