Monday, 15 November 2010

It's all our fault - again

When more than fifty innocent people were massacred in a Baghdad church two weeks ago, most analysts concluded that the perpetrators were al Qaeda operatives, probably from outside Iraq. But William Dalrymple thinks he knows who’s really responsible for this outrage, and for the recent bomb attacks on Christian suburbs of the city.

I’ll give you a clue: it’s a four-letter word beginning with ‘B’. And for Dalrymple, any Bush will do. Dubya, obviously, since it was he who, by removing Saddam Hussein from power, ‘created a highly radicalised pro-Iranian sectarian killing field, where most of the Iraqi Christian minority has been forced to flee abroad’. Did Bush manage this all by himself, I hear you ask? What about the sectarian killers themselves, or their Iranian backers: don’t they share some responsibility for the violence? Apparently not, since they don’t merit a mention in Dalrymple’s unipolar blame game.

But Dubya’s dad doesn’t escape responsibility either. ‘Before Bush senior took on Saddam for the first time in 1991, there were more than a million Christians in Iraq.’ Notice that, for Dalrymple, this 'taking on' of Saddam comes entirely out of the blue, as if the US president were the sole originator of the first Gulf War. You’d never know that the US intervention, at the head of an international coalition backed by the UN, was in response to Saddam’s unprovoked invasion of a neighbouring country. It’s difficult to see the connection, either, between this action and the declining numbers of Christians in Iraq. Dalrymple’s method here is the familiar nudge-nudge guilt-by-association of the root-causer.

But inevitably, it’s Bush 2 who is made to carry most of the burden for the fate of Iraq’s Christian community: ‘Of the 800,000 Christians still in Iraq when Dubya unleashed the US army on Saddam for the second time, two thirds have fled the country.’ Again, note the implication of direct cause and effect, and the careful elimination of any other causal factors or responsible agents.

Dalrymple, in passages that recall the fair-minded historian he used to be, does have some interesting things to say about the gradual depletion of the Christian population in Iraq over the centuries, but his main focus is on recent events:

This haemorrhage accelerated after the ill-judged post-9/11 Anglo-American adventures in the Islamic world, and particularly after Bush used the word crusade, which in the eyes of many Muslims implicated the Arab Christians in a wider crusader assault on the Muslim world.

‘Unleashed’ ‘ill-judged’ ‘assault’: Dalrymple's hostility to western policy since 9/11 couldn't be plainer. ‘Adventures’ conjures up, as it is meant to, Victorian imperialist forays into the Middle East and Asia, a theme of much of Dalrymple’s recent historical writing. As with the reference to Kuwait, the intention is to construe these interventions as strategies to advance western interests, rather than as legitimate responses to murderous attacks by others, whether Saddam or al Qaeda.

To cap it all, we’re led to believe that it was the use of a single word – ‘crusade’ – by Bush junior which somehow sealed the fate of Arab Christians. This smacks of the justification offered by those who attacked the Baghdad church. They held innocent Iraqi Christians 'responsible' for the almost-burning of the Koran by an obscure Christian pastor in Florida. It's the logic of the playground bully: your friend called me a rude word, so now I'm going to beat you up. Does Dalrymple agree that Islamic extremists are crazy and irrational when they justify their actions in this way? If he does, I think he should say so, rather than lending credibility to their warped logic.

Of course, even many who suported the invasion of Iraq would agree that the aftermath was poorly prepared for and badly managed, and that Bush and his administration must bear some responsibility for the chaos and destruction that followed in its wake. But even if the planning and management of Iraq's reconstruction had been superb, it can be argued that the ethnic and religious tensions held in check by decades of repression would inevitably have risen to the surface once Saddam had gone. Even if Saddam had been removed by an orderly UN-sanctioned intervention, some kind of communal violence was bound to follow, as those who had been disenfranchised by the dictatorship took revenge on those who had oppressed them - and that's without allowing for the malign interference of Iraq's neighbours, waiting in the wings with their own territorial and ideological agendas. Only another military dictatorship could possibly have suppressed those unleashed forces, and I don't think Dalrymple is arguing that would have been preferable. Or maybe he thinks it would have been better if Saddam had been left in place, and the Christians had continued to enjoy their apparent privileges under his rule?

What's really striking about Dalrymple's argument is the utter failure to attach any blame for the attacks against Christians, or the wider post-invasion violence, to the actual perpetrators, or their international sponsors. So keen is he to hold Bush (and Blair, of course) uniquely responsible for all the evils in the region, and to see the west as the source of all its problems, that he works overtime to remove all sense of agency from Iraqi insurgent groups, al Qaeda and their proxies, and the Iranian regime.

Occasionally Dalrymple's own sources work against him, as when he quotes Lebanese professor Kamil Salibi as saying that there's 'a feeling of fin de race among Christians all over the Middle East. It's a feeling that 14 centuries of having all the time to be smart, to be ahead of the others, is long enough'. Strangely, for a historian, Dalrymple himself fails to locate the current problems of Iraqi Christians in this wider historical context of the slow departure of Christians from a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt and Palestine.

Yes, of course, the turmoil created by recent wars has accelerated the process. But surely the elephant in the room in Dalrymple's argument is the rise of militant Islam, with its fierce intolerance not only of Christianity, but of any other religion besides its own fundamentalist creed. Some have suggested that the current experience of Christians in majority-Muslim countries parallels that of the Jews, including the once-substantial Jewish population of Iraq, who were forced out of Arab countries after the Second World War by rising Islamic intolerance and antisemitism.

As always, it seems odd for a writer like Dalrymple, who bangs on endlessly about the legacy of colonialism, to adopt a rhetorical strategy which, with a kind of lofty intellectual imperialism, denies agency or rational responsibility to non-western actors, and sees them as capable only of reacting mindlessly to the actions of the west.


Bob-B said...

No doubt Dalrymple would vigorously deny being any sort of racist, but his position that only Westerners are responsible for their actions is clearly a racist position, as is his apparent position that Christians can only be safe in an Arab country if it is in the grip of a totalitarian dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog, Martin. This Dalrymple fella has no common sense. I personally know a Persian family who moved here 5 years ago because, "It was becomming too dangerous to be a Christian in Turkey". What does it take for these misguided, uninformed, agenda-driven miscreants like Dalrymple to see the truth? It boggles the mind.

GitaSahgal said...

I like many of your points especially the central point about the lack of agency and responsibility being attributed to the actual perpetrators of attacks.

However, there is an argument - which in fact Dalrymple does not make - that the US and Britain played with 'communal politics' in the way in which they dealt with Iraqi politics and the insurgency. See Nadje Al Ali's work and other Iraqi commentators talking about this.
Gita Sahgal

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment, Gita, great to hear from you.

I agree with you about the communalist tendencies, particularly of British policy in the south of the country. I wrote about this, and the devastating impact on women's rights in Iraq, here: