tendency to regard the Middle East as inferior and incapable of forming its own destiny'. In the second article to mark the anniversary of the invasion of Kuwait, Haleh Afshar looks at stereotypes of Islam
The sword and the book
THE Gulf war has caused considerably more long term damage than the burning of oil wells and the deaths of thousands of civilians. It was a war that was rooted in a lack of understanding on the part of the western powers of the history, traditions and political problems of the Middle East.
The war was made possible and straightforward by the West's long-standing tendency to regard the Middle East as inferior and incapable of forming its own destiny. But the likely result of this tragic episode is that the region will move towards an Islamic solution in which western capitalism :is renounced for Islamic fundamentalism.
Islam is not only a religion, but a way of life and a political framework. So it becomes highly problematic if the sword is allowed to be used against the people of the book, In the West, the images of the unleashed sword of Islam have been brandished more than once across the television screens, with the implicit message that death and destruction would follow if the Moslem community was not controlled.
Yet if we look at the history of Islam, we find that though it conquered by the sword, it has ruled over the Middle East for 13 centuries by faith and not force. It is curious how this long period of relatively untroubled rule has been forgotten or ignored by the West.
The reality is that less than a century of western, Christian, "peace-loving" imperialism has turned the Middle East into a nightmare, whereas 13 centuries of "sword-waving, blood-thirsty" Moslems did not. Islam created a unified empire, where all Moslems were regarded as part of the same nation. Moslem caliphs allowed the empire to develop its own character and Arab conquerors became long-term settlers.
By contrast, western imperialism used its rule to drain the resources of what, in the process, has become the third world. To facilitate this, the people of the empire of capitalism were regarded as different, inferior, and quite unjustifiably as "ignorant". Racism helped the imperialists to define the Middle East as a region of resources rather than a land of people with rights and entitlements. It is, therefore, not surprising that the West felt no compulsion about drawing arbitrary lines across the map and creating new nation-states.
The West could not understand why, after all the Iraqi atrocities, the Iranians opposed the new Gulf war. The militant clergy, rohaniateh mobarez, the cutting edge of Iranian fundamentalism, joined the fray.
Their call for a massive demonstration against the war received a massive response. Astonishingly, Iranians were backing Saddam Hussein, the very man who had been condemned to death by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian spiritual leader had also issued the death warrant against Selman Rushdie, but whereas Rushdie was still fearing for his life, Saddam Hussein emerged as the new hero of Islam.
During the war, my phone rang non-stop. Friends in Tehran were furious. As one of them explained: "what I hate most is that they the Allies are making a martyr of this villain". Saddam Hussein had already taken on the mantle of Khomeini, unperturbed by the death sentence, fatwa, that was still hanging over his head.
The militant clergy denounced the western imperialists and called on the public to stage protest marches: "once more history witnesses the disgraceful collaboration of imperialist power to demolish human rights and to pulverise Moslems, their life and their freedom" (Kayhan, January 20,1991). It was not that the Iranian clergy wished to back Saddam, but they were compelled to do so.
As long as the West keeps its historical blinkers on and goes on thinking that the Middle East is there to be divided and ruled, the region will continue to be a seething cauldron of discontent. How would a British person feel if, as an Iranian, I wreaked havoc on the Jews in Iran and then asked for the county of Hampshire to house them permanently?
Why should Moslems in general and Palestinians in
particular pay for the guilt of Christians? After all, Islam is heavy on obedience and submission and light on guilt. And the Palestinians had enjoyed a long history of peaceful coexistence with the Jews before the Balfour Declaration and the takeover.
If the United Nations has really woken up at last, if UN resolutions are there to be enforced, are we to look forward to the Allies racing to "liberate" the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip? Is systematic killing by the Israeli armed forces not the same kind of killing as that of the Iraqi armed forces?
Is the beating up and even breaking of young men's bones, seen on our television screens, not quite so barbaric when the assailants are white-faced Israelis and the victims black-faced Palestinians? Or are the Palestinians just too poor to qualify for compassion or assistance? Is olive oil too inferior as oils go to cause a major environmental disaster or to warrant any kind of protection?
For the Iranian clergy, Palestine has been a major cause for concern. Already in October 1990 the government had guaranteed support for the intifada, recognised its organisers as official representatives of the people of Palestine and declared that Jerusalem should be seen as the base of the Palestinian government in exile. The Iranian Parliament, the Majlis, appointed a special representative, Hojatoleslam Abdo! Vahed Musavi Lad, to be responsible for defending the interests of Palestinians and securing funds and recognition for them. Special. funds were allocated to support the children of the martyrs of the intifada.
The linkage of the Palestinian question with the invasion of Iraq placed the Iranian government in a difficult position, just as the sudden adoption of the mantle of Khomeini by Saddam Hussein had done. For the Iranian leaders wished to remain impartial mediators and sought to formulate a peace plan, but with little success. Nevertheless they emphasised that they would respect Iraq's existing borders, support a ceasefire and demand the removal of all foreign forces from the lands of the Moslems. Of course the Iranian government is adamant in its claim that the Iraqi uprising is not fuelled by Iran and its representative at the UN went on record to deny his country's involvement.
Officially, Iran's concerns are humanitarian and religious and the Iranian Security Council has repeatedly denied "seditious" rumours saying otherwise. What Iran wants, the council claims, is for the government of Iraq to realise that the only solution is to submit to the will and decision of its people.
Even if this means the fragmentation of Iraq, Iran would not like to see Kurdistan emerge as a new united country, as that would mean losing the northern provinces of Kurdistan in Iran. But the Kurds are reclaiming Kurdistan, the Shi'as arc reclaiming the holy cities of the south and even Baghdad has come under threat.
Fundamentalism and fragmentalism are on the march. They may not succeed this time, or the next time. But on each occasion the massacres, blood and deaths enhance the glory of martyrdom. When people believe that they no longer have anything to gain in this world, the next world becomes much more alluring. The heaven of Islam is awaiting its martyrs with open arms. All that is needed is a little desperation, a touch of bravery, and a vision of an Islamic future.
The Iranian government does not need to do much. It provides a safe haven for the militants in the south, perhaps the odd weapon or two and a great deal of moral support.
The mountains of Kurdistan have never been easy to conquer and, as they have in Iran, the Kurds can continue fighting for decades.
But the fragmentation of Iraq will not come as a result of Iranian policies; it will be a direct result of the war and the subsequent bloodshed caused and watched callously by the Allies. The problem has been the West's lack of understanding and of a political and historical perspective. Now it may be too late to run the tide of fundamentalism in the Middle East.
Haleh Afshar is an Iranian and has lived in Britain since the revolution. She teaches at York University. Extract from "Racism and Islam" taken from Beyond the Gulf Warr The Middle East and the New World Order, edited by John Gittings, published by the Catholic Institute for International Relations this week © CH R 1991