Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Of Sheikhs, Tribes and Occupation Forces

iraq > simplistic explanations > give the wrong impressions
This is Riverbend's latest post. In it she responds to this supposedly "objective" NYT article titled: "Iraqi Family Ties Complicate American Efforts for Change" [NYT free registration required]. The article, it turns out, is misleading in many respects - and it is refreshing to see an Iraqi woman eloquently tear some of its key premises to shreds. It's dangerous to draw simple pictures of complicated situations.
This type of analysis reminds me of the semi-accurate (and thus worse than inaccurate!) descriptions of Balkan history, societies, conflicts etc. which plagued the "serious" western press during the attack on Yugoslavia. It was then that I first realized the superficiality of knowledge of the supposed area "experts" and the naiveness (or even lack of intelligence) of many of the foreign correspondents. There were cab-drivers in Athens, butchers in Sofia and factory workers in Bucharest with deeper knowledge of the area's politics and attitudes, the limits that could be reached, and the possible outcomes of conflict. Yet a war was waged then, based on false premises and with rather questionable results.
Similarly in Iraq, this sort of coverage serves to present an easily digestible picture, a picture that can be used then as "fact" or as "background" in the political discussion. See for example how John Tierney's article attempts to, indirectly, demonstrate the backwardness of the Iraqis and thus "explain" the delay in handing Iraq back to its people:

"'Japan and India have managed to blend traditional social structures with modern democracy, and Iraq could do the same,' said Stanley Kurtz, an anthropologist at the Hoover Institution. But it will take time and finesse, he said, along with respect for traditions like women wearing the veil."

More confusion: ""A key purpose of veiling is to prevent outsiders from competing with a woman's cousins for marriage," Dr. Kurtz said. "Attack veiling, and you are attacking the core of the Middle Eastern social system.""

Well then, how come Iraq was a country in which women were least likely to wear the veil under the Ba'athist regimes (as compared to the rest of the Middle East)?

Much of the NYT analysis is thinly veiled colonial rhetoric with impressively misleading statements:

"The families resulting from these marriages have made nation-building a frustrating process in the Middle East, as King Faisal and T. E. Lawrence both complained after efforts to unite Arab tribes."

Well, Iraq was carved out by the British in such a way as to ensure that a. it wouldn't have too much of the Middle East's oil production and b. it will include very disparate national and religious elements so as to make a stable national state practically unachievable. It's kind of disingenuous to blame family structure before colonial calculations for this "predicament".
It's also worth mentioning that referring to T.E.Lawrence as a "nation builder" is to indulge in a serious misrepresentation of history.

Oh and I'm all for riverbend's virtual sheikhdom! Nice work riverbend. Debunking of misrepresentations about Iraq (and the Arab world in general) is sorely needed.
[Update Oct. 2: Riverbend has a few more things to add about the "veil" issue...]

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