Essays, featured, Libya, Middle East
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Humanitarians for War: Language and the New Orientalists

by Alex Ray

Not-so-subtle dehumanisation of the targeted "other".

Not-so-subtle dehumanisation of the targeted “other”.

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

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/

8 Comments

  1. White Anglo Saxon Protestant WASP =Exceptionalism = Colonialism. It has been happening for centuries. Most Wasp countries practice it its in their DNA They think they r better an superior. Elitist cultural mindset. Blatant racism. Arian. The west is full of such behaviour and attitude. Canada ,Australia ,USA,and the UK always point out how great and true model of the world for all to c. Australians always point out “why does everyone want to live in Australia and migrate here?”. Not identifying that most migrants migrate 4 economic reasons and not because the sun shines out of their derrieres .

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    • chrisb says

      You like a bit of religious sectarianism, don’t you? I might be mistaken, but I seem to recall that Spain and Portugal had their own empires. Poor old Italy. Late to become a nation and late to start an empire. However, the Ethiopians were still made to pay for Italy’s imperial dreams. And what about Japan’s imperial dreams in the 30s, the expansion of Russia in past centuries, Muslim invasions of India or the Bantu peoples’ advance throughout Africa? Were they all Protestants?

      You cannot simply separate the economy from politics, the rule of law and other factors and then draw meaningful conclusions. Emigration patterns remain a powerful indicator of which country is the better place to live. That was why East Germany went to such expense and brutality to keep its people from travelling to the West.

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    • John says

      Not covered is the role of Bernard-Henri Lévy: –
      In March 2011, he engaged in talks with Libyan rebels in Benghazi, and publicly promoted the international acknowledgement of the recently formed National Transitional Council.[25][26] Later that month, worried about the 2011 Libyan civil war, he prompted and then supported Nicolas Sarkozy’s seeking to persuade Washington, and ultimately the United Nations, to intervene in Libya to prevent a massacre in Benghazi.[27]
      Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard-Henri_L%C3%A9vy.
      Bernard-Henri Lévy was – if nothing else – a “useful idiot” for Sarkozy and the French aggression against Libya.
      Clearly, the aggression against Libya and Qadaffi was personal for Sarkozy and was additionally motivated by the potential loss of French influence in the African Franc Zone if Qadaffi’s plans came into fruition.
      Quite why Cameron agreed to support such naked aggression against a sovereign state is unclear.
      Perhaps laundering the gold and silver proceeds through London was his price for Britain being involved?
      Does anyone know what happened to the gold and silver bullion of Libya after the murder of Qaddafi?

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      • Libya’s gold was secretly evacuated like that of Ukraine,where to ? America only knows,not Fort Knox which is likely to be just an empty guarded vault which has been denied a public audit since Oddjob met his shocking demise in there.
        What we can be sure of,is that any future Libyan government has as much chance of it’s gold being returned to the country as Germany has,a NATO ally, whose gold reserve was flown to the USA in case of a Soviet invasion,numerous polite requests for it’s return have all been met with dumb excuses: “it’s inconvenient”,”we have no available secured transport”or a diplomatic version of”Fu*k of Krout,you owe us for our bases”.
        The American oligarchy are very pious,they worship G.O.D.
        Gold,oil and drugs,and mean to control as much of it as they can lay their hands on.
        After all, their paper dollar scam can only survive so much quantitive easing before the international creditors ask for back up value other than military hardware.

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        • BigB says

          Where is the gold? A very good question indeed. Not in the Federal Reserve, nor in the Bank of England (thanks to Gordon) I might wager. Germany wants to repatriate its gold after they discovered the existence of fake tungsten cored bars – assayed in the Clinton era. France had to mount a humanitarian intervention in Mali to halt ‘al Qaeda’ – there was no al Qaeda but there are gold mines. Obama seized $30 bn of Libyan assets and 140 tons of Libyan gold disappears. All to stop Qaddafi setting up an African Central Bank based on the Gold Dinar.
          It might speculate that the upper echelons of power have created a fractional reserve scam with the worlds gold. Germany may or may not (not being the more likely) call them out. The message to the Qaddafis of this world is don’t fuck with our Ponzi scheme!

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  2. People will grumble into their beards and they will get away with it. People go to jail for a parking ticket and we are expected to look up to this kind of ‘justice in absentia’, a joke!

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