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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Liberating the Middle East

Liberating the Middle East
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

According to President Bush, America invaded Iraq in order to liberate the Iraqis from an oppressive dictator. Over the long-term, establishing democracy in Iraq is supposed to lead to democratic changes throughout the Middle East. Supporters of this perspective don't seem to realize that similar goals have been tried before.

In Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East, Rashid Khalidi offers these interesting quotes:

"Oh ye Egyptians, they may say to you that I have not made an expedition hither for any other object than that of of abolishing your religion, but tell the slanderers, but I have not come to you except for the purpose of restoring your rights from the hands of the oppressors."
- Napoleon Bonaparte July 2, 1798

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators. It is the hope and desire of the British people, and the nations in alliance with them, that the Arab race may rise again to greatness and renown among the peoples of the earth.
- Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, Commander of British Forces in Baghdad, March 19, 1917.

"Unlike many armies in the world you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate."
- Don Rumsfeld, speaking to US troops, April 2003

A few months after Bonaparte's statement, there was revolt against the French. Within 3 years of Maude's statement, the British had to beat back an uprising in Fallujah where Sunnis and Shia joined forces against British troops. America's experience in Iraq has, then, been quite similar to how other Western powers have been treated when they invaded Middle Eastern nations in order to liberate them from oppression.

In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, Mahmood Mamdani explains that for Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, often vilified by the West, the ultimate goal is the establishment of human freedom and dignity under an Islamic order, not human repression. For Qutb and his followers, not unlike the people quoted above, violence is a necessary tool for spreading freedom. Mamdani quotes Qutb:

Islam is a declaration of the freedom of every man or woman from servitude to other humans. It seeks to abolish all those systems and governments that are based on the rule of some men over others, or the servitude of some to others. When Islam releases people from this political pressure and presents to them its spiritual message, appealing to their reason, it gives them complete freedom to accept or reject it.

Isn't this interesting? Qutb's stated goals are much the same as the stated goals of Western invaders of the Middle East, including America. Qutb, though, is often cited as a symbol of what Western powers regard as the problem in the Middle East. Qutb's followers are not treated like colleagues in the cause of advancing liberty; instead, they are the enemies. Qutb and his followers are the "Islamo-fascists" leading the "war on terrorism" against America and the West.

How an this be? How can Qutb talk about freedom from oppression and be regarded by so many Muslims as an advocate of freedom from oppression, but then be regarded by the West as the enemy? The definition of "freedom" and "oppression" quite simply differs in the West and the Middle East. To cite one example, many Muslims regard veils and other coverings for women as signs of "freedom" because they allow women to move freely in public spaces without being eyed as sexual objects. In the West, they are often seen as signs of oppression because they set women apart and don't allow them to move in public like men do.

Here, then, we can begin to understand why Western armies, even if motivated by the best of intentions, won't necessarily be treated as liberators by Muslims in the Middle East. Even if Western forces overthrow oppressive dictators, the liberty which some Arab Muslims will sincerely seek to establish isn't necessarily the same liberty which Westerners seek to establish. Insofar as Western forces oppose Muslims' ideas about what constitutes freedom, they will become the oppressors -- and foreign oppressors, too, which are almost always regarded as worse than home-grown oppressors.

Then there is the fact that any attempt to liberate people by force carries significant risks. If you are liberating people who have not been under oppression for long and who have past traditions of respecting liberty, democracy, and the rule of law, then the chances of liberation-by-force leading to positive results are high. If, however, you are dealing with people who have long labored under oppression and who have no such traditions to fall back upon, then the chances of success are small at best.

To understand why this is so, it's important to recognize that the use of force, violence, and war can have such a profound impact on one's environment. War isn't simply a shortcut to desirable ends; instead, it changes the nature of the goals you are reaching towards. There is a tremendous difference between achieving liberation through peaceful, legal, democratic means and achieving liberation through violence: the former teaches people what they need in order to live under the rule of law whereas the latter teaches people that if the current system doesn't provide them with what they want or need, then it's appropriate to use violence instead.

Since every election and every political decision leads to results where some people don't get what they want, there will always be the temptation to use violence to restructure matters — and isn't this what we are witnessing in Iraq? The problem isn't that Iraqis are inferior or unfit for democracy — a nasty bit of rhetoric which has predictably been making the rounds among far-right writers. Instead, the problem is simply that they haven't developed public habits of submitting to the rule of law out of choice (rather than fear) nor have they ever had enough confidence in public institutions to believe that such submission won't lead to oppression, imprisonment, or even eradication.

To a certain extent, freedom in every society depends upon the ability to suppress violence. In some societies, little overt and official action is needed. In other societies, violence becomes so prevalent that people demand greater force and repression simply for the sake of being able to go to the market without having to worry about getting home alive. If the choice is between anarchy and tyranny, most people want tyranny — in a sense, that's what helped bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan originally. It may be the way Afghanistan is starting to turn again and Iraq is already well on its way down that road now. Bush and his few remaining supporters insist that America invaded to establish their own brand of freedom, but the use of violence to do so has done a lot to contribute to a context of escalating violence which may, in turn, contribute to establishing Qutb's band of freedom.

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