Published on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 by The Age / Australia
To Bush, the Arab is Always the Villain
by Joseph Wakim
George Bush insists that the crimes committed by United State military guards inside Iraqi prisons were an aberration of American values. He fails to see that they are a culmination of his own indoctrination.
Indeed, many in the Arab world were not as shocked as George Bush at these crimes, given the history of Western Orientalism that long preceded Arab terrorism.
The investigations into these war crimes should start not with prison guard Lynndie England, Brigadier-General Janis Karpinski or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The investigations should start with the warmongering of the President himself.
In 2001, Bush galvanized the fury over the September 11 attacks and channeled it against Osama bin Laden. Although the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown, the elusive al-Qaeda leader - "wanted, dead or alive" - remained elusive.
When the US military failed to bring home the No.1 trophy, Bush redefined the enemy. In his January 2002 State of the Union address, he drew the battlelines against the "axis of evil". He demonized Saddam Hussein as the No.2 trophy and incited the troops into Iraq with "let's roll!".
In his May 2003 speech from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared: "Any person involved in committing or planning terrorist attacks against the American people becomes an enemy of this country, and a target of American justice... We are pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime who will be held for account for their crimes."
In his November 2003 Thanksgiving address to the troops in Baghdad, Bush again psyched up his forces by trumpeting, "you are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq".
After more than two years of beating the drums of war, and expanding the definition of terrorists, can the fatigued US soldiers be blamed when the battlelines start to blur - between Iraqi terrorists and Iraqi civilians, between those "with us" and those "against us", between good and evil?
When all the Iraqis start to look the same, like the angry terrorist that has been drummed into their imaginations, can the US soldiers be blamed when they (mis)treat their Iraqi captives as "targets of American justice"?
The dehumanizing of the enemy and the fantasy of bringing home a trophy were echoed in comments made by peers of Lynndie England: "A lot of people here think they ought to just blow up the whole of Iraq... If you're a different race, you're subhuman... Every season here, you're hunting something. Tormenting Iraqis would be no different to shooting a turkey."
But long before the young soldiers were psyched up by Bush, the anti-Arab predisposition was already there. A steady diet of Hollywood films invariably cast the Arab as the quintessential villain. This generation of US soldiers would have been exposed to blockbusters such as Delta Force (1986), True Lies (1995), Executive Decision (1996), The Siege (1998) and Rules of Engagement (2000). In each conquest, the American heroes reduced the terrorist Arabs to incarceration or incineration. And in each conquest, Arabs were the villains because they were uncivilized and intrinsically evil.
But these Hollywood images are born out of fantasy, not reality. They are born out of a need to differentiate the West from the East. In his classic book Orientalism (1978), the late Arab-American Edward Said wrote: "The Orient has helped to define... the West as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience."
This contrast was epitomized by the image chosen for the book's front cover - The Snake Charmer, from French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, circa 1880. As in Gerome's The Slave Market, Arabs are depicted as naked, erotic, depraved and titillating.
This classic image has chilling and uncanny similarities to the photographs of stripped Iraqis, reduced to animals, forced to pose for their American audience in a meat festival. Perhaps this orgy of humiliation was intended to reinforce that "contrasting image" between the civilized, human West and the uncivilized, subhuman Arabs. Ironically, it has reinforced some of the Arab stereotypes of the sexually obsessed West.
But anyone who has studied the evolution of civilization would understand the irony here: Western civilization owes some of its roots to the Sumerians who lived 5000 years ago in the land we now know as Iraq. In this cradle of civilization the first system of writing was developed, and the potter's wheel, the seed plough and many other creations we now take for granted were invented. But there is no place for these sobering facts in today's fantasy of how we imagine the Arabs to be, or should be, relative to us.
The photos of enslaved Iraqis are not some freak accidents that "don't represent America"; they represent a direct but extreme byproduct of anti-Arab indoctrination. They are on the same continuum as Orientalism, Hollywood and Bush - all of which sustain a fantasy about conquering inferior Arabs.
Even the 18th century BC Babylonian King Hammurabi could not blame his soldiers and pawns for the inculcations of their masters and emperors.
Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner
Copyright © 2004. The Age Company Ltd.