Monday, November 12, 2007

What it's all about

One of the things that happens in public discussions in America about Iraq and the Arab world is that there is a tendency for the decency and the humanity of the people being talked about to gradually get chipped away. This is not necessarily anyone's personal aim, although sometimes it is. By chipped away I mean that gradually people's impression of an Iraqi dissolves and degrades until it seems now about the only concept people have is of Iraq as a nation of animals, not some of them but all of them, poised to be at each others throats but for the calming presence of the US military.

We got to that degraded conception in stages. One of the stages was the conflation of the Iraqi national resistance with the takfiiri crazies of AlQaeda, and it was in that connection that I called attention to the problem in the case of Juan Cole, who was doing quite a bit of that (conflating, that is). It seemed to be just sloppiness, and the tacit explanation was always: AlQaeda, Baath, Sunni insurgents, what's the difference really anyway, they're all for indiscriminate violence, aren't they?

Another stage was the denigration of Moqtada al-Sadr and the Sadr movement, and in that case the thing that made me hit the roof was a couple of bloggers with their jocular "Mookie" stories, depicting al-Sadr as mainly a crime-boss interested primarily in taking the shrine-revenues away from the Ayatollah Sistani and his group. Their theme was that the movement as a social phenomenon and more particularly its nationalist component, were largely cosmetic, the underlying assumption being that while what you and I say is to be taken at face value, the discourse of the likes of Sadr and Sistani is mainly a cover for financial objectives. And so it went. When I called attention to those cases, I didn't make my point very well, because all I was able to notice was the coincidence that what they were denigrating happened to be the main US military target at the time. And the issues looked uncomfortably personal.

And of course the corporate media was doing the same thing all the time.

What I wasn't able to spell out was really the nub of what has been bothering me, namely that the careless nonchalance and off-handedness about how these people and others discuss Iraqis, eventually leads to plain contempt. Or at least to a lack of the kind of direct grasp of the humanity and the decency of the human beings that we have involved in this catastrophe. What that, in turn, leads to is a tolerance for brutality. While people blame the media for no longer telling us about US military tactics, really it is the sensitivity that has worn off. Some will say that is normal over the course of time, but the argument is circular. And what I am calling this careless nonchalance and off-handedness in the public discourse about them has a lot to do with it.

The event that really crystallized this in my mind was the publication of a piece of crackpot science on an academic blog yesterday (see the prior post), the gist of which was to show that the engineering profession is overrepresented in "terrorist groups", and that the reason is that the "mindsets" of jihadis and engineers are similar. I am pleased to say that the vast majority of the comments on that blog were critical of the study, and for a variety of reasons. My reason was this: The study lumped together members of Hamas (80 people in the "sample", out of a total of 404), with other groups that presumably included actual cases of violent activity. All under the same "terrorist groups" rubric. And while the "share of engineers" was noticeably different between Hamas and non-Hamas, which was interesting in itself, the point was the audacity of taking one group that belongs to a national-resistance organization, conflating them with a group of essentially violent individuals, finding a common denominator (lots of engineers), and then interpreting that common feature in a denigrating way (supposedly both single-minded, hyper-conservative and prone to violence).

This kind of shabby argument clearly wouldn't wash if the subject was any other religious or ethnic group but Arabs and Muslims, and as I read it I realized that the procedure has the same kind of easy nonchalance and off-handedness that I have been talking about in those other cases. So what if some in the group are bombers and some are no more than members of a social movement. They are all Islamists! Radical Islamists! That was the argument. The parallel, in the sense of an anti-Muslim version of anti-semitism finally dawned on me.

Regrettably my objections weren't answered. Instead the presenter of this study launched a counter-attack. (I recall "stupid" and "quasi-paranoid" and there was more, from this professor). The gist of his defence seemed to be that the appropriateness of having Hamas in the study couldn't be discussed because it would be tantamount of a "dogfight" over Israel, and he has a policy against that. In other words, from my point of view, another case of: Hey, it's close enough for government work: Hamas, jihadis, what's the difference, really? The professor presumably being aware that in fact it makes all the difference in the world to differentiate these two competing groups, as American policy gradually squeezes Hamas thus pushing it in the radical direction.

In all of these cases the problem for me is in communicating the substance of what is involved, namely the dangers of continuing to tolerate what are seemingly only a slightly-offhand or only a tiny bit contemptuous treatment of Arabs and Muslims, as the process moves toward a form of full-blown racial and religious hatred. Maybe I'll get better at it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well badger, i guess someone really didn't want a discussion on that topic.

The parallel, in the sense of an anti-Muslim version of anti-semitism finally dawned on me.



6:34 PM  
Blogger badger said...

(annie is referring to a now-defunct comment)

9:05 PM  

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