America’s Imperialism and Orientalist Culture Knowledge

Zaid N. Mahir, PhD

A Reading of U.S. Military’s Racism Against the People of Iraq 2003-2011

A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that…if they don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they are not as human as us, so we can do what we want.
A Former U.S. Veteran in Iraq, The Nation

In an essay titled “‘Culture Knowledge’ and the Violence of Imperialism” (2007), Frances S. Hasso sets out to “consider the Orientalist culture assumptions about ‘Arabs,’ ‘Muslims,’ and ‘Islam’ underlying United States imperial domination practices in the early 21st century.” 1This essay was published by the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies (MITEJMES), Vol. 7, Spring 2007, pp. 24-38, and accessed at http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/mitejmes/intro.htm (April 19, 2008). The culture assumptions underlying the United States military’s approach to its targets in occupied lands, Hasso explains, “operate as a racializing project” that assumes complete knowledge of the occupied, especially in terms of gender and sexuality (p. 24). Referring to the infamous Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Hasso says:

The torture and violence depicted and the…seemingly casual digital photographing by U.S. military personnel and mercenaries…are premised on and produced through the prism of Arab and Muslim cultural difference from ‘us,’ or the West…. [T]he East is produced as frozen-in-time and always already oppressive, with subjects who are over-determined by free-standing constructs (e.g. religion, patriarchy, modesty, clan, honor, and so on). (p. 25)

Hasso describes this putative knowledge of Arabs and Muslims, which is “Consistent with existing racial notions, especially in the United States,” as “specious,” “hegemonic,” and “produced by weak social science” (p. 25; emphasis mine). Such knowledge seems to have informed, first, the “logic” that supported the methods of torture employed against prisoners at Abu Ghraib and, second, the critical responses to the brutal practices themselves. The popularity of “particularistic assumptions about Arab Muslim ‘mentalities,’” Hasso believes, reveals the influence, on the Western frame-of-thought, of misguided readings of the Arab and Muslim cultural practices and subjectivities, such as Raphael Patai’s 1973 book, The Arab Mind (p. 26).

To understand the American military’s approach to its targets in Iraq under occupation, it is necessary to have a clear sense of the impact of such misguided cultural readings and analyses of Arabs and Muslims as Patai’s on the American mind. I will, first, provide a brief overview of Patai’s reading of the Arab mind, and then summarise Hasso’s critique of his book—of the “primordial and essentialist understandings of gender and sexuality in Arab or Muslim cultures” (p. 32), which is the core of her essay. Finally, I will turn to a journalistic investigation published in the well-known American magazine The Nation, which reveals, among other things, the role of racialised discourse in shaping American soldiers’ approach to their targets on the ground (before the U.S. withdrawal of its forces in 2011). My aim is to shed more light on the roots of the American military’s racist hegemony, which is, as Hasso realises, consistent with a pervasive racial discourse inside the United States.

Patai’s Treatise

The Arab Mind is a book written to provide a universalist perspective on the Arab personality, drawing for its epistemology on case studies, folk wisdom, official documents, and the author’s observations of a handful of communities in the big, wide, and multicultural Arab world. 2I am using a 2002 edition of The Arab Mind, published by Hatherleigh Press. After drafting a definition of the Arab early in the book (Chapter I), a definition that stresses the linguistic factor (of speaking the Arabic language) up against a background of other factors, Raphael Patai turns to Western anthropology and psychology for interpretive tools. He refers to the ‘basic personality’ type and the ‘national character’ concept, popular terms in contemporary research centers in the West, to provide what he terms “the group aspects of the mind” of the Arab (Chapter II). He explains these aspects chapter by chapter, giving them quantitative weight in sporadic examples that Patai craftily elaborates, and then weaves them into his comprehensive picture of the Arab world. His presentation of the different sociocultural modes of life in the Arab world—Bedouin, rural, urban, Asian, African, and Mediterranean—is generally premised on a single sense of being an Arab: the historical, prototypical nomad of North and South Arabia.

In this vein, Patai examines (and frequently censures or debunks) what he describes as central features of the Arab personality: severe, gender-oriented, discriminatory child-rearing practices (Chapter III); the rhetorical, overassertive, and repetitive quality of verbal utterance that substitutes words for actions (Chapter IV); generosity-hospitality, bravery-courage, and honor as “syndromes” of a chronic psychological phenomenon of self-respect (Chapter VI); virtues and systems of value as outward-oriented and other-determined (Chapter VII); a view of physical labor as a curse caused by Adam’s Fall (Chapter VII); predestination and fatalism, under the influence of Islam, as the main reason for the Arabs’ stagnation in the modern age (Chapter IX); 3Patai’s critique of Islamic fatalism as a mode of thought incompatible with progress is in keeping with a tendency, among some Christian schools of thought in the United States, to debunk fatalism as an obstacle to scientific development. A stark example of this tendency is the writings and teachings of the late Dr. James Kennedy, founder of the Ministry of Evangelism Explosion, who believes that only Christianity can provide the matrix for scientific development, as opposed to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. and Arab visual art as being entirely decorative and never representational (Chapter XI).

Generally, Patai’s methodology is eclectic. In his choice of case studies, for example, he often turns to isolated cases in small communities: Edwin Prothro’s 1961 sample-study Child Rearing in the Lebanon; Tore Nordenstam’s 1968 Sudanese Ethics; and an unreferenced description of extreme forms of male circumcision in Saudi Arabia; to mention only a few. In his choice of official and state documents, his examples are usually those that register difficult moments in the contemporary political life of Arabs, especially the Arab-Zionist conflict, and the momentary official reaction to them. His exemplary folk quotations are often extracted from the Levant dialect, with a minimal attention to North African, Iraqi, and Arab Gulf dialects. His choice of Arabic sociocultural studies is limited to publications that focus on negative aspects of the Arab personality, often under the influence of Western frame-of-reference. Patai usually compares and contrasts the results of case-studies with similar studies in the U.S. and draws hasty conclusions. His final judgment is that the Arab mind, complex and heterogeneous, reveals a disturbing inferiority complex toward the West, which is an outcome of the Arabs’ failure, says Patai, to regenerate their Arab world by building on their resources.

Hasso’s Critique

The Arab Mind is believed to have had a notable influence on U.S. policy makers, especially the neocons. It became, in the words of a consultant to the U.S. government for the 2003 war on Iraq, “the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour.” The anonymous consultant, quoted by journalist Seymour Hersh (who exposed the brutal practices of the U.S. military at the Abu Ghraib prison in May 2004), characteristically underestimated Arabs, saying: “‘Arabs only understand force’ and their ‘biggest weakness…is shame and humiliation’” (Hasso, p. 26). Hasso shares with Edward Said his criticism of the ‘latest phase’ of Orientalist approach to Arabs and Muslims among “U.S.-based academics” in the 1960s and 1970s. The work of these authors, Hasso notices, enjoys popularity and “continue[s] to be recommended by conservative websites, bloggers, and websites sponsored by the U.S. state as providing incisive and accurate explanations of the region and its people” (p. 27). The Arab Mind is among the books recommended, for example, by the CIA as one that provides insight into ‘national character’ (p. 27). While Hasso does not give the book full credit for explaining torture of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, she confirms its influence alongside “longstanding hegemonic European and Western idioms for understanding and controlling the other, especially the Arab and Muslim other, in the service of colonial or imperial projects” (p. 28). Strategies of subjugation are so common in U.S. wars, Hasso aptly notices, that “[t]orture in the Bush II administrations…is publicly embraced and defended by the state at the highest levels” (p. 28).

Patai’s misguided conceptions of the Arab mind, Hasso further explains, are numerous. His “expositions of ‘the Arab’ occur in negative contrast with an explicitly superior Western mode and way of being”; his “formulations,” therefore, “are frequently ahistorical, acontextual, and over-generalizing” (p. 28). Patai’s view of the Arabic language is that it is “stylistically exaggerated and elaborate, full of ‘florid expressions,’ [and] predictably translates into negative political implications…so that ‘exaggeration and overemphasis intrude even into Arab political statements and discussion.” His claims about sexuality in the Arab world are contradictory: Arabs’ traditional attitude to sex is that it is a taboo and sinful, at the same time that they openly discuss sexual issues “in gender-segregated venues” under the influence of “Western ways” (p. 29). In this context, Hasso understands Patai to be saying, “[O]nly ‘Westernization’ can explain individual challenges to male dominance” (p. 30). Patai’s generalizations regarding male and female subjectivities lead him to conclude that “Arab sexuality is marked by ‘polarities,’ and ‘in comparison to the West, the realm of sex constitutes more of a problem for Arabs and hence elicits more concern and more preoccupation” (pp. 30-31). Hence the “hegemonic religious and moralistic precepts” on which “his arguments often rest” (p. 31).

Winter Soldier Testimonies

In the “Winter Soldier” hearings held by the “Iraq Veterans Against the War” on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. occupation of Iraq (2008), testimonies by American soldiers revealed the degree of racism that the U.S. military had reached in its attitude to the Iraqi people. War veterans described with shame and regret their involvement in a mission that has proven disastrous on every level, particularly the level of human communication, and the tragic consequences of that mission. The intensity of the racialised discourse and the scale of its application to targets on the ground, the testimonies suggest, went beyond poor instruction of U.S. soldiers prior to the invasion. In this part of the essay, I will first provide a segment of the U.S. soldiers’ testimonies at the hearings, and then present The Nation’s investigation in 2007 of U.S. military’s racism in Iraq. Later in the essay, I will provide a sample of earlier Western readings of American soldiers’ racism in Iraq. These readings, chosen at random, appeared in print form or online in the first few years following the invasion. My interpretation of United States military’s racist discourse is partly informed by ‘race critical theory,’ thus providing conceptual support for my argument.

Iraq Veterans Against the War

Michael Prysner, organiser of the event, remembers how immediately after 9/11, derogatory terms such as “towel head,” “camel jockey,” and “sand nigger” began to circulate in the military inside the United States. 4This testimony and the rest of the testimonies were available online at http://answer.pephost.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=1&abbr=ANS_&page=NewsArticle&id=8795#video (Accessed April 19, 2008). Later in occupied Iraq, Prysner became an eyewitness to hundreds of raids, assaults, engagements, and interrogations in which U.S. soldiers’ racialised discourse soon came to be fossilised around the word “Hadji.” Iraqis were dehumanised and so reduced to objects unworthy of human treatment. Heedless of the religious significance of the word for Muslims—a pilgrim to Mecca in a religion where Pilgrimage is the highest call for Muslims, high-ranking officers in the military used and encouraged the use of the word “Hadji” in their regular meetings and briefing sessions with their soldiers. “Racism within the military has long been an important tool to justify the destruction and occupation of another country,” says Prysner, who remembers how racist terms were commonly used especially by the 1991 gulf war U.S. veterans. They used such terms particularly in instances where Iraqi civilians were targeted and incinerated. As a result, Prysner notices, the term “Hadji” had become the synonym for “the enemy…[for] every Iraqi. He’s not a person, a father, a teacher, or worker. He’s a Hadji.”

In a similar vein, Geoff Millard reveals how the word “Hadji” had become the verbal signifier for non-Americans, regardless of context: “The word ‘Hadji’ is used to dehumanise people not just of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Millard explains, “but everyone there who is not us.” Muslims from other parts of the world who provided services for the U.S. army in Iraq, such as laundry and cleaning, were called Hadjis: “Everyone that was not a U.S. force became a Hadji.” The derogatory use of the word was so spread that senior U.S. officers and generals, some of whom Millard mentions by name, did not hesitate to use the word before their entire division. The most striking example was that of “the highest-ranking officer in Iraq…General Casey,” who used the derogatory word in an important meeting with his soldiers, which Millard attended. Millard then reveals how racism was so “operationalised” in Iraq that an American soldier’s murder of a family of four was justified as “the Hadjis’ fault.” On an early summer day, Millard remembers, “a young [U.S.] machine-gunner…at a traffic-control point” opened fire at an approaching civilian vehicle that failed to stop at a distance. The shooter “put 200 rounds from his .50-calibre machine gun into the vehicle,” killing a married couple and their 3-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. Millard, then assistant to a general in Tikrit, attended the evening briefing that was given “in a very calm manner” by the officer in charge (of the machine-gunner) to their General. To Millard’s surprise, the General’s response before his full division staff was: “If these fucking Hadjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen.”

Specialist Sam Lynch remembers how he had set up an SOP, a ‘care’ unit to attend to and treat Iraqi detainees under his command. Doctors in his unit refused to visit the detainees in the first few weeks of establishing the unit. “In the next eight months,” Lynch says, “out of approximately fifteen doctors” he was in charge of, “only three” visited Iraqi detainees and listened to their health and related complaints. This act of “medical neglect,” as he calls it, was soon transferred to Iraqi “elements” working on the detention premises and posts. Iraqi workers involved in infrastructure labor for his detention centre were denied treatment by U.S. medical doctors after being injured at work. Lynch speaks of an instance when his own interpreter was denied an X-ray to determine the reason for severe pain the interpreter was having in his hips. Lynch regrets not trying to make the fifteen or so U.S. medical doctors under his command do their duty and provide help to Iraqi civilians: he could not make them provide help to “Hadjis.”

The Nation’s Investigation

Until a few years ago, there was only a handful of well-wrought, unbiased American press investigations of the occupying forces’ misconduct and reckless military behavior in Iraq. In an unprecedented seven-month press investigation by The Nation published in 2007, fifty combat veterans in Iraq were interviewed about civilian casualties at the hands of U.S. troops there. 5The investigation, by journalists Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, is entitled “The Other War: Military veterans speak on the record about attacks on Iraqi civilians.” It appeared in The Nation, 30 July/ 6 August issue, pp. 11-31. “The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise, one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal colonial wars, from the French occupation of Algeria to the American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory” (p. 12). Interviewees mention unrestrained daily shootings by “gun-happy soldiers” stationed at checkpoints, “reckless firing” at “cans of gasoline being sold along the roadside” and “toss[ing] grenades into the pools of gas to set them ablaze,” “open[ing] fire on children,” and “mock[ing] or desecrat[ing] Iraqi corpses” in front of relatives of the dead (pp. 12-13).

Acts of desecration of dead Iraqi bodies were not rare, according to some veterans. Specialist Aidan Delgado, an eyewitness to the massacre on November 24, 2003, of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib facility protesting their living conditions, describes “fellow soldiers return[ing] with photographs of the events.” “It was very graphic…. They [i.e. U.S. soldiers] open the body bags of these prisoners that were shot in the head,” says Delgado, and one soldier “got an MRE spoon. He’s reaching in to scoop out some of his [i.e. a dead Iraqi’s] brain, looking at the camera and he’s smiling” (p. 20). Not surprisingly, since senior U.S. officers endorse atrocities and justify them pragmatically. Specialist Patrick Resta recalls hearing his supervising officer say the following to his unit: “The Geneva Conventions don’t exist at all in Iraq, and that’s in writing if you want to see it” (p. 20). Another soldier, Specialist Jeff Englehart, describing the situation “in which most Iraqi civilians were assumed to be hostile” and so “it [was] difficult for soldiers to sympathize with their victims” on the spot, says: “[W]hile I was there, the general attitude was, A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi” (p. 12).

The supposed hostility of the Iraqi people was often a key theme in the instructions the soldiers received prior to setting out on missions requiring an aggressive mode of military conduct, such as raids, arrests, patrols, and area inspections. “In pre-raid briefings, military commanders often told their troops the neighbourhood they were ordered to raid was ‘a hostile area with a high level of insurgency’ and that it had been taken over by former Baathists or Al Qaeda terrorists” (p. 14). Often acting on false leads, such intelligence appeared to be wrong and soldiers, having had many abortive raids, ended up joking about it, “’Cause it would always happen. We always got the wrong house” (p. 15). In almost every one of those operations, the “wrong house” was violently searched and its furniture torn and destroyed, after terrorising the residents. In most cases, detained Iraqis were either innocent or involved in minor civil offences such as “petty theft, public drunkenness, [and] forged…documents” (p. 20).

The U.S. soldiers’ violence directed at Iraqi civilians often went unchecked and unreported. There seemed to have been a consensus among Americans on not holding themselves accountable for the life, safety, and peace of the occupied. The roots of such a consensus, as the investigation reveals, are to be found in the racist attitude verbally expressed on a day-to-day basis. “Iraqi culture, identity, and customs were…openly ridiculed in racist terms, with troops deriding ‘haji food,’ ‘haji music,’ and ‘haji homes.’ [T]he word ‘haji’…is now used by American troops in the same way ‘gook’ was used in Vietnam or ‘raghead’ in Afghanistan” (p. 20). To the confounded Iraqis, the U.S. soldiers’ misconduct became, in the words of Sergeant Geoff Millard, a “racialized hatred towards Iraqis.” And racist language played its role: “By calling them names,” says one Specialist Harmon, “they’re not people anymore. They’re just objects” (p. 20).

In most of the cases where civilian vehicles were shot at, passengers were families, says the investigation. Soldiers operating patrols described the killing of unarmed Iraqis as a common and accepted part of their daily routine. Many of these killings “were justified by framing innocents as terrorists, typically following incidents when American troops fired on crowds of unarmed Iraqis,” and later “plant[ing] AK-47s next to the bodies of those…killed to make it seem as if the civilian dead were combatants” (p. 26). The murdered were often not included in the overall casualty count. Racist discourse, together with cultural ignorance, allowed individual soldiers to make critical decisions on the spot and later receive their seniors’ endorsement. After all, “You can’t tell the difference between these people at all,” according to one Sergeant Mardan. “They all look Arab. They all have beards, facial hair. Honestly, it’ll be like walking into China and trying to tell who’s in the Communist Party and who’s not. It’s impossible” (p. 30). If anything, these interviews reveal the extent to which the general American essentialist view of Arabs and Muslims had poorly informed the occupying soldiers’ attitude to the locals, leading in many cases to human rights abuses and wide-scale tragedies.

American Racist Supremacy

It is my contention that the racism depicted in the above-mentioned soldiers’ testimonies was not simply an outcome of an erroneous reading of other cultures and civilisations. American racism in occupied Iraq was informed by a pan-ethnic ideology, 6I am inclined to describe the occupying U.S. soldiers’ ideology as pan-ethnic. The term itself is not my invention. It was first coined by Barry Goldberg and Colin Greer in their attempt to explain “white ethnic” public sentiments, especially from the 1950s onwards, which enabled “specific ethnic identities” to mobilise against racial integration of neighbourhoods in the U.S. The term “white ethnicity,” as David Roediger explains in “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics’ in the United States” (2002), “was not just a heading grouping together…Greek American, Polish American, Italian American” and other identities, “but a ‘pan-ethnic’ ideology” in its own right. That ideology overlooked cultural differences among ethnicities in the interest of “a white immigrant heritage” (p. 328). intended to devalue and dehumanise the population of an occupied land, and thus to motivate soldiers, fighting under the U.S. flag, to overcome any natural inhibition they might have against cruelty. Paradoxically, this racism was articulated by a military that prides itself on being multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious. So how can we explain this paradox? Or, better, what was the underlying force beneath the U.S. soldiers’ racism, despite their ethnic and other diversity? To answer the question, I will now turn briefly to ‘race critical theory’ as a body of knowledge informing multidisciplinary academic discussions of power.

In her thought-provoking essay “Racial Histories and Their Regimes of Truth,” Ann Laura Stoler asserts that racial discourse is mobile and that its mobility is “tactical.” 7The essay appeared in a 2002 anthology entitled Race Critical Theories, edited by Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg and published by Blackwell. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s concept of “discursive formations” and employing Foucauldian terms, Stoler considers “polyvalent mobility” a key defining feature of racism. She uses the concept to explain the disparate accounts and “contrary renderings of racisms from varied time and place,” which scholars have provided in their attempts to trace racism back to its earliest foundations (pp. 372-3). Further, Stoler notices the “exemplary paradox” of the connection often made between racism and racist discourse, on the one hand, and agendas of a conservative political nature, on the other (p. 376). Rather than being exclusively characteristic of conservative frames of thought, “racial discourses can and do harness themselves with frequent success to progressive” agendas as well (p. 377). Stoler reminds us of Foucault’s suggestion that racial discourses have the capacity to accommodate both “erudite” and “subjugated” forms of knowledge. That is to say, they are informed by the sentiments and sensibilities of formally knowledgeable and unknowledgeable people alike (p. 376). As a discursive formation, racism is therefore characterized by being mobile, that is, by expressing no “constant or consistent political interests” and, consequently, by lacking in “thematic unity” (p. 379).

