Humanitarians for War: Language and the New Orientalists
A UK House of Commons inquiry into the 2011 attack on Libya and the country’s subsequent collapse has found what many suspected: NATO and its Gulf Arab allies used their ‘Responsibility To Protect’ to launch their attack even though:
“… the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”
Though the MPs’ damning report blames Libya’s political and economic collapse on former Prime Minister David Cameron, the manipulation of public opinion to lay the basis for war is built upon longstanding – but now sharpened – processes and semantic structures that prepare populations to accept punitive action against a targeted ‘other’.
In an earlier example, on October 10 1990, a young Kuwaiti woman known as ‘Nayirah’ testified before the United States’ Congressional Human Rights Caucus that invading Iraqi soldiers had gone into hospitals and thrown babies from their incubators.
Nayirah turned out to be the daughter of the then Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington. Her testimony was false and prepared by a PR company. But it was solid gold for the US campaign to intervene militarily. Amnesty International provided influential support for Nayirah’s story. The ‘depravity’ of Saddam Hussein’s government was proffered by governments and mainstream media as a key reason for military intervention.
In March, 2011, Libyan opposition fighters and a Libyan psychologist, Dr Seham Sergewa told foreign media that pro-Qaddhafi fighters were being ordered to carry out viagra-fuelled mass rapes. The claim – spread by Al-Jazeera – was this time picked up by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Although Amnesty International questioned some of the claims this time, the rape story was one of many myths that contributed to the NATO bombardment of Libya – the beginning of the end of the Libyan state.
The ‘humanitarian’ battle cry of 2011 was another manifestation of neo-Orientalist rhetoric directed towards out-of-favour leaders or groups.
Edward Said’s “Orientalism” referred to Western stereotyping of Arabs and Arab culture through a colonial lens. Currently, Neo-Orientalism is typically based on sensational claims that target ‘others’ (leaders or groups) by depicting them as intrinsically alien, evil and irrational, in order to justify aggression against them.
Qaddhafi’s relationship with the West was full of moments that prepared us to unquestionably accept claims of his barbarity – to the extent that Hillary Clinton could mock his torture and murder by rebels.
Regardless of his positive and negative attributes, the language used to describe Qaddhafi – a son of peasant goat herders – was often insulting and unprofessional. Journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer for example: “
… resplendent in the gold brocade robes that he probably made from his mother’s curtains and wearing his usual bug-eye sunglasses… The world’s oldest teenager…”
The New York Times treated Qaddhafi’s international visits featuring his bedouin tent as a circus fit for New York’s Coney Island rather than an important cultural symbol of Libya’s or Qaddhafi’s heritage. One wonders whether anyone would dare attempt similar treatment of Australia’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy which has been a feature of the capital Canberra since 1972.
There were numerous stories of the ‘chauvinistic’ displays of Qaddhafi’s ‘Amazonian’ republican guard. However ‘Amazonian’ legends of powerful female bodyguards have a long history in North Africa and especially Libya. Greek mythology – the source of Amazonian legends – speaks of Queen Myrina the Amazonian queen who led military victories in Libya. Under Islam there was the wealthy and powerful King Musa I of Mali, who was protected by such an Amazonian troop while undertaking the Hajj in 1332. It seems not a single commentator bothered to note the antecedents of such symbolism before resorting to ridicule.
It is not only the media and politicians who join the neo-Orientalist derision of disagreeable leaders. Descriptions of Qaddhafi in Harvard professor and historian Roger Owen’s recent work The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life, exhibit shades of cultural superiority. After indulging in psychological speculation about Arab leaders, Owen (p.199) criticises Qaddhafi’s relationship with the African Union particularly his “bringing African heads of state to Libya and posturing before them in ‘African’ costumes of his own design with absurd-looking little round caps”.
Aside from Owen’s dismissal of the African Union, he sees no irony in ridiculing Qaddafi for doing exactly what the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries do at APEC and G20 meetings – put on ‘absurd’ cultural uniforms like the imagined Australian stockmen’s outfits worn by APEC leaders in Sydney in 2007:
John Howard and George W. Bush at APEC in Sydney 2007, Source: The Guardian
Owen depicts Arab governments as wholly subject to the whims of a strongman leader. While the West – and sometimes Arab leaders themselves – like to portray authoritarian governments as ruled by maniacal and all-powerful men individually, this is rarely the case – especially in Libya as demonstrated by this Wikileaks cable showing disagreements amongst the Libyan leadership.
Such systems are far too complex to be overseen by one person. As Oxford Professor Richard Bosworth argues, in addition to clouding other factors involved in the operation of such states, judgemental and presumptive treatments such as Owen’s tend to dismiss leaders as mad and evil which prevents comprehensive understanding.
The terminology of ‘regimes’ and ‘governments’ is another rhetorical tool aimed at demonising chosen targets. ‘Regimes’ sound all controlling, mechanical and despotic while ‘governments’ sound rational, responsive and civil. But as academic Lisa Anderson has pointed out the term ‘regime’ is widely misused. A regime is the: “set of rules, or cultural or social norms that regulate the relations between ruled and rulers. Including how laws are made and administered and how the rulers are themselves selected”. As such regimes come in types, Totalitarian, Authoritarian, Democratic etc.
A ‘government’ on the other hand “comprises those incumbents and the policies associated with them”. Referring to the ‘Qaddhafi Regime’ or ‘Mubarak Regime’ is a problematic conflation of regime type, government and the actors involved in it. Applying the same conflation to Western governments would result in labels like ‘Obama regime’.
‘Orientals’ or just the non-compliant?
Neo-Orientalist language cannot be explained away as a reaction to brutality. If a leader’s brutality was the benchmark for engaging in this form of vitriol, it could be just as easily applied to every US President.
Rather the point of this type of language is to de-legitimise and de-humanise or barbarise a targeted ‘other’. Neo-Orientalist language has (mostly) retreated from typecasting entire civilisations – as this has become less acceptable among western audiences – and has retreated to depictions of individual leaders, sub-groups or sub-ideologies.
Those selected, most commonly for their ‘uncooperative’ international behaviour, are not worthy of engagement or understanding, simply of fear and loathing. The use of violence against such ‘irrational’ forces becomes legitimate and ‘just’.
The language of neo-Orientalism takes many guises, from the ‘war on terror’ to ‘humanitarian intervention’ and has been so successful in cloaking itself in ‘liberal’ values that it attracts support from across the political spectrum.
As Robert Irwin pointed out in his 2006 critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the expression of ‘Orientalist’ language does not need to be limited in time (to the European colonial period) or place (the Arab world). By seeking to solely link Orientalism to the European and American imperial ages Said confused and understated the breadth of his argument. Orientalism was not limited to ‘the Orient’, but was and is directed at other groups – both ethnic and political.
For example, western media treatment of Russian President Vladimir Putin also involves ridicule of both cultural symbolism and psychological state.
According to Vox News and Angela Merkel, Putin’s machismo is a cover for “personal insecurity as a weak leader” and is responsible for his “invasion of Ukraine”. We are also told Putin’s ‘machismo’ and ‘aggression’ is the cumulative embodiment of Russian shame and weakness. Merkel was quoted as saying “Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this [machismo].”
Without delving into to the possible objections to this account, why is Putin’s ‘aggressive’ behaviour seen as a unique flaw in individual and national character? What about the destruction that the United States wrought following the ‘injury’ to the American ego that was September 11? What about the UK’s war of indignation in the Falkland Islands? With the same logic and tone one could posit that the entire British colonial age was a result of ego issues within the ‘lonely little island in the North Sea’.
What of Hillary Clinton’s psychological state or the culture she embodies? Sold as the ‘normal’ presidential candidate, this is the woman who mocked Qaddhafi’s death with “We came, we saw, he died…” and seems to carry no baggage from the destruction of a country on almost entirely false pretences.
One persuasive critic of neo-Orientalism, Alastair Crooke, identifies it as a manifestation of a Western mindset of dominance in the present era. “
… this is the new racialism… a hierarchy of civilisations in which the West sees its civilisation as the most appropriate one for the future… superior and the template that should be imposed on others…”
Status quo powers deploy much effort and money to explain their transgressions but most are based on the simple assumption that equal standards do not apply; we are ‘rational’ and ‘just’, they are not.
Alex Ray works on cultural exchange between the West and the Arab world. Based in Jordan, he holds a MA in Middle East and Central Asian Studies from the Australian National University and is a former student of the University of Damascus. He writes at https://betweendeserts.wordpress.com/
No comments yet.