Stoler’s designation of mobility as a key aspect of racism helps us better understand American racist practices in Iraq. If the U.S. military, which is “the military hand of the US government, considers Iraqis as inferior beings,” suggests Firas Al-Atraqchi, a Canadian journalist of Iraqi descent, “it is then academic to extrapolate that US lawmakers view Iraqis as lesser peoples.” 8Al-Atraqchi’s article, titled “Racism at Core of Iraq Invasion,” was posted online on April 29, 2004. It was accessed at http://www.unobserver.com/layout5.php?id=1636&blz=1 (April 27, 2008). Al-Atraqchi’s extrapolations are not out of place and can be examined against the historical background of the creation of the United States of America in the late 18th century. As early as 1790, having just gained independence from Britain, the first U.S. Congress convening under the Constitution made an interesting stipulation: in order to be naturalised as a U.S. citizen, an individual had to be “white”.9 See David Roediger, “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics’ in the United States,” in Race Critical Theories. Al-Atraqchi, whose article came in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, contends that the U.S. supremacist attitude to non-Americans explains the Bush administration’s angry reaction to news reports showing dead Iraqis. Such an attitude, he says,

explains why ‘the axis of evil’ slogan was so popular with Washington neocons. Inferior people are considered satanic and evil. After all, was this not how slavery was maintained and thrived in the continental U.S. in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries? Weren’t the slaves considered by white (supremacist) landowners to be cursed by God, soulless and would never see the gates of heaven?

Al-Atraqchi references an interview in the London-based The Daily Telegraph, in which a British officer, Sean Rayment, stated that “part of the problem” on the ground in occupied Iraq “was that American troops viewed Iraqis as ‘untermenschen’—the Nazi expression for ‘sub-humans.’” Consequently, American soldiers showed no concern for Iraqi casualties, the British officer explains:

They may well kill the terrorists in the barrage but they will also kill and maim innocent civilians. That has been their response on a number of occasions. It is trite, but American troops do shoot first and ask questions later. They are very concerned about taking casualties and have even trained their guns on British troops. (Emphasis mine)

Criticism of U.S. soldiers’ racism as a common practice in the military institution was similarly voiced by another British officer who had served in Iraq during the occupation. In an article in The Guardian entitled “U.S. Army in Iraq Institutionally Racist,” Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster severely criticises the U.S. military’s warfare style. 10The article, written by Richard Norton-Taylor and Jamie Wilson in Washington, appeared in The Guardian on Thursday, January 12, 2006. It was accessed online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/jan/12/topstories3.iraq (August 9, 2008). Brigadier Aylwin-Foster was the second most senior British officer responsible for training Iraqi security forces in 2003-4, and his comments had earlier appeared in a U.S. army magazine, Military Review. He denounced what he called the “cultural insensitivity” of the American soldiers, which he saw as an expression of “institutional racism.” The U.S. military has a peculiar bent for initiating assaults, he continued, “a predisposition to offensive operations,” informed by a sense of duty that “required all issues to be confronted head-on.” Trained to believe that destruction of their enemy’s military potentials is “a strategic goal in its own right,” the American soldiers’ strategy was “‘to kill or capture all.’” Moreover, the U.S. army’s warfare style is of a “violent kind.” An example of the U.S. violent norm of warfare, says the Brigadier, was the military operation against Falluja in spring 2004. In that operation “the firing on one night of more than 40 155mm artillery rounds on a small part of the city was considered by the local U.S. commander as a ‘minor application of combat power.’”

In lieu of a Conclusion

The U.S. military’s racist attitude to the Iraqi people under occupation was, further, shaped by a factor that is often unnoticed in public discussions of American soldiers’ approach to their targets: the factor of language. Speaking the (American) English language, which is the language of the U.S. Constitution (and, by extension, of all U.S. legal bodies), at once unifies (the multiethnic) American soldiers via a supposed binding origin and endows them with a sense of (legalised) power, which they are free to use against those who do not speak English. Nationalised under the common law of the United States, Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, for example, come to believe they are members of an ethnically natural community that has a preexisting unity and which, under the spell of the American ideology of patriotism, utilises English as a given or as an irreducible postulate. Speaking English becomes, bluntly, commensurate with being an American, creating a fictive sense of ethnicity capable of subordinating social and racial differences among the U.S. soldiers, especially at a particular moment of national concern such as the so-called War on Terror.

By the same token, those who do not speak the “national” language of the occupying force, in our case, the people of Iraq, would become the foreigners who pose a threat to the American ideal of pan-ethnic unity. In the face of such a presumed threat, U.S. soldiers would become, at least momentarily and while engaging in an offensive operation against the people of Iraq, a White American, an Anglo-Saxon, or, if you wish, an Aryan. Consequently, every Iraqi became a Hadji, a target of the American war machine. The U.S. veteran’s testimony quoted at the outset of my essay is a candid proof of this racialised discourse: “A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that, you know, if they [i.e. Iraqis] don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they are not as human as us, so we can do what we want” (The Nation, p. 20).

Notes

  1. This essay was published by the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies (MITEJMES), Vol. 7, Spring 2007, pp. 24-38, and accessed at http://web.mit.edu/cis/www/mitejmes/intro.htm (April 19, 2008).
  2. I am using a 2002 edition of The Arab Mind, published by Hatherleigh Press.
  3. Patai’s critique of Islamic fatalism as a mode of thought incompatible with progress is in keeping with a tendency, among some Christian schools of thought in the United States, to debunk fatalism as an obstacle to scientific development. A stark example of this tendency is the writings and teachings of the late Dr. James Kennedy, founder of the Ministry of Evangelism Explosion, who believes that only Christianity can provide the matrix for scientific development, as opposed to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.
  4. This testimony and the rest of the testimonies were available online at http://answer.pephost.org/site/News2?news_iv_ctrl=1&abbr=ANS_&page=NewsArticle&id=8795#video (Accessed April 19, 2008).
  5. The investigation, by journalists Chris Hedges and Laila al-Arian, is entitled “The Other War: Military veterans speak on the record about attacks on Iraqi civilians.” It appeared in The Nation, 30 July/ 6 August issue, pp. 11-31.
  6. I am inclined to describe the occupying U.S. soldiers’ ideology as pan-ethnic. The term itself is not my invention. It was first coined by Barry Goldberg and Colin Greer in their attempt to explain “white ethnic” public sentiments, especially from the 1950s onwards, which enabled “specific ethnic identities” to mobilize against racial integration of neighborhoods in the U.S. The term “white ethnicity,” as David Roediger explains in “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics’ in the United States” (2002), “was not just a heading grouping together…Greek American, Polish American, Italian American” and other identities, “but a ‘pan-ethnic’ ideology” in its own right. That ideology overlooked cultural differences among ethnicities in the interest of “a white immigrant heritage” (p. 328).
  7. The essay appeared in a 2002 anthology entitled Race Critical Theories, edited by Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg and published by Blackwell.
  8. Al-Atraqchi’s article, titled “Racism at Core of Iraq Invasion,” was posted online on April 29, 2004. It was accessed at http://www.unobserver.com/layout5.php?id=1636&blz=1 (April 27, 2008).
  9. See David Roediger, “Whiteness and Ethnicity in the History of ‘White Ethnics’ in the United States,” in Race Critical Theories.
  10. The article, written by Richard Norton-Taylor and Jamie Wilson in Washington, appeared in The Guardian on Thursday, January 12, 2006. It was accessed online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/jan/12/topstories3.iraq (August 9, 2008).

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